While in the secular world some colleges are debating whether to designate special restrooms for transgendered students, Christian colleges are pondering whether to allow gay students to organize at all. Andy Swenson is an unlikely revolutionary. Raised in a conservative Lutheran household, he grew up believing that homosexuality was a sin. He arrived on the campus of Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn., and happily agreed to sign its covenant, a statement of beliefs and forbidden practices that wedged "homosexual behavior" between "drunkenness" and "lying." "I was, like, 'Yeah, it is a sin'." As the semesters went by, Swenson could not keep pretending. He started telling his friends that he was gay.
Now, for more than a year, Swenson has been one of about a dozen students intent on organizing an official gay-straight alliance at Bethel. The group flies under the radar. It doesn't have a room, so the students meet near the cafeteria. It doesn't have a faculty adviser. Getting approval won't be easy—"a student group can't conflict with our mission or core values," a spokeswoman says—but next year Swenson's group, which still has no name, plans to submit the paperwork anyway.
America's Christian colleges may be the last bastion of traditional values—places where parents can continue, in absentia, to protect their children from the corrupting influences of the world and where the kids themselves often promise, as Swenson did, to abstain not just from homosexual sex but from premarital sex, adultery and inappropriate fondling—and greed, idolatry and slander. But as homosexuality ceases to be a cultural taboo, evangelicals increasingly have had to grapple openly with the question of how to deal with the gays and lesbians in their midst. Now, even on very conservative Christian campuses, there are gays who are "out" and who want their authority figures to recognize them—and their sexuality—as deserving of God's love. Thanks largely to the efforts of Soul Force, which encourages dialogue between gays and Christians on campus, these students are trying to get organized.
Gay and straight students at Samford University, in Birmingham, Ala., meet once a week at a church off campus; the group's president is optimistic that the club will be approved within a year. At Gordon College, in Wenham, Mass., a gay-straight club recently failed to gain approval from the student government in a close vote, triggering a tsunami in the tiny community. At Seattle Pacific University, Beth van Dam spearheaded a failed effort this year to form a legitimate club for gay students. "The church needs to recognize that this is not a big deal," she says. "Christ's teachings are about love."
These demanding new voices put administrators in a tight spot, wedged between the traditional Christian views they uphold, their genuine desire to support the students and their obligations to donors and alumni. Les Steele was one of the administrators who denied van Dam's application. Christians increasingly recognize that "human sexuality is a mystery," he says. But "homosexuality is not understood as God's best intentions for human sexuality"—and it would violate the school's moral code to declare otherwise. At places like the Southern Baptist Union University, in Jackson, Tenn., a gay-student group remains unthinkable. Rachel Watson—who calls herself "a very stand-out lesbian, with the short hair and the guy clothes"—was in a small clique of gay students, but they never called it a club. A spokesman says such a club, official or unofficial, would not be permitted at Union, where the penalty for "homosexual activities" is severe: a fine, community service, counseling, probation or parental notification. Watson just graduated, "thank the Lord," and soon will go on the road as a gay activist with Soul Force.