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Coming Out on a Christian Campus, Then and Now

By Ed Madden

Last month a pair of emails took me back to my roots in Christian fundamentalism, to a world I have tried, unsuccessfully, to escape. One message was from a friend, a link to a story about the death of the Rev. Peter Gomes, a man who spoke out against intolerance and specifically against the biblical literalism so often used to ground it. The other, from an address I didn’t recognize, was about a webzine by gay and lesbian students from my alma mater, Harding University—a Christian college that made news for censoring the publication and shutting down the very dialogue it was intended to encourage.

A conversation is happening—at other Christian colleges if not at Harding. In February, gay and lesbian alumni of Westmont College in Montecito, CA, wrote an open letter describing the loneliness and fear they felt there; a letter that prompted calls for campus dialogue. Baylor University, a Baptist-affiliated university in Waco, Texas, has blocked the formation of a campus “Sexual Identity Forum,” but Belmont College in Nashville has officially recognized a gay and lesbian student group.

The Most Vexed Topic

If homosexuality is “the most vexed topic” among religious people, to quote Gomes, then recent responses to homosexuality at Christian schools suggest real social change, as evangelical Christians try to reconcile their growing awareness of gay and lesbian lives with the rigid attitudes that define fundamentalist culture. The same day I received the news about Gomes and about the HU Queer Press, Huffington Post religion writer Cathleen Falsani suggested that there are major shifts in attitudes about homosexuality among younger generations of evangelical Christians—shifts in attitude if not belief.

I’m not of that younger generation, but I’m deeply moved by what I see happening—especially as I read the Harding webzine last week and as I watched friends, former classmates, and alumni grapple with its implications. As a gay man who grew up in rural Christian fundamentalism and who attended Harding University, I know that everything I feel about community, sexuality, selfhood, God, and grace has its roots in the culture that defined those things for me as a child, yet forbade me access to them as an adult. I may state that too strongly, but I can’t shake the crippling sense of shame and isolation I felt and still feel, the rupture in my own family and the estrangement that resulted from my honesty, and the desperate desire for community that shapes, for better or worse, both my politics and my spirituality.

In The Good Book, Rev. Gomes’ invaluable guide to biblical understanding, he offers a succinct indictment of biblical literalism: “‘The Bible says what it means and means what it says.’ This is a popular defense of authority of scripture, and it is as dangerous and wrong as it is simple and memorable.” Not only simple and memorable, but something I heard over and over growing up in the Church of Christ. In the rural churches where I grew up, there were no pianos in the sanctuary because there aren’t any in the New Testament, and churches could split over whether or not you used one cup or multiple cups for the communion grape juice, or whether there could be a social hall in the church. Even water fountains could cause consternation. I remember a quite-heated argument, as a high school student, over whether or not church-supported entities like orphan homes and colleges—like Harding—were “scriptural.”

Such petty literalism might be atypical in the tradition, but literalists still pick and choose what deserves cultural understanding (slaves, obey your masters), what might be granted the flexibility of “interpretation” (wives, be subject to your husbands), and what says what it means and means what it says (the bizarre rendering of homosexuality as willful choice in Romans).

"Why Would You Go To Harding If You're Gay?"

It’s a tradition I had to leave to survive. I recall the grace I felt as a graduate student in Austin, Texas, when I first turned to a little neighborhood Methodist church. Finding that church saved my life. The first time I took communion there as an openly gay man was the most profound religious experience of my life, much more than my baptism as a boy—that dunk in the cold baptistery during a gospel revival was more a flight from hell and from my growing sense of sexual difference than a spiritual conviction. After taking the bread and wine that Sunday at Trinity United Methodist Church in Austin's Hyde Park, I couldn’t get up. I knelt at the altar rail and wept, shaking, still not believing in a God or a community that would accept me just as I am, rather than just how others wanted and expected and demanded I be.

All of this came back to me last week as I read those two emails and as my Facebook page and mailbox filled over the next few days with the controversy about the webzine and the university administration’s response—including stories on The Huffington Post and on the New Yorker blog.

A couple of comments kept coming up. Repeatedly, people kept asking, “Why would you go to Harding if you’re gay?” Even alumni, though, would ask why these GLBT students chose to attend there, or why they couldn’t or wouldn’t leave?

The question is unfair. So many factors—funding, family, a deep connection to the religious culture—could place a student at Harding. While more and more students may show up their first year of college with self-awareness about sexual identity, as they do at the public university where I teach, I know it is difficult to come to terms with yourself if you grow up in fundamentalist Christian culture. Many of us come out while in college; at Harding finding ourselves in a world in which something fundamental about ourselves is a category of silence at best, more likely a category of condemnation and stigmatization. I have no doubt that many find themselves coming to sexual awareness at Harding, as I did, or they hope and pray that Harding and its culture will, in some way, cure them—something I had also hoped.

Self-awareness is difficult at Harding, coming out well-nigh impossible. It’s impossible to come to terms with yourself in a place where it it’s impossible to talk about who you are. Harding’s response to the webzine simply formalized the overwhelming culture of silence: these stories were silenced, as if to say such stories should be silenced. As the authors of the webzine state, “Our voices are muted, our stories go unheard, and we are forced into hiding.” That climate makes their courage all the more valuable and all the more obvious, and the need for dialogue more urgent. Anonymous they may be, but brave they are as well.

The other comment I’ve seen online among alumni is that some find the webzine offensive: “harsh,” “poorly written,” or hyperbolically, “hate speech” and “pornography.” Harding University President David Burke said, in an address to the college’s daily chapel audience, that he couldn’t even state the name of the website, HUQueerPress.com, because the “address itself is offensive to me.” (Is it the word “queer” that offends him, or the linking of that word with Harding?)

I want to ask: did you actually read it?

I found the essays to be provocative, heartfelt, smart, thoughtful, and brave. These students are avowedly Christian, though it is clear they have to grapple with what that means in the context of Harding and the culture of religious fundamentalism and political conservatism it embodies. One essay examines scripture. Another essay, entitled appropriately “Toxic Teachings,” interrogates class notes from a course on Christian Home, notes that repeat outdated psychological theories about distant fathers and cross-gender identifications and that offer tips on how to bring your kids up straight. (I recall my own Christian Home class. I still have the textbook with its litany of gender stereotypes. I remember the professor split up the boys and girls one week to talk about sex. I can’t recall the lecture to the guys, but I do remember the girls all telling us in the cafeteria after class that the professor assured them that oral sex was okay in the context of marriage.)

One bracingly honest essay (indeed the one most likely to have prompted offense) details struggles both sexual and spiritual. Yes, it describes an act of oral sex. Yes, the writer says “Fuck you God” in the depths of spiritual despair, when he feels abandoned by the God to whom he keeps praying. But he also describes the new life he finds when he begins to reconcile his sexuality with his faith: “I over-flowed with joy. I didn’t have to compromise my faith to be who I was.”

Overwhelmingly, though, the webzine is a plea for dialogue and a safe space. “I do not feel safe” at Harding, one student writes—a theme taken up by almost every writer in the ’zine. Not all are negative about their experiences at Harding. One who found support among her friends says, “My hope is that Harding will become a place where everyone is able to have the love and support that I did.” More typical, though, is the writer who says, “If there’s anything I need right now, it’s to know that my fellow students don’t hate me.”

As one student said in Harding’s student newspaper last week: “The writers of this publication don’t feel safe speaking their minds and hearts publicly. This is a failure of the institution.”

On the Menu: Capitalism and Christianity

Media coverage has focused on Harding as a religious institution: the university’s policies on sexual morality, the president’s quotations from the Bible in a chapel address. What has been left out is the fact that Harding’s response is not just religious, it is also emphatically political.

None of the national media stories have tied Harding’s religious conservatism to its rigid political conservatism, but, in my experience, the one is inextricable from the other. The main lecture series on campus is explicitly devoted to capitalism and Christianity and implicitly to right-wing politics. Speakers have included Bay Buchanan, Dinesh D’Souza, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Sean Hannity, Ken Starr, Cal Thomas, Laura Ingraham—a speaker’s bureau of conservative ideology. When I was there in the 1980s, there is never even any pretense of ideological balance. (Full disclosure: I was chair of the College Republicans. Looking back I’d say that was a pretty effective coping strategy for deeply closeted and conflicted gay man. Full disclosure no. 2: I stopped making contributions to Harding when Bay Buchanan was invited to campus. Alumni loyalty has its limits.)

In a 1992 op-ed, quoted in the New York Times last week, Gomes said, “Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant.” He added, “Such intolerance, in the name of virtue, is ruthless and uses political power to destroy what it cannot convert.”

Intolerance in the name of virtue. That’s what silencing is: an attempt to suppress diversity, to disavow ambiguity, to destroy thru silence that which cannot be converted. And that is political, not spiritual.

I know this deep down. I’ve spent the last week reacquainting myself with the ghosts of the past—with what it feels like to suppress and ignore what you know to be true of yourself, to police your actions and words and thoughts, to pray with anguish. When I talk with students about my own struggles, I say that I spent years praying for God to change me. He finally did: he made me honest about who I am. But I struggle on with the damage, my lingering sense of shame, my lost relationships, my deformed sexual self, my thorny faith.

The Harding students’ stories and voices remind me what it was like, and how it could be different. I take heart in the courage and honesty of those student writers.

“Faith is us on our knees,” one writes, “broken, weak and full of questions. Like Jacob at Bethel, we must wrestle with God. When we triumph our name becomes Israel.”

He who has ears, let him hear.

[Editor's Note: A correction was made to this article on 6/2/11. The name of the church that welcomed the author in his youth was not Hyde Park Methodist, but Trinity United Methodist Church, as the text now reflects. ]


Ed Madden is an associate professor of English at the University of South Carolina. His first collection of poetry, Signals, won the 2007 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize. A second, Prodigal: Variations, characterized by one critic as “a brave and astonishing collection of parables sung by exiles,” will be published in April. Madden is also the co-editor of Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, a collection of radio essays from one of the South’s only gay and lesbian radio shows.

© Religion Dispatches 2011. All rights reserved. Reproduction of materials from any Religion Dispatches pages without written permission is strictly prohibited.

Publication: Religion Dispatches; Date: March 31, 2011; Section: (a)theologies

 

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