How to Support the GLBTQIA Community as an Open Christian

Jonathan Ross, Lyndon State College

Higher education professionals who identify as Christian often face a difficult crossroads between two seemingly opposed viewpoints.  Traditionally, Christian values have been touted as anti-GLBTQIA (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, and Allies).  As a new professional and “Open Christian” (someone who is open about their faith), there were doubts and assumptions made about me that I would not be an advocate for GLBTQIA individuals when joining my campus community.  There were several things I needed to learn in order to overcome the predisposition of what being an open Christian meant, especially as it related to my ability to advocate and support the GLBTQIA community.  The purpose of this article is to share my perspective in a way that will give other Christian professionals insight into this topic and provide space for personal reflection.

Christianity has long been seen as opposing the GLBTQIA community (Heermann, Wiggins, & Rutter, 2007).  This perception hinders the ability of student affairs professionals who are open Christians to advocate for GLBTQIA students.  Pastors and theologians have focused mainly on early Christian biblical literature about homosexuality and, perhaps, narrow interpretations of the Bible when forming their viewpoints.  They have demonstrated little awareness of constructive proposals by lesbian/gay and queer theologians (Lowe, 2009).

Reverends Hagler and Clark (2010) have reviewed the common arguments against GLBTQIA ordination and Church inclusion.  They make the argument that homosexuality is not an abomination, not the sin of Sodom, not like incest, not pedophilia or bestiality, or even dangerous, unhealthy or unnatural.  They argue that male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, how we are born, who we are politically, socially organized, or our economic status: these factors do not have any influence on our status as children of God in Christ (Hagler & Clark, 2010).  This notion of all being children of God also extends to GLBTQIA individuals.  Regardless of how one views the texts that make up the base of Christianity, criticism from gay and lesbian theologians has been insightful in explaining the complex relationships between Christianity and GLBTQIA individuals.  Such criticism draws attention to potential marginalization in Christianity toward students based on sexual biases (Jones, 2009).

Overcoming this marginalization, by seeing everyone as a creation of their spiritual deity, is a challenge all religious and spiritual student affairs practitioners need to face.  Refusal to view all other people, especially marginalized people, as created in the image of God results in severe negative consequences.  Advocating for these marginalized students presents an opportunity for Christians to delve deeper into religious literacy to find the inner meaning of religion.  Jones (2009) states that such a philosophy promises to help bridge destructive divisions, bridging them not by eliding or ignoring the real differences that do exist, but by working to situate those differences in a more productive narrative frame.

Perhaps Christians have more in common with the GLBTQIA community than not.  Christianity and GLBTQIA traditions are similar in the way that they both invoke narratives as a foundation of their identity (Jones, 2009).  Christians and GLBTQIA individuals both have a symbolic example of their identity in the conversion stories of their respective societies.  The coming out story is that symbolic example, whether it is coming to God or coming out about one’s sexuality (Jones, 2009).  Christian theology is narratively shaped with an emphasis on personal conversion. Christian individuals see their converted life as having its source and pattern in the life of Christ.  Similarly, in gay and lesbian communities, coming out stories have long functioned in epistemologically and ethically foundational ways (Jones, 2009).  In this light, higher education professionals have a commonality with GLBTQIA individuals, which can be used to build relationships.  One’s coming-to-Jesus moments are a lot like coming out for the first time.  The self-actualization of one’s true beliefs and feelings can be similarly conceptualized.

Higher education professionals should be aware of the emotional and psychological challenges they may need to overcome regarding GLBTQIA issues in order to be effective campus leaders.  Equality and inclusion are central tenets of all student affairs professionals, regardless of religious or other personal beliefs (Bresciani & Todd, 2010).  Roper (2005) believes that personal awareness and openness are key characteristics of positive leadership on the part of student affairs administrators. He states that awareness is improved by exploring the attitudes and values that have shaped one’s worldview.  Personal awareness and openness allow us to be cognizant of how our worldview influences how we act toward others.  Student affairs leaders should first explore the backgrounds of their lives to identify incidents and episodes that enhance or impair their ability to lead in a manner that is supportive of GLBTQIA students (Roper, 2005).  As professionals dedicated to building community at our institutions, those in student affairs should fully participate in the GLBTQIA community—in celebration, reflection, and grieving experiences—as opportunities arise on our campuses.  Students count on these professionals for support.  Therefore, GLBTQIA students should be able to count on student affairs administrators to be present at the events in which their growth and development is critical.

Student affairs professionals must be aware of the consequences of discrimination, including threats/harm, mental health symptoms, academic implications, and health risks of GLBTQIA students.  Not knowing the risks and harm that can potentially come to these students may leave professionals incapable of helping this particularly vulnerable campus constituency.  Sexual minority youth are significantly more likely than their heterosexual peers to miss school because of fear: to be threatened with a weapon at school, to have property damaged at school, and to have forced sexual contact against their will (Wolff & Himes, 2010).  While bullying and harassment are serious concerns regardless of the victim, students who identify as GLBTQIA may feel especially isolated and unable to seek help.  The dangers that GLBTQIA students face are serious and real.  They may feel pressured to keep struggles secret from their communities and are more likely to seek out social and romantic relationships through discreet and accessible venues such as GLBTQIA bars, clubs, and Web sites (Wolff & Himes, 2010), which can be dangerous.  Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that sexual minority youth in states that have constitutional amendments against same-sex unions are more likely to experience depressive symptoms and generalized anxiety (Wolff & Himes, 2010).  In order for higher education professionals to be effective leaders, we must recognize and react to these potential dangers.

There are numerous opportunities for Christians at institutions of higher education to begin to offer love and support to GLBTQIA students.  As Christians, it is within our faiths to stand against persecution and advocate for those who have been discriminated against.  It is also important to begin to make the necessary changes that will foster a campus climate of grace and compassion for our GLBTQIA brothers and sisters.  One particular way to create this type of environment is to make offices safe spaces for all students.  Taking steps such as using symbols of GLBTQIA support, can help professionals create an atmosphere of support.  Staff visibility at GLBTQIA pride events, social events, meetings, and training programs can show students that higher education professionals support them.  Further, sharing religious narratives with students, as they relate to their own stories, is another step towards supporting GLBTQIA students.

In conclusion, compassion and understanding are the most effective instruments in supporting GLBTQIA students and in combating perceived Christian prejudice.  Upholding the Christian values of unconditional love and renunciation of violence can help professionals overcome personal biases and advocate for equality and inclusion in the campus community.  Both Christians and GLBTIQIA students have a shared story on coming out to our faith and true selves.  Student affairs administrators need to be aware of the hardships that all students may face and to help them through those hardships.  There are ways that Christians can support others, even if they are not fully accepting of their differences.  If beliefs are contradictory to a Christian’s lifestyle, it is not for professionals to persecute those beliefs, but rather to befriend the individuals and advocate for them.  If Christians can accomplish this, then the field of student affairs will be more progressive in helping GLBTQIA students lead safer, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.

Discussion Questions

1.How does the GLBTQIA community view open Christians on your campus?  To what extent does that view impact their relationship with student affairs leaders?

2.What partnerships can you build upon to strengthen the relationships between the non-GLBTQIA Christian, non-Christian GLBTQIA, and Christian GLBTQIA communities?

3.How can we engage participants to find mutual ground for compassion and advocacy?


References

Bresciani, M., & Todd, M. (2010). Professional competency areas for student affairs practitioners. Retrieved from http://www.naspa.org/images/uploads/main/Professional_Competencies.pdf

Hagler, D., & Clark, A. (2010). A Resource on GLBTQ Ordination. Network News, 30(4), 9-15.

Heermann, M., Wiggins, M., & Rutter, P. (2007). Creating a space for spiritual practice: Pastoral possibilities with sexual minorities. Pastoral Psychology, 55, 711-721.

Jones, N. W. (2009). The challenge of Christianity for gay and lesbian criticism—and vice versa. Christianity & Literature, 58(2), 238-243.

Lowe, M. (2009). Gay, lesbian, and queer theologies: origins, contributions, and challenges. Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 48(1), 49-61.

Roper, L. D. (2005). The role of senior student affairs officers in supporting LGBT students: Exploring the landscape of one’s life. New Directions For Student Services, 111, 81-88.

Wolff, J. R., & Himes, H. L. (2010). Purposeful exclusion of sexual minority youth in Christian higher education: The implications of discrimination. Christian Higher Education, 9(5), 439-460.

About the Author

Jonathan Ross is a Residence Hall Director/Programming and Community Service Coordinator at Lyndon State College.  Previously, he was a Graduate Hall Director at New England College, where he received his Master’s in Higher Education Administration.  He received his Bachelor’s in Interdisciplinary Music Business from Plymouth State University.  Currently, his responsibilities at Lyndon consist of residential programming, the Community Service Learning program, as well as direct responsibility for four co-ed housing facilities.  Jonathan’s research interests include equity and inclusion, specifically on supporting ethnic diversity at small schools. 

Please e-mail inquiries to Jonathan Ross.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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