The Sin of Pride

News: A new generation of gay and lesbian students is challenging homophobic policies at religious colleges.

October 18, 2004

At 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning in June, Grant Turck crept across the Pepperdine University campus with a couple of cans of paint in hand. Turck, a 21-year-old Pepperdine student, was about to partake in a venerable school tradition: painting “The Rock,” a boulder that has doubled as a billboard in the middle of the Malibu campus for decades. In a few hours, hundreds of incoming students and their parents would be streaming by, touring the campus as part of an open-house weekend. First, Turck coated the Rock in red paint. Then he scrawled in white letters, “Will your gay son or lesbian daughter be safe at Pepperdine?” Turck knew his stunt would turn heads at the conservative Christian school. For a few hours, his words silently questioned the sleeping campus. But by early morning, a school official had added his own touches, enlisting two students to help him cover over Turck’s message.

Gay and lesbian students who attend religious universities and colleges are used to being ignored, thwarted, and condemned by their schools. But more of them are openly questioning their schools’ anti-gay policies, taking on the traditional idea that a Christian education is incompatible with being gay.

They are fighting an uphill battle. Gay students who choose religious schools know what they’re getting into, as unsympathetic classmates and school administrators are quick to point out. Many schools have rules that explicitly condemn or prohibit homosexuality. Pepperdine’s code of conduct, for instance, states that gay sex is “misconduct subject to disciplinary action.” Yet as generational attitudes about homosexuality thaw, increasing numbers of students at faith-based institutions are unapologetic about their sexual orientation. Rather than seeing themselves as conflicted, they see their schools as unwilling to balance the values of higher education with their higher calling.

Turck is one of the most outspoken members of this new wave of activists. A devout Lutheran since childhood, at age 16 he came out to his family and church in his hometown of Madeira, Ohio. His top college choice was Pepperdine, a Churches of Christ-affiliated school that counts billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife as a major benefactor and whose faculty includes former Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr. The school’s apparent tolerance for students like himself appealed to him. On paper, Pepperdine presents itself as a place where religious belief bolsters an official “commitment to diversity.” Indeed, the university’s charter professes that its “Christian heritage… compels us to love justice and to treat every individual equally with respect and compassion. It is through the inclusion and experience of others from diverse points of view that we often begin to see dimensions of truth previously unseen to us.”

But as a student, Turck found that such talk of acceptance rang hollow. In his first two years he cycled through three roommates, all of whom were uncomfortable with his homosexuality. So Turck, who had organized his high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, tried to create a similar group, Students Against Homophobia, to promote tolerance on campus. When he applied for official recognition, the administration denied his request, claiming that it would not “recognize a student organization that promotes teaching or behavior inconsistent with our ethical norms.” Turck then asked to meet with the university president Andrew K. Benton, only to receive a letter rebuffing him. It closed ominously, “If you choose to share this letter with someone else, you will have violated my confidence and undertaken to harm yourself.”

Turck understands why his group was rejected, but he says Pepperdine is not being honest with its students. “I think Pepperdine has to decide if it is going to be a true university– searching for education and knowledge– or revert to a Bible college that is very Christian and close minded,” he says. “I want the university to reflect what it stands for. The SAH club is about tolerance, and I think that everyone on campus, whether gay, straight, et cetera, should be allowed that respect. In an enlightened educational atmosphere, intolerance doesn’t exist. So I guess Pepperdine is uneducated on this issue.”

Asked for comment, Pepperdine provided a prepared statement that read, “We believe it is possible– indeed, imperative– both to remain faithful to the ethical traditions of orthodox Christianity and to be welcoming (courteous, loving, supportive, etc.) of all persons.” It added that it encourages intellectual discourse on all subjects, including homosexuality. Yet Turck, who just began his junior year, is on probation for painting The Rock; he may not study abroad or be elected to student office. Turck says the school is trying to keep him quiet.

“Fighting against conservative religious schools is often futile,” says Marc Adams, the founder and president of HeartStrong, an organization that supports gay and lesbian students at religious schools. “They’re always going to believe what they believe.” Adams, the son of a fundamentalist Baptist minister and an alum of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, has spent the past six years visiting campuses across the country. According to the Department of Education, 1.5 million students attend over 900 religiously affiliated colleges and universities in the U.S. The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities says enrollment in “Christ-centered institutions” is booming; its affiliates have grown nearly 70 percent since 1992. Adams notes that, as religious schools try to attract more students, some have dropped references to homosexuality from their charters, swapping in the more ambiguous word “immorality.” But such subtle shifts make no concessions to gay students. Adams says gay students should focus less on changing campus policy than on creating a safe environment. “Begging for acceptance is humiliating,” he says.

With the help from sympathetic clergy, alumni, and faculty, gay and lesbian students are making some progress. At Oklahoma Baptist University, where the library places stickers warning of “objectionable material” on books with gay authors or characters, a student and alumni organization called OBU Pride provides anonymous advice to closeted students. It also counters the school’s claims about “the homosexual lifestyle,” such as a biology class that teaches that anal sex is unhealthy and condoms don’t work. One group member who recently graduated says groups like OBU Pride remind gay students they’re not alone. “In a place like OBU, where nobody seems to be gay, it just doesn’t occur to most students that someone might be,” she says. After coming out during her junior year, she chalked messages about Gay Pride Week on campus walkways, only to find them washed away the following morning. However, some of her professors encouraged her activism. “It was actually some of the classes that I took which helped me to think critically, to question the beliefs I had been brought up with.”

Matt Bass wasn’t so fortunate when he came out. A year ago, the 25-year old was a rising star of the George W. Truett Seminary School at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, the world’s largest Baptist university. The school had awarded him a scholarship and his professors had lauded him as the future of the department. Halfway through the third year of his master’s program in divinity, Bass began to actively question his sexuality. He asked his personal pastor in Waco for counsel, and found relief in the pastor’s belief that being gay was not sinful. After Bass came out to several friends, word soon spread to a minister at Baylor. When he questioned Bass about his sexuality, Bass answered honestly.

“I’d lied about it long enough and when I came out I decided I would not lie anymore,” Bass recalls. A month later, the campus minister told Bass that his conscience would not let him keep Bass’s secret from the administration. Bass met with the school’s dean and acknowledged his homosexuality as well as his support for gay marriage. Soon afterwards, his scholarship was withdrawn. Without funding, Bass was forced to drop out at the end of the semester.

“I wasn’t breaking any rules,” says Bass. “There’s no stated policy on sexual orientation at Baylor, although they do prohibit homosexual behavior and sex outside of marriage, both of which fall under sexual misconduct. By making the statement ‘I am gay’– a statement of belief about myself– I’m exercising my First Amendment right. A university is a place where you learn how to think, articulate a position, and where you come to change your views. But at Baylor, it’s only as long as you never hold a certain position or advocate something else.”

Bass teamed up with a senior, Darrin Adams (no relation to Marc Adams), and established a group called United for Change. Adams had come to Baylor hoping to find a sense of belonging. “I did what every gay or lesbian student at Baylor will tell you they did,” he remembers. “I did a Google search, entering the words ‘gay’ and ‘Baylor’ looking for an outlet or someone to talk to.” He found an alumnus who suggested he keep a low profile and remember that “life begins after Baylor.” Frustrated, Adams established an underground support group for gay students. But he wasn’t content to stay invisible. “I was the big activist in the group,” he says. With Bass, he organized a group of around 120 students, faculty, and alumni who challenged Baylor to add sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy. A rally outside the school on March 27 received national attention (as did the student newspaper’s endorsement of gay marriage). But the school wouldn’t budge, publicly reminding its students that they were forbidden to “participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.”

Ironically, such negative reactions have bolstered support for gay activism on campus. Darrin Adams says that when he graduated from Baylor last year, he noticed that gay students had gained a visible presence there. “Things were changing. Teachers and students are supportive and now there’s more dialogue. People are still apprehensive, and some people still bristle, but I think that there’s a lot more talk about it.” He now is working for People for the American Way to train gay and lesbian student activists. Matt Bass has transferred to Emory University, a Methodist school, where he continues to promote gay rights. “I’d love to get on with my life, but I feel an obligation to speak out for those unwilling or unable to do so,” he says. “What happened to me could happen to anybody, and I can’t sit idly by.”

Back at Pepperdine, Grant Turck has gone from furtively painting The Rock to finding a national platform for his cause. The dapper young Republican has been profiled in publications from The Advocate to Lutheran Magazine and has addressed meetings of the Log Cabin Republicans. He’s turned Students Against Homophobia into an off-campus nonprofit with 30 student members. But in the eyes of his school, he remains persona non grata, a fact that leaves him incredulous. “What,” he wonders, “is un-Christian about speaking out against homophobia?”

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