Monday, July 9, 2012

Sexual Identity and the Christian College Campus

One of the things I enjoy most about directing the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity ( at Regent University is the opportunity to conduct original research on the topic of sexual identity in ways that are particularly relevant to the Christian community. I tend to look at how topics are studied in the mainstream gay, lesbian, and bisexual research and consider the questions that might be asked on behalf of the Christian community. Because of the ways in which the broader culture and specific organizations have engaged the topic of homosexuality and sexual identity (and fostered a kind of “culture war” approach), it has been helpful to conduct research that speaks to some of the complexities in this area. One of those questions has to do with the experiences of sexual minorities on Christian university and college campuses. (I am using the phrase “sexual minority” to simply recognize that most people do not experience same-sex attraction or have a homosexual orientation; they are in the numeric minority. I am not making a political statement or suggesting anything associated with the civil rights movement.)

When I look at the mainstream portrayal of these students, I see only one way of thinking about them. For example, Equality Ride (, an activist group, portrays these students is as if they are all essentially closeted and in need of freedom from oppressive campus policies. I am not saying that there are no students who think that way or who have had negative experiences. I have met several over the time I have consulted at various institutions affiliated with the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). However, I have reason to believe that they are not the only sexual minorities on Christian colleges campuses. I doubt that they currently reflect the views of most sexual minorities on Christian college campuses.

A few years ago colleagues and I published the first study we were aware of that specifically focused on Christians who experience same-sex attractions and attend one of three CCCU institutions (Yarhouse, Stratton, Dean, & Brooke, 2009). We asked about various milestone events in sexual identity development, and we were impressed by the fact that few reported several of the more common milestone events that lead to a gay or lesbian identity. For example, only a small percentage reported engaging in same-sex behavior, initially attributing their attractions to a gay identity, or integrating their attractions into a gay identity. In answers to other questions we asked, the sexual minorities in the study also reflected quite conservative beliefs and values. In a follow-up study that is currently under review, we see similar results in which a fairly conservative sample is not following the mainstream gay and lesbian developmental models for embracing a gay identity.

What do I make of this? First, from a developmental perspective, I think we are witnessing a different developmental trajectory among Christian sexual minorities, most of whom do not (at least at the time of the survey) integrate their same-sex sexuality into a gay or lesbian identity. The values they appear to see in a gay or lesbian identity do not appear to reflect the values they themselves hold. Second, and as a result of the first point, most of these sexual minorities appear to be selecting Christian colleges because the conservative Christian sexual ethics reflected in the position statements of these institutions reflect the personal beliefs and values of most of these students. They attend these institutions because they share the values of those institutions.  That may change over time, of course, but that appears to be what we see in the current data.

What we also see is that sexual minorities do not find the climate at Christian colleges very helpful for those who experience same-sex attraction. This may seem obvious, but it has to addressed. If we keep in mind that most Christians who experience same-sex attraction are sincerely struggling to sort out their sexual identity questions, we have to create a better climate for them to do that. What we see today is that the climate is not a supportive atmosphere to navigate this particular terrain. Climate can be set by many factors, and we only asked about a few things in our initial survey, so this is an area that should be studied further. But what we found was that the climate was set primarily by other students (rather than faculty or staff). Students appear to set climate through teasing and related comments—using derogatory terms for various sexual minorities that keep their peers in check. This is more so the case among men, but it also happens among women. These seem to be the last “acceptable” ways to denigrate one’s peers in a Christian setting.

This can change, and it needs to change. There is a need for students to take the lead in setting a different climate on Christian college campuses (with support from faculty, staff, and administration). There is a need for this to happen not because of external pressure to conform to a vision of mainstream gay and lesbian identity development or because an activist organization portrays students in ways that reflects their own values. Rather, the motivation can come from the awareness that such derogatory phrases are wrong in terms of Christian morality—it is not how we ought to relate to one another. Further, such language can end up driving fellow believers who struggle in this area away from our own communities—which are meant to be an extension of the Body of Christ—and into the gay community. There are certainly many people in the gay community who see Christian sexual minorities as having more in common with the gay community than the conservative Christian community. The Christian community could take the opposite position: that Christians who struggle with sexual identity have more in common with the Christian community than the gay community. But we rarely here anyone talk that way. Indeed, there appear to be many more people in the gay community than there are in the Christian community ready to provide support and answers to fundamental questions that are ultimately tied to identity (“Who am I?”) and community (“Of which community am I a part?”).

I recognize that there are no easy answers here. One of the challenges that arise when students, for example, try to make these changes is that other students may label them “pro gay” for taking any sort of supportive position, and then we are back to a “culture war” mentality. Christians would do well to step outside of that framework and into a truly Christian understanding in which we hold and act upon convictions about respect for the dignity and worth of all people while also articulating and adhering to orthodoxy in sexual ethics. These expressions of respect and clarity about sexual ethics all flow naturally from Christianity, but many of us have a difficult time in consistently maintaining and expressing them. My experience is that the more politicized these issues become, the more polarized we become, and neither politics nor polarization have seemed to bring many helpful resources to the sexual minorities who are asking for help navigating their sexual identity in light of their Christian identity. We can do better.

Yarhouse, M. A. (2010). Homosexuality and the Christian: A guide for pastors, parents, and friends. Minneapolis, MN: BethanyHouse.
Yarhouse, M. A., Stratton, S. P., Dean, J. B., & Brooke, H. L. (2009). Listening to sexual minorities on Christian college campuses. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 37 (2), 96-113.

Mark A Yarhouse, Psy.D.
Professor of Psychology & Endowed Chair
Director, Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity
School of Psychology and Counseling
Regent University

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