Gay On God’s Campus: The Context of Change

In honor of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA+) Pride Month, the following is an excerpt from Jonathan S. Coley’ Gay on God’s Campus: Mobilizing for LGBT Equality at Christian Colleges and Universities. This book is one of five titles from a reading list we created in celebration of Pride Month; view the entire reading list here.

LGBT activists at Christian colleges and universities do not mobilize in a vacuum. Although they followed a variety of paths into LGBT activist groups, the students whom I profile in this book all mobilized at a similar historical moment and amidst common sets of structural conditions that made LGBT activism at Christian colleges and universities possible.

In this chapter, I examine the question of why LGBT activist groups began to emerge on Christian college and university campuses at least since the 1980s—but especially by the 1990s and 2000s—from two angles. First, I provide a historical perspective, considering how changes in the political climate for LGBT rights have created a general opportunity for LGBT students and their allies to band together to form LGBT groups and advocate for inclusive nondiscrimination policies at Christian colleges and universities. The goal is not to provide a comprehensive account of the LGBT movement in the United States but rather to highlight key developments in the LGBT rights struggle and to assess how religious communities’ responses to those developments either enabled or constrained LGBT activism at Christian colleges and universities.

Second, I provide important statistics bearing on the question of LGBT activist group emergence, explaining why, even at this moment in history, when the political climate for LGBT rights in the United States has never been more favorable, some Christian colleges and universities embrace their LGBT student populations while other Christian schools do not. I especially focus on how certain religious characteristics of each Christian college or university, such as their religious affiliations, have made it more or less likely that a school will approve LGBT groups and adopt inclusive nondiscrimination policies.

My central argument throughout the chapter is that, although the LGBT movement’s political gains were necessary for the emergence of LGBT activism on Christian campuses, it was only when an increasing number of religious denominations began to endorse LGBT rights that students at Christian colleges and universities had the cover they needed to seek full inclusion on their campuses.

LGBT activism in the United States, and LGBT student organizing on Christian campuses in particular, has arguably been most visible since activists began mobilizing in favor of same-sex marriage during the 1990s and 2000s.1 Yet LGBT people have been mobilizing in the United States since at least World War II, and many of the battle lines that people took for granted during the same-sex marriage campaigns—between LGBT people on one side and religious people on the other side—were far from predetermined. To illustrate the historical changes that shaped opportunities for LGBT activism at Christian colleges and universities, then, I begin by reviewing accounts of some of the earliest activism around LGBT issues in the United States.

Following World War II, large cities on the West Coast (such as Los Angeles and San Francisco) and the East Coast (particularly New York City) became notable for their growing gay and lesbian populations and, consequently, became home to some of the earliest gay and lesbian advocacy organizations, which were known as homophile organizations. For example, in 1950, the Mattachine Society, one of the country’s first homophile organizations dedicated to promoting the rights of gay men, was founded in Los Angeles,2 and in 1955, the Daughters of Bilitis, the first homophile organization devoted to lesbian rights, was founded in San Francisco (Armstrong 2002, ch. 2). In the following decade, in 1967, college students formed the first gay rights group on a college campus, the Student Homophile League, at Columbia University in New York City, and in 1968, students established Student Homophile League chapters at Cornell University and New York University (Beemyn 2003).3 The earliest homophile organizations emphasized discretion and virtue. Few members of these homophile organizations were willing to publicly out themselves, and they often went to great lengths to maintain their secrecy; in the case of the student organizations, gay and lesbian students counted on heterosexual students to sign initial applications and provide cover for closeted students (Beemyn 2003; D’Emilio 1983). Although they approached gay and lesbian advocacy differently than LGBT organizations do today, such organizations provided important foundations for subsequent LGBT organizing in the United States.

Jonathan S. Coley is assistant professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University.