DURING STEVE SLAGG’S freshman year at Wheaton College in Illinois, a gay-rights advocacy group called Soulforce announced that it was embarking on a nationwide bus tour of conservative Christian colleges that had campus policies against homosexuality to facilitate some of the first open conversations about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Wheaton College was one of their stops.
“We were talking a lot on campus about Soulforce and what we were going to do about them,” remembers Slagg about the spring 2006 tour. “It felt like nobody was really aware of the fact that there were people in this community who were gay.”
So Slagg decided to come out. He started with friends and classmates, but he also spoke with campus groups, and he held a meeting on his dormitory floor. He was interviewed in the campus paper, The Record, under the headline “Gay at Wheaton,” and numerous classmates approached him for private coffeehouse conversations around campus.
The pressure and attention grew to be too much, and Slagg quickly receded into normal campus life.
But during Slagg’s senior year, after feeling as though the conversations around homosexuality on campus had not changed, he wrote an essay for a new campus literary journal, The Pub, about being gay at Wheaton. “We exist,” he declared. “The most harmful and pervasive lie I’ve encountered at Wheaton has been that homosexual students either don’t exist at Wheaton or aren’t worth considering. Outrageously enough, I believed this lie for most of my freshman year.”
We exist. Today, that is the message gay and lesbian Christian students at conservative evangelical universities are sending to their peers, faculty, and administration—a message that encapsulates in two small words a radical assertion of identity and a challenge to institutions that have long remained silent about the presence of LGBT students on campus. While some schools have quashed opportunities for conversation, others have welcomed them, allowing students to develop their own beliefs about homosexuality, apart from their parents and pastors—but not apart from their faith.
And more and more, these beliefs represent a striking generation gap between students and their elders. For example, while white evangelicals in general constitute the religious group that is the least supportive of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry (with only 19 percent in favor), younger evangelicals are much more supportive. In a recent small-sample survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), for instance, 44 percent of white evangelical millennials (ages 18-29) expressed support for marriage equality, compared to only 12 percent of evangelical seniors (age 65 and older).
Public support for allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry has increased significantly over the last five years, according to PRRI. “Many polling organizations have recorded double-digit increases in support for same-sex marriage since 2006,” the group reported, and the increase in support among younger people “persists even among conservative political and religious groups.” And nearly seven in 10 millennials, according to the report, agree that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.
This new wave of openness among evangelical students and alumni has placed them at the vanguard of the church debate on homosexuality. Young evangelicals no longer automatically agree with established church leaders on what to believe on these issues; instead, through deepened relationships and dialogue (rather than debate), Christian millennials are confronting hard questions about sexuality that the church has long ignored or avoided, and finding the answers for themselves.
THIS WASN’T ALWAYS the case. Just like at Slagg’s Wheaton College, conversations about homosexuality on Christian campuses five to 10 years ago were uncommon and often only presented one perspective: that being gay is a choice and a sin, and that gay people require reparative therapy.
Dani Kelley, 26, a recent graduate of Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, remembers a chapel message in which she was taught that anyone who was “sexually immoral” would forever be under reproach, and that the tarnish of such a sin would never be removed. “It terrified me,” Kelley says. And despite being a straight Christian student, Kelley says she empathized with the discrimination gay and lesbian Christian students must have felt from the school. “I didn’t agree with the level of hatred that was shown from the pulpit about homosexuality,” she says.
Kristin Winn, 27, a lesbian alumna of Wheaton College, remembers thriving academically and socially during her years at the school, but says that she was privately suffering under the weight of keeping her sexuality a secret. “I had great friends and loved my classes, and at the same time I felt terrified and very alone,” Winn says. “I didn’t know anyone else who was like me, and the options that were presented to me at Wheaton were either remain celibate or change [my orientation].”
The result of these conservative colleges’ silence on LGBT issues is that when gay and lesbian students are consistently shamed, ignored, or condemned, the mounting pressures often prove to be too much for them. According to Winn, many LGBT alumni leave their college experiences behind them. “We migrate to big cities and don’t want to reengage with that part of ourselves,” she says.
But in September 2010, after a string of tragic suicides by LGBT teenagers inspired the nationwide viral YouTube campaign “It Gets Better”—which sought to encourage gay teens with a promise that life will get better—a group of LGBT Wheaton College alumni began communicating in private Facebook groups about their experiences at Wheaton. “I think these suicides moved many of us from the Wheaton community to reflect on where we were at that point in our lives,” Winn says.
In April 2011, these alumni learned that during a weeklong chapel series on sexuality at Wheaton, some invited speakers had condemned homosexuality. The alumni decided to take action. They distributed a letter on campus signed by 100 people assuring current LGBT students that “your sexual identity is not a tragic sign of the sinful nature of the world. You are not tragic. Your desire for companionship, intimacy, and love is not shameful. It is to be affirmed and celebrated just as you are to be affirmed and celebrated.”
Today, the signatories are known as OneWheaton, and they have gathered more than 700 signatures to that first letter. Subsequently, similar alumni groups have cropped up at more than 30 conservative evangelical colleges, according to Catherine Latimer, who serves as a liaison for OneWheaton. “It’s just incredibly exciting, because these groups are getting conversations going on these campuses,” Latimer says. “Being gay on these campuses was such a secret, but now these groups are forming and becoming more public, and they’re being encouraged by one another.”
WITHIN THESE NEW communities, a few voices are emerging as leaders for a new generation of gay Christians who are committed to reconciling the church and the LGBT community. Some of the most compelling and authoritative writing on homosexuality and the church isn’t being written by established “thought leaders” in the evangelical community, but rather by young unknowns who have an actual stake in the matter. One example is Todd Clayton, 23, who came out in 2011 during his senior year at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. As he was the student chaplain at Point Loma, and the son of two Nazarene pastors, Clayton’s coming out caused a furor in the Nazarene community. After several months of bearing the brunt of denominational gossip, Clayton decided to tell his story in his own words by writing on his personal blog and for online publications (including Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog).
In his blog posts, Clayton shared with remarkable candor about growing up in a loving Christian home, realizing his sexuality, and taking tenuous steps toward life as an openly gay man. He wrote about first dates, awkward conversations with his parents about sex, his struggle with depression, and the ups and downs of his faith journey. His writing is beautiful and moving, primarily because he writes about homosexuality not as an issue, but as a part of his personal narrative—one that many gay Christians say they read and relate to.
When asked why he writes, Clayton uses language that’s familiar to evangelical Christians. “I don’t know where this comes from, but it’s like a deep, passionate, fierce desire in my person,” Clayton says. “I want to save the gays and the evangelical church. I want gay people to know they’re not crazy, but that there’s health and a future possible for them. They don’t have to be people marked by fear or pain, and that’s why I’m writing.”
And for the many readers who email Clayton, it’s working. “I’ve literally had thousands of emails from around the world,” Clayton says. “The craziest one was from a person who was 80 years old. He said, ‘I’ve never experienced full love. Thank you for making this a possibility for other people who are your age.’”
Matthew Vines, a 22-year-old living in Wichita, Kansas, is also making waves in the blogosphere in his attempt to address the dearth of theological and biblical study on homosexuality in evangelical circles. After coming out his freshman year at Harvard, Vines decided to take two years off school to devote his life to studying what the Bible says about homosexuality. Raised in a conservative Christian home, Vines grew up with a vibrant relationship with Christ that continues to this day. “I love Jesus,” he says. “Christianity is clearly the anchor of truth in the world and so there’s no way I can give up on it. It’s what my entire worldview is centered around, and I can’t change it even if I wanted to.”
After coming out, Vines struggled with his church’s teachings condemning homosexuality, but felt he didn’t know enough to understand the scriptures and the teachings of the church. “I was surprised to learn how many people on both sides of the debate within the church haven’t done serious study about the issue,” says Vines. “Their arguments tend to be pretty surface level, and people tend to be recycling all the things they are saying.”
Vines studied more than 50 books on homosexuality, read numerous journal articles, and even learned Greek in order to study the original biblical texts. Today, he continues to write about what he has learned, and he has delivered lectures at churches to share his discoveries. Motivating his scholarship is a desire to engage Christians in an open and informed conversation. “I wanted to be able to engage and dialogue with Christians in a meaningful discussion about Christianity. I wanted to be able to feel that my position was correct, and I wanted to be able to argue for it persuasively,” Vines says.
PERHAPS MOST EMBLEMATIC of the sea change happening among young evangelicals is the involvement of straight allies, the majority of whom have been raised in conservative homes.
Clinton Verley, a 2010 graduate of Bob Jones University, was raised in a conservative church and always believed that homosexuality was a sin—until he befriended a gay alumnus named Jonathan through a private Facebook community of gay and straight Bob Jones alumni.
“I had never actually met an openly gay person,” Verley says. Jonathan and Verley’s online exchange proved to be life-changing for Verley. “At school, being gay was seen as so disgusting, so immoral, and so unnatural that you couldn’t imagine a real person being that way,” Verley says. “But meeting Jonathan was like putting a human face to a dehumanized [label]. You meet someone and you realize they’re just like you.”
Verley’s growing friendship with Jonathan challenged his previous beliefs on what the Bible says about homosexuality, he says. Like most evangelicals, Verley believes there must be a biblical answer, but through his relationship with Jonathan, Verley came to believe that God does not condemn the LGBT community the way much of the church has. “I believe God creates people either straight or gay. I believe God makes people that way. I think that’s indisputable,” Verley says. He says he still doesn’t completely understand Bible passages that seem to condemn homosexuality, but he is committed to studying the biblical teaching on the subject. “It’s a work in progress,” he says. “I’m still reading a lot of things about how homosexuality relates to the Bible, but I accept gay people, and their rights are very important to me.”
Dani Kelley’s friendships with gay and lesbian people made her feel conflicted. “I grew up Plymouth Brethren, and the Bible is drilled into you from the time you are a small child,” she says. Raised in an extremely conservative home, Kelley grew up memorizing scripture, avoiding secular music, and being restricted from watching certain movies. She went to church three times a week, and her father worked in ministry. And while she doesn’t adhere to the same strict guidelines, she remains committed to the Bible and has difficulty reconciling some of the Bible’s statements on homosexuality. The question for her, as for many Bible-centered Christians, is whether the texts in question have anything to do with modern same-sex relationships.
“I have a hard time with the ‘clobber passages,’” Kelley says. “But I’m willing to step back and say, I don’t know what God is saying here, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t hate people. I’m pretty sure that he loves them, particularly because love is the greatest and second-greatest commandment—loving the Lord and loving everyone else.” With these convictions, both Verley and Kelley are involved with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Alumni of Bob Jones University, acting as straight advocates for their fellow alumni. “I want to help create a safe place for dialogue,” says Kelley. “And I think part of loving my neighbor is identifying with them.”
Still, it seems that for the majority of millennial evangelical Christians, loving one’s gay neighbor doesn’t necessarily mean an immediate endorsement of marriage equality or explicit support for LGBT rights. Matthew Lee Anderson, 30, is a Christian writer in St. Louis, Missouri, who identifies as a millennial evangelical with a more broadly conservative view on public marriage. Anderson believes that evangelicals in support of same-sex civil marriage are naive about the negative ramifications of trying to separate the religious view of marriage from the governmental view of marriage, although many evangelicals and others are convinced that this is the best way forward on the issue.
“I’ve faced opposition from younger evangelicals who really want to view this distinction between the religious conception and the governmental conception of marriage as a solution to the culture wars, but I’m skeptical,” Anderson says. “I think if you look at what’s going on with the Catholic Charities shutting down [their adoption services in several cities] because of anti-discrimination laws, that strikes me as a very tangible point of genuine conflict between the religious and governmental conception of marriage.”
Anderson does believe, however, that the conversation between conservative evangelicals and the LGBT community is shifting toward a more civil dialogue of mutual friendship and open communication. While he is careful to emphasize that a “let’s get along” approach could lead young evangelicals toward what he considers a too-loose policy position on same-sex marriage, Anderson appreciates the new generation’s emphasis on friendship as a civic virtue. “We’re willing to talk to each other, and we can create space for a less hysterical understanding of homosexuality in the public square,” Anderson says. “That’s not a policy solution, but I would say most younger evangelicals want to root their public engagement on this question with that relational approach.”
Regardless of where one falls on the question of marriage equality, loving God and loving neighbor proves to be the clarion call for many evangelical Christians conflicted about how to love their LGBT friends and family members. Mike McGeehon, an alumnus of George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, found great comfort in knowing that his call as a Christian was to love, not condemn, his gay peers. As an active member of One George Fox, McGeehon remains grounded in his faith in Christ. “I actually sat down and read the gospels to see the example of Christ,” McGeehon says. “Jesus Christ is hanging out with the ‘wrong’ people in his time. He is giving grace to tax collectors; he is hanging out with the prostitutes; he is healing the centurion’s servant. I think that’s our example.”
When asked if he felt called to be an advocate for gay Christians in the church, McGeehon paused, but only briefly.
“Yes,” he replies. “Christ said that what you do to the least of these, you do to me, and I take that very seriously. We’re supposed to show love and grace ... and in mainstream Christianity, I think that includes our gay neighbors.”
Jeannie Choi is a freelance writer and editor in Washington, D.C., and former web editor at Sojourners.