For student “Lyndsey Wheeler,”* Covenant’s tight-knit dating culture and satirized reputation as “the marriage mill on the hill” elicits a gauntlet of challenges beyond the usual breakup or relational conflict: Wheeler has grappled with same-sex attraction since at least middle school.
When Wheeler was growing up, she gradually realized that she didn’t have crushes on boys like the other girls, but one boy, Justin, was an exception. However, three months into the relationship, Justin revealed to Wheeler than his name was actually Destinie, and he was a girl.
Wheeler wrestled with the revelation, but decided not to leave the relationship on the account of Destinie’s sex. Wheeler later dated a biological male, but it was a time marked by toxic, controlling behavior and Wheeler’s feelings of forced attraction. Wheeler seemed to finally achieve emotional equilibrium while dating her brother’s female friend, CJ, but personal moral questions during her first semester at Covenant compelled Wheeler to part ways with her.
“I just didn’t like guys. They weren’t attractive, but with her, she was everything: she was hot, she was sweet, she was crazy— which is my favorite,” said Wheeler with a half-smile. However, as a Christian, Wheeler concluded that strengthening her relationship with God was more crucial than staying with CJ.
“I broke up with her because I did not want to be with a female anymore and if it was pleasing for my Father, if that was what he really wanted me to do, then I would,” she said. “Since then, I have been pleading and begging for God to change the way I see people or the way I feel, and it’s been a struggle. But now, there are some guys that I find attractive and sometimes I do think about being in relationships with guys.”
Wheeler and several others on campus have expressed the extreme isolation they feel while tussling with LGBT attraction and desires—particularly when these issues are the subject of inadvertent jokes among students. Fears, or even as Wheeler stated, the “paranoia,” of being discovered by classmates and the administration have often built protective hedges even higher.
“Ryan Stevens,”* a student who experiences transgender desires, said that “the biggest frustration is a lack of awareness.” He, along with Wheeler, does not feel that students intentionally ostracize LGBT cohorts, but, according to Stevens, “there is still such a stigma and shame” attached to the issues.
“We feel secluded, we feel lonely. People make jokes and there is nothing we can say about it,” said Wheeler. “We can’t say ‘hey, man, maybe you shouldn’t joke about that’ without seeming weird or we care too much.” When Wheeler shared her dating history with close friends, “individually, they were really nice and understanding and comforting and helpful, but had I told my friends in a group setting, their reaction would have been different.”
“I don’t think the community takes it seriously” said Stevens.
In the past three years since VP of Student Development, Brad Voyles, began to make changes to the student handbook’s once fragment-sized statement concerning homosexuality, issues of biblical sexuality have taken on new importance within Student Development and the administration as a whole.
“Apparently, we (as Christians) haven’t done the best job of talking about a theology of sex,” said Psychology Chair, Dr. Kevin Eames, “and the church doesn’t know how to talk about it. I won’t say they don’t want to talk about it. They struggle with it, so, there’s lots of confusion.”
To address this confusion and reach out to students that struggle with same-sex desires or gender concerns among other facets of sexuality, Voyles pulled together faculty members, staff, and students to form a Sexuality Committee that meets privately almost every month.
Regular members include Voyles, Eames, Theology Professor Dr. Hans Madueme, Theater Professor Camille Hallstrom, Chaplain Grant Lowe, counselor Shan Alexander, Associate Dean of Students Jonathan Ingraham, Andreas RD Hannah Bloomquist, and two students. Philosophy Professor Dr. Bill Davis and Director of Academic Support, Janet Hulsey periodically chime in at the meetings.
So far, the Committee meetings have yielded panel Q&A discussions and chapel events that tackle these often taboo subjects and broach LGBT questions. Faculty panels include last year’s “Continuing the Discussion: Sexual Identity & the Christian” and a forum on sexual abuse where students could respond with live questions or anonymous text-queries.
Rosaria Butterfield, author of Secrets of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey Into the Christian Faith, former lesbian and advocate of queer literary theory, was invited to speak at a chapel lecture in 2013, while Sam Allberry, pastor and author of Is God Anti-Gay?, and Matthew Trexler, ’11 Covenant alumnus, spoke about their experiences with same-sex attraction in Fall 2014.
This February’s Sexuality Week and Dr. William Struther’s WIC lecture, “Sexuality and the Brain” were the newest installments to the conversation and a result of January’s meeting.
The Committee also wants to remind students facing LGBT issues that they are welcome to pursue private, complimentary counseling at the Priesthill Center or bring queries to Committee members.
“Right now what we want to do is create a place where people can feel safe to explore these issues, to talk about them, for us to have candid conversations about the reality that there are brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with same sex attraction and gender dysphoria and maintain a balance between Biblical faithfulness and caring,” said Eames.
He explained further that while culture’s perception of sexuality currently challenges biblical views, caring “without judgement or condemnation” is a major aspect of biblical faithfulness. As a result of Committee discussions, the administration recently approved Eames’s psychology course, Human Sexuality, as a Social Science Distribution for next semester.
“We have a framework now for conversations,” said Voyles,” and hopefully that’s allowing more conversations to happen … we don’t want students to sit in silence and feel that ‘no one gets what I’m going through and nobody is safe to talk to.’”
While external speakers have shared important insights to the student body, he said it was the internal speakers who presented “a friendly face” to students desiring personal guidance or information on these issues.
During the most recent Committee meeting, held on Feb. 19, members presented feedback from Sexuality Week and plans for a second Sexual Identity and “Women‘s Only” sexuality panel this semester. Some members also proposed a spiritual successor to the once-popular “Wittenburg Door Project”— a forum where students posted anonymous questions answered by Covenant faculty—and regular “breakout groups” where students could meet to discuss hot topics including LGBT issues.
Stevens and student “Logan Sparks”* both expressed gratitude towards the Committee for making headway on these discussions and providing personal guidance.
“I was surprised when I first shared about my struggle with same-sex attraction to know that Student Development had done so much research and reading to genuinely understand these issues in a sympathetic way,” said Sparks. “The administration really does a lot behind the scenes that students don't always see to care for the student body, and this committee is really making an effort to help students.”
Stevens was particularly captivated by the panel discussions and speakers. “When I got to Covenant, I didn’t know anybody I could talk to about how I don’t feel comfortable in my own body--in my sexual identity,” he said. “Hearing speakers come in to talk about same sex-attraction was very encouraging to me. I feel encouraged by some of the talks happening about giving students the kind of support they need.”
He hopes that the administration will pursue “a legitimate, targeted strategy for an ongoing and guided campus discussion” in the future, as well as creating a safe place for people to ask questions, particularly when addressing LGBT issues
Wheeler, however, expressed her disappointment with the lack of specifically LGBT–related discussion. She also fears that meeting with Student Development would result in forced counseling sessions or becoming a “poster child” for campus LGBT issues.
“LGBT students already feel like they’re being hunted down. We already feel like we can’t come out,” she said. “Even if it is not the administration’s motive, it would seem that way to someone who has been going here for a year or longer and is paranoid.”
Wheeler suggested that presenting anonymous campus LGBT statistics alongside the number of students suffering from depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems could help raise awareness during an annual chapel.
Still, Wheeler sees potential in counseling and interpersonal outreach for others in her shoes. “You’re not alone and this is also something you don’t have to work with or through by yourself,” she said. “It’s something I worked through by myself with God, but that doesn’t mean you have to.”
*Lyndsey Wheeler, Ryan Stevens, and Logan Sparks are pseudonyms used at the request of these students to protect their identity.