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Gay-Student Groups & their Goals

Gay-students groups, already common on college campuses, are also forming on Christian campuses. As noted by Jonathan Coley, author of Gay on God’s Campus: Mobilizing for LGBT Equality at Christian Colleges and Universities: “Students in LGBT activist groups at Christian colleges and universities may very well be the central agents of change on one of the new frontiers for the LGBT movement” (Coley 2018:152).

Do gay-identifying students want to form an official gay-student groups on your campus?

Their efforts might seem innocent enough and your desires to be tolerant might also seem innocent enough, but be aware that different types of gay-student groups have different goals, which will have different results on your campus, and can have mission-critical results.

Administrators must especially be aware of the forces — even forces outside our campuses — that can change the goals of a student group.

While we do not want to overreact, some representatives of the gay-identifying community do have more of an agenda than making gay students feel welcome.

As noted by Jonathan Coley, author of Gay on God’s Campus: Mobilizing for LGBT Equality at Christian Colleges and Universities:[i] “Students in LGBT activist groups at Christian colleges and universities may very well be the central agents of change on one of the new frontiers for the LGBT movement” (Coley 2018:152).

Does seeing your school as the new frontier for the LGBT movement fit the mission of your college or university?!?

In our previous article, How Gay Activists Mobilize on Christian Campuses, we discussed the prevalence of gay activists on Christian campuses, the organizations dedicated to mobilizing on Christian campuses, the tactics used to influence or demand change, and how Christian colleges should respond to activist tactics.

We also noted that the most effective tactic activists have used on Christian campuses may have been to couch their arguments in religious language and to redefine what it means to be a Christian institution of higher education.

In this article, we’ll focus on the types of groups gay students may seek permission to form, what they might eventually evolve into, and how it will impact your campus.

Types of Gay-Student Groups

There are different types of gay-student groups with different goals, each impacting the campus in different ways.  Some are socially oriented solidarity and support groups.  Some are educationally oriented gay-student groups focusing on changing attitudes and influencing the campus climate.  Some are activist or politically oriented pressure groups.  Perhaps it is easiest to understand the differences in these groups by comparing them to different types of groups that have emerged in the Black community.

Socially Oriented Gay-Student Groups

Your campus may have an African-American Student Association that is socially oriented.  Perhaps the association has discussion groups, parties, dances, field trips, service projects, etc.  Networking, forming friendships with people who share a similar life journey and solidifying a deeper sense of an African-American identity are likely results.

Similarly, a socially-oriented LGBT group is likely to result in networking, forming friendships with people who share a similar life journey, and solidifying a deeper sense of gay identity.  Participants in such groups are often just looking for a supportive community and a safe space to be openly gay.  They are focusing on their own sense of personal needs, not on forcing a school to change its attitudes, policies, mission, and its understanding of its statement of faith.

In developing a deeper sense of gay identity, participants often become more open to coming out, dressing against norms, marrying same-sex partners, and adopting children.

College years are a key period in identity development.  Students are trying different roles, asking questions about beliefs and values they brought from home, figuring out what they believe about their faith and about their sexuality.

A same-sex attracted student who is a Christian is also trying to figure out how to meet his or her intimacy needs and whether to tell anyone about their attractions.  They have questions:  Does God love them?  How could God let them have these attractions?  Does this mean that they are rejected by God?  Should they just give up the faith or is there a way for them to carry their cross and walk with the Lord?

They are trying to figure this out in the context of a Church that does not address these needs, make them feel cared for, or understand their desire to walk with God while carrying this burden.  At the same time, a gay-student group may call, “Come here and we will help you.”  Do we want to leave these troubled believers to the non-Christian community — often anti-Christian community — that tells them that if they jettison their repressive faith, they will be happy?

 

Educationally-Oriented Campus Influence Groups

Racial reconciliation groups are examples of African-American groups that are educationally oriented.  An LGBT counterpart would be a Gay-Straight Alliance group on campus.  When schools offer diversity training, it will often focus on changing attitudes and the campus climate on behalf of Black or gay students.

CUAllies, a gay-student group on the campus of Catholic University, started as an activist group but later evolved into an influence group.  Instead of unauthorized protests in the student center, they ended up engaging in various educational activities (e.g., arranging talks by priests who were sympathetic to their positions).  After graduation, several members were able to use their skills and motivations to work at reforming the Catholic Church’s views on homosexuality.

These are not fist-in-the-air activists, but are change agents.  Their tone is conciliatory.  They want group dialog, not confrontation.  After all, shouting is not the best way to make someone else open to your views. With activities such as movies, group discussions, lectures, prayer vigils, and pointing out any instances of bullying, they attempt to raise awareness and change the campus climate.

What types of LGBT students tend to join this kind of gay-student group?  In light of their attractions, those wanting beliefs and values to guide their lives find this type of group especially attractive.  They may have been raised in church.  They may be highly religious.  Such groups help insiders form a worldview affirming their attractions as good and normal.  Upon developing such a perspective, they want to share it with outsiders and promote a more affirming climate.

In discussing how LGBT groups can foster a sense of resiliency and agency, Coley suggests recruiting “religious students who are open to dialogue on LGBT issues and [are] from the population of LGBT students with no firm ideologies[ii]” (Coley 2018:150-151).

As with the gay Catholic-University student group mentioned above, this type of students may become interested in careers where they lobby to make their institutions more inclusive.  This would include careers in education and social work.

As Christian colleges and universities, we take pride in the fact that our students are not exposed to a constant and one-sided indoctrination of politically correct values based on secular worldviews.  But, since our schools tend to ignore teaching about these hot-potato issues, the only side they hear about LGBT issues is from gay apologists.

From the media, their peers and society at large, they learn about gay-affirming views of relevant passages of the Scriptures.  They hear about research, actually inconclusive research studies, that are trumpeted as facts.  And they hear from us … crickets.

Like a sports team that is granted a victory because the other team did not show up, these educationally-oriented campus influence groups win arguments because our graduates have only heard one side of the issue.  How can we take the field?  See our article, Christian Colleges MUST Teach about Homosexuality: Where to Start.

 

Activist: Politically Oriented Pressure Groups

Bus boycotts, lunch-counter sit-ins, and Freedom Riders are courageous examples of activists.

The gay community also has its politically-oriented pressure groups.  Gay-student groups can create change agents who will see themselves as activists.  These are the ones who plan confrontations, cause disruptions at the most optimum time, and get media attention.  In their minds, the administration will have to pay a price until they accept the policy changes the group demands.

Since such organizational skills can be applied after graduation to their Church, social movements, and politics, these political activists may continue to act as organizers after graduation

In the context of a Christian college, these groups may strike at the heart of your mission and goals by demanding a new “spiritual” interpretation of them.  “After all, God is love.”

Did Jesus tell the Samaritan woman, “God is love, so you do not need to change your ways”?

 

Gay-Student Groups with Activist Goals

Activists may state that they want to overthrow “discriminatory” policies.  This could range from policies on hiring and admissions or holding pro-marriage events while denying gay events on campus to demanding the right of gay men to wear makeup or the right of gay couples to have personal displays of affection on campus.  Sometimes activists demand that there be no ex-gay and ex-trans counseling on campus.

The Soulforce Campus Organizing Toolkit,[iii] gives devotees a list of “appropriate” demands:

  • “Get the school to agree to regular R.A. training and Professor/Faculty training in awareness of your justice issues … or do it anyway without permission.”
  • “Change policies regarding hiring LGBT faculty and/or a commitment to hire some.”
  • “Act like a club, even though you don’t have official status, by meeting in common spaces or empty rooms in a way that the school can’t avoid, thereby giving tacit affirmation.”
  • “Get books that are supportive of your cause added to the library.”
  • “[Demand] the right to advertise on campus.”
  • “Affirming resources to put in the counselling/spiritual mentoring center”
  • “Safe Zone stickers on professors’ offices who are affirming or complete appropriate training”

The one goal with which I agree with activists is to issue a non-bullying statement along with policies to prevent it.

 

Small Compromises Are Not the End Game

Sometimes, administrators think that permitting some requests by gay-student groups will be enough.

Loyola University Chicago recruits LGBT students, recognizes gay student groups, and has a nondiscrimination statement that includes SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity). Moreover, Loyola allowed their gay students to have drag shows. Wasn’t that enough?

Not for some students. The school allowed drag shows, but not drag balls.

After complaints from a student and a couple of priests, the students had to locate the drag shows in a closed-off room on campus so that people walking by would not happen to see it.  Activists feel that such requirements are discriminatory, bigoted, and homophobic.

Some Christian colleges actively reach out to the gay community.  Their recruiting materials promise a hospitable environment.   According to Coley, hundreds of Christian colleges, 45%, have officially-recognized gay student groups.

Obviously, many of these colleges are not conservative and Evangelical.  Goshen College comes from the Mennonite tradition.  The Mennonite Church USA has a tradition of leftist causes.  Correspondently, Goshen tells prospective LGBT students that they have officially-recognized support groups so that LGBT students will feel safe, supported, accepted.  But Coley is concerned that the Mennonite Church USA does not give full equality to the LGBT cause, and in 2014 fired or pressured LGBT faculty and staff to resign.

Sometimes well-meaning Christian colleges get more than they bargain for.

Perhaps as “nice Christians,” we tend to avoid confrontation.  We think that if we are friendly and conciliatory, the person we are dealing with will respond in kind.  This is often true.  But there is at least a component of the gay community that will never be satisfied with small compromises.  So, we need to ask ourselves: if we agree to a small and quiet on-campus support group, at some point will they expect to have a booth at student fairs where they recruit others to join?  Will a gay-student group promote a gay hermeneutic, teaching classmates their interpretation of relevant passages that have been developed by gay theologians?  Might a simple support group sometimes evolve into a radical activist group?

 

How Did We End Up With a Radical Activist Pressure Group?

“This is not what we expected.  We were only trying to be pastoral.  We just set up a support group so that gay students would know we care.  How did this back-room support group end up as a radical pressure group that shouted us down at the alumni gathering?”

While this is not a quote from anyone in particular, it is a concern.  A support group is probably not trying to change your campus.  But, the focus of a group can change over time.  Keep in mind that any kind of gay-student groups, whether focusing on support or education, is a great place for activists to hunt for students who would participate in advancing their “new frontier for gay rights.”

Activists know where to hunt.  Think of a union organizer showing up at a factory to find and cultivate like-minded people.  When activists find a gay student, that student can guide them to others who also know others.  Activists can go to Facebook groups, websites of student organizations or contacts in LGBT organizations that can direct them to students at a specific university.  Alternatively, members of an underground LGBT campus group may contact an organization offering resources, guidance, and help to gay students who want to organize.

Once a gay-student group exist, there is an opportunity to immerse participants in queer theory and philosophy, bring them to question their values, beliefs, and commitments — and finally to give them a vision for activism.

Coley suggests that

“…if LGBT groups seek to produce future political activists, they should directly expose participants to political philosophies, task participants with organizing direct action campaigns, and connect participants with other social justice organizations.  If LGBT groups seek to influence participants’ future careers, they might encourage student to gain skills organizing activities inside (rather than outside of) their educational institutions, and they might host career workshops that link participants with potential employers.

“Finally, if LGBT groups seek to influence participants’ future family lives and personal relationships, they should cultivate safe spaces that allow students to reflect on their own issues with families and relationships and allow students to form social connections presaged on values of tolerance, acceptance, and openness” (Coley 2018:151-152)

 

Conclusion

Coley’s book “powerfully attests to the ability of LGBT organizations to change their campuses and transform participants into change agents” (Coley 2018:151).

Gay-student groups are a place where the wavering can become committed.   Coley found that “the majority of religious participants had not necessarily come to agree with the values and goals of their LGBT groups at the time that they initially joined….  [but] found that these students began participating because they were directly recruited by another member of the LGBT group who knew about their struggles coming to terms with their sexual identity…..[Personal ties may] make the difference for students who are ambivalent about an issue but are being recruited into a cause” (Coley 2018:55).

More specifically, while Coley found that only 43% of students who joined gay-student groups began as self-identified gay activists, 75% took on this identity after time within such groups.  LGBT student groups have a record of creating change agents and activists who continue engaging in activism long after graduation.  Is this the fruit that Evangelical institutions of higher education want to bear?

It’s a tricky balance.  We want to be compassionate.  We want to be pastoral.  We do not want to be mean, nasty, and intolerant.  But, even with all our good intentions, we do not want to be as trusting as the innocent victim of the salesman at “Honest John’s Used Cars.”

Our mission is at stake.

 

[i] Jonathan S Coley, Gay on God’s Campus: Mobilizing for LGBT Equality at Christian Colleges and Universities. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 42.

[ii] Ibid 150–151

[iii] Soulforce Campus Organizing Toolkit, pages 32-33, Downloaded April 22, 2019, https://www.soulforce.org/about-us.

 

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