“There was no support for exploring my sexuality – it wasn’t an option, because I knew that I would lose everything, my family, my social circle, everything. People who were gay were apostate – irredeemable.”
What’s it like being a student in an evangelical bible college whilst also identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community?
We caught up with someone who has experienced that very situation first hand. Sharing her story, we discover how bible school affected her life, the road to becoming a teacher, and how she had to quit her job due to her sexuality. All names and identities have been kept anonymous.
Here’s part one of our in-depth conversation.
The woman who sits across from me in the coffee shop stands out – maybe it’s her short hair or her rainbow-colored bag, I’m not sure, but she doesn’t just blend into the bland wall of the booth behind her.
I explain the parameters of the interview, and tell her that everything will be run by her before it is ever finalized. I want the subjects of interviews like these to be comfortable with telling me whatever they need to – it’s a catharsis for them, the act of finally being able to speak.
She introduces herself to me, and for the purposes of this interview and to protect her future career, she chooses the name Gwen.
Gwen is a high school English teacher in rural Missouri who is losing her job because of her sexuality. She identifies currently as female and bisexual, though she admits she’s exploring genderfluidity and pansexuality.
Missouri isn’t the only place that Gwen has faced discrimination – she’s overcome quite a lot of it, throughout her upbringing and her evangelical college experience.
“I actually grew up in SoCal,” Gwen says, meaning Southern California. “In one of the most liberal counties, and a population of fifty thousand.” That’s thirty thousand more than the town we’re having coffee in at the moment. “I was raised Independent Fundamental Baptist, and there’s a lot of shame and guilt in that culture of Christianity.”
The Independent Fundamental Baptist church is a strict, conservative branch of the Baptist church. Many members, though not necessarily Gwen’s church, still dress in only collared shirts for men and below-the-knee skirts for women. Typically, church members only interact with other church members – it’s often a lonely social group.
In addition to living life in a church-based social group, young Gwen also attended the Christian Academy from the time she was eight years old to graduation.
“I grew up knowing that anyone who was LGBTQ+ or thought they were LGBTQ+ could be sent to conversion camp. I grew up hearing about Exodus International, Love Won Out Ministries, Focus On the Family – it was all normal to me.” Gwen speaks while sipping her drink. “There was no support for exploring my sexuality – it wasn’t an option, because I knew that I would lose everything, my family, my social circle, everything. People who were gay were apostate – irredeemable.”
Gwen recalls a moment in school. “I remember my friend – we linked hands, and she made a comment that we should pretend to be together, to freak people out. My heart started racing, out of excitement. But a moment later, my pastor’s wife came out of the gym, and she said, ‘Gwen, you know better,’ meaning the hand-holding. Then comes the shame.” That shame seemed to permeate everything that Gwen did and was, from her burgeoning sexuality to mental illness.
When Gwen graduated, she went from a conservative church family in California to an evangelical bible college in South Carolina. She names it as the most traumatic experience of her life, one that she’s still recovering from to this day.
”It was very fundamental,” she says. “There were dress codes and you couldn’t really interact with people of another gender without a chaperone. I couldn’t even hug my male friend. I went there from 2002 to 2004, and it was awful – super-homophobic and anti-feminist. I realized in my first year that I might not be straight, but the rules were pretty strict.” Gwen takes a minute to recall the wording. “And vague. ‘Homosexual suggestion or influence will not be tolerated.’”
There were a few incidences in her two years there. One involved five girls being in the bathroom together after lights-out, which was at eleven o’clock every evening.
”They were ‘shipped,’” Gwen says. “They never even proved that they did anything, but they were all expelled. It was an openly hostile, isolated culture. Like at mandatory church, the Chancellor would read letters from former students and mock them. There was one, where a former student came out as a lesbian, and he was awful, just vicious. A 20 minute malignation, eviscerating her character in front of three thousand students. He said she wasn’t a real woman.”
In her freshman year, Gwen had a stalker who couldn’t take no for an answer. He threatened her with violence, tried to control her, followed her, harassed her, and even contacted her family. When she finally went to the dorm supervisor for help, Gwen was asked, “Are you sure you’ve been clear enough?” about her refusal.
“There was no feminist support,” Gwen says, “no disciplinary action, no protection. He was another student. There wasn’t even any information that I could go to the police – I didn’t even know this was a crime until later.”
It was in her sophomore year that Gwen almost got expelled for the suggestion of homosexuality. “It was a little ironic,” she says, “because I suspected, but I didn’t explore it. We had just gone swimming, a friend of mine and I, and we were stretching in my bedroom, wearing clothing even, and someone thought they saw something romantic. I just laughed – honestly, at that point, I was so depressed I didn’t care.”
To treat Gwen’s mental illness of depression and anxiety, the college mandated that she attend spiritual counseling. “They were students of the school psychology program, which wasn’t psychology at all,” Gwen said. “It was spiritual psychology, or something like that, and my counselor really cared, she tried hard, but the oppression around me had caused psychiatric problems and an eating disorder. I was told that I ‘just needed to trust God.’ And I tried, but even by then, I had stopped believing fully.”
“Several years after my time there, this bastion of fundamentalism had an agency investigate the university’s handling of sexual abuse,” Gwen adds. “The findings and the entire report can be found at bjugrace.com.” In addition, Gwen was involved for a time with an underground group that worked to find support and safe places for current and past LGBTQ+ students in fundamentalist homes and communities much like hers.
Gwen wants to point out that there were good times too. The academics were challenging, and she made good friends with her peers and her professors. However, overall, before ever stepping foot in Missouri, Gwen had experienced hate and discrimination for something that she hadn’t even discovered about herself yet.
“If I had stayed there,” she says to me, “I would not be alive today.”
Keep an eye out for part two of Gwen’s interview, which will appear on QWEERIST shortly.