Coming Out At A Christian College
I’ve known something was different about me ever since I wanted to kiss Mr. Peterson in 8th grade. The son of two pastors in the Church of the Nazarene — a small, evangelical Christian denomination — I never thought I’d tell anyone about my little, rainbow-patterned secret: that I’d bury my head in my locker when the guys would change after P.E., that I left the television on every night because I had to silence the voices in my head that told me I was disgusting, that sometimes I’d get so scared of being caught I’d throw up. I was hopelessly haunted by the biblical passages I’d read — the ones that allegedly said people like me couldn’t be Christian — afraid that if my hunch was right about the kind of sex I wanted to have, I’d lose everything. It wasn’t until my last year of college that I finally reconciled my sexuality and my Christian identity.
I remember my fingers feeling numb first, like I’d snuck them into a bowl of ice and forgotten them there for hours. I was sitting in the office of an administrator at Point Loma Nazarene University, where I was a senior. I was the Director of Spiritual Life — an elected position of student chaplaincy — and some months before, while looking into the sage, wrinkled eyes of my father, had whispered those mythical, telltale words that, for some of us, change everything: “I’m gay.” I told my supervisor, too, and my professors and my friends, which is how I’d landed in her emerald, padded chair that Wednesday afternoon. She’d just told me I could keep my job as chaplain, so long as I didn’t “act gay.”
“Wait,” I clarified. “If I hold a guy’s hand, is that acting gay?” She nodded her head in affirmation, and I pressed further. “If I go on a date, is that acting gay?” Another nod. “If I have a crush?” Her gaze was sympathetically heavy as her head gently moved up and down for the third time.
“That’s ridiculous,” I cried.
Wherever injustice is present, I’ve learned, life has a propensity to wax messy. A few weeks later, I quit my job, and not because I lacked capability. On the contrary, I feared being morally culpable in the systemic silencing of people like me: LGBT students, faculty and staff at Christian colleges and universities who long, more than anything, to be unashamedly celebrated by the communities they so desperately love. After I came out, the response was admittedly varied: I remember a professor asking me over dinner in the cafeteria if I ever planned on preaching again.
“Yeah,” I said, forking my chicken and broccoli. “I imagine I will.” His response reached down my throat and punched my stomach.
“Hell’s real, you know.” I stood up from the table and took my plate to the dish return.
I got an e-mail from one alum who told me a harrowing story. When he was at Loma in the 1970s, his friend had written a love letter to a student of the same sex, but hadn’t the courage to deliver it and threw it in the trash one morning before heading to class. Someone — suspicious of the way he walked, and the way his words lingered a bit longer than his colleagues — reached into the trash after he left and unfolded his secret, dropping the letter off on the desk of the dean. The student would subsequently be expelled for un-Christian conduct, and would never again return to the church before losing his life to AIDS 20 years later.
“I wanted to say thank you,” the alum’s e-mail concluded, “because people don’t have to have to be afraid that they’re alone anymore. I often wonder how his story would have been different if someone would have told him that.”
The shrewdest, loudest, most violent lie that LGBT people at Christian colleges and universities carry is this: that no one else like them exists. More important, and more enduring than the stares and questions and assaulting prayers, are the stories of the 70 current students, and 130 alumni who contacted me to say they had the same kind of dreams I did.
And that’s only from Point Loma. Students from across the nation sent messages my way, notes of gratitude and concern and question and fear.
“You’re not alone,” I told them all, “and there’s plenty of space in the church for you, should you choose to stay.”
When I tried to start a gay-straight alliance at the school after resigning, and before I graduated, the charter was refused for conflicting with University policy on homosexual behavior. We met anyway, and the group continues to gather across campus this year, a beacon of hope for so many who would otherwise live in the shadows. Other schools have faced the same opposition: Seattle Pacific, Pepperdine, Westmont. The not-so-secret gospel news is that we’re everywhere, us gays. We’re your teachers and janitors and friends and pastors. The question isn’t whether or not we exist; it’s what Christian colleges and universities are going to do with us.
A friend of mine works as an admissions counselor at one of these institutions. I asked her recently what she tells to openly LGBT students who are in the application process.
“I tell them to go somewhere else,” she tearfully responded, “somewhere that can celebrate them and love them without condition.”
I’ve just been accepted to Yale and Emory for graduate studies in divinity. “We’d be happy to have you here,” their letters said. I long for the day that Christian colleges and universities can be the same: a good, safe, fruitful place for people of all orientations.
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