Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wheaton College Would Like to Pretend Its LGBTQ Students Don’t Exist

Queerness keeps popping up at Wheaton College, and the evangelical flagship keeps pushing it down. 

Towards the end of April, a rainbow flag was surreptitiously hung in the school’s cafeteria, appearing among dozens of national flags. The next morning, once people spotted it, the flag was promptly taken down (but not before eyewitnesses snapped some pictures and a student’s mother raged against it to Fox News columnist Todd Starnes: “When the gay pride flag flies at your Christian college, it is a direct attack on the Word of God, It’s shameful…” ). 

Personally, I don’t blame the administration for removing a flag whose display they hadn’t authorized. If this was all that had happened, I wouldn’t be bothering to write about my alma mater right now. 

But something else happened: several days later, The Bench—a beloved slab of concrete on the campus that is frequently (and licitly) tagged with spray paint by various student groups throughout the year—was painted with rainbow stripes and the words “We Can’t Be Erased. We’re Here. We’re Queer.” And just as the rainbow flag was taken down as speedily as possible, the rainbow bench was painted white within twelve hours

Before and after…

Afterwards, in an even more disturbingly repressive gesture, the Dean of Residence Life and the Residence Director of a dorm (incidentally, the same dorm where this queer dude was an R.A. five years ago) confronted a student who had hung a rainbow flag in their own dorm room window and asked the student to remove it. Apparently, Wheaton’s concern isn’t merely about people putting the rainbow flag where it isn’t officially licensed to be; their concern is about people putting the rainbow flag anywhere.

How will Wheaton attempt to excuse this violation of their students’ freedom of speech? Perhaps they will recycle the logic and rhetoric that led the administration to oust a tenured professor, Larycia Hawkins, last year, when she wore a hijab as an act of solidarity with Muslims and wrote a Facebook post in which she quoted the Pope’s assertion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Although the college’s Statement of Faith says nothing about Islam, or any religion other than Christianity, the administration justified their actions by claiming that Dr. Hawkins’ “theological statements…could be interpreted in ways that were inconsistent with the College’s Statement of Faith” (emphasis mine). 

If Wheaton’s administration—or, perhaps more accurately, Wheaton’s ultra-conservative donor base—wants to get rid of someone or something in their community, they don’t need to make a reasonable case for an expulsion, apparently; they just need to say, “This could be interpreted as inconsistent with our Statement of Faith,” and it’s all over. The fact that the school’s Statement of Faith says nothing about flying rainbow flags or showing gestures of solidarity with the LGBTQ community means nothing to this administration, which appears to be selling the school’s birthright of academic respectability for the pottage of right-wing extremism. 

However the school responds to this recent rise in LGBTQ visibility, one thing is clear: it’s not going anywhere. Attempts to silence LGBTQ students will only make them louder, and repression will only energize them to rise higher than they—than we—ever have before. 

Indeed, in this day and age, Wheaton’s LGBTQ students are extremely well-equipped for the work ahead of them. The family of LGBTQ-affirming evangelicals is both larger and more visible than ever, and by now there is an abundance of resources—books, articles, organizations, congregations—that have presented cogent cases for LGBTQ affirmation on specifically evangelical grounds. 

(Honestly, at this point, I shouldn’t have to make a list of these resources or repeat their claims. If you are an evangelical who can’t name any of these resources and who can’t articulate any of their arguments, then you are likely cloistered in an evangelical community that is willfully denying their existence. You are being duped into believing a falsehood. You are being told that you are an only child, when your siblings have been taken and hidden away.)

While the task ahead for Wheaton’s LGBTQ students is daunting in many ways, their strategic aim can actually be quite modest: simply persuade the school’s administration to acknowledge the diversity that is already present within the evangelical tradition. Those in the college’s uppermost strata don’t have to change their minds, don’t have to stand on the ground of LGBTQ affirmation themselves; they just have to stop pretending like that ground doesn’t exist. They just have to stop reciting exclusionary platitudes and recognize the validity of a different position. They just have to stop pushing down and shoving out members of their community who don’t think like they do. 

It may take a while, I know. But in the meantime, we’ll keep standing our ground. We’ll keep popping up in places where they don’t want to see us (which is everywhere). And you better believe that we’ll keep waving our flag—as Wheaton taught us to say, “for Christ and His Kingdom.”