Study looks into the ways LGBTQ students are targeted, harassed at Christian colleges

·8 min read

Veronica Bonifacio Penales, a sophomore at Baylor University, a Baptist college in Waco, Texas, said she can be out as queer on campus, but that doesn’t mean she feels supported.

Students cannot face disciplinary action or lose financial aid for identifying as LGBTQ, according to the Baylor website, but Penales, 20, said she’s faced harassment, including Post-it notes with homophobic messages placed on her dorm room door.

“They say they have preventive measures in place but nothing gets done,” she said of Baylor’s policies to protect LGBTQ students. “When I reported discrimination, I was referred to the counseling center.”

Baylor spokesperson Lori Fogleman told NBC News she couldn’t address the specific incident Penales cited but said students who face harassment can report it to the Title IX Office, the Bias Response Team, or if they are in immediate danger, the Baylor University Police. Penales said she reported harassment to the Title IX Office, which recommended she talk to a counselor.

“Baylor is committed to providing a loving and caring community for all students — including our LGBTQ students — because it is part and parcel of our University’s mission that calls us to educate our students within a caring community,” Fogleman said.

The alleged harassment Penales faced isn’t unique. LGBTQ students at Christian colleges face more bullying and harassment and are far more likely to experience isolation, depression and harm than their straight classmates, according to a new survey commissioned by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, or REAP, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ students at taxpayer-funded religious colleges and universities.

Gender-nonconforming students are particularly at risk, the researchers found: Twenty-two percent reported bullying or harassment, compared to 5 percent of cisgender students. Fourteen percent reported being sexually assaulted, compared to 2 percent of their cisgender peers.

In all, queer students were three times more likely to report depression and anxiety and three times more likely to have seriously considered suicide, according to the report. More than 1 in 10 (12 percent) also reported that their school suggested they receive counseling, suggested or mandated that they undergo “conversion therapy,” revoked their financial aid or scholarships or took other actions against them as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The research was based on a survey of 3,000 full-time students at 134 taxpayer-funded Christian colleges and universities, conducted by the survey company College Pulse between Jan. 28 and Feb. 6.

“The question we’re always asked is, ‘Why would an LGBTQ student go to a Christian college?’” REAP Director Paul Southwick said. “I feel like that’s kind of gaslighting, because the assumption is they don’t belong there.”There will always be queer students at Christian colleges, he said, “because there have always been young queer people in those Christian communities.”

“When you have a fundamentalist Christian parent, they tend to want to send their kids to a Christan college,” said Southwick, 37, a lawyer with Paul Southwick LLC. “And they see their father went there or their sisters went there, they’ve been offered a scholarship. There’s a legacy with that school.”

Twelve percent of students in the survey identified as nonheterosexuals and 2 percent as a gender minority — either nonbinary, genderqueer, agender, transgender or noncisgender.

While that’s less than the nearly 16 percent of 18-23 year olds who consider themselves something other than heterosexual, according to a Gallup Poll last month, nearly one-fifth of LGBTQ students on Christian campuses are closeted, the REAP report found. (Some 19 percent indicated in the report that they hadn't told anyone at school about their orientation or identity.)

Many Christian schools, while private, still receive federal funding in the form of grants and student financial aid, Southwick said.

During the Obama administration, LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections in education were greatly expanded under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But private colleges receiving federal funding could still claim an exemption on religious grounds.

“Ideally such discrimination wouldn’t be tolerated in the culture, but right now we don’t live in a perfect world,” said Shane Windmeyer, co-founder of Campus Pride, a national organization for LGBTQ student leaders and campus organizations.

Under the Trump administration, he said, “schools were told, ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to claim an exemption — your religious rights trump everything.’”

On Jan. 8, less than two weeks before President Joe Biden took office, the Department of Education published a memorandum indicating that LGBTQ students were not expressly covered under Title IX protections.

Biden has asked Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to review policies Betsy DeVos, the education secretary in the Trump administration, put in place regarding Title IX, but it’s not clear if that includes religious exemptions.

According to REAP, one-third of the more than 2,000 four-year undergraduate institutions in the United States are religiously affiliated, including more than 200 Christian colleges with policies that explicitly discriminate against LGBTQ students.

Often, those policies come in the form of student codes of conduct that prohibit same-sex relationships and LGBTQ advocacy. Many also prohibit gender-nonconforming behavior, Southwick said, such as dressing in a way that does not align with one’s birth sex or using a different name.

Even something as simple as holding hands or wearing makeup can be grounds for a violation.

“A lot of 17-year-olds don’t have the agency to choose their school,” he said. “And even if they do, many are committed to their faith — maybe they hope they’ll be ‘cured.’”

He was one of those students himself: In 2005, Southwick graduated from George Fox University, a private Quaker school outside Portland, Oregon.

“I did what a lot of these kids do — I struggled with my ‘same-sex attraction,’” he said. “It got so bad I had to be hospitalized. My campus pastor told me my problem was with the devil and we decided together that I should go to conversion therapy.”

George Fox University declined to comment, but shared a statement by Mark Yarhouse, a professor of psychology at Wheaton College in Illinois. Yarhouse criticized the REAP study and alleged Southwick had a conflict of interest in pursuing it because he is representing a client who claims the Fuller Theological Seminary discriminated against her for being a lesbian. A federal judge ruled in favor of the seminary in October, but Southwick appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

George Fox University’s Community Lifestyle Statement indicates “that only marriage between a man and a woman is God's intention for the joyful fulfillment of sexual intimacy … [and] sexual behaviors outside of this context are inconsistent with God's teaching.”

Despite his experience, Southwick says the goal isn’t to shut down schools like his alma mater.

“They serve an important function,” he said. “The aim is to apply pressure, from within and without, to get them to change.”

Sexual orientation and gender identity should also be added to any anti-bullying or anti-discrimination policies, Southwick said, and schools should cease punishing LGBTQ identities within their student codes of conduct.

“If straight students can date, queer students should be allowed to,” Southwick said. “If straight students can get married and live together, so should gay couples.”

In recent years, many Christian colleges have struck a more conciliatory tone, updating their codes of conduct and speaking with LGBTQ students directly. But critics say they’ve only softened their rhetoric, not their treatment.

One Liberty University student told researchers they would feel “physically unsafe” if their orientation became public knowledge, according to the report. “I have overheard people saying, "hang the f--s and let them burn,” the student said, according to the report. “…There have been multiple classes that have entire units condemning anyone not cisgender and straight.”

Liberty University did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.

Most Christians schools are not so overt, Windmeyer said. “Colleges today want to be seen as LGBT-friendly,” he said. “There are only a handful of Christian colleges who don’t care. Most just want to cloud this issue and come off as supportive because they know it’ll impact recruitment and admissions.”

At a minimum, Southwick wants LGBTQ student clubs to be treated like any other campus group, with access to funding and space on campus.

Baylor’s statement on human sexuality doesn’t address socializing, but affirms “Baylor students will not participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.”Baylor’s unofficial LGBTQ student group, Gamma Alpha Upsilon, is recognized by students and some faculty but is not officially sanctioned by the administration, making it ineligible for funding or space on campus.

A measure supporting a charter for the group passed both the student and faculty senates but the Division of Student Life has not indicated a time frame in which it will render a decision.

“It’s been a 10-plus-year fight for LGBTQ rights on this campus,” Penales said. “They’ve made a lot of strides but it’s hard when you know your school’s mission doesn’t protect you. They talk a big game when it comes to ‘Love thy neighbor,’ but they don’t really follow through on it, especially when it comes to the LGBTQ community.”

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