Christian universities are not what they used to be. Not long ago, hearing the words “Christian college” might incite a vision of uniforms, or of modestly dressed, scared and sheltered young men and women. But most Christian universities in 2018 look exactly like any other school. Yet while they may look the same on the outside, student experiences can be vastly different inside these institutions. Despite the often restrictive policies of a religious environment, many LGBTQ students still choose to attend Christian universities. However, this decision often comes with a price: the student’s mental health.
Many people on the campuses of conservative Christian universities assume that there are no LGBTQ people at their school. But that may be because so many of them are having to live undercover. According to Market Watch, 46 percent of LGBTQ individuals remain closeted at work. This number is even higher for students on a non-affirming campus. The CDC reported that while most LGBTQ youth are fairly happy, “Having a school that creates a safe and supportive learning environment for all students and having caring and accepting parents are especially important. Positive environments can help all youth achieve good grades and maintain good mental and physical health.”
Regardless of the anxieties it may cause, an LGBTQ student may choose to attend a Christian school for many reasons. Among the most obvious, many students who identify as LGBTQ also identify as Christian. According to data from the 2010 U.S. Census, there were at least eight million gay and lesbian Christians in the United States at that time — many of whom will choose a faith-based university.
The good, bad, and ugly
The summer after his freshman year of college, Tyler Kihm was working an internship with the University Communications department of his school. He had been in a happy relationship nearly six months, he had a great group of friends, and he was enjoying his job and his university. That is, until he made a Facebook post that would change his life more than he could have anticipated.
Kihm grew up in Bentonville, Ark., the home of Walmart and not much else. It’s a fairly small and conservative area. He was homeschooled for a few years and spent several years at Life Way Christian School, a small, private school one town over. Kihm grew up with very conservative ideals in the Bible Belt culture of Northwest Arkansas. “Looking back now as an adult, I can see times as young as 12 where I realized I was different,” he said. “But it wasn’t until I was 16 that I realized I was gay.” Although he realized this at 16, he did not come out until he was in college at John Brown University, a non-denominational Christian university close to home.
Kihm’s experience at John Brown University was both good and bad. He enjoyed the small class sizes, and he felt that he was being prepared adequately for his future. “As cheesy as it is, I definitely liked the community for the most part,” Kihm said. However, he also said it was difficult to form relationships at the school, due to what he describes as the “Christian facade.” “There’s an expectation when you go to a Christian school to meet these certain standards socially and with your own beliefs personally. You’re kind of all expected to line up exactly with what the university believes. You have to get past that with everyone at JBU to find out what people are really like and what they really believe,” Kihm said. Ultimately, the big issue he faced at JBU was how the administration decided to treat LGBTQ students. This topic was very personal.
“I guess when I came to JBU, I wasn’t out to my family and to some people at home. But going to college, I knew I didn’t want to put up that facade anymore,” Kihm said. During his freshman year of college, all of his close friends knew he was gay. Many of his professors knew as well, and he described them as affirming. Although John Brown University’s Community Covenant, a document students must agree to sign, states that the university views marriage as between a man and a woman, Kihm never thought it would be an issue. “Being from the south, and having gone to a Christian school before, I kind of knew what to expect…. And then I looked into the rulebook, and I was like, ‘I don’t plan on getting married while I’m in college, so I don’t think that’ll be a big deal.’”
Although he did not get married, this issue would soon force him to make a decision: end a relationship, or leave the school.
The effect on mental health
Brice Benham, a graduate of Southwest Baptist University, said he now deals with mental health issues due to the attitudes against homosexuality at his school. “Because of that, I struggle a ton with crippling anxiety and severe depression,” Benham said. “I have a fear that I’m not accepted by my own peers and my coworkers because I knew I wouldn’t be totally accepted at the place I called home for four years.”
Benham’s story is not unusual. Stonewall, an LGBTQ charity, conducted a health report which surveyed 5,000 LGBTQ people. This study found that 52 percent have experienced depression, and 61 percent have experienced anxiety. The study reported that one in eight LGBTQ individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 have attempted to take their lives.
Makenzie Watterson, another alumnus of Southwest Baptist University and now an openly lesbian woman, said being in an environment like this was harmful to her mental health as well. “It made me constantly feel that my main purpose in life was to marry a man and that sex was really only for reproduction. There was such an added pressure to just be ‘normal.’” Watterson also felt she could not go to campus counseling to deal with this pressure. “I felt that my feelings for women were not valid, and I genuinely could not talk to anyone about them,” she said. “Everyone felt strong, negative feelings towards homosexuality, but no one really openly talked about it. I just had all of this bottled up inside of me, and very negative associations with who I was and how I felt about myself.”
Kihm believes that being in a non-affirming environment “definitely” had negative effects on his mental health. “I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere,” he said. “While I wish I could say JBU was good for me, I didn’t experience that.” Kihm also did not feel comfortable utilizing campus counseling services to deal with this, which he thinks would have been different if he had been in a more affirming environment earlier.
At John Brown University, all full-time undergraduate students must sign a document called the Community Covenant. This covenant outlines the university’s rules and expectations for students at the institution. Regarding homosexuality, the university’s official position is stated in the covenant this way: “We agree that the Scripture is JBU’s authority for faith and life. Therefore, we agree to submit to its instruction regarding the way we should live life…. Scripture also teaches that Christian marriage is a covenant relationship between one man and one woman, that intimate sexual relationships are reserved for a man and woman in marriage, that single Christians should live celibate lives, and that Christians should seek to live with integrity and congruence between their birth sex and their gender identity.”
Southwest Baptist University’s student handbook outlines a similar position. “Scripture teaches that heterosexual union is the only acceptable expression of sexuality and must be reserved for marriage and insists on sexual abstinence for those who are unmarried.” The handbook also notes that “A Christian lifestyle is expected of all members of the University family,” and goes on to state that a Christian lifestyle avoids a list of “specific sins,” including “homoerotic behavior.”
While he was working with University Communications at JBU, Kihm was in a relationship with another man. At the time, the relationship was about six months old. Although only his inner circle of friends and a few trusted professors knew about his relationship, Kihm began to post pictures with his boyfriend on social media that he described as “pretty obvious.” He was cautious with this at first, but said he received no backlash from anyone at the university. Finally, he decided to go “Facebook official” with his relationship, posting explicitly that he was in a relationship with another man. After only two days, this Facebook post resulted in an email from John Brown University’s student development department. The Dean of Student Life asked to meet with Kihm regarding “content” that had been provided to him from Kihm’s Facebook page. Only four days after the original Facebook post, Kihm was summoned to discuss his personal romantic relationship with the dean.
Until this point, Kihm had no intention of leaving JBU. He had a great core friend group, and he loved his professors and his academic program. However, despite all this, attending a university that does not affirm LGBTQ students took a toll on him. Although he was never directly bullied for being gay, Kihm described experiencing “micro-aggressions, which is where JBU really thrives.”
“Every once in a while people would be like, ‘Oh I love and support you, but I just want to let you know that I don’t really believe in that,’” Kihm said. “People felt like, just to be around me or to be my friend, they needed to let me know their theological stance on it, which was not necessary.” He noted that he does not consider this bullying by any means, but the continual disclosing of other people’s theological stance on homosexuality in direct response to his identity was damaging.
After meeting with the dean at JBU twice in one week, Kihm was told that although the rule was not explicitly written anywhere in JBU’s student handbook or community covenant, it was against university policy for his relationship to continue publicly. It was implied that he either needed to hide his relationship, or end it, if he would continue to attend John Brown University.
Kihm was told that this policy was “a natural flow from the stance on marriage,” and that “it should be assumed that students cannot have romantic involvement with students of the same sex.”
He was told that he would not be expelled overnight if he did not end his relationship, but that it would be a process. It was unclear to Kihm what this process would entail. “There’s a very clear plan for other types of issues,” he said. “Nothing is in place for LGBT students. That was the most negative experience: feeling like they were dishonest with me, and feeling like I was wronged – not given that dignity.”
Ultimately, he made the choice to leave John Brown University. Less than one month before his sophomore year would start, Kihm announced his decision.
Kihm began attending the University of Arkansas at the start of the Fall 2018 semester. He said that there is one important difference between his experiences at the two universities. “The University of Arkansas as an institution affirms and supports people’s sexual identities and gender identities. There are events on campus to support and celebrate that, and so that’s a huge difference from JBU.”
Just as being in an environment that was not affirming had negative effects on his mental health, Kihm recognizes the positive changes an affirming institution has had on him. “Being in the environment where the administration is supportive takes out any fear or hesitation to be who I was or to share my opinions, because I know at the end of the day, the administration affirms and supports me as a person. Where at JBU, that’s not the case.”
Benham has found attitudes toward homosexuality very different outside of his Christian college. “The crowd I typically surrounded myself with at SBU is now a lot more accepting of me, and people in public in different places now treat me as I would have expected to be at SBU,” he said. Before he graduated, only about five people knew Benham was gay. Now, he is able to be open about his sexuality.
Watterson is now in a public relationship with a woman, living in Kansas City and working in her field, theater. “I came out to some of my best friends from SBU this year. They honestly have come so far in trying to educate themselves and to be supportive as much as they can,” she said. “Some of my friendships have grown incredibly stronger knowing that there is no barrier between us.” While she admits that some of her friendships have become more awkward, knowing that these friends do not approve of her lifestyle, Watterson is happy to be living authentically.
The future of Christian schools and LGBTQ students
The future of policies regarding homosexuality at Christian universities is controversial. Many believe the future will come with more tolerance and affirmation for LGBTQ people, even in Christian circles. However, some would say this day may never come. The fact that schools have updated their handbooks to include current terminology like “homoerotic behavior” and “gender identity” reflects a persistence in their negative stance.
Watterson is somewhat optimistic. “Oh there will always be conservative Christian schools.” However, she acknowledged the possibility that a better future may lie ahead. “Maybe when the older folks die, the schools will be more accepting just because people are more out and proud about who they are today than they were 50 years ago. It gives me something to look forward to.”
Benham expressed the same sentiment: “I believe there is a huge push in Christianity in general that’s going to become more accepting. But overall, there will always be the old white guys on church boards and boards of directors who veto any sort of acceptance and love towards the LGBT community, even if they identify with the same faith,” he said.
“There’s a lot of conservative people in the older generation, and white men in charge at all Christian universities,” Kihm said. Until these people are no longer in power, Kihm does not see much change happening within conservative Christian schools. “Trends show that while churches are steadily growing more accepting of LGBTQ people, young people especially are,” he said. “So, I don’t see any major changes happening in the next 10 years, honestly. I think slowly, change will start to be brought by student-led protests and student-led petitions and key faculty.”
However, Kihm was clear that this does not mean students and activists should do nothing. “That’s not [to say], ‘it’s not gonna get any better, don’t do anything,’” he said. “It definitely starts now with students being visible and students questioning ideas and policies, and also having their fellow students who aren’t LGBTQ being aware of that.” While he sees the value in activism and visibility, Kihm warned LGBTQ students to put their mental health first. “LGBTQ students, there is a need to be on campus and a need to be visible. But make sure you’re not sacrificing your own health for that. And that goes for anyone, always. It’s okay not to be a superhero.”
The call for change
Kihm wants to see Christians make a few key changes in the way they treat LGBTQ people. “My call to action to Christians would first be, above all else, to listen to LGBTQ people,” he said. “Meaning that when you meet an LGBTQ person … your first response should not be, ‘oh, I don’t agree with that’ or ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’ That’s really damaging to an individual.”
He also wants to see Christians take more steps toward compromise with LGBTQ people. “I think that LGBTQ Christians are doing all of the work when it comes to trying to find a middle ground. They’re always taking the short end of the stick, and they are always the ones compromising,” Kihm stated. “It’s time for Christians to consider, ‘how can we not compromise our beliefs, but how can we disagree and still compromise?’”
Kihm is not trying to change anyone’s theological views. He is looking for a change in the way LGBTQ people are treated, regardless of the theology behind it. “It’s not about changing anyone’s ideals; it’s just about creating a bigger space of acceptance and tolerance,” he said. “If Christians continue to demonize this issue like, ‘being gay is a sin and sin is bad,’ and not putting faces and relationships in that mix, it’s really easy to do that. But once you get to know LGBTQ people and LGBTQ Christians, you’ll be forced to consider that these are real people with real emotions.”
Kihm’s call to Christians is centered around kindness and love. “What we are trying to do is get Christians to be more understanding, more loving, and more kind, and also not to hinder the lives of LGBTQ people,” he said. Mark 12:31b says, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself. There are no commands more important than these.”
And that would be a good place for Christian universities to start.
Note: Each of the students interviewed above has granted permission to have their names and stories published