Wheaton College (IL) has been plagued in recent years by accusations that the flagship evangelical school silences its LGBT+ students and does not create a space for them in the community. Like Adam and Eve in the garden or like Reagan versus Gorbachev, Wheaton’s struggles are archetypal—the conservative evangelical world looks to see what Wheaton does and how Wheaton handles its issues. If Wheaton hates gays, perhaps all evangelicals hate gays.
The issue arose once more two weeks ago when a rainbow flag was secretly hung at Wheaton’s dining hall, placed among the displayed flags of nations. The school quickly took the flag down. Only a few days later, the Bench—a fixture in the middle of campus on which students spray paint different messages, jokes, and encouragements—was painted with rainbow colors, adorned with the words, “We Can’t Be Erased. We’re Here. We’re Queer.” The bench was painted white by the next day, although the college’s administration did not disclose whether it had ordered the Bench repainted or whether students had repainted it of their own initiative.
Wheaton alumnus and pastor William Stell published an article, ripping Wheaton’s actions and declaring that the school’s administration was “selling the school’s birthright of academic respectability for the pottage of right-wing extremism.” The school’s actions, in Stell’s view, suppress minority voices on campus in order to satisfy Wheaton’s donor base.
This view is not new in the discussion. Take this headline from The Chicago Tribune for an example. The story from last summer cites Campus Pride’s “Shame List”, which has listed Wheaton as one of the most LGBT-unfriendly colleges in the country. Their reason? Inviting Rosaria Butterfield to speak in chapel on campus. Butterfield is a Christian speaker who describes herself as a formerly leftist lesbian who has since come to faith and married a man. Butterfield does not insist that all LGBT+ folks must follow her own personal story. On the day she spoke, a small group of students demonstrated on Edman Chapel’s steps before her talk, with student Justin Massey citing concerns that students would be isolated and marginalized by Butterfield’s story of transformation. While positive conversation occurred between Butterfield and the organizers throughout her visit, the event still resulted in Campus Pride’s above judgment.
Wheaton College’s administration attempted to proactively encourage discussion and to create safe communal space for their students by hiring the openly gay Julie Rodgers to join the Chaplain’s Office in 2014. She had resigned within a year, writing that she could no longer affirm Wheaton’s Community Covenant and affirming same-sex relationships. The Community Covenant, which all students and staff sign, affirms traditional biblical sexual ethics and condemns all sexual acts outside of a heterosexual marriage. After the Larycia Hawkins debacle, Rodgers penned an article in Time panning her treatment by Wheaton and by Wheaton’s President Philip G. Ryken in particular. Her article describes a narrative of suppression, and she accuses President Ryken of attempting to silence her and threatening her with forced resignation. Notably, Wheaton responded to Time and directly contradicted Rodgers’ assertions by claiming that no one in the administration had expected or asked for her resignation in July 2015.
A nonprofit organization called OneWheaton describes its mission as creating a safe community for LGBT+ people at Wheaton. Per their website, “We support students and alumni with compassion, counsel, and resources so that they can live full, vibrant lives. We affirm LGBTQ individuals and the relationships that are a natural expression of their identity.” The implicit and sometimes explicit message of the group is that Wheaton College’s non-affirmation of same-sex relationships creates a dangerous, hateful, and unsafe space for queer students.
Justin Massey is often cited in many of the above links. He is exemplary as the vocal proponent of open and affirming theologies and positions regarding the college, although he is now graduated. When he attended the college, he would graphically describe his own experiences breaking the college’s Community Covenant, and he encouraged gay students to experiment with their sexuality. Journalists like Elizabeth Dias have repeatedly used him in their stories as representative of the repressed LGBT voice at Wheaton.
It must be insisted that LGBT+ voices from Wheaton are not uniformly negative. Tyler Streckert, a Wheaton alumnus, writes about his experiences as a gay man at Wheaton College, telling a complicated but ultimately positive narrative. Wes Hill, the noted Wheaton alumnus, likewise shares a nuanced and redemptive story about his experiences as a gay man at Wheaton College in his book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.
Wheaton’s lived story is wildly different from the narratives built by a few individual voices on the ideological warpath. In fact, it is quite clear that the “Wheaton is anti-LGBT” narrative is constructed by only a loud, select few, leaving the reality of the school’s environment almost entirely unspoken. Negative takes on the school’s treatment of its queer students often stem from outside sources like Campus Pride, which, for example, entirely misunderstood Rosaria Butterfield’s visit. Or, the narrative of suppression and silencing come from particular students or staff, such as Justin Massey and Julie Rodgers, both of whom admit that they completely disagree with Wheaton’s stance on same-sex relationships. Rodgers’ story has been directly contradicted by the administration, forcing the observer to trust either Rodgers or the administration.
Dr. Ryken, the staff of the Chaplain’s Office, and many other leaders at Wheaton College assert that they care deeply for the LGBT+ students at the school. They affirm that they want to hear from them and encourage them. There is no hate in their words or intentions. But does this really ensure that voices are not left silent?
The only way to understand Wheaton’s story is to hear the story of LGBT+ students who do affirm the college’s stance on sexual ethics. To listen only to progressive affirming voices in news articles creates a false narrative. So where are the voices of Community Covenant-affirming LGBT+ students? When I graduated from Wheaton, I did not know a single openly gay celibate Christian student at the school. I did, however, know a few who were not out. Talking to people in private conversations eventually raised a fairly obvious question. Why would they want to be out? The conservatives will look at and treat them differently, perhaps negatively, or they might try to use them as theological poster-children for a conservative sexual ethic. The progressives will attempt to persuade them to give up their closely-held beliefs and “accept themselves” by accepting a progressive sexual ethic.
To remain silent, then, is a not-cowardly path for many LGBT+ students at Wheaton College to remain themselves. The stories that I hear are the stories of men and women who want to have their identity not to be first and foremost their sexuality and the political implications that come with it. They want to be Christians, friends, coworkers, fellow students, floormates, not just your gay Christian friend, your gay coworker, your gay fellow student, and your gay floormate.
We must give voice to those LGBT+ folks in our communities to express concerns and struggle in the context of friendship. Some students do not understand that the rainbow flag is perceived as connoting an affirmation of unbiblical sexual ethics, and thus cannot be displayed on campus. But we must recognize their existence and pursue their flourishing, even if the Wheaton College administration will not, in accordance with its beliefs, allow rainbow flags to fly.
So does Wheaton College hate gays? No, of course not. Does Wheaton College silence LGBT+ voices? Functionally, yes. The administration has no choice but to silence the voices that put up a flag that seems to contradict Wheaton’s sincerely-held beliefs. The progressives silence the voices by calling LGBT+ students to abandon their beliefs to find a place among them. And the rest of us silence the voices by our cold and implicit promise that once you come out, you’ll be gay first, and our sibling second.
Yet we are not without hope for change. Those at Wheaton, in affirming the Community Covenant, are not just affirming some traditional sexual ethic but are affirming the power and the work of Jesus Christ. That power, which lives among the community, can heal and teach; indeed, there must be healing and learning at Wheaton College. Only by listening to LGBT+ voices can we hope to see people as so much more than their sexuality.