“But You Chose to Come Here…”

The struggles and convictions of LGBTQ+ students at Christian universities

During his freshman year of college at Liberty University, Nathanial Totten, raised in Michigan in a conservative Christian household, developed a close friendship and began to fall in love. Not unlike most young college romances, the situation was fraught with melodrama and heartbreak.

But this particular relationship caused a unique identity crisis.

The problem? Totten had fallen in love with another man — and was forced to come to terms with his own identity and personal convictions, along with the corresponding beliefs and policies of his religious university.

There’s an expectation ... of how we believe, why we believe, what we believe and what we do with that belief. When your experiences don’t fit the traditional mold ... you have to decide—well, which part of myself am I willing to let capitulate?
— Nathanial Totten

“There’s an expectation (at Liberty) of how we believe, why we believe, what we believe and what we do with that belief,” Totten said. “When your experiences don’t fit the traditional Liberty mold, or are in conflict with that idealism, you begin to notice that friction and you have to decide — well, what part of myself am willing to let capitulate?”

Students who choose to openly acknowledge and embrace an LGBTQ lifestyle while attending religious universities confront near constant discouragement and frustration. These students are constantly faced with the challenge of balancing the outworking of their identity with the conflicting policies and convictions of the university they attend.

Some people question why LGBTQ students choose to come to these universities in the first place — and why so many of them stay.

Caitlin Stoudt is a gay student attending the evangelical Spring Arbor University in Michigan. On September 17, 2017, Stoudt published a blog post titled: “But You Chose to Come Here…,” referencing the statement often posed as a question to LGBTQ-affirming students at universities with conflicting policies.

I sit through sermons by chapel speakers who speak as if there could not possibly be any queer students in the room. I watch straight couples hold hands and fall in love while knowing that I could get expelled for having that same beautiful experience
— Caitlin Stoudt

“I check a box on my housing application every year, promising that I will not engage in any kind of ‘homosexual activity’ so that I can qualify for a dorm,” Stoudt said in her blog post. “I sit through sermons by chapel speakers who speak as if there could not possibly be any queer students in the room. I watch straight couples hold hands and fall in love while knowing that I could get expelled for having that same beautiful experience.”

And yet, Stoudt said, when she questions the effects of her university’s policies on LGBTQ students, she meets with the same response over and over again: “Well, you did choose to come here.”

When Totten — who will graduate May 2018 — first visited Liberty in the fall of 2013, he was sold on the cutting-edge campus, Virginia’s mountains and the campus’s strong spiritual atmosphere. He applied, was accepted and was quickly launched into classes, activities and social groups on campus the following year.

“I came to Liberty very ideologically conservative,” Totten said. “I came here and thought, ‘Wow, (Liberty University) is so stylistically progressive,’ … I really felt like it was a happy medium between traditions and would give me a more moderate view of reality.”

But months of inner turmoil during his first year on campus led Totten to come to terms with a personal unavoidable reality: he was gay. Despite wishful thinking, he couldn’t suppress or pray the gay away and hope that one day he would find a woman he wanted to marry.

“The first time that I experienced this emotional depth of interest in someone, it put me face to face with, ‘This is real — what am I asking of myself?’” Totten said. “I’m not just talking about never having sex with someone. I’m talking about never coming home from work to someone, never having Saturday lunch when we’re doing nothing all day, never having random Target trips in the middle of the night.”

Gay Christians are often told that the only way for them to please God is hope and pray that God will change their attractions, and in the meantime — or forever — remain celibate. According to Totten and Stoudt, this mentality is deeply harmful, both excluding and condemning LGBTQ students on the basis of their sexual identity.

“I don’t always know how to reconcile my genuine love for the Body of Christ with the ways it continues to do harm,” Stoudt said in her blog. “I don’t always feel like the relationship is justifiable, and I don’t know if I can tell LGBTQ Christians to keep pouring their energy and affection into an organization that barely tolerates them.”

Totten said that it is unfair to assume that LGBTQ students have a choice in whether or not they attend their university. Often, they have not come out to their parents and families — and doing so might mean losing emotional and financial support.

“A lot of kids had to come here … (they’re) here as a way of satiating their parents will for their lives,” Totten said. “I mean, if they were to just up and leave, how would they justify that to their family, if they aren’t out to them yet?”

“If they were to just up and leave, how would they justify that to their family, if they aren’t out to them yet?”
— Nathanial Totten

Totten said that although he does believe that the views of Liberty University are wrong, he doesn’t expect the university’s attitude toward LGBTQ studentsto change overnight.

“I think you’ve got people like me and us over here saying, ‘Hey, we want (the school) to affirm us, and celebrate us and include us,’ and you’ve got the school saying, ‘Well no, this violates our ethical values,’” Totten said. “I don’t know that it’s realistic to say that Liberty University needs to become a wholly affirming and inclusive environment, because I understand that sexual ethics as a conversation is the tip of an iceberg.”

In her blog post, Stoudt said that she stays at Spring Arbor University because she shouldn’t have to leave because of her sexuality. She stays because of the community she has found and because of the professors who have affirmed her calling and shown her what Jesus looks like. She stays because “the idea of (LGBTQ students) feeling scared or alone is enough to keep me right here, reaching out.”

The ability of a religious university to uphold their convictions and simultaneously meet the needs of their LGBTQ students is not impossible, according to Totten. It only requires a willingness to have truly open conversations.

How can (the university) uphold (their) convictions and actually meet the needs of (their) LGBTQ students in a way that, in good faith, demonstrates a willingness to build a better community? ... Treat LGBTQ affirmation as a legitimate idea that, while it differs a great deal from the institution’s ideal, exists.
— Nathanial Totten

“How can (the university) uphold (their) convictions and actually meet the needs of (their) LGBTQ students in a way that, in good faith, demonstrates a willingness to build a better community?” Totten said. “I think that’s a process that happens when the administration … does the actual labor of undertaking hard conversations and listening to LGBTQ students. Understand them. Treat LGBTQ affirmation as a legitimate idea that, while it differs a great deal from the institution’s ideal, exists.”