An interview with Jonathan Coley, author of Gay on God’s Campus: Mobilizing for LGBT Equality at Christian Colleges and Universities (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). Trained as a sociologist, Jonathan previously taught at Monmouth College in Illinois and now teaches in the Department of Sociology at Oklahoma State University.
Tell us about the book.
The book examines activism by LGBTQ students at Christian colleges and universities. There’s a lot of research out there about how students who are LGBTQ struggle to reconcile their religion, sexuality and/or gender identity on their campus and experience various kinds of trauma on non-affirming Christian campuses. I wanted to understand how LGBTQ students become agents of social change. I examine why students join or form LGBTQ activist groups on their campuses, why they commit to activist groups and sometimes devote several years and many hours a week toward the cause of promoting LGBTQ inclusion on their campuses. I examine what kinds of changes LGBTQ students bring about on their campuses and the strategies and tactics they used to bring about change, and then I consider how students themselves are impacted by their participation and LGBTQ groups on their Christian college and university campuses. I myself attended a Baptist University (Samford University in Alabama) where I worked with other students to start an LGBTQ student group. So this project has personal roots.
Were there any surprises as you got into the research and started looking at students at different campuses?
When I entered into graduate school, I became really familiar with social movement scholarship and theories about how people become activists and the social movement scholarship tends to paint a portrait picture of activists as people who grew up in left wing families—”red diaper babies,” people who go to protest and picket lines from an early age, who are immersed in liberal left wing ideologies from an early age and that’s why they get involved in progressive activism on their college and university campuses. But I knew from my own time at a Baptist university in Alabama that probably most students wouldn’t fit into that stereotypical portrait that most people have of LGBTQ activists or progressive activists on Christian campuses so I kind of knew I would find a diversity of students on Christian college and university campuses.
What were you own experiences at Samford?
When I attended Sanford during my first year 2006-2007, the school actually had a ban on homosexual acts or homosexual behavior. And there was an outside group known as Soulforce that was going on equality rides modeled after the civil rights era Freedom Rides to Christian colleges and universities across the country… And if administrators allowed them to walk on campus, they would hold Town Hall forums and vigils and small group studies with students to try to inspire and encourage community building among LGBTQ students on Christian campuses, but also challenge discriminatory policies on campuses…
I was not out as a gay student my first year but I remember taking it all in and being really inspired by a lot of the work they were doing. Samford actually removed their ban on homosexual acts after my first year there. A couple of years later, after I came out to friends on campus I decided to take that next step and create an LGBTQ student group on the campus. It was during my senior year, we didn’t ask for formal permission for an independent student group from the administration; instead we formed a subcommittee of an existing student organization on campus that was devoted toward… bringing about inclusion and equality of all people. We got going, organizing weekly events that raise awareness about LGBTQ issues within Christianity and within society and again trying to build community among the very small LGBTQ population on campus. …
Even on very conservative Christian campuses that have official policies that try to prohibit same-sex relationships, you are going to find LGBTQ students. The Gallup poll and other recent polls show that over 15% of people in the college-age openly identify as LGBTQ. There’s a new organization called REAP (Religious Exemptions Accountability Project) that just released a study showing that over 10% of Christian college and university students identify as LGBTQ. And if you expand that to see what percent of Christian college and university students are attracted to people of the same sex but might not be out as LGBTQ, and then if you add in people who have reported past same-sex sexual relationships with other students, the number actually gets closer to 30% of the students at Christian colleges and universities – students who either identify as LGBTQ or are attracted to people the same sex or who have engaged in sexual relationship with someone of the same sex… So now matter how conservative the school is, there are LGBTQ students…
Excerpt from the interview with Jonathan Coley:
How can faculty think about their roles in mentoring LGBTQ students?
People often ask me, “why would an LGBTQ student go to a Christian college or university?” And there are a variety of reasons. But most of the reasons are the same here for why straight or heterosexual students go to a Christian college university. Many LGBTQ students who attend Christian colleges and universities are religious themselves, and they seek to get a college degree at a place where they can grow spiritually and grow in their faith at the same time. Other LGBTQ students go to a Christian college university because they’ve offered them a lot of scholarships, because their parents want them to go there, because it’s close to home, or maybe it’s far away from home and they want to be far away from home, in a cool city. And, oh and by the way, a lot of Christian colleges and universities do accept LGBTQ students. I built a database of every Christian college and university in the United States—there’s nearly 700 out of the nearly 2000 four-year, not-for-profit colleges and universities in the United States, and 55% of Christian colleges and universities have non-discrimination policies inclusive of sexual orientation, [and] 45% have LGBTQ student groups. So around half of Christian colleges and universities accept LGBTQ students at least on paper. Around 31% have bans on homosexual acts or homosexual behavior, but they’re not the majority and many people are surprised to find that out.
For LGBTQ+ students, how does their activism potentially relate to their vocation?
I devoted a chapter in the book to this – it’s called “Becoming an Activist.”… It’s about how LGBTQ groups on Christian colleges or universities kind of shape the students who participate and help the students who participate in them gain a sense of agency, gain a sense of themselves as change agents, and often find a sense of calling, find their vocation through LGBTQ student groups.
I find that LGBTQ student groups have different kinds of impacts on students. Some LGBTQ student groups take the form of direct-action groups which are protesting school policies, often discriminatory policies, regarding LGBTQ student groups. Students who participate in those kinds of groups often gain a set of kind of political skills, political values that facilitate their engagement and political campaigns or political types of careers after graduation. But that’s not necessarily the typical kind of LGBTQ group on a Christian college or university campus. Other groups on college campuses take the form of what I call educational groups, and they’re trying to bring about awareness about LGBTQ issues on their campus; they often use more conciliatory, institutionalized kinds of tactics. Students participating in those groups often gain a lot of experience just talking about themselves, talking about their values, talking about the connections between their faith and sexuality, and gain skills of compromise and bridge building. A lot of people who participate in these educational kinds of organizations enter into careers like LGBTQ-related social services, or they enter into church reform organizations or organizations that are devoted to LGBTQ awareness raising within religious traditions. And then other LGBTQ groups look like what you might call affinity groups that really exist to bring LGBTQ students on campus together within a safe space, where students can be supported in their life journeys, engage in social activities together. These kinds of groups often help students really understand a sense of who they are, their personal identities. Maybe doesn’t shape their careers necessarily but it helps them gain confidence in coming out as LGBTQ to family members and friends. It maybe helps them formulate their family plans and figure out who they want to be as future partners or parents, and there’s different kinds of LGBTQ student groups on campuses that often shape their students’ work, political, and family trajectories. …
Excerpt from the interview with Jonathan Coley:
Jonathan talks about the harms suffered by LGBTQ students on non-affirming campuses.
What additional research needs to be done about LGBTQ students on religious campuses?
When I conducted my interviews in 2013-2014, I didn’t really talk to many trans students or non-binary students at all, just a very small handful. On a couple of campuses I went to, I just couldn’t find any trans- or non-binary students [who were out], but that has really changed over the past decade… And this is an area of research I’m actually getting into now: what Christian colleges and universities policy approaches towards transgender or non-binary or gender non-conforming students are like; are they allowing gender neutral housing on campus, for example. That is an area of research that definitely needs to be pursued.
Another thing I’ll say is, when I was conducting interviews in 2013-2014, I was only looking at campuses where there were activist groups mobilizing. But there are certain Christian colleges and universities that were so conservative at the time that there was very little LGBTQ activism on campus… but I think even on those kinds of campuses LGBTQ students are becoming increasingly vocal and are trying to organize in various ways. And so, I think there needs to be more research at even some highly fundamentalist Christian colleges universities that I couldn’t get into the door at or weren’t really feasible sites for my research.