Three weeks ago, during Gordon College’s homecoming, I stepped foot on my alma mater’s campus after nearly ten years. Sleuthing for a parking space, my friend Andrew dropped me off at the curb with three traffic cones and an armful of signs that read, “We love LGBTQ students #OneGordon.” I carted the subversive gear across the soccer field, past brick dorms and staring, possibly glaring, parents and alumni. A couple other people affiliated with OneGordon, an LGBTQ and allied organization for the Gordon College community, showed up. Then a dozen more came. And a dozen more. Pretty soon a hospitable crowd of new and old friends gathered, most sporting “I Love Gordon” rainbow t-shirts and carrying free chowder handed out by a gay-affirming caterer.
Perhaps at a state university, an LGTBQ alumni and student group at homecoming would be par for the course. Not at Gordon College. Gordon College is an evangelical liberal arts school nestled on Boston’s North Shore that has come under increasing scrutiny for its position on homosexuality. For years, Gordon has expected its community to abide by a Life and Conduct statement that bans what it calls “homosexual practice.” And for years Gordon College’s conservatism operated outside the spotlight of Greater Boston’s liberal hub.
This past summer, though, the College attracted national news attention after President D. Michael Lindsay joined signatures withother evangelical leaders requesting a religious exemption from Obama’s Non-Discrimination Executive Order for LGBTQ people. The order only applied to federal contractors, and not to colleges, and yet Lindsay’s public declaration against equal treatment for LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff—under the banner of religious freedom—divided the College and caused severe local reaction. A petition decrying Lindsay’s name on the letter to Obama generated over 4,000 signatures. A nearby school board in Lynn, Massachusetts canceled its 11-year ties to the college. The city of Salem nullified a contract; the esteemed Peabody-Essex Museum likewise cut its connections. In the last two months, over 1,000 students, faculty, staff and alumni have signed a letter asking for the reference to “homosexual practice” in the Life and Conduct Statement to be removed.
Much to my surprise, Gordon’s current crisis is teaching me to love Gordon College again. It’d be easy for me not to care. I’ve moved on. My life’s values and beliefs are dramatically different from the values and beliefs I once shared with my undergraduate College. I’m a Christian minister in a mainline denomination that ordained its first gay pastor in 1972. I advocated for, and now officiate, gay marriages. I believe the gospel and the theory of substitutionary atonement are totally different things. I think hell is a state of consciousness rather than a place. And on and on. Almost in spite of myself, however, I’ve started to care about Gordon College’s future. I’ve reconnected with Gordon College alumni friends. I’ve followed Gordon’s tumult through news and Facebook. I co-wrote an article about LGBTQ and allied groups at evangelical schools. I started praying for Gordon College. And, for the first time ever, I attended homecoming weekend.Yet, this emerging love differs starkly from love as unquestioning allegiance or towing-the-orthodox-line. It’s more like love as compassionate resistance to injustice, and it has two noticeable qualities: it involves telling the truth about Gordon’s structural homophobia, and participating in the struggle towards a hopeful future for Gordon College.
Telling the truth about Gordon’s structural homophobia is crucial. Because I’ve had numerous conversations with (straight) alumni friends who pine the following: “It was never this bad when we were there! This wouldn’t have happened in (former President) Jud Carlberg’s days!” And, to some extent, these friends have a point. President Lindsay’s signature on the letter to Obama was a blatant right wing move, whereas the Gordon many of us knew shied away from such cozy alignment with evangelicalism’s more reactionary agenda.
But my friends are also wrong: it’s never been good to be gay at Gordon. LGBTQ students, staff, and faculty who desired to be “out” have always been forced to live a closeted or marginalized existence while at Gordon College. OneGordon posts frequent stories about being gay at the College, which all-too-often involve heartbreaking experiences of almost unbearable loneliness, shame, and self-loathing. One gay student from the 1990s wrote on OneGordon’s blog that “the fear of being found out was overwhelming at times.” A current student who identifies as queer claims she “has to walk around campus and hear students saying they should just kick the gays out.” President Lindsay’s political move is not an aberration from Gordon’s identity; rather, it made explicit the longstanding structural homophobia that has existed at Gordon all along. Many of us just were just too complicit in that systemic prejudice to realize it.
Critique without hope-filled engagement, however, can turn so easily into cynicism and despair. Progressive alumni from Gordon College, including many friends and myself, wiped the dust off our feet and forged ahead with our lives. I can’t help but think, though, that for Gordon to become a more inclusive place, it will take all our voices and gifts. And, as much as I may wish to do so, I can’t deny that Gordon College is a part of my story. So I’m back to where I began: carting OneGordon subversive gear across the soccer field, past brick dorms and staring, possibly glaring, parents and alumni. Sporting my rainbow “I Love Gordon” T-shirt, standing in the quad with new and old friends. Attending homecoming for the first time. Learning to love Gordon College.