Last December, many of us watched as Congress passed the historic repeal of the military's "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy, a move hailed as the most significant piece of federal legislation to advance the rights of gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons in the history of the United States. The policy, in the words of President Obama, forced "young men and women to lie about who they are" and denied them the right to serve their country solely on the basis of "who they love."
Yet for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and questioning (GLBQ) students in religious colleges and universities, "don’t ask, don’t tell" is a daily reality -- with no sign of repeal in sight. According to Soulforce, a nonprofit group dedicated to ending religiously motivated discrimination toward sexual minorities, an estimated 200 American colleges and universities with religious and military ties now have written policies which bar admission, enforce consequences, and expel students who are openly GLBQ.
Little data exist about what happens to these students at such institutions, yet it would be unrealistic to assume that these students are always treated with dignity and respect given the long history of religious intolerance toward the gay community in the U.S. Furthermore, nonprofit organizations have also documented the use of re-orientation therapies, enforced closeting and numerous expulsions of such students at these institutions. While some may argue that these are isolated incidents, recent attention has demonstrated that this is still happening right now, given the recent furors erupting at respected Christian colleges.
And while these types of policies and disciplinary actions would not be tolerated at many public educational institutions, they remain protected under the guise of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (i.e., religious freedom and expression). Hence, many legal protections and governing policies that are designed to protect GLBQ students from discrimination are not extended to religious educational institutions. But at what cost to GLBQ students who attend such institutions are these policies allowed to continue?
This is a question and an issue that I have spent many hours reflecting on over the past several years as a former student at a private religious university. Ironically, it was at this institution where I learned to love myself as an openly gay man, and did so with the support and love of some of my classmates and faculty members. Yet, that acceptance did not come without years of pain, struggle, and a constant fear that I would be dismissed for having the courage to live my life with integrity and honesty as a gay man.
You may wonder why I chose to go to this type of college. Like many of the GLBQ youth in this country, I grew up learning that being gay was one of the worst types of evil (or "sins" as evangelical Christians like to call them). Therefore, I thought it was only logical that going to a religious school would help me to keep this dark part of my life in check, and perhaps (I desperately hoped) help change me so that I would no longer be gay. At the time, it seemed like a religious program in psychology would be the perfect fit so that I could address my sexuality, and in the process learn to help others who were facing sexual identity struggles and challenges.
It came as quite a shock to learn that my attractions toward men not only failed to go away, they actually intensified after immersion into such a program. However, the real struggle began for me once I started to ask myself the question, “Could I really be gay?” For most of my life, that had never been a question I could bring myself to verbalize, even to myself. Yet, as the thought began to replay itself in my head over and over again, I had no choice but to face it. After a process of several years of dealing with my own inner demons and opening up to those closest to me, I was finally able to embrace my sexuality-- the part of myself that had always been kept hidden and restrained.
In the days and weeks that followed my "coming out" moment, I experienced a newfound freedom, self-acceptance, and intimacy with my friends and in my faith. Yet, a new fear also emerged: “What if I am kicked out of my graduate program for being gay?” It was a very legitimate fear, given my graduate school’s Student Code of Conduct, which explicitly states that “homosexual behavior” is grounds for dismissal. Just knowing that this policy existed influenced how I discussed these issues in my classes and who I told about this part of my life, both on-campus and even after I had moved almost 3000 miles away to Boston for my pre-doctoral internship.
In the midst of this fear, it also filled me with a sense of deep sadness that, despite my accomplishments in the program (I got into a Harvard program, for goodness' sake!), these could become instantly meaningless if the wrong person found out I was gay, even though I still professed the same faith and lived my life with the same integrity as my classmates. It was a fear that crossed my mind every day for over a year, until the day I received my diploma in the mail. With my diploma in hand, I would not have to hide from anyone anymore.
Despite the pain, confusion, and the fear that I experienced, I don’t regret attending a private religious school where I got a good education and was loved unconditionally by many of those who knew me best. Still, I’ll never forget the needless worry, suffering, isolation, and inner torment that came from knowing that I could be dismissed in a heartbeat or face some other sort of disciplinary process because I was gay. Furthermore, I doubt my coming out process would have been so painful had I known that my university community would have embraced me fully, without conditions and limits placed on whom I could be.
Recommendations for religious programs
It fills me with a great sense of sadness as I think about the GLBTQ students — many of them — who feel isolated, alone, and/or scared to just love themselves and step forward openly as a GLBTQ person in an environment with structural policies that discipline them as such. No one who faces something so painful and personal should have to face such pressures and threats for having the courage to live their life openly. And no one should have to be told to lie about who they are, a practice inconsistent with the core moral teachings of the religions to which they subscribe. As a result, structural policies that ban or preclude GLBTQ students from admission, enforce consequences against them, and foster environments of shame and stigma must come to an end.
This will not happen without faculty members and senior leadership at such institutions boldly coming forward to challenge such policies. While the inherent risks of losing one’s job may be a reality, one cannot ignore the needs of an at-risk student population who are desperately needing to be told that they are loved, valued, and children of God, regardless of their sexual orientation or identity. Current policies at such programs discriminate, reinforce stereotypes, and send the message to prospective and current students that "If you are gay, you do not belong here."
Changes like this cannot happen without institutional support for those who are most affected by discriminatory policies and negative campus climates. Institutions must create safe support networks for GLBTQ youth in environments that remain judgment- and consequence-free. Whether in a residence hall or counseling center, GLBTQ students must know they are not alone.
Additionally, accrediting bodies that govern colleges and programs must step in and say “enough” when schools use religion to hide from accountability for policies and programs that can cause psychological harm. Religious freedom is essential and part of the backbone of this country. Yet, religious freedoms do not give leeway for one group to be oppressed or discriminated against, especially when such individuals may experience harm as a result (e.g., depression, anxiety, bullying, etc.) and are already marginalized. Finally, alumni like me and the thousands of others who have been affected by such policies need to come forward and challenge them. For the sake of the students currently affected and those after them, we can no longer afford to be silent.
Joshua Wolff is the co-author of "The Purposeful Exclusion of Sexual Minority Youth in Religious Higher Education: The Implications of Discrimination", published in Christian Higher Education. He is a graduate of the Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University, and is currently a second year post-doctoral fellow of psychology at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School.