Holding Christian Colleges To The Fire

Religious universities must be held accountable for demonizing LGBTQ students, says a graduate who once tried to take his own life.

Last month, Campus Pride issued its “Shame List,” calling out 102 colleges in the U.S. that, either by their actions or their official policies, discriminate against LGBT students and faculty.

Below, Campus Pride’s Donald Scherschligt discusses the list, as well as his own experience as a closeted student at one such school.

As a campus organizer for Campus Pride, I was one of the individuals who led the research and worked on the final compilation of our “Shame List,” the first-ever “absolute worst” ranking of campuses across the U.S. regarding LGBTQ issues.

Monitoring reactions has been eye-opening: There’s been much praise from LGBTQ students and alumni. The list generated more than four times the amount of traffic the Campus Pride site typical gets this time of year, and closeted youth from these campuses have been slowly reaching out for support.

Campus von Harvard

But it’s also generated a lot of backpedaling from schools on the list and hate mail for those of us who worked on it.

The Shame List did exactly what we hoped it would: It squarely hit the hornet’s nest, demonstrating that religious-based bigotry is alive and pervasive in higher education.

So it’s not surprising that the administrations of numerous schools on the list are attempting to explain, hide or confuse the situation while still supporting their anti-LGBTQ policies, programs and practices. Shining light on discrimination will always prompt a backlash.

College students with bicycle walking on campus sidewalk

As an alumni of one of the schools on the Shame List, I think most of these campuses are in denial over their discriminatory policies. In their eyes, they actually love their LGBTQ students, despite the unloving rhetoric and disingenuous use of Scripture to justify prejudice.

Of course, many of these campuses filed for Title IX exemptions to freely discriminate against LGBTQ students while still receiving federal funding. At best, it’s a serious case of cognitive dissonance. At worst, it’s self-righteous hypocrisy. And they can’t expect to not be held accountable.

George Frey/Getty Images

In the wake of the Shame List’s release, Andrews University, Wheaton College, and Brigham Young University released statements affirming their religious values.

Wheaton, an evangelical school in Illinois, stated that the college “strives to treat all people with respect” but that campus community members must “affirm our Community Covenant” which expressly forbids homosexual behavior.

“Some perceive our commitment to this Christian sexual ethic as unfriendly toward the LGBTQ community.”

As a gay Christian, I say it is not only perception, but the truth. Bigotry wrapped in religious values is still bigotry. And it doesn’t just affect the LGBTQ community: In 2006, professor Joshua Hochschild had to leave Wheaton because he converted to Catholicism.

Larycia Hawkins, a Christian who is wearing a hijab over Advent in solidarity with Muslims, attends service at St. Martin Episcopal Church in Chicago on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)
Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Last year, another teacher, Larycia Hawkins, was suspending after wearing a hijab and stating that Christians and Muslims share the same God. (Hawkins is Christian and was supporting a similar statement from Pope Francis.)

I have experienced firsthand the ways in which these colleges “love” their LGBTQ students. At Westmont College requires students to sign a campus code that forbids “homosexual practice.”

The silence toward LGBTQ students was deafening. And it led me to attempt suicide my freshman year.

Donald Scherschligt 3

People forget how language and religious-based bigotry can be internalized, fueling anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide. I returned to school with warm, fuzzy statements from the administration and promises that I would be accepted and safe. I found nothing of the sort.

When we tried to petition to be heard, the Campus Pastor’s Office threatened us with retaliation.

When we attempted to organize a confidential support group for struggling LGBTQ students, we were told the Administration could only condone celibacy. The Student Life office expressed fear that the group would simply have orgies every week.

I’m not kidding.

westmont college

Just like the other campuses on the Shame List, Westmont still claims to “love” its LGBTQ students—without addressing any of our needs, providing any resources or taking any responsibility for the homophobic climate on campus.

There are schools on the Shame List that are far worse, and too many students who have not survived to share their stories.

Westmont almost took my life because of its anti-gay theology. No argument for religious freedom can justify harm directed at me or others like me. I am a proud practicing Christian and I want to see Christian schools thrive. But thrive without preaching a homophobic faith that leads to feelings of worthlessness, loss of faith, bullying and worse.

After years of such harm going unchecked in higher education, Campus Pride is working to hold these campuses accountable—to make the public aware of the outright discrimination students face, many times with taxpayer dollars, and to make sure LGBTQ students know they are not alone.

I thank God for the Shame List, for the lives it has and will continue to save. And I pray for the schools on the list, that they may find love and compassion.

Donald Scherschligt

Donald Scherschligt is a recent graduate of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, where he led an unofficial LGBT and Allies group for three years. He works with groups such as SoulForce, Safety Net and Campus Pride to empower LGBTQ students and alumni at Christian colleges nationwide.