The Struggle for LGBTQ Inclusion at Christian Colleges and Universities
When Gary Campbell enrolled in Baptist Bible College (now Clarks Summit University) in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, in 2001, he knew he was gay. He was among those students who, in an effort to repress their sexual orientation, choose the restrictive environment of Christian colleges: schools where students, faculty, and staff are required to sign theologically conservative statements of faith and lifestyle agreements, some of which bar not only extramarital sex and drinking, but also dancing and most R-rated movies, in addition to enforcing curfews and mandating chapel attendance.
After he was caught kissing another male student and was placed on probation, Campbell withdrew from the school in 2003, just six credits shy of graduating. In 2012, he joined the Navy, but he was discharged in 2015 for drunk driving. A few years later—now sober, open about his sexuality, and agnostic—Campbell sought to reenroll in Clarks Summit, intending to complete his degree online and pursue a counseling career helping others overcome substance use disorders. In early May 2018, he was accepted for the fall semester. But in late August, Campbell received a call from the dean of men, telling him that his “homosexual lifestyle” was a violation of CSU’s code of conduct, and his admission was therefore revoked.1 Such discrimination is routine—and largely legally protected—at evangelical and fundamentalist Christian colleges.
There are hundreds of conservative Christian colleges in the U.S. Among that number are more than 140 evangelical schools represented by the Council of Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU),2 which accounts for 445,000 students and 72,000 faculty and staff annually. (Overall, the schools are largely White.) The group’s influence is substantial. A study it commissioned estimates that its member institutions alone make a collective economic impact on the United States of more than $60 billion annually.3 In 2015, after two Mennonite schools, Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College, moved to allow the hiring of faculty and staff in same-sex marriages, they were essentially forced out of the organization, which has now specified that it will sanction any member institutions that break with “the historic Christian view of marriage.”4
And yet, the fact that CCCU was confronted with the issue at all speaks to the impact of advocacy efforts for LGBTQ inclusion at Christian colleges— work often led by alumni and, where safe, students, and involving quiet support from some faculty.
In recent years, this advocacy work has come to represent a critical mass (though not a majority) of students on many evangelical campuses who are vocally pressing for change. But resistance to that change has built as well, drawing not just on conservative theology and ideology, but also macro-economic circumstances that affect all of higher education. As smaller private colleges struggle to stay afloat, many Christian institutions have doubled down on orthodoxy, in accordance with the demands of students’ tuition-paying parents.5 Influential school donors expect Christian colleges to continue incubating the next generation of right-wing culture warriors, feeding graduates into organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). As Haven Herrin, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Soulforce, cautions, “Don’t underestimate the influence of the nexus of business, non-profit interests, and major right-wing philanthropy in this sector of higher education that has at least some of its roots in White supremacy.”6
But while placating parents and donors at the expense of student and alumni activists may seem like a survival strategy for now, over the longer term, it is likely to contribute to the growing exodus of young people from evangelicalism.7 Over the last eight years, Herrin said, the wave of advocacy among students and alumni—the visibility of which is only possible thanks to social media—has led many observers to wonder whether conservative Christian colleges have turned a corner: “Does a school kick the person out like they used to? Can they still get away with that?”8
Since the news broke in January 2019 that Second Lady Karen Pence is teaching art at a K-8 Christian school that bans not only LGBTQ faculty, students, and parents, but even support for LGBTQ people, this issue has been in the public eye. But evangelical elementary and secondary schools are unlikely to change any time soon, despite the public outcry over Pence.9 Neither will fundamentalist Bible colleges like CSU. But for evangelical colleges and universities with pretensions to greater respectability outside the conservative Christian bubble, public image is a concern—and for advocates, an opportunity.
A Short History of LGBTQ Christian College Advocacy
After CSU refused to reconsider Gary Campbell’s enrollment, Lackawanna College, a local private school, accepted him and worked out a plan to transfer of most of his credits—no small matter, given that credits from fundamentalist Bible colleges are rarely honored at other schools. When Campbell was then faced with higher tuition than he had planned for, an advocacy group called HeartStrong offered him a $3,000 grant to help make up the difference.
When HeartStrong was founded in 1996, it was the first organization in the country dedicated to helping LGBTQ college students at religious (not just evangelical and fundamentalist) institutions of higher education. Two years later, it was joined by Soulforce, which focused on direct nonviolent activism on behalf of such students. (In recent years, Soulforce has worked more on training and supporting local student groups.) Starting with the fundamentalist Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2000, LGBTQ alumni groups for individual schools began to emerge as well.10
In the 1990s and through the turn of the century, many fundamentalist and evangelical schools had a sort of “informant culture,” where LGBTQ students lived in fear of being outed to school authorities. As Carina Hilbert, who graduated from Mount Vernon Nazarene University in 1997, noted on Twitter, it was an atmosphere in which “You can’t trust very many, if any, of your friends.”11 At schools like the “fundamentalist flagship” Bob Jones University, former student Jeffrey Hoffman recalled, “the prevailing message” from then BJU President, Bob Jones III, was “that gay people should be put to death immediately.”12
And yet, despite the generally hostile environment, on some evangelical campuses in the 1990s, a conversation on sexuality began to take place. At some colleges and universities, it was even permissible to discuss the possibility of LGBTQ acceptance.13 That is, in evangelical parlance, “Side A” theology: an LGBTQ-affirming stance that works towards equality. (“Side B” of that debate, by contrast, refers to people who recognize that sexual orientation is generally immutable but insist that those who experience same-sex attraction are called to celibacy. Some evangelicals also use “Side X” to refer to the insistence that LGBTQ people should look to God to change their orientation, and thus advocate the now thoroughly discredited practice of “reparative” or “ex-gay” therapy.14)
These conversations continued, but the impact was uneven, and, at most schools, minimal. It would take the activism of Soulforce—whose members sometimes got arrested for trespassing while participating in “Equality Ride” tours of Christian colleges and universities between 2005 and 2016—and the rise of social media to allow for the proliferation of locally-focused alumni and student advocacy groups exerting pressure on particular institutions.15
But many groups were formed, even at the fundamentalist Bob Jones University, where the informant culture still prevails and outed LGBTQ students are still suspended, and barred from graduation unless, after undergoing unprofessional “biblical counseling” that attempts to “correct” their sexuality, they can convince the school that they’ve become straight. (Hoffman said he’s unaware of any students ever actually passing this test and being readmitted.) In 2012, Hoffman and other alumni founded BJUnity, a New York-based nonprofit that operates primarily online to support the school’s LGBTQ students. By 2015, BJUnity managed, through a Change.org petition, to compel Bob Jones III to issue a halfhearted apology for the tone of violent anti-LGBTQ rhetoric he’d set for the school. (Notably, Jones didn’t apologize for statements made at BJU, but rather his public comments during a 1980 visit to the White House,16when he said, “It would not be a bad idea to bring the swift justice today that was brought in Israel’s day against murder and rape and homosexuality. I guarantee it would solve the problem post-haste if homosexuals were stoned, if murderers were immediately killed as the Bible commands.”17 And in his apology, Jones said he never advocated the stoning of LGBTQ people—a clear lie.)
BJUnity probably represents the most influential LGBTQ advocacy effort targeting fundamentalist schools, but thanks to the internet, it’s able to provide a crucial lifeline to LGBTQ students that the school’s administration, which refuses to communicate with BJUnity’s leadership, cannot quash.18 At some evangelical schools, even greater strides were made. In 2007, Cedarville University alumnus David Olsen, now the Communication Studies chair at California State University, Los Angeles, founded Cedarville Out to support LGBTQ students at his alma mater. According to Olsen, between 2007 and 2013, it was getting safer at the school to be out as LGBTQ without getting kicked out (though still not safe to be “practicing”).19 The school’s Vice President for Student Life at the time, Carl Ruby, was open to meeting out LGBTQ students off campus, and his support allowed some faculty to feel safe participating in dialogue with LGBTQ students as well.
But even at comparatively much more open schools, administrative crackdowns remain a possibility, threatening to push student and alumni groups underground. In early 2013, in what appears to have been a purge carried out by newly hired Cedarville President Thomas White and the university’s board of trustees, Ruby abruptly and unexpectedly resigned. (At the same time, a number of women professors who taught Bible classes also resigned, and the school’s philosophy major was eliminated.)20 With Ruby gone, faculty would no longer show up to Cedarville Out meetings, and students quickly came to understand that it was unsafe for them to attend even off-campus LGBTQ events without faculty backing. Olsen, who had frequently returned to the campus as a guest lecturer, was banned in 2015 from visiting classes to give presentations, even if they were only related to his academic expertise.21 And some students, he claimed, were even essentially pushed into withdrawing from the school. These days, Olsen continues to communicate with a handful of students from the school, but says that Cedarville Out’s focus has become “less about institutional change [than] saving lives,”22 since social ostracization and forced repression are drivers of LGBTQ youth’s disproportionate rates of self-harm and suicide.23
Often, though, as Soulforce noted in a 2016 article, repression at evangelical schools has become “much more nuanced and deceptive.” Instead of students being expelled explicitly on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity, LGBTQ students “are often shown no mercy when failing classes (often due to mental health issues), caught breaking codes of conduct that others would generally be given a slap on the wrist or one page essay assignment for, and often intimidated to drop out.”24
Other aspects of the fight continue on different grounds. Since 2014, numerous Christian schools have applied for and received exemptions from some of the non-discrimination requirements of Title IX,25 the federal law that requires schools that receive federal funds to forbid discrimination on the basis of sex—including, after Obama administration guidance issued in 2016, discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Although the Trump administration rescinded that guidance soon after taking office, reversing protections for transgender students, administrators at evangelical schools remain concerned that as their anti-LGBTQ beliefs become increasingly out of step with American public opinion, their access to federal funding could be at risk. Some fundamentalist and evangelical colleges have never taken federal funding precisely in order to evade requirements under Title IX and Title IV, which regulates colleges whose students are able to receive federal financial aid.26
Meanwhile, faculty and students at evangelical colleges and universities who would like to see their schools move toward LGBTQ inclusion are largely powerless to effect significant change. Many Christian colleges do not offer tenure, and even when they do, pretexts may be found to remove tenured faculty who rock the boat. And purged faculty may be silenced by non-disclosure agreements tied to severance packages.27
There are several reasons why Christian college administrations and boards of trustees go to such lengths to suppress support for LGBTQ students. Chief among them is fear—the same fear that has led White evangelicals, concerned about their slipping demographic status in the U.S., to embrace Christian nationalism, and with it, Donald Trump.28 Like evangelical Trumpism, the anti-LGBTQ crackdowns taking place at evangelical colleges and universities are an expression of right-wing backlash against civil rights gains—particularly the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which legalized same-sex marriage—as well as against the legacy of America’s first Black president. In this cultural context, it’s easy to see why evangelical colleges, facing the same economic challenges as other small private colleges, often find that defending right-wing orthodoxy makes for good marketing. Real budget squeezes can also provide convenient cover for targeted faculty purges.
Thus, despite a shift toward acceptance of same-sex marriage among evangelical youth—according to data from the Public Religion Research Institute, 53 percent of White evangelicals aged 18-29 support same-sex marriage—evangelical powerbrokers seem determined to die on the hill of opposing LGBTQ rights.”29 But the extent to which some individual schools may move toward accommodation of their LGBTQ students has yet to be determined. Two ongoing battles, at Azusa Pacific University and Grove City College, illustrate the dynamics in play.
Azusa Pacific University is a CCCU-affiliated, non-denominational evangelical school rooted in the Wesleyan holiness tradition, with particularly close ties to the Free Methodist denomination.
Located in Los Angeles County, California, APU attempts to cultivate a reputation for moderation—willing to hire women for leadership roles even in its theology and philosophy department, which is unusual for an evangelical school. However, in 2013, when the chair of theology became public about his identity as a transgender man, the school, which does not offer tenure, dismissed him.30
For some time, Christian colleges and universities have been quietly using job applicants’ stance on marriage as a litmus test in hiring.31 Azusa Pacific is no exception according to Christy Lambertson, a freelance grant writer who worked there from 2003-06. When she applied to be Los Angeles term coordinator for a sociology and global studies program that “had a bit of a reputation for turning out students who bailed on evangelicalism and/or turned liberal,” she went through three interviews, including one with APU President Jon Wallace. As she explains it, “I suppose they felt the need to give me extra vetting.” One interview included a question about whether she’d feel comfortable telling a hypothetical student that Muslims she met through the program were “going to hell.” She observes, “we spent a lot of time on my opinions about gay people—or rather I heard a lot about their opinions about gay people. …They tried to put a kinder, gentler face on it… but [Wallace] very clearly said, that if a student decided they were gay and that being gay was okay, he would tell them that another school would be a better fit for them.”32
Later, when Lambertson applied to teach a sociology class for a professor who was going on sabbatical, she was confronted with the school’s statement of faith, which she hadn’t had to sign as staff. By then, she no longer considered herself evangelical, and admitted she couldn’t affirm the statement’s theology. After several rounds of what she describes as polite interviews, during her final meeting, again involving Wallace, she discovered that “my opinion on gay people was clearly just as much or more of an issue than my opinions on evangelical theological orthodoxy, and it was clearly a make or break issue.” In 2016, Azusa Pacific also joined a number of Christian universities in California to form the Association of Faith-Based institutions, which spent $350,000 successfully lobbying against a California state bill that would have required schools to clearly disclose their exemptions from non-discrimination laws.33
In August 2018, APU was hailed for moderating its official stance on same-sex relationships when the school’s student handbook dropped language expressly forbidding “romanticized same-sex relationships.” The school also made a handful of changes to its human sexuality statement, including the removal of an explicit reference to “sin.” The statement continued to affirm that sexual activity is only acceptable within marriage, which must be between a man and a woman, and the school clarified that, “A change in policy does not change practice.” But still, the changes were widely interpreted as creating space for romantic, albeit celibate, same-sex relationships.34
These language changes might seem insignificant to people outside evangelical communities, but the advocates who worked with the administration—including APU students associated with the local underground LGBTQ support group, Haven, and Erin Green from the national advocacy organization, Brave Commons—saw them as a positive step. In a September 2018 email Green sent to school faculty and officials whom she had negotiated with, she praised their decision and urged them to stay the course.35
But prominent evangelical leaders, including Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, immediately condemned APU’s move.36 Private and local pressure was quickly applied as well. APU Associate Professor of Communication Studies Ryan Montague wrote APU’s Board of Trustees in mid-September, lamenting the school’s ostensible “mission drift” away from its motto, “God first.” He estimated that about 50 percent of APU graduates lose their faith and accused APU of “compromise after compromise with culture and fearing backlash from students or public.”37
Montague forwarded his message to Chris Lewis, lead pastor of Foothill Church, a non-denominational church attended by many APU community members. On September 18, Lewis in turn forwarded the email to some of his congregants, urging them to write their own letters to the board, though not, he cautioned, “as a staff member/elder/attender” of Foothill Church, but rather as alumni, faculty or former faculty of APU.38 Soon thereafter, the school reversed course, announcing in late September that the language changes hadn’t been approved by the Board of Trustees.39 Green called APU’s reversal “incredibly disappointing,” noting, “We feel completely exploited by APU.”40
Donors almost certainly represent one of the key factors holding Azusa Pacific back from positive change. APU’s annual reports indicate that the school receives grants from right-wing organizations such as the Charles Koch Foundation and the National Christian Foundation, the latter of which, according to Inside Philanthropy, “is probably the single biggest source of money fueling the pro-life and anti-LGBT movements over the past 15 years.”41
APU trustees themselves have a pattern of deep involvement in far-right organizations. Steven L. Perry is one of the founders of National Christian Foundation, California. Raleigh Washington is a leader of the evangelical men’s group Promise Keepers, although he, along with Dave Dias, resigned from APU’s board in December 2018, accusing the school of straying from evangelical orthodoxy in its initial move to soften its human sexuality statement. This suggests that, despite the current setback, the fight at APU is not over. According to Green, the board remains divided in its vision for the future.42 With President Wallace resigning at the end of this year, it is not entirely clear where the school will go from here, though should it move in a more inclusive direction, its CCCU membership will be threatened. APU did not respond to email and phone requests for comment regarding its hiring practices and the reversal of its decision to soften its approach to same-sex relationships among students.
Might other evangelical schools chart a different course from that of Azusa Pacific? The case of Grove City College, an evangelical school of about 2,400 undergraduate students located in the small town of Grove City, Pennsylvania, suggests that a different outcome is not out of the question. GCC is not a member of the CCCU, and so isn’t subject to pressure from that body. However, since GCC is among those schools that forego federal funding in order to avoid anti-discrimination regulation, it will also never have to worry about Title IX compliance. While the school is officially non-denominational, it has been and continues to be shaped by conservative Presbyterianism. Grove City President Paul J. McNulty has a longstanding relationship with Vice President Mike Pence, who was GCC’s controversial choice for 2017 commencement speaker.43 The college’s character as a staunchly conservative institution seems unshakeable.
Still, GCC is home to Associate Professor of Psychology Warren Throckmorton, a prominent evangelical author and blogger who once supported “ex-gay” therapy but has since repudiated it.44 And Grove’s administration is engaged in dialogue with two unofficial LGBTQ support groups: Allies for Gender and Sexuality Inclusion (often referred to simply as Allies) and The Table, both of which are allowed to meet on campus. GCC is a place where students outed as LGBTQ are at risk of losing university employment or opportunities to participate in certain programs, but at the same time one where student activists are free to distribute rainbow stickers on National Coming Out Day without facing disciplinary action. GCC’s newspaper, The Collegian, has also been able to cover events like these without facing the type of censorship that has plagued other Christian college papers.45
“They’ve asked us to tone it down before, but they can’t really make us leave,” noted queer senior psychology major Maddie Myers.46
Even so, attempts by LGBTQ student support groups to gain official status have thus far been unsuccessful. GCC Director of Student Activities and Programs Scott Gordon wrote to a student activist in January 2018, praising Allies for participating in “informative, congenial and constructive” dialogue on sexuality, and acknowledging that the group “worked diligently and sincerely to craft a proposal that would give Allies a chance at becoming an official campus group.” Nevertheless, he wrote, there was no approval forthcoming. “At this time the College is remaining consistent with its’ [sic] independent and Scripturally consistent view of same-sex attraction, marriage, and gender which precludes any official recognition of a formal group supporting same-sex attraction.”47
Myers, who was homeschooled in a conservative Christian environment before enrolling at GCC, and who did not realize she was queer until her sophomore year, describes the school as “very non-affirming.” And certainly in many ways it is. Upon returning from a mission trip for which she had received funds from a GCC program, Myers, now the president of Allies, was told by the program’s leadership that if she had been very vocal about her sexuality prior to applying, she likely wouldn’t have been accepted. Mack Griffith, a transgender man and president of The Table, mentioned being exposed to “ex-gay” teachings in a group that has since been dissolved, and which was led by a former Campus Ministries Assistant Director.48 When Myers organized a 2018 panel discussion on “LGBTQ and Politics” through GCC’s College Democrats chapter, the school dragged its feet approving the event and forbade the speakers from discussing theology.49 Myers also says that College Democrats’ posters are often defaced and torn down, and GCC’s invitation to Vice President Pence to be its 2017 commencement speaker struck Griffith as “a slap in the face.”50
And yet, unlike at other fundamentalist and evangelical schools, when leaders of The Table requested a meeting with school President McNulty to explain why the choice of Pence was harmful, they were granted one, and, according to comments posted to a closed Facebook group, the conversation “was overall cordial and friendly.”51 Pence still spoke; a small number of graduating student advocates refused to shake his hand when walking across the stage. But this was still a level of dialogue that doesn’t happen at similar schools.52 And unlike fundamentalist schools that use unprofessional Christian counseling as a disciplinary mechanism, LGBTQ GCC students confirmed that the school affords them access to legitimate professional counseling.
As with other conservative Christian schools, there are a number of faculty who are ahead of the administration in their willingness to support LGBTQ students. For LGBTQ students in these environments, finding such faculty can be vital. At GCC, allied faculty had in recent years begun to display rainbow stickers on their office doors—an act of solidarity that McNulty strongly discouraged by forming a committee to create a generic “Grove City Cares” sticker to replace the rainbow stickers. In a January 2018 memorandum on the issue to faculty and staff, McNulty implied that those who wished to continue displaying rainbow stickers may need to consider leaving:
All of us, administrators and faculty, sign one-year contracts in which we affirm our “full support for the purpose, mission, identity, goals and objectives of the College, including its religious values and moral standards.” Adherence to this condition is an issue of personal integrity. If you find yourself out of alignment with the College’s vision, mission and values, it is important to earnestly and honestly consider whether Grove City College is where you can serve in good conscience.53
Despite this memorandum, current students report that a few professors continue to display rainbow stickers.
Senior Director of Communications Jacquelyn Muller responded to some questions about GCC via email, writing, “Grove City College is committed to doing its very best to address any concerns that may conflict with” its Christian mission, adding, “student leaders who are aligned with LGBTQ interests have recognized this commitment and expressed appreciation for the caring environment which exists to educate all students and encourage civil discourse.”54
Many of the GCC students and alumni I spoke to by and large agree with that claim. “For all its flaws,” said Griffith, who remains more theologically conservative than most of his peers in GCC’s LGBTQ community, “Grove City is very much redeemable.” Griffith is still required to live in women’s housing at GCC, but his resident assistant and resident director recognize and use Griffith’s correct pronouns.55
While there appear to be limits beyond which the current administration of GCC will not go, that it has gone as far as it has is likely a result of several factors: the school’s independence from CCCU regulations; the presence of faculty, like Throckmorton, who are committed to authentic scholarship even if it challenges conservative evangelical orthodoxy; the willingness of the administration to retain such faculty and to engage in dialogue with concerned students.
If we want to see more evangelical colleges eventually follow in the footsteps of GCC, and to see schools like GCC go further, we need to keep the concerns of LGBTQ students and alumni in the public eye. It won’t be easy for LGBTQ and allied students, alumni, and faculty to overcome the immense pressure exerted by hardline conservative donors, the nexus between evangelical schools and right-wing institutions, pressure from conservative parents, and, in many cases, the CCCU. But the more that their concerns are heard and acknowledged, and the more the press and the public shine a light on schools invested in having a humane and respectable reputation, the better chance there may be for positive change down the line.