Throughout my life, the majority of negative experiences concerning my sexuality have happened within Seventh-day Adventist Christian institutions, both religious and educational. In school, I learned to use books as shields and hobbies for distraction while words like "faggot" and "abomination" were thrown in my direction.
In elementary school, children teased me about my sexual orientation before I even knew what that meant.
Teachers would tell my parents that I needed to be "less of a sissy" and to "man up." In high school, teachers would preach the dangers of homosexuality. A place where I once sought solace became a place of hostility. I have been bullied by students and professors alike, all under the guise of promoting a religiously valued heteronormative culture.
This treatment is often accompanied by policies that support or turn a blind eye to discrimination against LGBT people. Things didn't change much in higher education. Although Seventh-day Adventist institutions of higher education do not suspend or expel LGBT students like some religiously affiliated institutions do, there is still little to no official support for this community.
In fact, until recently, out of the 14 Seventh-day Adventist institutions of higher education in the United States, only one university, Andrews University, has somewhat positive verbiage on LGBT students, who are included in the harassment policy. This was enacted only two years ago, when I wrote a proposal for said policy. Just this year Loma Linda University School of Medicine changed their policies to what I find to be the most inclusive policies we have to date at our educational institutions.
In most Seventh-day Adventist schools, it feels as if LGBT students do not exist.
But why is that? If you look at any religious educational institution, it becomes difficult to discern the line between the church and the school. Most see the church as the parent and the school as the child. With this mindset, and given the church's current theological beliefs regarding homosexuality, our schools are perpetuating homophobia, even if unintentionally.
Many of our schools, universities, and academies are dormitories. We eat, breathe, and live Adventism. This leaves little room for escape from the homophobia that is inherent in the faulty "hate the sin, love the sinner" mantra. If our churches have become battlefields, our religious schools are creating its soldiers.
Religious institutions have cultivated an environment that nurtures homophobia. Official presentations organized by our universities' administrations, faculty, or pastors cater to a very limited view on homosexuality. Talking at LGBT folk instead of with LGBT folk is the norm. Because discrimination is acceptable under biblical law, it is also accepted under school policy.
Most faculty members, administrators, and students are not intentionally homophobic; however, this is how their actions are perceived. Homophobia under the guise of love is still homophobia. As someone who has experienced bullying in these environments, I wonder what we can do as a church to stop the persecution of LGBT students.
Can we protect LGBT students under the church's current theological beliefs on homosexuality?
I am convinced that, even under the current official stance of the Seventh-day Adventist Church toward homosexuality, our religiously affiliated schools should in fact be doing much more for our LGBT students than we are at present.
Even in the biblical framework in which the church believes that same-gender sexual activity is a sin, why do we have few to no protections for LGBT students? Countless stories of students who have suffered academic punishment stemming from their sexual orientation at Seventh-day Adventist academies are recounted to me and other supportive allies.
Although Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities have fewer documented cases of these types of discrimination (and some may wonder how much of that has to do with the federal funding in in the form of student loans that these universities receive), the fear instilled in LGBT students by previous experiences at other schools lives on in them. Student handbooks speak harshly about LGBT students, or not at all. The only LGBT presentations offered on campuses are condemning and one-sided.
This environment does not encourage students to come to administrators with LGBT-related issues.
Being a Christian campus does not mean that all students are safe by default. Just this past year at my university, we have had one attempted suicide, one nearly completed suicide, a student who got kicked out of their home due to their sexual orientation, a student who needed help receiving asylum in the United States, a student who was harassed by their resident adviser and classmates, and countless other stories. This was just on one campus, our flagship school.
Variations of these stories happen every year, and many of these stories never land on administrators' desks, because of the LGBT students' fear. Two years ago I had my own case. I felt that my life and the lives of my loved ones were in danger. Even though I come from a supportive, affirming Christian family, I was terrified. I was scared that even though I was the victim, I would be punished for my sexuality.
At that time, Andrews University's handbook didn't mention LGBT folk at all, not negatively and certainly not positively. I was certain, given my previous experiences, that my academic life would take a turn for the worse. Thankfully, and to my surprise, the student life administration at Andrews University worked swiftly, justly, and without prejudice to protect me.
Two years ago I realized how important basic protections are for LGBT Adventists, for people like me.
Fast-forward two years, and I helped start the first unofficial gay-straight alliance at Andrews University as a support group. As we grow in number, we have become a chosen family. We help each other navigate the battleground that our campus has become. In the spring of 2012, I co-founded the Intercollegiate Adventist GSA Coalition (IAGC), a student-led organization working to bridge the gap between our Seventh-day Adventist faith-based institutions and the LGBT students who are in attendance.
Currently, the IAGC has members from Pacific Union College, Andrews University, Walla Walla University, La Sierra University, and Southern Adventist University, with more campuses soon to follow. Together we are creating a network of unofficial gay-straight alliances from different Adventist campuses to provide resources, programs, and support for each campus, individually and for the higher education system itself. Plans include yearly programs and events including educational scholarships, educational tools and resources, and a "Share the Story" awareness campaign.
Adventist education is incredibly important to all of us, both academically and spiritually. Members of the Seventh-day Adventist community stress the importance of spiritual education as one of the three links in a chain for a child's spiritual life: home, church, and school. As as child, I appreciated learning in a space where my personal beliefs were incorporated into my classes, with prayers before tests, morning worship, and wholesome activities.
But school was no longer a safe haven after I came out.
I have no doubt that the judgmental stares of my classmates are encouraged by my campus culture, and this is something that can be remedied. Our campuses have become the front line in this gay debate. Our sidewalks are filled with landmines, and it is time that we defused them.
We have begun this work in our gay-straight alliance-type support groups. Each campus has created its own safe place, unique in format and structure, for different viewpoints to be heard in a mutually respectful manner. Students of all orientations and beliefs are invited to share their opinions in a safe and honest dialogue.
We have used some easy steps to create this sacred safe space.
First, we agree to disagree. There is a misconception that in order to enter into a conversation, we must, at the end of this conversation, magically agree. This is not the case. It is only when we allow more than one voice to be heard that we begin to formulate a larger picture. Having only some of the puzzle pieces doesn't allow us to be whole.
Second, we strive for balanced dialogue. This means allowing more than one side of this conversation on an official platform.
There has yet to be a balanced dialogue on homosexuality produced by the official Seventh-day Adventist Church or any of its affiliates. The only LGBT people who have been allowed to speak are those LGBT folk who theologically agree with the church, LGBT people who have chosen a life of celibacy or have attempted to change their innate sexual orientation. These LGBT individuals, with heart-wrenching and honest narratives, are still a minority of LGBT Adventists worldwide.
Educational institutions have a responsibility to foster academic dialogues that allow for students to grow intellectually and spiritually.
Most of our institutions' current conversations involve speaking at LGBT folk and not with us. This silencing of LGBT folk is a great disservice to education, as well as to students' spiritual growth.
Lastly, beyond having theological disagreements about what the Bible says or doesn't say about homosexuality, no student should ever feel alone or abandoned by their familial or spiritual home, regardless of their sexual orientation. It is not good enough to discuss in private how LGBT students shall be treated equally. If the demographic of people whom you wish to aid are not receiving the message you are attempting to relay, something is wrong with your method.
Christian campuses are the front line of the gay debate. Our campuses are at the eye of the storm, where the worst damage occurs. The remedy is simple, but it becomes complicated with political drama in the background. It should be widely accepted that we should create programs and policies that protect and serve all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, but it's not.
Instead of equipping our youth with biblical stones, we need to educate them on transforming themselves into their very own safe places.
Once we stop repeating history and marginalizing "the least of these," we will finally begin to emulate the true Christian character of merciful love and acceptance.
This blog post was originally posted on Believe Out Loud.