Nationwide, colleges try to reconcile faith with gay rights
He wasn’t hiding his sexuality, he said, but he worried what his peers at Campbell University — a historically Baptist-affiliated university near Raleigh — would think.
“People always have something to say,” Herring said.
Herring, now a senior, came out in 10th grade. But his small religious campus of about 3,000 undergraduate students, like many others nationwide, has struggled to reconcile its foundations in faith with the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
“Faith is a hard thing for me just because I don’t really know what I believe or what I want to believe,” he said.
A changing cultural and political climate has forced religiously-based institutions to acknowledge a reality — students aren’t going to hide their sexuality for acceptance anymore.
Herring is the president of Campbell’s only LGBT group, Common Ground, which was created less than two years ago.
Amillia Payne, the public relations officer for Common Ground and Herring’s roommate, said Campbell’s administration would not allow the club to use specific LGBT references in its name.
But Common Ground has been successful in its short existence — it boasts about 20 regular members, and next semester, it hopes to host its first-ever drag show on campus.
“The world is changing; you kind of have to be open to a lot of things,” Payne said.
Campbell joined four other North Carolina schools in 2007 to cut formal affliation with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina — the schools stopped accepting convention funds and gained the freedom to elect their own boards of trustees.
Many schools have governed separately from Christian ties for years, including Baptist-affiliated Wake Forest University and Methodist-affiliated Duke University.
But Campbell refrains from taking stances on social issues, and it remains a dry campus with gender-segregated dorms and visitation hours, said Britt Davis, vice president for institutional advancement and assistant to the president.
“The university administration doesn’t take an active role in encouraging or discouraging students to be who they are,” he said.
Students are also required to take a faith-based class their first two years that reflects the university’s Christian mission and purpose.
Ben Hancock, president of Methodist University in Fayetteville, said students appreciate the opportunity to worship, with up to 500 students participating in weekly Bible study groups and chapel.
“We don’t try to say because we are Methodist ... we compensate in order to attract students,” he said. “We welcome everyone.”
Despite Campbell’s inherent connection to the church, Davis said the university tries to be pragmatic.
“We live in the real world with real people — with you and me and everyone else that we have to work and live and get along with,” he said.
Davis said the number of applications to Campbell has increased exponentially in the past five years. He said the university’s intimate size and its faith base make Campbell attractive.
“(Students) want to continue to have some connection to the value base that means something to them, even though as a university we’re not a church,” he said.
Hancock said his university’s relationship with the Methodist Church should be celebrated as a strength, and they encourage conversations surrounding social justice.
This month, Herring said Common Ground was told Campbell amended its nondiscrimination policy, which includes sexual orientation, to extend to students.
He said the environment for LGBT students is changing but all in due time.
“I’m not one to push it on them, but it’s going to happen,” Herring said.
But some Christian universities have adopted an approach that LGBT students and alumni take issue with.
Paul Canaday-Elliott, spokesman for OneWheaton, an LGBT group for alumni of Wheaton College in Illinois, said the school hosted a chapel speaker in 2011 that encouraged celibacy as a legitimate way of being gay and Christian.
“It perpetuated this idea that this gay lifestyle is one of loneliness and depravity,” he said.
Justin Massey, a senior at the historically-religious Wheaton, said differing theological thought at the small school deems one an outsider.
Massey said he is one of four currently “out” students on the 3,000-person campus and is co-founder of the school’s first LGBT student group, Refuge.
He said he grew up in an evangelical home with a father who is a pastor, and it took him until his junior year at Wheaton to identify as gay.
The campus community struggles to separate the theological and the individual in conversation, Massey said.
“Wheaton is not a safe place to come out,” he said. “People don’t want to admit anything that would run contrary to the majority concept of what is good.”
He said outside pressures on the administration make the conversation surrounding LGBT rights a feared one.
Canaday-Elliott said Wheaton’s ideology is based on a traditional reading of the Bible. But there are exceptions.
“(Evangelicals’) viewpoints are changing largely because they know people who are gay, and they don’t fit this image that is often painted in the pulpit,” he said.
Massey wouldn’t give up his faith, and he said after spending a semester away from Wheaton, he recognized the spiritual community and the culture he valued at the college.
“I’m able to help lead the campus to a safer space,” he said. “I can help them avoid the more painful points of existing in this community.”
But he said the gay rights issue doesn’t define Wheaton.
“Taking a stance on this point, it’s distancing yourself from the entire ideology of the college,” he said. “But I don’t see it that way. I honestly think we have a lot more in common than we do that kind of separates us.”
For generations of LGBT alumni from schools like Wheaton and Campbell, groups for gay and lesbian students are a welcome surprise.
Payne said alumni visiting Campbell have been shocked to see Common Ground as a university-approved club.
“They would have never thought that Campbell would ever, ever in a million years get a gay club on their campus.”