LGBTQ students wrestle with tensions at Christian colleges

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Sean Fisher, one of the student coordinators for QPLUS, the LGBTQ student organization for the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, stands in the organization's dedicated lounge on the college's campus in St. Joseph, Minn., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. To Fisher, a senior in environmental studies who identifies as non-binary, the Catholic colleges' recognition and funding of the organization represents a new era. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)

COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. – As monks chanted evening prayers in the dimly lit Saint John’s University church, members of the student LGBTQ organization, QPLUS, were meeting in a dedicated, Pride flag-lined lounge at the institution’s sister Benedictine college, a few miles away across Minnesota farmland.

To Sean Fisher, a senior who identifies as non-binary and helps lead QPLUS, its official recognition and funding by Saint John’s and the College of Saint Benedict is welcome proof of the Catholic schools’ “acknowledging queer students exist.”

But tensions endure here and at many of the hundreds of U.S. Catholic and Protestant universities. The Christian teachings they ascribe to are different from wider societal values over gender identity and sexual orientation, because they assert that God created humans in unchangeable male and female identities, and sex should only happen within the marriage of a man and a woman.

“The ambivalence toward genuine care is clouded by Jesus-y attitudes. Like ‘Love your neighbor’ has an asterisk,” Fisher said that late fall evening.

Most of the 200 Catholic institutions serving nearly 900,000 students have made efforts to be welcoming while staying true to their mission as Catholic ministries, said the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

Among Protestant institutions, a few are pushing the envelope, and most are hoping to stay out of the messiness, said John Hawthorne, a retired Christian college sociology professor and administrator.

“Denominations won’t budge, so colleges will need to lead the way,” Hawthorne added. Otherwise, they might not survive, because students are used to values far different from churches’ teachings, as highlighted by last week’s Senate passage of legislation to protect same-sex marriage.

“Today’s college freshman was born in 2004, the year Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage,” Hawthorne said, suggesting there might not be enough conservative students in the future for some of the universities to survive.

The consequences extend beyond the experiences of current students, many of whom enroll not because of faith but academics, athletics or scholarships. Some will likely become church leaders in an already divided society, where the recent shooting at an LGBTQ club in Colorado was only the latest reminder of the threats against that community.

The majority of Christian colleges and universities list “sexual orientation” in their nondiscrimination statements, and half also include “gender identity” – far more than did so in 2013, said Jonathan Coley, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who maintains a Christian higher education database of policies toward LGBTQ students.

But translating that into practice creates tensions affecting most campus life, including enrollment at single-gender institutions, housing, restroom design and pronoun use.

Backlash follows from opposing corners: At some conservative schools, some students and faculty have filed discrimination complaints, while at more affirming institutions, some parents and clergy argue that approach doesn't align with their mission.

“We have to learn to live with this tension,” said the Rev. Donal Godfrey, chaplain at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution in a city with a history of LGBTQ rights advocacy and a conservative Catholic archbishop opposed to same-sex marriage.

New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBTQ Catholics, keeps a list of over 130 Catholic colleges it considers LGBTQ-friendly because they provide public affirmation, including courses and clubs, said its director, Francis DeBernardo.

“Catholic colleges and universities were … and still are the most LGBTQ-friendly places in the church in the United States,” DeBernardo added.

The Cardinal Newman Society, which advocates for fidelity to church teachings on all Catholic education issues, maintains its own list of recommended schools, a little more than a dozen the organization considers "faithful."

“For these colleges, being ‘Catholic’ is not a watered-down brand or historical tradition,” Newman president Patrick Reilly said via email.

Other campus leaders see tension in Catholic teachings, which tend to skew conservative on human sexuality but progressive on social justice.

Even Pope Francis, who seemed to nod toward change when he remarked “who am I to judge?” about gay priests, more recently approved the refusal of blessings for same-sex unions.

“It’s kind of a tightrope,” said John Scarano, campus ministry director at John Carroll University, a Jesuit school near Cleveland with “safe zone trainings” as part of its ministry to LGBTQ students.

When parents and prospective students come to him undecided between John Carroll and Franciscan University, 100 miles away in Steubenville, Ohio, Scarano tells them, “Here, your Catholicism is going to be challenged” by different perspectives.

At the Franciscan-run school, “we don’t move away from the truth of the human person as discovered in Scripture, the tradition of the Church, and the teaching authority of the Church -- this is our mooring, and we believe that to follow Christ is to be faithful to the Church’s teachings,” said the Rev. Jonathan St. Andre, a senior university leader.

The Steubenville institution strives to develop students’ “healthy sense of the gift of their human sexuality,” he added via email – but with no tolerance for harassment of those who disagree.

Students’ safety is a priority, said Mary Geller, the associate provost who oversees student affairs for the 3,000 undergraduates at Saint John’s and Saint Benedict, the single-sex institutions in Minnesota.

“We’re set up in the binary, but we know there are people coming to us who don’t live in the binary,” Geller said. They now admit students based on the gender they identify with, and consider transfers for those who transition.

That has enraged a few parents, like a father complaining “that we have students with male body parts in a female dorm,” Geller recalled. “I just said, ‘Sir, I don’t check body parts.’”

With the help of legal advocates, some students at evangelical and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints schools are suing.

Last year, 33 LGBTQ students or former students at federally funded Christian schools filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education, claiming the department’s religious exemption allows schools that receive federal dollars to unconstitutionally discriminate against LGBTQ students. The plaintiffs have grown to more than 40.

In May, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights launched a separate investigation for alleged violations of the rights of LGBTQ students at six Christian universities — including Liberty University.

The independent evangelical university is one of several that have greatly expanded their rules prohibiting students from identifying as LGBTQ or advocating for such identities.

Liberty forbids LGBTQ affinity clubs, same-sex displays of affection, and use of pronouns, restrooms and changing facilities not corresponding to a person’s birth sex. As of this year, its student handbook, called “The Liberty Way,” bans statements and behaviors associated with what it calls “LGBT states of mind.”

“Liberty is very anti-gay,” said Sydney Windsor, a senior there who first decided to attend Liberty to quash her sexual attraction for women and now identifies as pansexual. “I found friendships ending and me getting bad grades because of differing opinions or things I said or posted. It’s years of irreversible trauma.”

At some evangelical schools, the argument has now moved from fighting over student's sexual and gender equality to fighting for LGBTQ diversity in faculty and staff hiring.

This year, Eastern University, located in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA, amended its policies to allow for the hiring of faculty in same-sex marriages — one of only a handful of evangelical schools to do so.

“If we can get faculty to come out and to have queer people openly represented on campus, that would be really big,” said Faith Jeanette Millender, an Eastern University student who identifies as bisexual or queer and is active in the school’s LGBTQ group.

A high-stakes clash between students, faculty and the school’s board of trustees over hiring LGBTQ faculty is unfolding at Seattle Pacific University, a 131-year-old school affiliated with the Free Methodist Church.

The faculty held a vote of no-confidence in the board, one-third of which is appointed by the denomination, because it insists on keeping the policy barring people in same-sex relationships from full-time positions. Faculty and students have also sued the board in Washington State Superior Court for breaching its fiduciary duty, arguing the policy threatens to harm SPU’s reputation, worsen an already shrinking enrollment and possibly jeopardize its future.

“This entrenchment around human sexuality feels so incongruent with the on-campus experience and what we teach our students,” said Lynnette Bikos, professor and chair of SPU’s clinical psychology department and a plaintiff in the suit against the board.

Chloe Guillot, a 22-year-old graduate student at SPU who is one of 16 plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the school, said it was a matter of social justice.

“I’m wrestling with my own identity and I know how much Christianity has brought harm to communities, whether its people of color, women, or LGBTQ people," Guillot said. "I have a responsibility to step into those spaces and be willing to fight back. As someone who is a Christian we need to hold ourselves accountable."

In late November, a group of students and faculty decorated several campus buildings with rainbow-colored Christmas lights.

The administration has responded to one of the suits in a court filing saying that it expects students and faculty to “affirm the University’s statement of faith, and to abide by its lifestyle expectations, which together shape the vision and mission of the institution.”

Kathryn Lee, who came out as lesbian last year, while still a professor at Whitworth University, an evangelical school in Spokane, Washington, said debates over LGBTQ issues will persist for years.

“What’s unfortunate in my view is that in some people’s minds how do you define Christian education and it will be, ‘Oh, where are they on LGBTQ?’” she said. “I find that tragic.”

To students like Fisher in Minnesota, concrete actions will show if LGBTQ people can truly be welcomed on Christian campuses.

There are still too many incidents. Ryan Imm, a Saint John’s University junior and QPLUS leader who identifies as gay, recalled an anti-LGBTQ slur used on his residential floor. Sitting together in the QPLUS lounge, both students pointed to signs of hope -- like the popular drag show at Saint Benedict.

“It’s almost like people forget there’s dissonance,” Imm said.

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