Looking Back to Move Things Forward

LGBTQ alumni of Christian institutions often felt isolated and traumatized during their college years. Many are working to make sure current students have it better.

July 14, 2022
Three white adults wearing blue T-shirts with the words "Alumni Against Muskets."
Alumni of Brigham Young University attend an unofficial student pride event in 2021—their shirts refer to a speech made by a former BYU president encouraging LDS congregant to “take up muskets” to defend the church after the valedictorian came out as gay.
(Courtesy of John Valdez)

By the time John Bagley graduated from Wheaton College in 2010, he was disillusioned with his faith and his alma mater.

Bagley said the predominantly white, evangelical Illinois college—which was named the most LGBTQ-unfriendly campus by The Princeton Review in 2010, 2012 and 2016—was a difficult place to be a gay Black student. He’d come out to his friends and had even occasionally led the college’s chapel worship once a month as an underclassman, but his once-strong belief in Christianity had been eroded by what he saw as Wheaton’s refusal to accept him for who he was.

It was only as an alumnus that Bagley found a way to reconcile his faith with his burgeoning sense of identity. A year after graduating, he attended a homecoming event hosted by the newly created LGBTQ alumni group OneWheaton and, for the first time, found himself surrounded by “queer adults of faith living vibrant lives.”

“It’s like you’re trying to carve a path for yourself, and you look up and realize that there’s a group of people you’re connected to through common experience who’ve already blazed a trail you can walk on and learn from,” Bagley said.

The group launched a letter-writing campaign that same year to protest an anti-LGBTQ service that had recently been held at the campus chapel, and Bagley decided to get more involved. He’s worked with OneWheaton ever since and became the group’s chairperson a few years ago.

“Wheaton College strives to serve all students with the embracing love of Jesus Christ,” Joseph Moore, Wheaton’s director of communications, wrote when asked about the college’s position towards LGBTQ+ students. “The Wheaton Chaplain’s Office provides spiritual support for those who self-identify as gay or lesbian.”

OneWheaton’s main goal is to help LGBTQ+ students currently enrolled at the college—regardless of their faith—by advocating for more accepting policies at the college and supporting unofficial student groups and activists’ efforts on campus.

That goal is more relevant than ever as the number of LGBTQ+ students at Christian institutions continues to climb. A survey conducted by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project and College Pulse last year found that 11 percent of students attending Christian colleges identified as non-heterosexual, 22 percent had experienced same-sex attraction and 2 percent identified as gender nonconforming.

That same survey found that queer students attending Christian institutions with discriminatory policies were 15 times more likely than their peers to say their identities kept them from being accepted on campus.

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For Bagley, that’s what working with OneWheaton is all about: helping other LGBTQ+ students feel more accepted, more hopeful and less alone.

From Campus Activism to Alumni Advocacy

LGBTQ+ alumni groups were exceedingly rare at Christian colleges 15 years ago. But they’ve proliferated since the late 2000s, ranging from loosely organized Facebook groups like Messiah University’s Inclusive Alums to full-fledged nonprofits like Brigham Young University’s the OUT Foundation.

Jonathan Coley, author of Gay on God’s Campus (University of North Carolina Press, 2018) says the growth of these groups correlates to a rise in LGBTQ+ student activism at Christian colleges, which wasn’t always as bold as it can be today.

“In the mid- to late 2000s, individual states started to legalize gay marriage, and even some Christian denominations started to express public approval of same-sex relationships,” he said. “That’s when you saw a lot of students start to mobilize and try to form LGBTQ groups at their schools, and that’s also when you saw a lot of alumni begin to form LGBTQ groups.”

Coley experienced this phenomenon firsthand. He founded an unofficial LGBTQ+ student group while attending Samford University, a Baptist institution in Birmingham, Ala., and was involved in LGBTQ+ activism during his time there. When he graduated in 2010, he became a member of a newly formed LGBTQ+ alumni group, Safe Samford, and currently sits on its Board of Directors.

In the past decade, many Christian institutions have adopted more progressive policies toward queer students and even allowed official LGBTQ+ student groups on campus. Coley said that more than 60 percent of these institutions include same-sex-attracted students in their nondiscrimination policies, and around 50 percent include gender-nonconforming students. But another 28 percent still have what Coley calls “clear discriminatory language” in their codes of conduct. He says many of these colleges have moved in the opposite direction of societal trends.

“The discriminatory schools have become a lot more draconian,” Coley said. “Not only are they saying that you can’t have sex with someone of the same sex, but they’re going so far as to say if you post on social media supporting same-sex marriage or if you support same-sex relationships in any way, you can be kicked out.”

Mark Walker, a middle-aged white man with gray hair wearing a suit and tie.Kate Gilliard, an alumna of Lee University and co-founder of the LGBTQ+ advocacy alumni group Affirming Alums, said this appears to be the case at her alma mater.

The group was formed last March, after the president of Lee University, a Christian institution in Cleveland, Tenn., publicly preached that same-sex relationships were against the university’s religious covenant. In response, Affirming Alums solicited 750 signatures for an open letter denouncing the speech.

Affirming Alums spoke out again last September when the university updated its student handbook to exclude “gender identity” and “same-sex sexual behavior” from its antidiscrimination policy. And when Lee administrators revised the code of conduct in May to prohibit students from expressing nonconforming gender identities on campus, members of the group arranged to meet with the university president to push back on the decision, although the president eventually postponed the meeting and then declined to reschedule.

“It seems to be getting worse and worse,” Gilliard said. “There was homophobia and transphobia when we were there, but it wasn’t written as explicitly as it is now.”

Coley said student and alumni groups play an important role in pushing for more progressive policies at Christian colleges by acting as a counterbalance to the influence of anti-LGBTQ+ alumni, donors and even university officials. At institutions that are especially inhospitable for LGBTQ+ students, alumni can also serve as a go-between for those students and administrators.

“Students at Lee, if they’re trying to advocate for LGBTQ issues, definitely run the risk of being suspended or expelled, or at least removed from any leadership positions on campus,” Gilliard said. “But they can’t kick me out of school … That’s why it’s very important that we speak up.”

The Power of the Purse

Jackie Baugh Moore is exactly the kind of alumna who, on paper, should hold some major sway over her alma mater.

She’s the fourth generation of her family to attend Baylor University in Waco, Tex., the largest Baptist college in the country. Her family has given the institution more than $30 million in donations over the years. Baylor’s seminary is located on Baugh-Reynolds Campus, and its business school is home to the John F. Baugh Center for Entrepreneurship, both of which are named for her grandfather, who served on the university’s Board of Regents and was one of the founding donors to its theological school.

Moore and fellow Baylor alumnae Skye Perryman and Tracy Teaff (the daughter of legendary Baylor football coach Grant Teaff) founded the LGBTQ+ advocacy alumni group BU Bears for All in 2019. Their goal is to move the university’s needle on inclusive policies by demonstrating that there is robust support for LGBTQ+ rights among the Baylor alumni community—no matter how loud those on the other side might be.

But despite their collective influence, Moore said the group has had a tough time convincing the administration to be more publicly supportive of LGBTQ+ students.

“We try to leverage our influence here, though I don’t know if we’re very successful,” Moore said. “I think some of that is because the older alums and the more conservative, evangelical types are very loud. I don’t know that they’re the majority, but they certainly sound like it.”

Still, in the three years since its founding, BU Bears for All organized a substantial counterforce to the university’s less queer-friendly donors and alumni. The group has met with administrators to advocate for LGBTQ+ student rights, collected over 1,500 signatures on a 2019 petition to adopt more inclusive policies and helped secure funding for LGBTQ+ scholarships and student groups.

Moore’s own family foundation has even funded an LGBTQ prom for two years running. It’s hosted by the university’s unrecognized queer student group Gamma Alpha Upsilon, which means it can’t be held on campus or receive any university funds.

Getting Gamma Alpha Upsilon recognized has been one of BU Bears for All’s goals since its founding, Moore said. But rather than recognize the group, in April Baylor created its first official LGBTQ student group, Prism, that would adhere in its charter to the university’s code of conduct, which states that “sexual relations of any kind outside of marriage between a man and a woman are not in keeping with the teaching of Scripture.”

When asked about Baylor’s stance toward LGBTQ+ students, a university representative pointed to a resolution passed by the Board of Regents last May, which ensures the university’s respect for the “dignity and worth of all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” The statement also affirms the university’s commitment to Christian Scripture and the notion of sex as sinful outside the bonds of marriage between a man and a woman.

“We’ve seen a lot of alumni within the Baptist tradition take a stand,” Perryman said, “but [Baylor] continues to kowtow to this constituency that, frankly, doesn’t represent the vast majority of its alumni.”

Alumni who are more accepting of LGBTQ+ students may not be as loud, but they are talking with their wallets. Aubin Petersen, another Baylor alumna associated with BU Bears for All, set up a scholarship for LGBTQ+ students in March. It drew the most gifts of any campaign—raising a total of $100,000—including the university’s general scholarship fund and capital campaign on this year’s Baylor Giving Day.

Petersen, whose husband, Mark, just finished a three-year term on Baylor’s Board of Regents, said that as long as the university continues to discriminate against LGBTQ students, they won’t be getting her money—or that of a large sector of potential donors.

“Nobody I know is going to want to give to a repressive institution,” Petersen said.

Baylor may be losing more than just donations by flip-flopping between LGBTQ acceptance and rejection. Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who is currently wrongfully detained in Russia, is one of the Division I university’s highest-profile alumni, having led the women’s basketball team to an unprecedented 40-and-0 season and a national championship in 2012.

She’s also in a same-sex marriage and has said she is reluctant to promote her alma mater to fans because her memories of her time there are tainted by the institution’s anti-LGBTQ outlook.

“I would love to be an ambassador for Baylor, to show my school pride, but it’s hard to do that,” Griner wrote in her 2014 memoir In My Skin. “I’ve spent too much of my life being made to feel like there’s something wrong with me. And no matter how much support I felt as a basketball player at Baylor, it still doesn’t erase all the pain I felt there.”

Meeting LGBTQ Students’ Needs

Not every LGBTQ alumni group is intent on making their alma mater more accepting.

The OUT Foundation, a nonprofit founded by alumni of Brigham Young University, doesn’t focus on pushing for change at the institution associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose flagship campus is in Provo, Utah. Instead, OUT offers material and community support to BYU’s LGBTQ+ students.

The five-year-old organization has built a team of 40 dedicated volunteers and brings in donations from about 100 donors each month. This enabled the foundation to dole out $10,000 annually in scholarships to LGBTQ+ students on campus, create an emergency fund to support those who want to transfer, sponsor events hosted by unofficial student groups and connect students in need to identity-affirming therapy.

“We found that BYU wasn’t giving any support to queer students or alumni,” said John Valdez, a 2013 graduate and OUT’s co-founder and executive director. “So all of our programs and initiatives were created in response to the needs of the community.”

The OUT Foundation also works with and helps fund “underground” LGBTQ+ student groups on campus.

A woman stands on a stage under a screen showing the words "Cougar Pride Center Presents 'We're Numerous' Queer Artistry Showcase."“To have the OUT foundation be so generous and willing to fill the gap until BYU gets its stuff together, it means everything,” said Julia Sasine, a queer BYU senior who is the president of Cougar Pride Center, one of the unofficial LGBTQ+ student groups.

Valdez said that when he and his co-founders initially tried to bring other queer alumni into the organization, they discovered there were far more LGBTQ alumni than even they anticipated, and that all of them had been traumatized by their experience at BYU.

Valdez wasn’t particularly surprised, given his own experience. When he attended BYU, simply identifying publicly as LGBTQ+ violated the honor code. Valdez said that after the LDS church came under fire in 2009 for supporting a controversial proposal in California to ban same-sex marriage, university leaders began calling in students they suspected were gay and grilling them about their sexual and romantic activity—threatening them with expulsion unless they denounced their identities and outed their peers.

“BYU was in the middle of what my contemporaries and I would call a gay witch hunt,” said Valdez, whose boyfriend at the time was kicked out for refusing to repent or divulge Valdez’s sexual orientation. “For at least two years, all the gay men at BYU were walking on a tightrope … it was extremely unhealthy.”

Carri Jenkins, a spokesperson for the university, neither confirmed nor denied Valdez’s claims.

“Our goal is to help students remain fully enrolled at the university even as they work with the Honor Code Office, which helps students come back into good standing as quickly as possible,” Jenkins said. “BYU recognizes and welcomes LGBTQ individuals as part of our broader covenant-keeping university community.”

Valdez said the OUT Foundation’s primary goal is to reduce the kind of trauma he experienced for today’s queer BYU students, whether by supporting community groups, connecting them to mental health resources—or even helping them leave campus entirely. Valdez said that since 2020, OUT has helped more than 30 students transfer to more accepting institutions.

‘Hope for the Future’

Moore, the Baylor alumna and donor, called the slow pace of change at Baylor “progress by attrition.” Still, she’s hopeful that student and alumni efforts will continue to make Baylor a better place for LGBTQ+ students.

“There are a lot of progressive and moderate alumni who have just given up on Baylor,” she said. “We love Baylor, and we want it to be what we know she can be. I don’t want to give up.”

The alumni groups’ work has inspired some others who had long ago “given up” on their alma mater to see a glimmer of hope. Paul Dwyer, the man whom Petersen’s scholarship was inspired by and named after, said that when he attended the university in the 1960s, the threat of expulsion and social ostracism was always looming for queer students.

Dwyer loved many things about Baylor, but his experience was too negative to make him want to give back. Donating to the Petersens’ scholarship fund was the first contribution to anything associated with the university he’d made since graduating.

“The alumni have really stepped up now,” Dwyer said. “For the first time, I think we could make a difference.”

Sasine, the BYU senior, said she wasn’t giving up on her university, either. She “absolutely” plans on getting involved with the OUT Foundation when she graduates.

“This is not something I’m looking to run away from or to stop being involved in,” Sasine said. “Even when it seems like nonstop disappointment, or whatever the setbacks are, I’ll always be around.”

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