Universities affiliated with conservative Christianity can be toxic environments for LGBT students, but some, like Wheaton College in Illinois, actually require all community members to sign a “Community Covenant.” Such contracts explicitly prohibit and condemn homosexuality, among other things, and the penalty for violation of the contract can be expulsion.
This past week, though, LGBTQ students at Wheaton College were validated and recognized for perhaps the first time with the creation of OneWheaton, a newly-formed coalition of LGBTQ alumni. In an open letter to Wheaton students, hundreds of alumni — including some who graduated over 50 years ago — urge students to recognize they are not ”tragic” or “broken,” but that their identities should be celebrated and affirmed, not shamed. They also request awareness and compassion from the broader Wheaton community:
Remember that there are students who feel they need to hide. We remember how messages and conversations surrounding the “issue of homosexuality” often exacerbated our feelings of isolation, particularly when talk about “compassion” often felt like pity at best, or at worst intolerance cloaked in language of love. Speak against blatant and passive language and actions that dehumanize and marginalize your brothers and sisters. Ask questions. Encourage dialogue. Most of all, listen. Your friends need your support and love. As awkward as the process may be for you, it is guaranteed to be more deeply and constantly difficult for your friends.
Wheaton is not the only Christian university whose LGBT students are seeing new support. Alumni at Westmont College in Montecito, CA also reached out to LGBT students through an open letter in the campus newsletter in February. The response there was positive; faculty replied seeking forgiveness for how they may have added to the pain. In March, students and alumni at Harding University went a step further, creating what they called the “HU Queer Press,” an online website and print magazine featuring the stories of LGBT students. Shortly after going live, the university blocked the website on campus and the president, Dr. David Burks, condemned it as “offensive and degrading,” not even daring to say the word “queer” out loud.
These courageous efforts are important, because LGBT-unfriendly campus environments impede students’ success. A recent comprehensive study of American universities shows that LGBT students face significantly greater harassment and discrimination than heterosexual men and women, and it can be safely assumed that levels are higher at schools that explicitly condemn homosexuality. This chilly climate impacts student success, retention, and mental health, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
OneWheaton clarifies on its website: “Not affiliated with or condoned by Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. Duh.”
In the week since the OneWheaton site launched, the number of online signatures of support has quadrupled.