What InterVarsity Taught Me About Straight Christian Privilege | Sojourners

What InterVarsity Taught Me About Straight Christian Privilege

Image via Navy Blue Stripes/Flickr

Under InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's new policy on LGBTQ identities, I would be “involuntarily terminated” from the group — which is frustrating to me, because I love InterVarsity. This egalitarian, multiethnic, interdenominational organization has formed my faith journey over the last four years, and has taught me much about what it means to be a faithful person of integrity.

But as a former InterVarsity student leader, I am confused, hurt, and ashamed by the organization’s newly established position to require staff to leave if they cannot comply with the organization’s newly stated Theological Summary of Human Sexuality, which includes a section specifically on same-sex relationships. This section states that “Scripture is very clear” that sexual expression is for a married straight couple and that “every other practice…is outside of God’s plan and therefore is a distortion of God’s loving design for humanity.”

Though the theological paper was meant to only affect the hiring and firing of staff, the reality is this stance has been affecting people even before it was disseminated to staff — including at my recent alma mater’s InterVarsity chapter.

I was an InterVarsity student leader for four years. In my freshman year, I was invited to IV by my resident assistant, and from there went to the regional fall conference to learn what it meant to be a student in an evangelical campus ministry. I heard about inductive Bible study, about viewing my campus as a “mission field,” and about praying for and talking to those people God had intentionally placed in my life. In the classic evangelical story arc, I came back to campus with a lot of new friends and joined a Bible study, one that I started co-leading the next semester. I was asked to be on our leadership team — an intimate group of six-to-eight leaders who, along with InterVarsity staff people, helped run the chapter. 

One thing I did not learn at my freshman year’s fall conference was that being a leader in InterVarsity would require me to submit to the organization's beliefs on human sexuality. In fact, despite heavy involvement with the group for three years, I did not learn about this clause until my senior year — when my friend and fellow leader Caitlin came out.

Caitlin is one of the most faithful, earnest, and passionate people I know. She joined InterVarsity leadership our sophomore year; she wanted so badly to fight for the end of sex trafficking that she decided to start her own movement within our established group. Her drive for justice transformed our chapter — as did her personality, her joy, her grace, and her leadership. Before she revealed her sexual orientation, she was even being actively recruited to come on InterVarsity staff.

At the very beginning of our senior year, Caitlin (who gave permission for her story to be shared here) told me she was bisexual. She had broken up with her boyfriend and started dating an amazing girl. She had finally accepted herself for who she was after a lifetime of ignoring and pretending. When she told me she was nervous about telling our InterVarsity staff, I all but blew it off. It’ll be fine, I thought. We’ve never talked about expectations for sexuality before. Plus, the school year has already started — they aren’t going to ask her to leave now. But they did.

Caitlin was given three choices after two months of discussion with IV staff leaders and being given the (then-unreleased) document of the “Theological Summary on Human Sexuality.” These choices were: A) Submit to InterVarsity’s position by ending her relationship and recognizing homosexual activity as a sin; B) Stay in her relationship and step down as a leader; or C) Stay in her relationship, not step down, and be forcibly removed by vote.

She chose to leave of her own accord.

It was hard, for her and for the rest of us. We grieved the loss of her presence on the leadership team, and privately I mourned the time lost with my close friend. I thought it completely unfair for her to be punished for being honest, when those of us with heterosexual tendencies were rarely asked if we were acting in accordance with InterVarsity's stated “orthodox” view of sexuality. As someone who had broken those rules while being an InterVarsity leader, I wondered, How can I still be allowed to be a leader in good conscience while Caitlin is compelled to leave? Why is my “sin” treated differently than hers? But I never asked these questions out loud.

While dealing with my own internal struggle, I had no idea the depth to which leaving InterVarsity was affecting Caitlin. She had become a total recluse and was dangerously depressed during the spring semester, needing to be partially hospitalized for a month and failing one of her classes due to violation of our school’s attendance policy. When she told me about her struggles with mental health, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, I didn’t understand. Nothing “that bad” had happened to her, I thought — no one called her the f-word, used the biblical language of “abomination,” or threatened her in any way. My campus staff members were good people, I was sure, just trying to follow the rules of InterVarsity; and the higher-ups at InterVarsity were good people just trying to figure out the Bible; and I was a good person just trying to lead a group of college students closer to God.

In my confusion at Caitlin’s reaction, I resented her. I took it personally when she wouldn’t come to InterVarsity events or backed out on our plans at the last second. She would hang out with our other non-InterVarsity-leader friends but she wouldn’t hang out with me. What had I done that was so wrong?

In the last few months since moving to Washington, D.C., my mind and my heart has started to change. Through hearing other people’s painful experiences of rejection in the church and Christian organizations due to their sexual orientation and/or their theology around human sexuality, I began to understand Caitlin’s emotional process. I began to see beyond her personal rejection of me, and into the pain caused her by a heteronormative culture and a theologically narrow view of sexuality. And very importantly, I began to understand myself as an oppressor in that way.

Even though there are boundaries under a Christian sexual ethic for all people regardless of orientation, there is still a position of privilege granted to straight Christians. As a cisgender, straight female in Christianity, I am allowed to take time to figure out my views on human sexuality without too much personal cost to myself. I receive gracious sympathy from fellow straight Christian leaders who know what it’s like to try to "retain purity” as straight young adults. I am not compelled to practice “sacred singleness” at any point in my life, and my relational success is openly celebrated by my Christian communities. My future is bright with a potential life partner — and until then I get to experience having a crush, going on dates, and falling in love.

This is not the case for non-straight Christian people. And instead of fighting for my friend’s right to have what I have, I stayed silent. I stayed in my seat of privilege and didn’t leave an unjust situation that forced my systemically oppressed friend to deal with her sexuality but didn’t make me deal with mine. I regret that decision.

While my life and my faith journey have for many years been driven by a sense of social justice, LGBTQ exclusiveness has only recently come to be a significant point of contention for me. Through the conversion of my heart, my confession and turning from sin, and personal reconciliation with my friend Caitlin, God has commanded justice from me. This is the understanding to which I have been led: Now is the time for me to turn from my sin of complacency and privilege and toward a stance of justice. It is time for me to stand in solidarity with my LGBTQ sisters and brothers.

InterVarsity’s policies will prohibit an already-voiceless people — openly gay, committed Christians — from having a voice in evangelical campus ministry. Under this rigid theology, I can foresee very few LGBTQ people joining IV staff in the future. That means the organization will become even more heteronormative in its leadership than it already is, pushing the voice of LGBTQ Christians even further from Christian inclusion. Students who are non-straight and wrestling with their sexuality will have no one to look up to in the organization who knows what their struggle feels like, and fewer LGBTQ students will experience the love of God and the loving community of the church. This hurts our world. And it does not bear the good news of freedom and salvation that Jesus came to preach. It acts as a barrier to the gospel.

This declaration on human sexuality, I imagine, serves InterVarsity as an institution by moving it out of a legal and social gray area and clearly stating to staff the expectation of their leadership. But it doesn’t serve LGBTQ students, staff, or relatives of staff who are trying to figure out their own views on human sexuality. Therefore, it doesn’t reflect the gospel — and therefore, I wouldn’t want to be a part of it.

I still love InterVarsity and recognize it as a formative part of my faith life. I’m still proud that that this evangelical campus organization publicly declared its support of Black Lives Matter by inviting activist Michelle Higgins to speak at Urbana ’15. I’m still excited that Tom Lin, a person of color, is serving as InterVarsity’s president. I still celebrate the many women who are in leadership, who show students and staff that God created them in Her image as much as any man.

I still, I still, I still … and I still would have to leave.

Today I am thankful I never went on InterVarsity staff. Because at this moment, I would have to face this terrible choice along with so many others: Leave, or be “involuntarily terminated.”