Support (Finally!) for Gays at the “Harvard” of Christian Colleges

Mike Clawson (Christian contributor) here.

Some of you may have noticed a week or so ago when the New York Times ran a front page article on the numerous LGBTQ student groups popping up on conservative Christian college campuses all over the country. The article especially focused on the institution where I am currently studying, Baylor University, which has such a group on campus but has yet to give official sanction to it. Sadly missing from the article, however, was any mention of my undergraduate alma mater, Wheaton College (IL) – which likes to somewhat arrogantly refer to itself as “the Harvard of Christian colleges” because of its academically rigorous reputation (though I’m pretty sure Harvard is not referring to itself as “the Wheaton of secular colleges”). Despite the fact that the reporter interviewed at least one gay Wheaton alumna while researching the article, Wheaton didn’t have any specific LGBTQ support groups among students or alumni that the article could point to.

Until today.

This morning, at 11am Central Time, representatives from the newly formed OneWheaton, a community of LGBTQs and allies from Wheaton College (alums and students) distributed the following letter outside of Wheaton’s mandatory chapel service, as well leaving copies of the letter at other various spots around campus (just to make sure no one would miss it):

Dear Wheaton Students,

The recent chapel message on Sexuality and Wholeness and surrounding conversations may have left some of you feeling alienated, ashamed and afraid. It can be difficult to see the danger of messages about sexuality that emphasize “God’s compassion for the broken,” but as a group of LGBTQ Wheaton alumni and allies, we’ve seen the devastating effects these words have had on ourselves and our loved ones. Many of us felt trapped and unable to respond honestly to these messages while we were students. We feared rejection from our friends and our college. We know many of you may fear the same and feel alone or depressed.

If you are a student and this is part of your story, 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. In our post-Wheaton lives, we have traversed the contradictions we once thought irreconcilable. Our sexuality has become an integral part of our broader pursuit of justice, compassion and love. We can no longer allow ourselves or our loved ones to be trapped in environments that perpetuate self-hatred, depression, and alienation. As people of integrity we must affirm the full humanity and dignity of every human being regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

To the broader Wheaton community: remember that there are students who feel they need to hide. We remember how messages and conversations surrounding the “issue of homosexuality” often exacerbated our feelings of isolation, particularly when talk about “compassion” often felt like pity at best, or at worst intolerance cloaked in language of love. Speak against blatant and passive language and actions that dehumanize and marginalize your brothers and sisters. Ask questions. Encourage dialogue. Most of all, listen. Your friends need your support and love. As awkward as the process may be for you, it is guaranteed to be more deeply and constantly difficult for your friends.

For those of you feeling alienated, it gets better. After Wheaton our lives became stories of liberation. Some of us are in relationships and some of us are single. Yet none of us are alone. We have built communities that accept us and do not fear our LGBTQ-ness. You will find a community that, rather than alluding to acceptance contingent on celibacy, welcomes and loves you. It may come as a surprise, but these people will likely include your closest friends from Wheaton you might hide from right now. Never give up hope.

In the meantime we encourage you to reach out from your isolation. We have emerged from the closet to come forward as a quirky, beautiful, and diverse community that is excited to meet you. If you would like to talk to one of us, email one@onewheaton.com or visit www.onewheaton.com for some resources we have found helpful in our own journeys. And always, always remember that though you may feel isolated right now, we are witness to the fact that you are not alone in this experience.

With much love,
OneWheaton

It was followed by the signatures of several dozen Update: now well over a hundred now several hundred LGBTQ Alumni and Straight Allies (myself and my wife included). The distribution of the letter was also followed by the launch of both the website and a Facebook page, and a twitter hashtag #onewheaton (we even got a supportive tweet from actor Wil Wheaton :) ), where supporters can find out more.

As a former conservative Christian who actually became much more progressive and open minded about my faith during my time at Wheaton (despite the best efforts of its administration), I am thrilled by the efforts of my fellow alumni and proud to be a small part of this effort. It also reminds my why I bother to still keep a foot in that evangelical world rather than simply washing my hands of the bigotry often found in those circles. Despite all the ugly and unjust things that are perpetrated in the name of Jesus by many conservative Christians (things that anger and disgust me as a follower of Christ just as much as they anger and disgust my atheist friends), I continue to hold out hope that change is possible. In my past thirty years as an evangelical (and now post-evangelical), I have seen a real and positive shift in attitudes on a whole range of important social issues among that particular tribe of Christians, including the “gay” issue. It’s not just Hell that some Christians are rethinking (though it’s interesting to note that Rob Bell is a Wheaton grad too.) Attitudes towards gays and lesbians (and other sexual minorities) have also been opening up significantly among evangelicals in recent years. Progress is slow (as usual) but it is real. Or as Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

That’s why, as much as I’d personally like to put Wheaton in my rear view mirror and never look back, I can’t absolve myself of the responsibility to work for change when and where it seems possible. My hope (and yes, as a Christian, my prayer) is that these efforts will begin both to shift attitudes and maybe even eventually official policy at my alma mater. At the very least, it has already succeeded in letting current LGBTQ students there know that they are not alone, they are not broken, and that life can get better for them after Wheaton.

About mike clawson
  • http://iwanttobeagaydad.wordpress.com Alan E.

    That is an amazing letter. Thank you for sharing this. I’m glad that they addressed everyone at the school, not just the closeted (or out) LGBT students.

    I’m waiting for the response from the school, though.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/R4WA2IEZ32E3DC6SDXOCFEX3OQ Ira Gruber

      i hope gay marriages becomes legalized in america as i want to se social security and medicare go broke and gay marriage will be the dagger so i say to young kids- you chose it , now you must pay for it. if we had a slush fund of 50 billion for gay marriage a year, in 40 years we would have through compounding-2 trillion dollars which would pay for gay marriage- i think americans should take a 30 per cent cut in social security and medicare to secure gay marriage- everything is about money anyhow- flashofagenius@att.net

  • pjb863

    If there is a response, it won’t be pretty. They still view dancing as sinful!

  • http://sassyseminarian.blogspot.com Julie

    I went to Messiah College, and just before my time there, a website came out (no pun intended) called GayAtMessiah.org. It was a mostly anonymous forum for past and present students who are gay, and were mostly closeted during their time at Messiah. The site has since stopped running, though the school never shut it down, but there was some frenzy over the thought of there actually being gay students there. I dearly love my undergrad, but their treatment (or lack thereof) of the GLBTQQI community is the primary thing that continues to disappoint me.

  • Tiffany

    I attend a conservative Christian university in the south. We actually have rules against “homosexual behavior” though I can’t for the life of me figure out what the hell that means exactly. You’ve probably already guessed that I’m an atheist since I’m posting here :) I’m also bisexual. It’s quite difficult to deal with the bigotry on campus but luckily my fiance is also a nonbeliever.

    We do have an ESCHNER club (though it’s technically underground) which is for LGBTQ students and supporters. The only problem is the lack of activity within the group. I’m hoping to take over next year, though, when the current president of the club graduates.

    I’ll be married then and we should be able to provide out appartment as a safe meeting space.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Apparently Wheaton’s president Ryken has sent an email in response to today’s direct action. Here’s the text:

    This morning, a group of Wheaton College alumni distributed a letter on campus to announce the formation of OneWheaton, an advocacy group of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) and questioning alumni and allies. According to the group’s website, its intent is to counter “prevailing ideas about homosexuality in the Wheaton community.”

    Wheaton College agrees with OneWheaton’s stated desire to “affirm the full humanity and dignity of every human being, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Our Community Covenant upholds the commitment of every Christian to loving God, and to loving our neighbors as ourselves. We see each member of the human family as created in the image of God himself, and thus each of immeasurable value. This includes our neighbors and alumni who identify as LGBTQ.

    We recognize that the needs of LGBTQ individuals present a particular challenge for institutions like Wheaton. Many have experienced insensitive or callous responses in this community, for which we repent and seek forgiveness. We repudiate and condemn violence and injustice directed toward LGBTQ people.

    We also remain committed to following Christ as faithful disciples, which entails conforming our lives to God’s truth revealed in the Scriptures, and specifically to a biblically-based stance on sexual ethics. In this, we seek to prepare our students to maintain fidelity with the historic stance of the Church on these issues. Our Community Covenant again speaks for the College on this matter:

    We understand that our calling includes . . .[t]he call to pursue holiness in every aspect of our thought and behavior (2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Thess. 4:7; Heb. 12:14; 1 Pet. 1:15-16)… Scripture condemns… sexual immorality, such as the use of pornography (Matt. 5:27-28), pre-marital sex, adultery, homosexual behavior and all other sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage between a man and woman (Rom. 1:21-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gen. 2:24; Eph. 5:31).

    We stand with LGBTQ persons before God as persons created in God’s own image, and also as sinful persons in need of God’s forgiveness and love through Jesus Christ, God’s Son. We carry a burden for our students, faculty, staff and alumni who experience same-sex attraction because of the pain they so often experience, and pray that we can be a community that loves those who identify as LGBTQ. While we recognize that Wheaton’s stance may be unsatisfying to some of our alumni, we remain resolved to respond with truth and grace.

    The feeling among many in the OneWheaton group is that this is considerably more gracious and sympathetic than we had hoped for (especially by comparison to the response received by the previous president when a similar group of gay alumni was formed in the mid-nineties), and yet entirely as expected in regards to their reaffirmation of the official stance against homosexuality. I don’t think anyone expected Ryken to say anything different that what he did on that point, but many do feel that the conciliatory tone of the letter does indicate a baby step forward for the administration and indicates the degree to which attitudes are in fact shifting in the evangelical world. After all, if the president of an institution like Wheaton, who has a huge conservative base of constituents he has to avoid offending, still feels compelled to write a letter that is sympathetic and relatively friendly towards a LGBTQ group, how much more are attitudes likely shifting among those younger evangelicals who have no Christian institutions to represent, or church jobs or ministry reputations to protect…

    At the same time, several have pointed out that this was never really about getting a response from the administration anyhow. OneWheaton is about reaching out to students. Thus Ryken’s response is not really relevant or important to our ultimate purpose.

  • Michael

    @pjb863

    Your ignorance is thick. Dancing’s been allowed for years. You also are obviously far removed from the general atmosphere on campus. Although there is certainly a response that could be read as oppressive towards homosexuals presented by the administration, the student body on campus is generally encouraging, supportive, and respectful of those who identify with GLBT on campus. But thanks for trying to further the dialogue on the topic…

  • http://onewheaton.com hillary

    Actually, there are several hundred signatures (and soon to be more!).

  • Michael del Aguila

    As a relatively recent follower of these events (since Tuesday), I have to say I’m quite impressed with how much happened in such a seemingly short time. Kudos to all who put a lot of heart sweat and tears into this. It’s great to see and be a small part of.

  • Thin-ice

    Evangelical christianity is evolving rapidly, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in 10 or 15 years Wheaton’s president might even admit that alternate sexualities are normal and to be fully accepted. Although America’s evangelicals seem to be gradually moving closer to a more nebulous European-type cultural christianity (as evidenced by Rob Bell’s book), we’re going to be stuck with Bible-Belt fundamentalists for a long time to come, even though that hard-core is getting smaller too.

  • Richard Wade

    Mike,
    Your patience and determination continue to amaze me. Thank you for your efforts that I’m sure go mostly unknown and unappreciated. I’ve watched you endure slings and arrows from both evangelicals and atheists for years, yet you keep on fighting the good fight. I admire you very much. May your life go well.

  • A

    In response to the fifth paragraph of Ryken’s letter–As a wheaton alum who is questioning, what i find most difficult to reconcile is the faith and also sexuality. Of all the faiths out there, a Christianity where I trust in Jesus for my salvation seems fitting. But if Scripture is to be God’s Truth, and it forbids homosexuality, BUT I feel torn b/c I love women, how do I reconcile that? I have bitterness that I cannot let go of, and because of this my faith is almost frozen, non-existent.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Thanks Richard. :) I very much appreciate the affirmation.

  • JulietEcho

    I see the letter released by Ryken as the oh-so-familiar hate and intolerance wrapped up in pretty paper. Summary of each paragraph:

    1. So there’s this new LGBT group on campus.
    2. We agree with one sentence in their statement.
    3. We’re not perfect and sort of apologize for that.
    4. The most important thing is following what the Bible says.
    5. The Bible condemns homosexuality.
    6. Love the sinner, hate the sin.
    Paragraphs four and five pretty much say it all: We condemn homosexuality. Wheaton’s Mission Statement includes belief in “the everlasting punishment of the lost,” i.e. Hell. So all the letter is doing is tip-toeing around the fact that Wheaton thinks that homosexuality is a sin that deserves an eternal sentence suffering in Hell.

    Sure, maybe some of them believe that gay Christians won’t count as “lost” and will be forgiven for the honest mistake of thinking that God doesn’t condemn homosexuality, but they seem to think it’s pretty obvious. Anyway, just figured I’d translate for those who think the president’s letter is remotely supportive on any level beyond saying, “We’ll try to be nicer to you guys while continuing to believe that you’re defying Biblical teachings and might go to Hell forever.”

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    A – Thank you for sharing your struggle here. Though straight myself, I can identify with your dilemma about not being able to reconcile support for homosexuality with what appear to be clear biblical statements against it. I was in that place myself for quite some time.

    What helped shift my thinking on this was not rejecting scripture, but simply asking the question “Does the Bible actually condemn what we today understand by the term “homosexual orientation”?” I looked into the three or four passages involved (and that’s really all there are in the whole of scripture – just a handful of verses), got a few differing opinions (because, as I’m sure you know, there’s never just one unquestionable way to interpret the Bible), and came to the conclusion that they weren’t actually addressing the issues we were always led to believe they were. In other words, they weren’t condemning same-sex orientation nor were they condemning committed same-sex relationships.

    I don’t want to get into all the exegetical arguments here, but I’d really encourage you to read some books or articles by pro-gay evangelicals (try Mel White) who do explain this perspective more thoroughly. The short version is that:

    1) The passages in Leviticus are part of the Jewish law and, as such, are irrelevant for contemporary Christians unless you’re willing to claim that eating shrimp scampi is as much an “abomination” as homosexual behavior.

    2) The Romans 1:26-27 passage is not talking about people with same-sex orientations (it specifically frames it in terms of people who “exchange” their usual behaviors for ones that don’t match their actual orientation), nor is it talking about those in healthy, committed same-sex relationship. In fact, if you go back and look at what those verses explicitly say it is clear that it is talking about lust – i.e. the use of sexuality to exploit others for ones own selfish gratification. Lust is different than healthy same-sex relationships (or healthy relationships of any sort).

    3) The translation in 1 Corinthians 6:9 is highly ambiguous. Contrary to how many English bibles translate it, the word in Greek is NOT “homosexuals.” It’s something like “abusers of men with themselves,” and seems to refer to something like pederasty, male prostitution, or some other form of sexual exploitation.

    Bottom line is that for me, as a Christian, I do believe that the Bible presents an important sexual ethic. However, I think that ethic is one of healthy, loving, non-exploitative relationships – not necessarily exclusively heterosexual relationships. I think God’s concern is not with the gender of the person we are with, but whether or not we are using sex as an expression of love and respect for the other person, or as a tool of exploitation, domination, and mere self-gratification at the expense of an other.

    Anyhow, I don’t know if this viewpoint is helpful to you at all, but I encourage you to reach out and talk more with LGBT folks in the OneWheaton group. As folks who have been through what you are currently wrestling with, they probably have even better insights than I can personally offer.

    Peace
    -Mike

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Juliet – you are quite right that there is nothing particularly supportive in Ryken’s comments. I don’t think anyone in the group has any illusions about that.

    At the same time, as one who has been a part of the evangelical world for a long time now, and who is actually currently working a PhD describing the social and theological changes that have happened in that world over the past half-century, I can confidently say that some of Ryken’s statements, and especially the tone of his comments, does represent an identifiable change from earlier evangelical attitudes. For instance, statements such as

    “Wheaton College agrees with OneWheaton’s stated desire to “affirm the full humanity and dignity of every human being, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

    or

    Many have experienced insensitive or callous responses in this community, for which we repent and seek forgiveness. We repudiate and condemn violence and injustice directed toward LGBTQ people.

    Would not have been expressed even 10 or 15 years ago at Wheaton (were not expressed, in fact, according to those who engaged the administration on this issue back then).

    So yes, while you’re quite right not to read any change of theological opinion into Ryken’s statement, for him to even express this much is a step in the right direction. A pathetic baby-step, no doubt, but a step nonetheless.

  • JulietEcho

    @Mike

    I don’t give “credit” for that kind of thing, because a school like Wheaton, (i.e. a school that wishes to be taken seriously by those outside the evangelical Christian community), pretty much has to include those statements if they’re going to give one at all. US society has progressed past the point where it’s socially acceptable to condemn LGBT people and skip the niceties.

    If they didn’t include paragraphs 2, 3, and 6, they would be seen as bigoted, cold, and backwards. Instead, the soft, cuddly padding makes the paragraphs in between seem less bigoted and hateful.

    Yes, the inclusion of the nice parts are a sign that progress that has been made – not by people like the president of Wheaton, but by people fighting to protect the human rights and humanity of LGBT Americans. It has become not okay to hate gay people, so now people are expected to make it clear that they love them before they start piling on the condemnations.

    I just wanted to point out that about 99% of the credit for the nice paragraphs involved goes to the struggles and continued efforts of people *other* than the kind of people who write the statement of belief and mission statement at evangelical schools.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Yes, you’re quite right Juliet. I wasn’t trying to “give credit” to Ryken per se. He’s a politician and is simply trying not to offend his many constituencies. You’re exactly right that the credit for any shifting attitudes goes to the activists who have pushed this issue forward in society over the past few decades, and perhaps to some of the students themselves who are no longer as closed minded as their parents were, even if they aren’t all quite as open minded as many of us would wish them to be.

    At any rate, I was simply attempting to speak as a historian (which is what my training is in). Quite apart from giving “credit” or assigning value judgments one way or another, I am simply observing an “objective” (i.e. verifiable and perhaps even measurable) shift in collective attitudes and behavior over time. That to me is hopeful, regardless of who gets the credit for it.

  • JulietEcho

    @Mike – then we’re on the same page :-)

  • Dr. Lora

    A–You are not alone in your struggles. I think the website http://www.sisterfriends-together.com has great resources for Christian women asking these questions :-)

  • don van hoeven

    We as Hope College alumni have been engaged in this issue. Our interest is to talk with persons involved in initiating One Wheaton. We believe a “One Hope” would be helpful for our campus and provide a broader base for overcoming the violence being done by this bigotry. Please get us in touch with the leadership of One Wheaton. dvh

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Hi Don,

    I’ve passed your contact info on to some folks with OneWheaton. Someone should be in touch with you shortly.

    -Mike

  • Wheatie

    Just a quick note, NO ONE at Wheaton “arrogantly refers” to the school as the “Harvard of Christian schools” its actually used sarcastically by students (if used at all) . It has only been used by outside publications in that sense.

    Professors openly talk about Wheaton not being comparable to Harvard in terms of rigor.


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