LGBTQ+ students attending Christian colleges across the nation are coming to terms with their identities as university administrations examine their policies on same sex relationships.
Azusa Pacific University is a university in California that is a part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, an association of more than 180 institutions worldwide, including John Brown University. Students at Azusa Pacific were surprised to find the administration dropping a policy that prevented romantic same-sex relationships but upholding heterosexual marriage, according to Christianity Today. “The language changed, but the spirit didn’t,” Bill Fiala, Associate Dean of Students at APU, said, in an interview with CT. “Our spirit is still a conservative, evangelical perspective on human sexuality.”
However, the APU Board of Trustees quickly reversed the changes four days later, stating in a letter to students and alumni, “action concerning romanticized relationships was never approved by the board and the original wording has been reinstated,” according to Christianity Today.
Such confusion over university policies regarding sexuality has impacted LGBT students at John Brown University, some who have left even if they didn’t necessarily want to. The departure of LGBQ+ students is a result of disagreement between student lifestyles and JBU policies, where the idea of inclusivity conflicts with the preservation of the biblical model of marriage.
Christina Brobston was a freshman who studied mechanical engineering at JBU last year. Identifying as bisexual, she felt uncomfortable in the campus community and chose to transfer to the University of Texas at Dallas. “Even among friends it was almost like I had to watch what I was saying because if something gay came out there would just be an awkward silence or something,” Brobston said. “With a lot of students it was more that they just maybe weren’t used to it or something in their straight bubble and didn’t mean to be rude.”
Brobston recalls a chapel speaker who shared that he was friends with a lesbian couple. “[He] was acting like it was the most insane idea. Like can you imagine being friends with someone? He was just like, “Wow yeah, they’re pretty cool just like normal people. Who knew?” Why is that shocking? … There was very much a “love the sinner hate the sin” kind of vibe which I just get so sick of hearing,” Brobston said.
Being a member of the LGBTQ+ community is an isolating experience and Brobston encourages students to respect others in a non-condescending way. “Just like treat LGBT people like normal human beings who have unique thoughts and feelings that are maybe a little different than yours but fundamentally the same,” Brobston said. “The reality is that if someone’s at JBU and is queer, you can almost bet they hear enough homophobia or whatever from their family. I definitely do. So, trying to spread your message about it being a sin isn’t helping anything. It just alienates people, and that’s why so many LGBT people leave the church altogether.”
A current sophomore at JBU who identifies as gay and preferred to remain anonymous agreed that JBU can sometimes be unwelcoming to LGBTQ+ students. “I myself carry a crowd that is accepting and OK with me as I am,” he said. “[But] coming to JBU, signing up to come here, through everything I’d ever heard about it, was not a place for LGBT people, and that is how people portray it.”
He said he has felt microagressions coming from some students in the form of flipped jokes about LGBTQ+ people. He also feels like professors can sometimes avoid the topic in class. “A lot of staff here are great,” he said. “But there are some that those issues will come up in class and they will skirt around it or they will try to avoid the topic because they don’t want to say an opinion that is unpopular with what the majority of the populace believes.”
Mo Tester, a JBU alumni who graduated in 2015, said they started an underground LGBTQ+ support group at JBU after coming out to themself and a select group of students between their junior and senior year. “I was very uncomfortable. There were no resources for me. I knew it was forbidden, so I was really scared, and I thought I was going to lose all of my leadership positions. There was nothing there that was affirming or that told me I was wanted. I was really thankful I lived off campus that year. I can’t imagine living on campus and trying to be out. Everything that was said about it was not encouraging.”
Tester said they never felt pressure from the administration to leave, but they did feel like they were told to just ”pray the gay away. It wasn’t until I graduated that I felt like I could be open about it over social media. I went through some pretty bad depression my senior year because of being gay and being in the Christian environment.”
After starting an LGBTQ+ support group on campus to bond with other LGBTQ+ students at JBU, Tester said Rod Reed and President Chip Pollard both, “showed up at a meeting one night and after that, we were told we weren’t allowed to meet on campus anymore. Then Rod Reed took it over and made it a Bible study. Nobody wanted to come back because the administration was coming to meetings.”
Tester said they hope that the administration would, “try to help people know that they are loved and they are not something that’s a blemish that’s on JBU’s polished perfection.”
Tyler Kihm and Kyler Tabor were both sophomores at JBU last year and made the decision to transfer to the University of Arkansas, after feeling significant pressure from the institution to leave because they did not feel like they could freely express themselves.
Kihm studied communication and marketing at JBU and admits that his time here was certainly not all negative. “I was comfortable, in certain settings. With my group of friends at JBU and then with certain professors, I felt very comfortable and accepted there,” Kihm said. However, there were certain times and places, where he felt he had to be more cautious. “It was more from the staff and the faculty, and also being a student employee while I was at JBU, in that setting, I definitely did not feel comfortable,” Kihm said. “I felt like who I was, my sexual identity, was something that definitely needed to stay under wraps.”
Tabor, who also studied communication, describes a similar scenario, where he felt safe around close friends and certain professors but in general did not feel comfortable when dealing with staff or administration. “With my experience at JBU, other students were usually not what made me uncomfortable. It was the administration and how staff members discussed queer issues. Most of the students I interacted with tended to be indifferent, even if they didn’t agree with it,” Tabor said.
Steve Beers, vice president for Student Affairs at JBU, states that there are no discriminatory policies towards LGBT students at JBU. Instead, as he explains, LGBT students are, like all JBU students, expected to remain loyal to an oath of chastity. “Any of our policies do not restrict … that you can be an LGBT student and attend JBU,” Beers said. “You can assume that you can be a student and be an LGBT, and have same sex attraction, by the mere fact that we don’t say ‘You can’t be a JBU student if you’re LGBT.” Instead we say ‘If you’re LGBT, we hold you to this calling to chasteness.”
LGBTQ+ students are expected to follow the same rules which govern every student at JBU. “We are just calling people of same-sex attraction to live within the boundaries we have set forth for all students,” Beers said.
These overall rules are also laid out clearly by Andre Broquard, Dean of Student Life at JBU. “Institutionally, fidelity in marriage, chastity in singleness and that marriage is between one man and one woman,” Broquard said. “That would be the over-arching policy that governs our perspective view of how individuals interact on a sexual level.”
The third piece of the over-arching policy, “that marriage is between one man and one woman,” is where JBU finds its conflict with LGBTQ+ students. Even though few, if any, LGBT students at JBU are not married, the principle of biblical marriage ensures JBU’s discouragement of same-sex dating of any kind, as explained by Beers. “If I’m engaging in a romantic, flirtatious experience with somebody, it has a direction it’s heading. And that direction, if it’s heading towards marriage, between a man and a woman, it is part of the natural progression of the dating relationship,” Beers said. “If, and in fact, we believe that scripture teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman, a homosexual, flirtatious, romantic experience, is moving in a direction where there is not a good end to it. So, what we’re saying is prudentially, wisely, we are asking people to not engage in activities that lead directly to what we believe is a prohibition.”
Reinforcing this stance, Broquard said, “If marriage is between one man and one woman, and that’s the viable option, backing away from that, people who aren’t one man and one woman could meet that end goal. We would discourage two women and a man, or two men and a woman, being a sort of a relationship, in much the same way we would discourage two women or two men. Any multiples more than two, and any similarities in sex, would be discouraged.”
Kihm confirms this rule was expressed to him directly from the university administration. “Essentially the rule, which when I was a student was not written in the handbook … not in the covenant, … not in writing anywhere for students, is that students are expected to not be in same-sex relationships,” Kihm said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re celibate till marriage, you’re just not allowed to be in same-sex relationships, that is the rule.”
Kihm was asked to discuss his same-sex relationship with a JBU staff member following a Facebook status that he was in a relationship. “I was at JBU for a year. I was super out-spoken in my classes, people knew that I was gay, people knew that I had a boyfriend,” Kihm said. “As soon as I posted something about it on Facebook, that is when I got the call to speak with the staff at JBU … and was told ‘Hey, it’s ok that you’re gay, but you can’t be in a same-sex relationship.’ To which my response was ‘Show me this rule, where is this’, and it wasn’t there. I was told that it is just a natural extension of JBUs statement that they believe marriage is between a man and woman.”
Borquard admits that in the past this rule has not been explicit but that will change so that LGBTQ+ students aren’t caught off guard like Kihm was. “I also want to be more explicit with where and what that policy is, where the proverbial line is at, so students aren’t surprised. With all that said, I think it’s pretty implicit within our statement,” Borquard said.
In Kihm’s case, he made the decision to leave JBU, rather than cease his same-sex dating relationship. Broquard explains that from his point of view, this is a sensible solution for LGBT students. “They want to have integrity with who they are and how they live … When that’s at odds with JBU, then to be true to who they are, it’s better for them to go,” Broquard said. “It’s hard, because there’s a separation there, a break in a relationship in some sense. Every year there’s people who leave JBU for various reasons, and that’s hard, because they want to be here, but I would rather someone be fully integral with who they are, than to not be.”