What Evangelical Colleges Can Do for Their LGBTQ+ Students

IMG_0135.JPG

Recently, I was interviewed by Liberty University's Dean of Students in response to a tweet I posted regarding posting Pride flags at the top of Liberty's new "Freedom Tower".

For the record, I have no regrets.

The Dean began the meeting with said issue, affirming the given that the University does not condone the posting of Pride flags atop its crown jewel. Once this and a brief introduction were out of the way, I was quick to express concern for the policy and enforcement measures Liberty takes against its LGBTQ+ students. I was adamant that there are real, dangerous issues with not just the language in the Liberty Way (the document serving as a code of student conduct), but the way in which it is applied.

He asked a simple question: Given our significant theological differences, how can Liberty hold to its "views" whilst being more hospitable to its LGBTQ+ students?

It's a fair question more administrators need to be asking.

So I answered, and I've chosen to both recount what I had to say and explicate some tangential thoughts.

The mistreatment and harmful prejudice leveled against LGBTQ+ students is systemic - but many of us experience the harshest treatment in our local Christian settings, whether in churches, schools, or our families. There's no shortage of non-affirming literature and advocacy organizations propagating a specific theological message: being gay is not okay.

Rather than pursue justice for LGBTQ+ lives, Evangelical colleges like Liberty University, Ozark Christian College, and Spring Arbor University contribute to the injustice in what are often fiercely antagonistic ways. Administrators (undoubtedly straight, mostly white, cisgendered, and mostly males) have a responsibility to their students, themselves, and their faith to repent of their complicit inaction (or destructive action).

For non-affirming Christians, to affirm LGBTQ+ people is to ensure their eternal punishment and remain complicit in their sin. Likewise, not to offer some form of pastoral care and admonishment for a gay person's "sin" (there are disagreements within non-affirming Christianity as to what even constitutes sin) is to be similarly complicit in their judgment.

And I'll say this: If you think LGBTQ+ persons and their allies are wrong for pursuing both justice and affirmation, I whole-heartedly and without apology believe you're wrong. Statistically, your beliefs have profoundly harmful consequences.

Yet, I believe you can disagree in a way that makes space.

For this post and its intended audience, I'll concede the genuine disagreements that arise out of thoughtful debate and theological discourse. This was written for non-affirming Christians in positions of influence and even students willing to engage what I have to say. And I've no doubt LGBTQ+ students and allies could add to this list.

Here's what Evangelical colleges can do for their LGBTQ+ students:

1. Take us seriously. Stop belittling us. It appears as if you assume we lack a valid, epistemically considered position worth hearing. Condescension is neither compassionate nor convincing. Stop filling your platforms with those who cast blame on us for perceived societal decline, and then blaming us for our own suffering. Again, this form of gaslighting costs lives. This first step starts on a personal level, and a collective repentance of willful ignorance at the expense of LGBTQ+ people must precede any further action if this is to be done in good faith. 

2. Instead of talking about us, talk to us. And do this without threat of punishment for coming out. Instead of refusing to acknowledge us as a legitimate segment of your student body, talk to us. See us. Listen to our individual stories, and allow yourself the space to hear with an open heart what we have to say. Don't hide behind a student code of conduct as a means of keeping some distance. This is your chance to stop talking, get your hands and knees dirty, and demonstrate the compassion Christlikeness naturally demands.

Some of us are hurting - ask us why. Some of us have abandoned the faith we know - hear our perspectives. Some of us are angry - let us vent.

3. Amplify our voices. You may not realize it, but you've been talking over us for as long as you've been around. Instead of inviting anti-LGBTQ+ speakers and theologians, especially those who share ex-gay stories and variations thereof, invite LGBTQ+ theologians and academics to speak, share, and answer questions in an open setting. We don't exist in a single theological dimension - give time to the plurality of thought within the queer Christian world. If you've only ever had someone like Rosaria Butterfield or Wesley Hill speak at your school, but never someone like Matthew Vines or Broderick Greer, there's a problem. Be willing to grant platform time to those whose words and stories directly confront institutionalized assumptions around LGBTQ+ people and non-affirming theology. Encourage professors to foster healthy, safe discourse on sexual ethics and questions of identity.

This is a chance to engage critical thinking and welcome dissent, ideals to which any ideologically libertarian institution can ascribe value. This wouldn't just benefit your straight students in the development of knowledge: It would be a tremendous encouragement for your LGBTQ+ students in ways that could promote wholeness and safety. You've been talking over us, so amplifying queer and trans voices on your largest platforms gives us a chance to be heard, seen, and respected. It's a tremendous step in good faith towards a safer environment.

4. Eliminate enforcement measures against LGBTQ+ studentsIf you're non-affirming and still with me, you may perceive this to be a non-starter. Surely, a traditionally Evangelical college with a conservative sexual ethic could no longer be considered traditional nor conservative if this language - presupposing it is grounded in Scripture - was altered. But consider this: The language encoded in your rules of student conduct or any other functionally constitutional document typically necessitates a measure of enforcement, and this is where some of the greatest direct harm against LGBTQ+ kids takes place. You can maintain your sexual ethic and assert that the institution holds to a doctrinal standard whilst ensuring LGBTQ+ are respected, treated with equality, and uninhibited in their lives.

Stop punishing queer kids for being out. Many of us live under the radar, hoping our peers won't see us holding hands while we're off-campus and report us for violating the behavioral prohibitions on anything except straight, heavily restricted public displays affection. Stop punishing us for disagreeing. Stop gaslighting us with mandated counseling serving as an ethically questionable callback to the evil of reparative therapy. Stop outing us to our families when we've barely had the courage to be out to ourselves. There are so many small, insipidly dangerous ways in which these codes of student conduct are stringently leveraged against LGBTQ+ students, and it absolutely must stop. There's no obfuscating the reality this is a matter of life and death.

I recognize that Evangelicalism does not traditionally lend itself to any semblance of pluralism, and in these settings with institutionalized doctrine, there is an expectation of relative ideological homogeneity. Similarly, I'm aware of the postmodern, deinstitutionalized underpinnings of everything I've written. Don't get me wrong - I know exactly where disagreement can and will occur on this.

Nevertheless, we're at a point where Evangelical colleges and academic settings need to be willing to ask hard, pointed questions. The authoritarian systems that typically define these environments have been especially discriminatory towards LGBTQ+ people, and the harm done over the years - even as the verbiage and posture of non-affirming Christians has shifted away from outright antagonism - is incalculable.

Evangelical colleges can move towards a broader inclusivity without "compromising" their standards of right and wrong, but it will be uncomfortable and seem counterintuitive.

We shouldn't have to live in fear.

Ask yourself: would you rather win the argument or liberate the oppressed?