Students & Alumni Navigating Sexual Identity on Christian College Campuses

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeveral members of my research institute recently published a small, qualitative study of 18 students and alumni of Christian institutions of higher education. The students and alumni all identified as Christian; they all reported same-sex attraction or otherwise identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB).

We organized the findings around two themes: (1) experiences of attraction, orientation, identity, and associated milestone events, and (2) campus climate. I wanted to share a few impressions from the study–these are just some things that stood out to me.

We asked about specific milestone events in the formation of one’s sexual identity. Milestone events are commonly studied in research on sexual identity development. They refer to sign posts LGB adults recall as important in their own formation of an LGB identity. We ask about these even though we recognize that an LGB identity may not be an outcome for all Christians who are navigating same-sex sexuality and sexual identity considerations. In any case, first awareness of same-sex sexuality is a common milestone event. As you might anticipate, all of our participants reported first awareness of same-sex attractions–with an average age of awareness at about 11. It was interesting to me that those behaviors that are more volitional–those behaviors that a person has say about–were less commonly reported. For instance, only 50% reported a first same-sex relationship.

For good or for ill, there is a lot of discussion in Christian circles about identity labels. Is it okay to identify as gay and Christian?  We did not ask our participants about whether or not it was okay; rather, we asked whether they adopted a gay identity. About 44% identified themselves as gay (“took on the label of gay” was the actual wording). We also asked about disclosure, and each participant shared with someone else that they experienced same-sex attraction (“first disclosure of same-sex attraction” was the wording). But most of that disclosure was to just a few friends while they were students.

What about campus climate? It perhaps comes as no surprise that about half indicated a hesitancy on the part of their campus to discuss sexual identity. I thought it was interesting that about half indicated that their campus was open to discussion/progress in this area. Perhaps its a matter of perspective. Maybe there is greater variability among campuses. One student talked about compassion:

Our university really tries to push the issue to make it more known. Not from a specifically acceptable standpoint, but to say it’s a legitimate struggle just the same as everybody else in the sins that they have. They try to have a biblical view on it and just to encourage people to come alongside people with the struggle. I think it’s been something that’s been getting in motion. (p. 23)

I think as a research group we were also struck by what were referred to as “pockets of safety.” These are friendships or relationships that are places a person can be more honest and forthcoming. One student shared the following:

One group of friends I hung out with I chose very carefully and very intentionally because I realized that they were just a little bit more accepting in general… two of them I can think of didn’t agree that homosexuality was okay, but they still treated me like a human being, still had fun with me, still invited me to things, and my sexuality never defined me. (p. 23)

We asked what I thought was an interesting question toward the end of the study: What advice would you give to other Christian students on your campus who experience same-sex attraction?  The most common response by far was to find trustworthy people. One person shared, “Find at least one person you can be open with.”

When asked what the campus could do differently in this area, answers went in a few different directions, but one thing that was shared is something I hear quite often as a guest speaker at Christian colleges and universities: Provide us with some clarification about what we as students can and cannot do to be supportive of one another without putting ourselves at risk for discipline.

There was a lot more, of course. These are just some of the findings that stood out to me. Perhaps other findings would stand out to you. You can read the entire study here.

We have a separate study along these same lines that is currently underway. It is a larger study with more quantitative measures as well as qualitative interviews. We hope to have data analyzed soon.

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