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Faces of Faith: LGBTQ Students at Christian Colleges

According to a new report, a rising number of religious colleges are requesting religious exemptions from Title IX.

CREDIT: Pexels.

This post was cross-posted with the Huffington Post

From the Obama administration’s historic announcements this spring concerning health care and education for transgender Americans to last year’s Supreme Court case upholding marriage equality, the LGBTQ community has won significant battles in the fight for equality. But for LGBTQ students at religious colleges, the battle isn’t close to over: according to a report from the Human Rights Campaign, a rising number of Christian colleges have applied for exemptions from laws in order to restrict services to LGBTQ students.

The law—and exemptions—in question is Title IX, which prevents universities that receive federal funding from enacting any policy or practice that discriminates on the basis of sex. Since 2014, the Department of Education has interpreted this to include gender identity as well, and Title IX has often been used to protect LGBTQ students from discriminatory policies.

However, schools controlled by a religious organization can apply to be exempt from complying with any part of Title IX they feel conflicts with specific tenets of their religion. Colleges must specify to the Department of Education which clauses of Title IX they want to be exempt from, which can include areas from housing to admissions to financial aid. Forty-six schools with a total of 101,980 students have received exemptions, and 29 schools with a total of 49,001 students have exemptions requests pending.

What does this mean for LGBTQ students who want to remain engaged in their faith? Many LGBTQ youth growing up in conservative Christian homes have spent years soul-searching, working to reconcile their religion with their sexual orientation or gender identity. When a school forces them to choose  their faith or their LGBTQ identity, it essentially sends the message that the entire process was worthless. Other students are still exploring how to embrace themselves as LGBTQ and Christian; leaving home for college may be the first chance LGBTQ youth have to do their own research or find their own church in a new community. For these students, entering a school environment that forces them to be silent about their LGBTQ identity can be harmful and may sometimes even push them away from their faith.

“Schools typically do not notify the student body of when or why they apply for Title IX exemptions, which is seriously damaging to current LGBTQ students as well as prospective ones who may be considering enrollment,” said Jordyn Sun, National Campus Organizer for the advocacy group SoulForce, noting that transparency around exemptions is crucial for young people deciding on colleges. LGBTQ prospective students have the right to know where a school stands on LGBTQ inclusion, and whether or not it will be a safe environment, before they apply.

LGBTQ organizations, including SoulForce, won a major victory in April when the Department of Education released a comprehensive list of all the schools that have requested exemptions. Sun says this means there is “even more reason now for religious schools to abandon anti-LGBT beliefs/practices now that the national spotlight is on religious exemptions.” Indeed, just a few days after the list was published, a Massachusetts congresswoman introduced legislation that would require colleges to publicize their exemption requests on their own websites. Requiring schools to publicly own up to their intentions to discriminate could discourage potential students from applying, and could eventually lead those schools to change their policies in response.

While the Department of Education has not clearly stated that Title IX protects students on the basis of sexual orientation, Title IX protections based on sex discrimination have often been interpreted to apply to anti-LGB discrimination as well. This indicates that if the Department continues its current trend of protecting LGBTQ students, a formal statement that Title IX protects students based on sexual orientation may not be far off. With this in mind, many Christian colleges are specifically asking for exemptions that allow them to discriminate based on both sexual orientation and gender identity, preemptively preserving their ability to deny LGBTQ students their rights even if the Department of Education continues to expand its Title IX interpretation.

Below, we profiled six LGBTQ students at religious colleges that have sought religious exemptions from Title IX. Some of their information has been changed to protect their identities. Scroll down to read about their experiences.

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Photo courtesy of Tristan Campbell.

The 81-page student handbook at Oklahoma Baptist University (OBU) covers just about every possible aspect of student life, regulating everything from procedures on procuring a new student ID to policies on whether or not a bed can be lofted. And on page 27 of the handbook, under the subsection “Human Sexuality,” the handbook outlaws “homosexual behavior,” stating:

“Oklahoma Baptist University affirms the biblical standard of sexuality through scripture that teaches God’s standard for human sexuality as a faithful commitment in marriage between a man and woman and purity in relationships outside of marriage…Temptations relating to sexuality include heterosexual sex outside of marriage, homosexual behavior, the perversion of sexuality through pornography, rape, incest, sexual addictions and all other forms of sexuality that deviate from the biblical standard for sexuality. It is the University’s expectation that OBU students, faculty, and staff will comply with the biblical standard for sexuality.”

Earlier in the handbook, the university states that the school may, “in its sole discretion or judgement, discipline or dismiss a student who demonstrates a lack of respect for, or who disregards the University’s standards, or whose conduct is not in keeping with the University’s standards.” Thus, any student who engages in “homosexual behavior”—as defined by the university—can be expelled. The school in effect outlaws transgender identities too, stating it does not “support nor affirm” anyone who presents as a gender other than their biological sex assigned at birth.

Tristan Campbell, 20, chose to attend OBU because of his strong Baptist faith. In high school, he talked to pastors at his Baptist church about his attraction to men and women. In response, his pastors told him he was actually straight and to ignore his attraction to men. Because his faith was still important to him, Tristan matriculated at OBU, majoring in interdisciplinary studies while on a pre-med track.

There, he continued exploring his identity, eventually identifying as bisexual.

Tristan says he found it difficult to develop an LGBTQ-affirming faith at a university where “the official stated policy is that non-heterosexuality is a perversion or a distortion of sexual morality.” When asked how he and other LGBTQ students at OBU try to reconcile their faith and LGBTQ identity, he said, “even though many of us are confident in our own belief, hearing [anti-LGBTQ] rhetoric so often does create issues,” and the university offers no resources to support faith development for students questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity. According to Tristan, an LGBTQ student group—not officially recognized by the university administration—asked the school to host speakers who offered perspectives different from the school’s official stance. The school refused.

This culture impacts school policy in ways Tristan knows all too well. Tristan worked as a Resident Assistant, but when his sexuality became public, his manager, under pressure from the OBU administration, told him he could not keep his position if he continued to identify as bisexual.

In December 2014, the Department of Education granted OBU 13 different exemptions from various Title IX provisions. Two of those provisions concern admissions and student employment: the exemptions allow OBU to discriminate against LGBTQ students—kicking them out of school or firing them from their jobs—without fear of Title IX being used against them in court.

Nonetheless, Tristan filed a complaint, and from that point on there was “a not-insignificant amount of harassment” from some of his fellow students. “I was reporting [the bullying], and no one in the administration was really doing anything, returning my emails or phone calls, and so I just got to a point where I didn’t feel safe there,” he says.

When a school gets a Title IX exemption and fires openly LGBTQ student employees, it can reinforce the attitude that LGBTQ students are second-class, and perpetuate a culture of bullying. At OBU, Tristan says, there’s an understanding among the small community of LGBTQ students that it’s safer to walk around campus in groups to avoid harassment.

For Tristan, no amount of walking in groups could stop the harassment. Feeling like there was no place for him, Tristan eventually left the school halfway through his junior year. He transferred to the University of Central Oklahoma, where he is still on a pre-med track.

“I really did want to stay at OBU, number one because of the general student culture…and I was in the pre-med program there, which was fantastic,” he says. But, he adds, the harassment he experienced got to a point where he felt his only option was to leave.

While Tristan says he loves his new school, the consequences of the religious exemptions at OBU still plague him: “[transferring] did put me a semester behind, which in terms of going to med school, means I’m a year behind.”

Because OBU’s policies and practices create an unsafe, unwelcome atmosphere for LGBTQ students, Tristan had to put his dream on hold for a year.

 

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The student’s name has been changed to protect their identity. “They” pronouns are used to preserve anonymity.

Raised in a Christian home, Sam, 22, grew up learning that it was impossible to be both Christian and gay. When they started feeling attracted to members of the same sex in junior high, they wrestled with how to reconcile those feelings with their faith. “I tried many different types of self-reparative therapy,” Sam says. “It was probably between my sophomore and junior year [of high school] when I started to come to terms with it.”

Sam says they continue to embrace their Christian faith because of the love that it teaches. “Even when other people don’t love us, God still loves us unconditionally,” they say. This conviction inspired them both to pursue ministry as a career, and to transfer from a secular school to Ozark their sophomore year to major in preaching.

In late 2015, while Sam was studying for his classes and participating in extracurricular life, Ozark was applying for Title IX religious exemptions. In all, Ozark requested to be excused from 15 separate provisions.  In its request, Ozark outlined its policy on sexual ethics and gender, which condemns LGBTQ identities. It then asked to be exempt from Title IX provisions concerning housing, admissions, and student employment, “to the extent they are interpreted to reach gender identity or sexual orientation discrimination.” This means that if Ozark is granted its exemption, it is free to discriminate against its LGBTQ students no matter what a judge or federal agency says about Title IX.

Because of the anti-LGBTQ culture at Ozark, Sam says they are afraid to come out. “[The school] will find every smallest reason to make sure that you are kicked out” for being LGBTQ, they say. “It hurts that I can’t open up to them because I don’t feel comfortable.” Sam calls being forced to remain in the closet to continue worshiping “an internal hell.”

In spite of everything, Sam says the parts of Ozark that initially drew them to the school are still compelling enough to keep them there. Impressed by the passion of his fellow students for their faith, Sam says they remain at Ozark because they would “rather be worshiping right beside them than worshiping with somebody who is mundane in their life”—even if it means not coming out or feeling welcomed.

“I’d love to be in an opportunity where I could help LGBT people in the sense of helping them grow closer to God,” said Sam, currently a senior, about their plans for what comes next. Part of this means living both their faith and LGBTQ identity authentically in the future, despite being unable to be out at school.

“As soon as I graduate Ozark I definitely plan on coming out,” they say.

 

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The student’s name has been changed, and age and name of school have been excluded, to protect the student’s identity. “They” pronouns are used to preserve anonymity.

Alex grew up in a Christian home they describe as “borderline fundamentalist,” which in retrospect, they say caused a lot of pain. However, they wanted to continue seeking out the good parts of their faith in college. “At the time I did want to go to a Christian school,” they said about their decision to attend their school, a religious school. But, they say, the anti-LGBTQ attitudes pervasive at their school have made it difficult to stay.

In their first year in college, Alex began embracing their identity as genderless and queer. As they began coming out to a few close friends, they found some support that helped them to stay in school. By and large, however, they have remained in the closet to avoid discrimination from the school’s administration. Alex says they will remain at their school to get their degree, but they rely on supportive friends to get them through the rest of their time. Noting that some professors endorse a more supportive theology, they say: “I’ve found safe spaces. I’ve found more ability to stay here because of those.”

Alex’s school was granted an exemption from five Title IX provisions that protect students on the basis of gender identity. “I found out that my school had the Title IX exemption, and that terrified me. It is really painful just knowing that my school thinks that I’m just wrong…and that they want to reserve the right to deny me my rights,” Alex says of their school’s exemptions.

“I try to stay under the radar, because I am always afraid of being kicked out,” they add.

Even so, with the exemption in place, Alex wishes they could speak up. “I wish I could push the school” to be more inclusive, Alex says. “But there’s just a lot of fear.”

Alex says that their very conservative religious upbringing and experience at school has made it harder to reconcile their faith with being LGBTQ. “I’m not sure whether to entirely let go of Christianity, but I’m not sure that I can fully accept everything in it,” they said, reflecting on the ways fundamentalism has hurt their mental health. “If there is a God I hope that that God is truly loving.”

 

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The student’s name has been changed to protect their identity. “They” pronouns are used to preserve anonymity.

Jordan grew up thinking that being gay wasn’t an option in a Christian community, and didn’t reconcile their gay identity as part of their faith until recently. “I was really just asking the question, ‘What does Jesus say, and what is the most compassionate response to the LGBT community?’” says Jordan about the beginning of their reconciliation process. Eventually, they came to realize that their faith encourages them to love and embrace all identities, including their own. “There was never any point in this process, in the last year and a half, where I have walked away from my faith,” Jordan says.

Jordan’s parents wanted them to go a religious school and Jordan genuinely fell in love with Geneva College. “The program I [wanted my degree in] was the one I’m currently in at Geneva,” says Jordan, noting that academics were also a key factor that brought them to their school. However, despite their recent process of embracing both their faith and sexuality, Jordan says they are unable to come out at school. “To this day,” Jordan says, “I have not been public about [being gay], for the sake of being able to finish the program.”

Jordan says that while students are not immediately kicked out of school for coming out, they still struggle and face pervasive discrimination.

“I would have been removed from leadership positions. There are discriminatory things that happen when you come out. As soon as you come out, [the college] discredits everything you say,” Jordan says.

The university does offer one resource for LGBTQ students: a group that meets secretly. Or, as Jordan describes it, “basically just a lot of ex-gay resources [teaching that] it’s wrong to identify as gay.”

When they found out about the school’s Title IX exemptions, which excuses Geneva from key Title IX provisions, Jordan said their immediate response was sorrow and fear. The school is exempt from 15 provisions, including those concerning admissions, student employment, and housing, “to the extent they are interpreted to reach sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination.” And even if a court or federal agency were to decide that federally funded schools cannot discriminate against LGBTQ students, Geneva would not have to comply.

For Jordan, the exemptions didn’t have to be applied to affect their life. After learning of the exemption, Jordan says, “I became kind of paranoid…I started presenting differently…I didn’t want to encourage rumors that I was gay.”

Jordan says they find it difficult to have a faith that drives them to live authentically and vocally advocate for LGBTQ people, while feeling forced further into the closet by their religious school. Still, they do their best to speak up. They make the most of a difficult situation by striving to find ways to continue ministry to LGBTQ people, being as authentic as possible without coming out.

“I’m trying to have a voice that I won’t have once I come out. I’ve been able to have interaction with other people who are closeted, or with young people who wouldn’t be allowed to associate with me if their family knew that I was gay,” Jordan says. “While I’ve been hidden and closeted, I’ve also found ways to have a voice.”

 

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Photo courtesy of Randall White.

Randall White grew up in a Christian home and says his mother played a large role in drawing him into the church. Since his faith was so important to him, he responded with denial when he started realizing he was gay. “I wanted to identify as Christian, but not necessarily as gay,” he says. “I didn’t think the two could be put together.”

When he started college at Biola University in Los Angeles, Randall said it was the first time he was able to think independently and admit he was struggling to bring together his faith and his sexuality. “I got to a point where I was so depressed [about denying being gay], I needed to talk to someone about it,” he says. Eventually he went to the spiritual counseling center at Biola where he was surprised to find that the school’s spiritual counselor did not tell him he was wrong or had to change when he came out.

“It was much better that I thought it was going to be,” Randall says of his conversation with the counselor. “It was very loving.”

After that, Randall came out to a few more people and got involved in the secret, unofficial LGBTQ group on campus, and said that being in community helped him to continue reconciling his faith and gay identity. Since he’s been involved, the group has become less secret and the administration at Biola has become more accepting of LGBTQ students. “The campus climate has changed, has gotten better,” he says. “[People are] more open to being in fellowship and community with people who are LGBT.”

Even so, there’s still a long way to go. According to Randall, the school would no longer consider removing a student for being gay or lesbian, but they are still “less tolerant of relationships” among LGBTQ people, and staff are formally barred from doing anything to explicitly endorse LGBTQ-affirming theology.

Biola has been requesting Title IX exemptions since the 1970s, and currently has a pending request for a Title IX exemption that would excuse them from five important provisions as they pertain to gender identity. If this request is approved, Biola will be able to deny transgender students housing and facility access that matches their gender identity. In the past, they have also requested to be exempt from Title IX to the extent it covers sexual orientation, and the school’s long history of requesting such exemptions has contributed to its culture of homophobia and transphobia in much of the administration.

For Randall, being able to be out and in community with other LGBTQ Christians has made a huge difference in his experience. While he admitted it can be challenging to be at a school that doesn’t completely affirm LGBTQ people, he wouldn’t want to transfer. “What keeps me at Biola is definitely the community of people there who are LGBT,” he says.

Although Biola still has many steps to take to fully affirm all its students’ identities, Randall’s experience shows that small steps toward inclusion on the part of schools can make large differences in the lives of LGBTQ students.

 

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Photo courtesy of Erin Green.

Erin struggled with her identity through most of her twenties, trying to distance herself from the feeling that she was gay because her church had taught her it was sinful. After hitting a low point, she felt a re-connection with God that caused her to reexamine key parts of her faith, and through her own study she came to affirm her gay identity within her faith, which remains vital to her today.

When Erin decided to start college two years ago, she wanted to attend a Christian school, but was conscious of being “out and affirming” about her sexuality. “If I was going to major in biblical studies, if I was going to go to a Christian university, I was going to go to one that already had an LGBTQ community on campus… and Biola had one of the best ones,” said Erin of her decision to attend Biola, referencing the unauthorized LGBTQ group that was established on campus.

While Erin has found support for her LGBTQ-affirming theology in the student group and from some administrators, she’s also faced resistance. “At first I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be really easy,’” Erin said, recalling her earliest days at Biola, when she hoped to start conversations about LGBTQ faith inclusion with her professors. “If anyone knows the traditional view, it’s me,” she says.

But in her very first class, her professor espoused homophobic theology. She confronted the professor after class and expressed her own viewpoint, and he told her, “You don’t take the view of all of Biola.” Shortly afterwards, she dropped the class.

In response to this and similar situations, Erin chose to “take on [a] mantle of scholarship” and become an expert on LGBTQ theology so she can educate those around her. While this helps her have promising conversations with professors and peers, always having to justify her faith interpretation can take a toll, she says. “Emotionally, it is frustrating to be in that environment and to constantly be worried… I do not fit in at this university, because I am a gay affirming Christian.”

Even so, she sees progress in the school’s future. “We’re in the very beginnings of having dialogue about how [the school is] going to treat the gay community,” she said, noting that recently, the dean of students told her firmly that there is a place for her and other gay students at the school. Erin has been constantly pushing for that progress, with the hope that Biola will become fully inclusive to every LGBTQ student who walks through its doors.

Part of this effort, she says, involves pushing back against the school’s pending Title IX exemption. If granted, the exemption would excuse the school from 5 Title IX provisions that protect transgender people, allowing Biola to deny transgender students to live in the dorm or use the bathroom or locker room that matches their gender identity. This kind of exemption perpetuates a school culture that hurts all LGBTQ students.

In February, she organized a protest to do just that. The protest, she says, proved a success, and the school has since started considering changing its language and policies to be more inclusive of LGBTQ students. She thinks the protest showed Biola how much support there was on campus for the LGBTQ community, and scared the school: “It really shook things up with the administration, and that’s when they wanted to start some serious, serious communication,” she said. “[Exemptions are] a very ungodly response. And I think that’s clear to a lot of people.”

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