Ironies & Bright Spots for Gays in the Christian College World

As a gay professor at a Christian college where it’s not safe to be out, I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster these past few months, reading about actions Christian colleges have taken on sexuality and gender issues. In my most recent piece for RD, I compared Christian colleges to the Boy Scouts—institutions in which a student (read Scout) can be gay and out, but a faculty member (read Scoutmaster) cannot. “One day you’re in; the next day, you’re out,” to use Heidi Klum’s ominous phrase on Project Runway. 

The controversy receiving the most attention this fall occurred at Azusa Pacific University in California, a Christian university with an undergraduate enrollment of 5500. In September, a faculty member who had been in the theology department for 15 years came out as transgender, to be known as H. Adam Ackley rather than Heather Clements.

Although Azusa had no written policy barring transgender faculty, the university sought and received Ackley’s resignation. His last day of teaching was October 4, 2013. The irony is that this coming April Azusa Pacific will host a conference titled, “The Transformative Power of Diversity in the Global Community.” Obviously, the transformative power of diversity at Azusa does not include transgender faculty.

Living in the Christian college subset of Christendom, I’m almost obsessive about finding bright spots in an otherwise tarnished landscape. For example The Chimes, the student newspaper at Calvin College (the flagship school of the Christian Reformed Church), devoted a section to the stories of gay students at Calvin.

The student editors wrote:

For those of us who are not LGBT, we hope these stories provide a glimpse into the lives of some of our brothers and sisters at Calvin. For those of us who do identify as LGBT, we want you to see that you are not alone, and the Calvin community cares deeply about you.

The editors are to be commended, but Calvin, like Azusa Pacific, extends that caring only to gay students, not to gay faculty and staff. 

The most encouraging event occurred this week, with the announcement that Eastern Mennonite University will take a six-month “listening period” to review its policy prohibiting the hiring of faculty who are in same-sex relationships. The board of trustees has charged the university president with developing a deliberative process that will include faculty, staff, students and alumni. One faculty member stated that he thinks the institution is moving towards “an acceptance policy.” However, the president emphasized that the “outcome is uncertain” and the final decision whether to change or retain the policy rests with the board.  

My reaction when I read this article surprised me—my eyes filled with tears. And I realized how I usually suppress feelings about having to be closeted. I turned to theologian James Alison’s book, Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay for comfort. He does not mince words in describing those who keep out and exclude—they are “expellers.”

Azusa Pacific University was an ‘expeller’ when they sought Professor Ackley’s resignation, and Alison writes that we must, as Christians, “learn how not to be an expeller.” Employment policies, both explicit and implicit, can be mechanisms for violence, and can “reflect an idolatrous literalism which is completely invulnerable to penetration by the living word of God.” Jesus wants mercy, not sacrifice (Matt. 9:13). I pray that Christian colleges would follow those words.

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