Reflections on Sexual Minorities and Gender Diverse Students at Christian Colleges and Universities

Mark A. Yarhouse, Psy.D., Arthur P. Rech & Mrs. Jean May Rech Professor of Psychology, Wheaton College

Janet B. Dean, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology, Asbury University

Stephen P. Stratton, Ph.D., Professor of Counseling and Pastoral Care, Asbury Theological Seminary

Inside Higher Ed published a provocative article titled, “Being LGBTQ+ on a Christian Campus.” The article cites a survey conducted by College Pulse on behalf of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP). The first quote about LGBTQ+ students feeling as though they do not belong and reporting risk of disciplinary action is actually not from the study but from the director of the sponsor of the project. The REAP director is also the person who brought a lawsuit against Fuller Theological Seminary around their response to a sexual minority student that is currently heading to appellate court. This raises two considerations. The first concern is that when a sponsor has a vested interest in a study, that potential conflict of interest is usually reported up front. For example, when a paid speaker for a medical company publishes a study on the effects of a medication from that company, the reader is typically informed of that relationship. In that spirit, it would have been appropriate to have said in both the study report and the Inside Higher Ed article that the sponsoring organization is directed by an attorney who has brought a lawsuit against a Christian institution over these very issues.

The second concern is the framing of the study report as being about religion as the primary focus due to faith-based policies that “restrict students from expressing their LGBTQ+ identities.” To get at the claim of religion being the concern, which is a more complicated question, one would have to conduct a study that compares students from religious institutions to students at secular institutions. But that wasn’t the design of the study. The study uses as comparative data heterosexual students apparently from the same colleges.

Interestingly, the Inside Higher Ed piece did add a reference to LGBTQ+ students at secular institutions, which was important, and it showed that such students are at greater risk for depression, suicidal ideation and attempts, and other concerns in those settings. It was particularly attention-grabbing that Inside Higher Ed included this reference while simultaneously creating a narrower focus on religiously-affiliated institutions. This kind of argument may be seen as reflecting an anti-religious bias.

In reading through the study itself, which appears to be a monograph rather than a peer-reviewed scientific article, participants are students who signed up to be panel members of College Pulse. This particular survey was then made known through web advertising, email campaigns, and partnerships with other organizations, but the students were not contacted through the CCCU-member institutions themselves.

Also, it would be helpful to be shown the solicitation (to participate in the study) information, as we have seen in our research at Christian colleges and universities that language and labels used in how we approach prospective participants have certain demand characteristics or subtle cues that can affect who decides to participate in the study. This, of course, affects the quality of the sampling being considered, which in turn affects how generalizable the results may be. The survey itself is included at the end of the report, which is informative, but there is no demographic information. Standard demographic information might have included gender, age, race, class or year, and perhaps geographical region in the country, which helps the reader determine how representative the sample is.

Other current comparative research suggests that LGBTQ+ persons may be disproportionately affected (compared to heterosexual persons) by COVID. The survey data was obtained in Jan/Feb of this year and it is important to understand how COVID-related concerns may have disproportionately affected LGBTQ+ students.

The study uses many single items as indicators (“measures”) of really important experiences, such as depression. A stronger study would use a measure of depression (or anxiety or other mental health concern). Multiple item measures show greater reliability.

In our own research[1] on sexual minorities and gender diverse students attending Christian colleges and universities, we have seen areas of concern. Although many sexual minorities are doing better than might be expected on various mental health measures, such as the Counseling Center Assessment of Psychological Symptoms (CCAPS), where about half of our recent sample reported mild or no psychological distress, we did find that some students are at greater risk than others. Indeed, level of distress was negatively correlated with intrinsic religiosity and social support, and self-acceptance mediated these relationships. This means that the degree of distress is connected to the quality of students’ relationship with God and others within the Christian colleges and universities we studied.  Furthermore, a critical piece in understanding how those pivotal relationships link to distress is found in the way students perceive and relate to themselves. Interestingly, their own level of affirmation, as well as their perception of campus attitudes toward same-sex attraction and same-sex behavior, were not correlated with psychological distress in our sample.

A more helpful framing of these issues would be to ask religiously-affiliated institutions how they promote self-acceptance in their unique learning environment and how religion can foster that. There could be many angles of entry into that conversation. It may include how such institutions communicate to prospective students their religious commitment and any associated community or behavioral standards. It would also make sense for institutions to share how they provide broad support to students navigating sexual or gender identity and faith, how they create a community in which students can take their faith seriously, take their sexuality or gender seriously, and take how they related their faith and sexuality or gender seriously. It could entail sharing how such institutions foster social support among students, and how they convey messages that promote self-acceptance in the faith-based learning environments and vision for human flourishing based in community beliefs about personhood, sexuality, and gender.

Given that American higher education occurs in both secular and religious contexts, and in light of the research suggesting LGBTQ+ students may also be at greater risk than their heterosexual/cisgender peers in secular institutions of higher ed, the focus of this survey could have been on providing support across the many settings in which higher education takes place.

Additionally, rather than push the narrative of discrimination, REAP might have used their data to identify ways for these institutions to better support students who are navigating these important aspects of identity while on campus. Such an approach could have also been modified to identify ways to support students navigating sexual or gender identity at secular universities as well.

A different study would be needed to reach the conclusions made by REAP and Inside Higher Ed. The findings as published are less conclusive with respect to the assertions being made given the narrow focus on only religious institutions, with a key missing piece being action items for all institutions of higher education to better support students moving forward.

[1] Janet B. Dean, Stephen P. Stratton, & Mark A. Yarhouse, “The Mediating Role of Self-Acceptance in the Psychological Distress of Sexual Minority Students on Christian College Campuses,” Spirituality in Clinical Practice, in press. See also, Stephen P. Stratton, Janet B. Dean, Mark A. Yarhouse, & Michael Lastoria, “Sexual Minorities in Faith-Based Education: A National Survey of Attitudes, Milestones, Identity, and Religiosity,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 41, no. 1 (2013): 3-23; Jeffrey Reed, Stephen P. Stratton, Greg Koprowski, Janet B. Dean, Mark A. Yarhouse, Michael Lastoria, & Emma Bucher, “’Coming Out’ to Parents in a Christian Context: A Consensual Qualitative Analysis of LGB Student Experiences,” Counseling and Values 65 (2020): 38-56; Mark A. Yarhouse, Stephen P. Stratton, Janet B. Dean, & Heather L. Brooke, “Listening to Sexual Minorities on Christian College Campuses,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 37, no. 2 (2009): 96-113. A more comprehensive and accessible presentation of some of this data can be found in Mark A. Yarhouse, Janet B. Dean, Stephen P. Stratton, & Michael Lastoria, Listening to Sexual Minorities: A Study of Faith and Sexuality on Christian College Campuses (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2018).