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Conservative Christian Colleges Struggle with Growing Support for LGBT Inclusion Among Students and Alumni

Messiah College, an institution located in central Pennsylvania and affiliated with the Brethren in Christ Church, has heard from many alumni in the past few weeks, and the alumni are not happy. Earlier this month, Isaiah Thomas, an openly gay student, decided to transfer out of Messiah after spending his first months of college dealing with harassment because of his sexual orientation. Thomas had his keys and wallet stolen and then found his replacement ID destroyed and covered in urine. Most disturbingly, he has received death threats via Facebook. Although college officials say they investigated the harassment, the results are not publicly available and Thomas says that the atmosphere overall has not been supportive or welcoming. Despite claims that the school distinguishes between behavior and identity, Thomas says that one professor referred to him as an “abomination” during class.

Like many conservative Christian affiliated colleges, Messiah has a Community Covenant that requires students to abstain from “homosexual behavior.” Thomas says that he was never informed of the Community Covenant, and John Chopka, the school’s Vice President of Enrollment says that students are not given a full copy of the covenant when they apply.

When Isaiah Thomas’ story became public, many Messiah College alumni were outraged. In response to his treatment and the school’s continued stance on LGBT students, Emily Yoder, a 2009 graduate, spearheaded the creation of Inclusive Alumni, a petition that urges Messiah to change its policy on LGBT inclusion. The petition specifically asks the college to:

A) Eliminate the clause in the Community Covenant that forbids “homosexual behavior.” By placing further restrictions on students who identify as LGBTQ than on other students, students are not only denied part of their humanity, but divisions are created in the community the college so actively works to create.

B) Make the college a truly safe space for LGBTQ students. Take proactive steps to prevent harassment, threats, and bullying, instead of merely reacting to these occurrences. The first step here is to flesh out the definition of “Reconciliation” in the Community Covenant to list sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, along with “race, class, age, gender, religion, and ethnicity,” which are already included, and to then train staff to address anti-LGBTQ language and behavior in timely and culturally competent ways.

So far, Yoder’s petition, which is only open to the Messiah College community, has gathered almost 450 signatures. Many signatures are from alumni who graduated in the last five to ten years, but many older graduates are becoming involved as well; the petition includes signatures from a 1957 graduate, several from the 1960s and many more from alumni who graduated in the 1970s. Clearly, the issue of LGBT inclusion is important to a diverse and broad ranging group of Messiah alumni. Yoder says that she is usually proud that she went to Messiah College, but Thomas’ experience has made her embarrassed to be associated with the school.

Messiah College is one of many colleges associated with conservative Christian traditions that have faced backlash from current and former students over their stance on LGBT people. Alumni of Wheaton College in Illinois have created OneWheaton, a support network for LGBT alumni and allies. The site includes a letter of support addressed to current LGBT Wheaton students signed by of hundreds of alumni spanning five decades.

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