Coming out at BJU

Following the publication of my Washington Faith “On Faith” posting about Bob Jones University (BJU) alumni’s historic march in the NYC Pride parade, a key question kept popping up—“Why would any LGBT person go to BJU given the school's strident disciplinary code of conduct that classifies 'homosexuality' as a perversion?”

This question illuminates the disconnect between the larger US society and the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church network that includes BJU. Jeffrey Hoffman, Executive Director of BJUnity, an organization of Bob Jones LGBT alumni, explains why they remained silent:

For those of us who grew up in this fundamentalist world, when you realize you are “gay,” you also come to an awareness that you are the most reviled thing in this subculture. Homosexuality is considered to be an abomination akin to murder, thievery, and bestiality. You cannot express the fact you are gay to your Christian schoolteacher, parents or pastor because they will cast you out from your church, your school and even your home. If you choose to become honest about your life, you will find yourself ostracized and likely to end up on the streets as a homeless LGBT teen.

On the BJUnity website, they started posting stories of BJU alumni who decided to come out and tell their stories. Through reading their accounts, one senses a pattern similar to Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project. They all describe profound feelings of isolation and shame due to their sexual orientation or gender identity followed by relief and a sense of peace when they decided to stop living a lie.

Men and woman in this fundamentalist subculture are groomed to seek out a traditional marriage between a man and a woman, a process that for Jaclyn brought about childhood depression and an eating disorder. She writes, “As I had no context for depression, so I had no context for ‘gay' other than people using it as a dirty word, in the realm of reprobate.” Like Jaclyn, many of those who told their stories got married in the hopes it would “cure” them only to find themselves divorced when they decided to pursue an authentic life.

Initially, any student suspected of being a “homosexual” would be expelled from BJU though now they are often forced to see uncertified counselors as part of the school’s discipline system. In his story, Tim describes his counseling sessions. “I hated being asked the same things over and over again – are you gay, have you ever had sex with a man – and I hated even more that I lied about everything.”

LGBT alumni who come out after they graduate face reprisals from BJU such as cancellation of their membership in the BJU alumni association (and banishment from campus). BJUnity plans to continue posting letters that alumni, students and staff received on BJU letterhead as this material becomes available. An undisclosed number of BJU alumni do not wish to have their correspondence from BJU made public as they still have family members connected to the school and fear their relatives might face disciplinary action if they take their disputes with BJU into the public arena.

As expected, BJUnity has yet to receive a response from BJU regarding the school's anti-gay disciplinary policies. Hoffman makes it clear that BJUnity does not have any affiliation with BJU, adding that the school chose to ostracize them. However, they want to walk back toward BJU so they can reach out to current LGBT students who need support and affirmation that one can lead a productive and happy life if they choose to come out. Also, they want to put pressure on the school to form a Gay Student Alliance.

In addition to their anti-gay policies, the 1983 Bob Jones University v. US SCOTUS ruling uncovered the extent of racism present at this school, as well as setting the stage for the formation of the religious right. However, BJU's connection to fundamentalist power brokers goes back for decades. For example, in 1952 BJU invited Abraham Vereide, founder of The Family, a group with known ties to the anti-gay legislation in Uganda.

While one can view BJU as existing in the context of an isolationist bubble, their publishing arm Bob Jones University Press has connected for decades to the larger evangelical community where they serve as one of the largest purveyors of Christian homeschooling textbooks. Also, as NPR reports, BJUused to be a "station of the cross for aspiring presidential candidates with Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan and George W. Bush speaking at this school.” Even though Mitt Romney did not make a pit stop at this school during the 2012 election cycle, BJU’s views on human sexuality are sync with some of the rhetoric being spewed in the current socio-political debates over marriage equality and abortion rights. (See Truth Wins Out for ongoing analysis of funding streams and institutional support behind campaigns against LGBT equality.)

Even in more progressive evangelical circles, one still finds ongoing debates about “homosexuality” with religious leaders like evangelist Tony Campolo stating his preference traditional churches that uphold conservative beliefs about marriage. In fact, Campolo goes so far as to compare the theology of his Red Letter Christian group to that of the Family.

In addition, Campolo's Red Letter Christians television show is broadcast on Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the largest Christian television network with a longstanding history of fraud that should give any Christian pause. While some may argue that the presence of more progressive voices “might” change the minds of TBN viewers, shows like Campolo's offer up proof that TBN is a “Christ centered” ministry despite evidence to the contrary. 

Hence, a kinder gentler version of BJU continues in the form of a Christian clothed in more respectable progressive clothes that can welcome the hipster but not the “homosexual.” Or as Dan Savage would state, God Hates Fags with a Smile.”

Image courtesy of Becky Garrison

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