Gay Voices at a Christian University
Last week saw a vote against gay marriage in North Carolina and an endorsement of gay marriage by President Obama -- both developments sparking considerable discussion nationwide.
But at Biola University, a nondenominational Christian institution in California, a very different kind of discussion was taking place -- some of it in public, other parts only with the anonymous protection provided by the Internet. Biola, like many Christian universities, states that any sexual activity outside a marriage between a man and a woman is morally wrong and is a violation of the student code of conduct. While the university states that gay celibacy is entirely welcome, Biola's policies have discouraged many gay students from publicly talking about their view that they can be good Christians and also have gay relationships.
On Wednesday, the day after the North Carolina vote and the day President Obama spoke out about his own views, a group of these students found a way to go public at Biola. They put up a website declaring themselves "The Biola Queer Underground," and for those not looking for such a site online, the gay students had fliers placed around campus advertising the group's existence. On the site, the students insist that it is the university that is violating Biola's values by effectively forcing most gay students to hide the truth about themselves.
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"Biola's value statement reads, 'We believe that integrity and authenticity should be hallmarks of every believer. Our relationships should be models of transparency, truth-telling and unwavering commitment to the example set by the Lord Jesus Christ.' Although Biola may have good intentions in the way it handles homosexuality and related subjects, this does not foster the desired outcome of integrity and transparency among LGBTQ individuals," says the website of the Biola Queer Underground. "We speak for our majority in saying that most LGBTQ people feel isolated and fearful of rejection should we act with integrity and come out of the closet. Biola needs to take a close look at its fundamental values, first to question whether they are carried out, and second to discuss if identifying as LGBTQ is in fact contrary to these values."
The Biola administration responded by having the fliers taken down -- saying that the group hadn't received the required prior approval. (Members of the underground group, in turn, maintain that they can't seek prior approval or do anything in public.) But before the fliers were down, word was out about the new website. The university's board had actually been meeting at the time, talking about a new statement on human sexuality, which was adopted and which the university released. The new statement stands behind university teachings that the only allowable sex is between a married man and woman, but the statement argues that there is a place for openly gay people at Biola, and that those who abide by the university's teachings should get support and respect.
"Sexual purity honors God. For those in our community who are attracted to persons of the opposite sex and struggle to maintain sexual purity, as well as for those in our community who struggle with same-sex behavior, same-sex attraction and/or sexual orientation issues, we aspire to be a gracious community that promotes openness and honesty," the university's statement says. "We pledge to extend compassion and care, providing accountability and assistance as we support all members of our community -- students, staff and faculty -- in their desire to live consistently with Christian teaching."
A Club Like Other Clubs
Organizers of the Biola Queer Underground agreed to answer questions via e-mail on condition that their names not be revealed, and that they answer collectively. The said that they have "a few dozen" members, enrolled in their freshman through senior years, including men, women and transgender students. "We function like any normal club," the group said (except for keeping identities secret). "We have leaders and meetings, and also fun stuff like rules and somewhat of a budget" (of money the members have contributed).
In the e-mail interview, and on the group's website, organizers stress that they believe in being good Christians. "The majority of us come from religious Christian backgrounds and one of the best aspects of our group is that we are all really committed to our faith and our local churches.... [W]e are pretty normal people and students, who by God’s grace have found each other."
While the students have been meeting privately, they decided to go public on Wednesday, making their site visible, and having friends from other colleges visit campus to put up the fliers. The group said its members were "hurt to see them torn down so quickly." They said that they know there is a rule about seeking permission to put up fliers, but they have "never seen campus safety move so quickly" in taking things down.
The students feel they have caused quite a stir on campus. Their group was covered in the student newspaper. A Facebook page has more than 1,000 "likes" -- fairly standard stuff for groups elsewhere, but not the norm for a group at Biola that is questioning university rules on sexuality. And then there is the new statement from the university on human sexuality. "While the statement was said to be 18 months in the making, we can’t help but thinking we spurred it on," said the Biola Queer Underground.
The group is currently drafting a response to the new university statement.
Biola officials were not available to discuss the new statement this weekend, but did make it available. While the new statement praises the idea of gay people who refrain from sex, it doesn't give any ground on the issue of whether someone could be true to Christian teachings and the university's values while engaged in a non-celibate gay relationship.
"God’s design for marriage and sexuality is the foundational reason for viewing acts of sexual intimacy between a man and a woman outside of marriage, and any act of sexual intimacy between two persons of the same sex, as illegitimate moral options for the confessing Christian," the statement says. "Sexual relations of any kind outside the confines of marriage between one man and one woman are inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture, as understood by Christian churches throughout history."
The statement also pledges that the students and faculty members at Biola will engage in "difficult conversations with humility and love, prayerfulness and care," and that everyone at Biola deserves to be treated with "respect and Christ-like compassion." The statement adds: "Hateful, bigoted or destructive interactions will not be tolerated."
The Biola Queer Underground students say that they appreciate the university's statements about respect and its opposition to hateful statements. But the students explain -- on their website and in the interview -- that they don't feel they have any good options as Biola stands right now. In an FAQ on their website, the students address a question many might have: Why did they enroll, and why do they remain, at a university that they know believes they can't engage in gay relationships and be good Christians?
The answer on the website: "This is a very good question that has several answers to it. First, many of our backgrounds are very conservative in nature and so, naturally, being in a conservative Christian environment is what is comfortable for us. We have grown up in the church and have been a part of Christian communities since we were very young. For many of us our Christian identities were already long established by the time that we began to understand our Queer identities." They add that, for many of them, their families expected them to select Biola, and that many of their parents would "pay for only Christian universities, which leaves students feeling pressured to choose a school like Biola."
While some students only came to terms with their sexual orientations while already at Biola, the answer says, many are (aside from issues of sexual identity) happy there. "Our education is important to us and we value greatly the integration and biblical focus in Biola's curriculum."
The university's statement that gay students could be consistent with religious teachings if they never had sex also doesn't go over well with the underground group.
"Is it realistic for every Christian gay person to be celibate? No," the group said in the e-mail interview. "It is not realistic, because it is not sensible nor can it be expected. In the Christian community, celibacy is considered to be either a specific calling from God, or a voluntary decision to pursue Him more deeply. Straight Christians are neither expected nor pressured to be celibate. However, the traditional Christian view requires that gay people live in celibacy if they want to be legitimate believers. We view this as a double standard. While we respect those who chose to be celibate, whether by calling or personal conviction, we firmly believe that no person should be pressured into such a difficult life-path."
The students stress that they love their university and believe it should be possible to reconcile their feelings for Biola and their sexual identities.
"All we ask is that LGBTQ students be allowed to be open and honest about their identity and alternate view of homosexuality/transgender identity as they relate to Christianity, without fearing expulsion," said the student in the interview. "We dream of Biola becoming a school where students in a openly same-sex relationship or expressing non-conforming gender identity are welcomed as another facet of Biola’s diversity. Most of us in the group live with daily paranoia and fear, which is quite physically, emotionally, and spiritually unhealthy. LGBTQ students feel that their education, employment, and financial security is on the line if they are outed at Biola. This needs to stop, which is why we are raising awareness."