Coming Out on Campus

Zora

I love getting asked how Ada and I met. It’s kind of a silly story, but it challenges stereotypes: we met at a pizza party at our college Christian fellowship.

Ada and I attended a small liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts. The Christian fellowship had a time-honored tradition of coaxing doe-eyed first-years into the fold with plentiful pizza and wings.

I felt welcome here at the fellowship. I shared a language with them. But Ada and I didn’t hit it off that night. She doesn’t remember it, but I do.

She was the older girl with the nose ring and cool clothes, sitting in the corner. I overcame my introversion to introduce myself.

“I’m Zora.”

“Ada.”

“Pretty name.”

“It’s got a pretty good namesake, too.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, Ada Lovelace.”

I left feeling a bit stupid, but still I was intrigued.

Four years later

Ada had long graduated. I was a leader for the fellowship, and we were dating. I was the first leader of our fellowship to be openly in a same-gender relationship (at least in recent times). Our community, which was both my home and my flock, was bound to react.

“Wait – you and Ada are dating?”

Simple surprise was a common response. In the larger dialogue of our fellowship, queer sexuality wasn’t on everyone’s radar. It was easier to leave that theological conversation in the closet: why risk division?

Some friends wanted to talk further. I was happy to answer questions, since I wanted so deeply to broaden the perspective of our fellowship. Others were willing to keep to casual conversation – at least externally. I didn’t mind that; I tend to keep my emotions close to my chest, anyway.

But I couldn’t help but wonder if Ada’s and my relationship was a topic of conversation beyond my earshot, too. Our leadership was essential to the fellowship. It was visible, and now our relationship was visible, too. I prayed that news of our relationship, paired with our living testimony, would shine God’s love and light across the fellowship. Maybe someday a classmate would reach out to me and tell me it did.

“Can we get coffee?”

If you’re an LGBTQ Christian who has braved non-affirming communities, you’ve probably picked up on what’s implied by that question. Overwhelmingly, it’s code for “let’s talk in private; I don’t want to broadcast my disapproval of your lifestyle, but I’m concerned for your soul.” (Of course, some folks take you out to coffee and genuinely want to hear you out.) A friend recently joked that she ought to be in a mug club for all the “coffee talks” she’s had to have with a long line of non-affirming Christians. The need to constantly defend oneself gets old.

And so, I knew what was in store when Isabelle asked to get coffee, but I was willing to engage in conversation if it could remain gracious. We talked for two hours at a coffee shop. (Calculus would have to solve its own problems that day.) I figured that the approach of dinnertime would provide a natural escape, but Isabelle volunteered to join me for another hour-and-a-half marathon at the dining hall. She cited Genesis, Romans, and 1 Corinthians – a bevy of clobber passages – all the while hammering home that I “would not inherit the kingdom of God” if I stayed with Ada.

When I responded, she heard but didn’t listen. I felt attacked and belittled but mostly disappointed. Was our fellowship a home for the hard-hearted? Had my own leadership contributed to this narrow-mindedness in our community?

“…What you’re going through”

This line was from my then-pastor, Mel. At first, I didn’t catch the connotation, but Ada pointed it out to me: it’s code for “you’re having a hard time,” or in other words, “loving someone of the same gender is bad, but God can bring you through it.”

But it isn’t bad, and I wasn’t having a hard time. I was thrilled to be with Ada, the woman who would become my wife. What I was “going through” was living authentically, sharing my newly-affirming faith with Christian and non-Christian siblings alike. I knew God loved me, and I wanted to share God’s love with others more than ever.

Mel, like many non-affirming folks, and perhaps especially pastors, came to conclusions before he looked or listened. He assumed I was “going through” something painful by coming out. In one sense, he was right. It was painful, not because of my sexuality but because of an egregious misapplication of scripture and a religious culture of homophobia and heteronormativity. Although I continued to worship with his congregation, it stopped feeling like a home. (More on this in a later post.)

“I’m so happy for you!”

These are the moments that lifted me up. Through my coming-out process in the fellowship, I found joy in unexpected places. Marcus, a Christian six-foot who-knows basketball player, beamed when I told him that Ada and I were together.  Paul, who also happens to be gay, became my fast friend and confidant. Ines, one of my first and best college friends, gave me one of her signature bear hugs. As it turned out, she was also dating a woman, and we couldn’t be happier for each other.

The reactions of these friends nourished me and my theology. Love and joy spread across my small circle of campus – good fruit. Fear and condemnation festered in the reactions of the Isabelles and Mels of my journey – bad fruit soured not by my identity but by damaging religious practices that cried out for systemic, theological reformation.

“How can I support you?”

And these are the moments that carried me forward: when friends appeared by my side and planted their flags next to mine. Some of these friends had been questioning non-affirming theology on their own; some were catalyzed by Ada’s and my story. Together, we committed ourselves to building an open and welcoming community.

Together, we met with various InterVarsity (an evangelical campus ministry organization that our fellowship was sponsored by and affiliated with) and college Religious Life staff, usually multiple times. We wanted – we needed – a more inclusive fellowship. We built a committee to write a non-discriminatory constitution, intentionally gathering diverse representation from the fellowship.

At an InterVarsity staff-person’s insistence, I swallowed my pride and submitted the committee reins to a less qualified, less involved, straight, white man. The staff-person offered an array of explanations. You’re a senior, and this constitution will mostly impact the next classes of students. (I was a senior and the most experienced leader, and I had committed my college career to shepherding Christian students.) You’re just not as close to the fellowship anymore. (I was being thrust to the margins.) You’re too close to this issue. (Are women “too close” to the battle for reproductive rights? Are immigrants “too close” to immigration reform?)

The truth is, InterVarsity policy explicitly bars “practicing” queer students like me from holding leadership positions. At the time of my student leadership, this policy had been swept under the rug to save face and escape lawsuits. Now, it is one of InterVarsity’s most public facets of clarity.

The story of this constitution can be saved for another time. What I want you to know today is that my allies made an unfathomable difference in my life. Jesus sent His disciples out in pairs (and that’s probably only accounting for dude-sciples). Together, we moved forward with the peace of God, reveling in hospitality wherever we found it and wiping dust from our feet where we didn’t.

There with my allies, I felt God. In our friendship, I found strength. Through our push for a more inclusive fellowship, I found purpose. Some threw stones, but the hurt waned as we marched onward.

I also want you to know that this is my story. It’s not meant to be reflective of every LGBTQ Christian fellowship student leader. Coming out is a profoundly personal process. Though reactions like those of the Isabelles and Mels were not traumatic to me in the moment, they could have done immense damage had I not been firmly rooted in Christ’s absolute love.

Coming out in a conservative, evangelical fellowship was messy, but I wouldn’t trade my experience for a neater one. Those friends who threw stones have faded into the backstory, and the ones who came alongside me are still fierce champions for Ada and me and other LGBTQ Christians. Though the waters rose and we could have rusted, we sharpened one another as iron sharpens iron.  

 

 

Photo from FlapperGirlCreations.wordpress.com

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