At many evangelical universities, you can be gay—as long as you don’t “act” it.
In the past, many conservative Christian colleges condemned both same-sex attraction and same-sex intimacy. But now that gay marriage is legalized, and as the country undergoes broad cultural shifts, that’s changing. Some of these same schools are now attempting to separate sexual identity from sexual behavior in their policies and campus customs. However awkwardly, they’re trying to welcome gay students while preserving rules against same-sex “behavior.”
Depending on the theological and political climate of the school, colleges have different ways of dealing with this new reality. A few have fully opened their communities to LGBT students and faculty, lifting all restrictions against same-sex dating or same-sex marriage. This fall, two conservative Christian colleges, Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College, added sexual orientation to their nondiscrimination policies. Ultimately, this move forced both of them to withdraw from the nation’s most prominent membership organization of evangelical universities.
At other colleges, specific policies regarding LGBT students are unclear. For example: Baylor, the nation’s largest Baptist university, quietly removed its policy forbidding “homosexual acts” last year. But the college’s spokesperson, Lori Fogleman, didn’t say whether this change means legally married gay students can now enroll at Baylor. “Our application for undergraduate enrollment does not ask the question of marital status,” she told me.
But regardless of the specificity of Baylor’s current policy, many LGBT students are uneasy. “As a bisexual woman in the Baylor community, I am very much in the closet to everybody that I am not good friends with here, just to minimize backlash,” said a Baylor student named Ariel, who requested that her last name not be used.
And at many colleges, students can still be kicked out for being in a gay relationship. In 2013, Danielle Powell was expelled from Grace University in Nebraska when the school discovered she had been in a romantic relationship with a woman. Other schools express disapproval in more creative ways. For example, last year, the writer Eliel Cruz was allegedly told by administrators that he couldn’t sell cupcakes to raise money for homeless LGBT youth because such “perceived advocacy” of LGBT people would conflict with the mission of Andrews University in Michigan.
Even though some conservative schools are trying to find a compromise between their convictions and prevailing cultural norms, this posture often effectively creates two sets of rules: one for gay students, and one for straight students. For example, at College of the Ozarks, ranked by U.S. News as the No. 4 regional college in the Midwest, the student handbook explicitly forbids “touching, caressing, and other physical conduct of a sexual nature with a person of the same sex.” Yet heterosexual students at the same school are allowed to date and show affection as long as they abstain from sex.
Likewise, at Messiah College, ranked by U.S. News as the No. 5 regional college in the North, heterosexual couples are expected to refrain from sexual intimacy, but they can openly date. Meanwhile, gay students have to follow different rules. According to the handbook, “students who experience same sex attraction or identify as gay or lesbian are expected to refrain from ‘same sex sexual expression’ as it is embodied in culturally contextual practices (e.g., identifying as a couple or exhibiting expressions of physical intimacy).”
What happens if students break a rule against same-sex dating? At Messiah, situations are addressed “on a case-by-case manner that respects the dignity, privacy, and welfare of the person, in conjunction with the Christian identity and commitments of the college,” said Carla E. Gross, a spokesperson for the school. “This process is consistent for all behavioral standards and expectations established by the College—not just sexual behavior.”
Gross noted that, as a Christian college, “Messiah’s institutional approach on human sexuality is based on the authority of scripture as we understand it and is rooted in the traditional teaching long held by the Christian Church—including Messiah’s founding denomination, the Brethren in Christ.” She emphasized that the school’s community standards are related to same-sex behavior, not orientation.
Not all students agree with these rules. Administrators “maintain that their policies are against behavior, not orientation, but they restrict forms of behavior to the point that there is no way to truly express orientation,” said Dan Heiland, a bisexual student at Messiah. “The joke among my friends is that you can be gay at Messiah, just so long as you don’t act gay, or say gay things, or do anything to show you’re gay.”
The question of whether an LGBT Christian must remain celibate has led to an intense debate over the interpretation of scripture. And while a majority of evangelicals remain opposed to gay marriage, some of their leaders, including the evangelical ethicist David Gushee, have offered a biblical case for gay marriage and full acceptance of LGBT people within the church. Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, believes more inclusive mentalities towards the expression of LGBT behaviors will spread, in part because of the progressive views of many young evangelicals. As a December Pew Research study noted, “Roughly half (51%) of evangelical Protestants in the Millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1996) say homosexuality should be accepted by society.” “The same-sex couples at Christian colleges don’t tend to think of themselves as practicing ‘alternative’ lifestyles,” she said. “They think of themselves as card-carrying, church-going, doctrinally-formed evangelical Christians. They see themselves as living into the God-given freedom that American evangelicalism explicitly condones.”
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