Guiding gay evangelicals out of the campus closet

Mark Oppenheimer / New York Times News Service /


Published Dec 29, 2012 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

In the DC Comics universe, Kate Kane is a lesbian who dons a mask to fight crime as Batwoman.

In the real universe, Kate Kane is the pseudonym of a lesbian in her 20s who this year helped found QueerPHC, a blog for gay, lesbian and otherwise unstraight students and alumni of a conservative Christian college.

Michael Farris, the chancellor of that campus, Patrick Henry College, which he founded in 2000 to educate home-schooled evangelicals, threatened this month to sue the founders of QueerPHC for copyright infringement.

He quickly withdrew that threat. But his public pique directed attention to a growing movement: alumni from evangelical Christian colleges who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or who otherwise identify as queer, and their straight allies, speaking up on behalf of gay students still on campus.

These alumni are reversing an old truism of campus life: that student radicals have to drag stodgy alumni into the modern age. But at these colleges, it is still difficult to be an openly gay student. And after graduating, gay and lesbian alumni and allies find each other, meet, push their colleges to be more liberal and reach out to undergraduates — offering affirmation that students do not get on campus.

Such groups for alumni of Patrick Henry; Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.; George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.; Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C.; and Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., have been established, most of them in the past two years. Some of the groups are tiny, their members anonymous. Some are big: about 700 Wheaton alumni have signed a letter supporting gay undergraduates.

“It was very isolating” to be a lesbian at Patrick Henry, said Kane, a recent graduate who insisted on staying masked behind her pseudonym. “And it was also very confusing, because growing up in a very conservative, fundamentalist environment, and going to a school with a similar environment, my sexuality was very repressed. I didn’t even know I was queer until a few years into my college experience.”

Speaking of shame, secrecy, the closet — Kate Kane plans to reveal her real name. “I have set a deadline for myself,” she said, “that I will come out by May 31, 2013. I’m hoping to come out in February or March.”

She would reveal her name on the phone to a reporter, but she wants to tell her parents about her sexuality in person. “I just don’t want them to find out on the Internet.”

The Christian alumni organizers all say they have heard from current undergraduates at their colleges who are grateful for the support. But faculty members, who at evangelical colleges usually must sign a statement of Christian faith, and who can more easily avoid influences from contemporary culture, may be holdouts who support traditional Christian teaching.

“The real issue on this is whether or not someone is created by God as gay or whether or not gay is a behavior pattern,” said Farris, the chancellor at Patrick Henry, which is Purcellville, Va. “We take the position it’s a behavior pattern. No one is created by God in this fashion.”

Farris is not sure that any students on his campus even face this problem.

“I am taking a reporter’s word for it that one alumna has self-identified as a lesbian,” Farris said. “Does that surprise me? No. Disappoint me? Yes. She violated the honor code for four years. She does not believe what we believe, and she said she did.”

Farris is not really right about that — when the blogger who uses the name Kate Kane began at Patrick Henry, she felt the way her chancellor did about same-sex attraction.

“I told a couple of my classmates,” she said, “but it was sort of like I presented it to them as, ‘Oh, here’s this weird problem I have.’ And once I did start coming to terms with it, I was like, ‘Oh no, this is really bad, people will hate me if they find this out about me.’ ”

Patrick Henry is conservative even by the standards of its peers; Wheaton, Billy Graham’s alma mater, has a more ideologically diverse teaching staff — proof that faculty culture varies sharply among colleges that identify as evangelical.

“Thirty-one years ago, students could not come out as gay,” said Paul Wiens, who retired from Wheaton last year after 31 years of teaching music. “That would have been completely bad.”

Now, Wiens said, “if you took a vote, the faculty would say marriage is for men and women, but civil unions are fine, with all the rights of married couples.”

And he added that the college chaplain “has been meeting with gay students who wish to do so, to just talk about whatever is on their mind. He is not trying to convert them, or change their sexual orientation.”

How can Wiens be so sure? “I know these things to be true, because my gay students told me they were.”

The Wheaton chaplain, Stephen Kellough, says he tries to support students with same-sex attraction, even as he challenges all unmarried students to be chaste.

“When students come to me and talk about issues they are facing or wondering or struggling about in the area of sexuality, I am open to and supportive of those questions,” Kellough said.

But, he was asked, isn’t there a special message for students fighting same-sex urges about the need to overcome them?

“I think there is a call to chastity and faithfulness in singleness for homosexual students and heterosexual students,” the chaplain said, “and those challenges are similar.”

Christian colleges are in a bind. When they try to reinforce their traditional teachings, they can incite gay activism.

The gay group OneWheaton was founded after a 2011 chapel talk by a Wheaton alumnus, Wesley Hill, who said he had same-sex attractions but had chosen to be celibate for life. “It was the only voice ever given at Wheaton: either gay people need to be celibate their entire life, or they need to change,” said OneWheaton’s founder, Adam Bidma.

So he helped write the founding letter, which he and friends distributed after a campus chapel service. “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,” the letter reads. “Your desire for companionship, intimacy and love is not shameful.”