How are LGBT Students Faring at Christian Colleges?
Mark Yarhouse has established himself as one of the most important voices today in discussions over LGBT issues, the culture, and the church. He is a psychologist, so he writes with clear concern for the well-being of LGBT students.
Along with three other counselors and psychologists, Yarhouse has released a multi-year study of faith and sexual identity on Christian college campuses. His research involves a study of 160 students from fourteen Christian colleges and universities and is published in the recent book Listening to Sexual Minorities.
Quite helpfully, Yarhouse focuses the book on unpacking the tensions students with same-sex attraction often face at Christian institutions of higher education: How do I understand my same-sex attraction? Is it something to celebrate or something to deny? Should I identify as gay or not? How do I make sense of my attractions and remain theologically loyal? And so on.
How Well Are LGBT Students Faring?
What interested me most about this study was the question of how well gay students are faring psychologically at Christian schools. Are they doing worse than at non-Christian schools, as many secularists claim? Or are they doing better, as many Christians would like to believe.
There were definitely some areas of concern. For instance, according to this study, 9% of sexual-minority students report psychological issues—depression, loneliness, etc.—severe enough to be of concern.
But the overall picture is quite positive. Yarhouse reports:
“Overall, our Christian sexual-minority students on average look pretty healthy psychologically. Their symptoms are largely minimal, looking very similar to their straight peers even though they have some symptoms of depression and anxiety. Not only that, but our Christian sexual-minority students have similar levels of psychological strength—a sense of personal growth and meaning in life—as do their peers” (p. 48).
In sum, Yarhouse concludes that LGBT students tend to be better than might be expected, but not as good as hoped. This is positive news for Christian universities who have aimed to improve the experience of LGBT students, but also a reminder that more work needs to be done.
Critical: Relationships of Trust
Finding a relational context to confide their journeys and experiences while in college is one of the most important factors for LGBT students (and really all students) to thrive in their life, faith, and studies. According to this study, most sexual-minorities were able to find friends at Christian universities they could share their experiences with.
They also found faculty to be remarkably supportive. In fact, negative remarks, jokes, or inappropriate use of the term gay were nearly nonexistent among faculty or staff. But these students did hear comments at times from fellow students, often in the presence of faculty, who sometimes remained quiet.
Overall, it seems the vast majority of faculty are not making disparaging comments against LGBT students, and are being sensitive to their concerns, but they could do a better job of speaking up when other students are not as sensitive.
Do Conservatives Need to Change Their Theology?
In the last part of the book, Yarhouse includes a number of suggestions LGBT students make to improve the climate on their campuses. There are some powerful suggestions that Christian institutions need to deeply consider. Interestingly, though, almost all of them had to do with how students at Christian universities could do life together within existing theological commitments.
In other words, students did not seem to feel it was necessary to change historic Christian teachings on sex and marriage for their flourishing. This is a remarkable suggestion, especially since revisionist theologians often claim that it is conservative theology itself that brings harm to sexual minorities. The students in this study seemed to believe they could thrive in Christian universities without substantive doctrinal shifts. Simply put, these students seem to believe that conservative theology is consistent with living a healthy and balanced life.
Although Listening to Sexual Minorities is an academic book, it is a must-read for professors, administrators, and other church-based influencers of students today. As this study reveals, Christian institutions have made positive strides in how they minister to LGBT students. But, we also have more work to do.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.