Last year, I was lucky enough to spend a day at Baylor University with the Soulforce Equality Ride, a national bus tour that visits Christian colleges to talk about safety and fairness for gay and transgender students, and I met a student whose story I will never forget. I'll call him Tommy. He was a 19-year-old sophomore from an evangelical Christian family and a small Texas town. He had chosen to study at Baylor because it was the most progressive and cosmopolitan option available to him.
When Tommy enrolled at Baylor, he did what many gay and lesbian college students do without incident or fanfare: he came out to himself and a few close friends. But at Baylor--and at more than 200 other schools and colleges across the country--Tommy's courage and honesty made him vulnerable to disciplinary action from the school and violence from his fellow students.
Just recently, Tommy told me, someone had written threatening anti-gay epithets on his dorm room door. As a faculty member with a background in student affairs, I was aghast. "Did you report the incident to your R.A.?" I asked. Tommy looked at me fearfully, as if perhaps he'd shared the information with someone too dim to be trusted.
He couldn't report the harassment and risk an official investigation that would reveal his sexual orientation to campus officials. He needed college--it was his ticket to self-determination and freedom. But at Baylor, homosexuality is considered a "misuse of God's gift" of sexuality. Gay and lesbian students face a variety of sanctions, including referral to ex-gay counseling and even dismissal.
Here's what I didn't understand until that day: policies that discriminate against gay and lesbian students create a culture of silence that doesn't just suppress gay and lesbian voices; the culture of silence also creates an environment where harassment can flourish.
That's what happened to David Coleman, a former student at North Central University, a Pentecostal college in Minneapolis. In fall 2004, David's dating relationship with another male student became verbally abusive. Fearing for his safety, David reported the situation to the Dean of Residence Life. The situation continued to escalate, and David again appealed to the Dean's office for help. In his second meeting, he was asked to sign statements testifying to the details of his relationship.
David believed that the information would be used to protect him. But in spring 2005, he was placed on probation and referred to mandatory counseling. The disciplinary action against David was based on the statements he made when he appealed for protection. In May 2005, David was suspended from North Central and given 24 hours to vacate the residence halls for distributing pro-gay flyers and for "conversations [in which] you admitted to having intimate, physical contact with two males." The student who harassed him was, to his knowledge, never disciplined.
As an educator, I recognize situations like these as a double risk. The most tragic risk is to gay and lesbian students, who have to choose between quietly tolerating harassment or leaving school. But institutions are also at risk when discriminatory policies mean that harassment goes unchecked or unreported.
This year, student affairs professionals at many faith-based colleges are working with the Equality Ride on shared goals of diversity, safety, and access. At Morehouse College, where a brutal anti-gay beating shocked the community in 2002, personnel from the Office of Student Life recently attended a Ride-sponsored discussion about ways to create a more affirming climate for LGBT students. And Dallas Baptist University welcomed the Ride for a day of conversations with faculty, administrators, and students about safety for LGBT people on campus.
The 2008 Equality Ride is rolling to a close this week. As someone who has watched the Equality Ride in action, I know that each visit has fostered informed and passionate conversation in which participants from different sides may respectfully disagree on questions of Biblical interpretation. But, as a teacher, I know there should be at least one topic on which everyone can agree: all students deserve a safe place to learn.
Although the tour of colleges is over, the real work of fostering change on these campuses is just beginning. Riders must still raise $25,000 to cover the bills for this difficult but crucial work.
To learn more about the courageous young people who dedicate their semester to this work, visit their "Meet the Riders" page.