Students, alumni, faculty, and administrators are working for change at Christian colleges and universities where beliefs about sexuality and gender identity have played a significant role in the challenges faced by LGBTQ&A (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and allied) individuals. This movement is marked by at least three waves of organized work for the acceptance of LGBTQ&A individuals at these institutions. While Catholic and church related schools have had gay student groups dating back to the 1980’s, the first wave of LGBTQ&A organizing at evangelical and fundamentalist schools started in the mid-2000’s with the formation of groups at Oral Roberts University (ORU Out), Cedarville University (Cedarville Out), and other schools. In the second wave, starting in 2005, the Soulforce Equality Ride began engaging with, and non-violently protesting at, evangelical and fundamentalist Christian colleges who maintained discriminatory policies with respect to their LGBTQ&A students and employees. Underground student and alumni groups at these institutions also began forming at this time, often through secret online communities. In the third wave LGBTQ&A student and alumni organizations at evangelical and fundamentalist Christian colleges and universities became more widespread, more organized and more public, gaining national attention in 2011 following high profile letter writing campaigns and homecoming gatherings organized by alumni of Westmont College and Wheaton College. (http://articles.latimes.com/2011/feb/16/local/la-me-gay-westmont-20110216; http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-05-03/news/ct-met-wheaton-gay-students-20110503_1_gay-community-wheaton-college-sexual-orientation)
Safety Net entered the landscape on December 17, 2011, when Haven Herrin, Soulforce’s Director of Development at the time,) organized a conference call involving LGBTQ&A alumni who were working for change at several Christian colleges. Some of these founding leaders were already leading LGBTQ&A alumni groups, others were working towards starting one. The purpose of this call was to help network these leaders, to assess what was happening on their campuses, and to consider how these groups could support each other. During this call, a vision began to emerge of a national “safety net” for LGBTQ&A students, alumni, faculty, and staff that could 1) help connect students to support; 2) help create a collective response team that could aid LGBTQ&A individuals facing discipline for their sexuality or gender identity; and 3) provide a unified voice that could publicize our groups’ work on a national level and work for public advocacy of LGBTQ&A individuals at Christian institutions of higher education.
Safety Net created a private Facebook group on January 4, 2012, to facilitate communication between the leaders of LGBTQ&A groups. This group quickly grew through networking with leaders at other campuses. Throughout 2012, a number of high profile student and alumni groups launched across the country, including the Biola Queer Underground, BJUnity and OneGeorgeFox, gaining attention from national press organizations ranging from MSNBC, to Christianity Today, to Inside Higher Ed. On God’s Campus, a project documenting the voices of LGBTQ and allied students and alumni at Christian colleges through video and print, also launched this year.
Since it’s launch, the Safety Net community has provided resources, strategic support, and feedback for these groups following their launch. By March of 2012, Safety Net’s membership articulated its mission and vision as seeking to support LGBTQ&A students, faculty, staff, administration and alumni at institutions of higher education where religion plays a significant role in the challenges these individuals face by supporting the development and success of LGBTQ&A groups at these schools.
Safety Net first took public action on June 7, 2012 when it sent letters from the Safety Net community to the president of Shorter University (a liberal arts, Baptist college in Rome, Georgia) and the “Save Our Shorter” campaign. Safety Net sent these letters in response to an incident at Shorter in which more than two dozen faculty members left Shorter University due to Shorter’s adoption of a “personal lifestyle statement” which condemned homosexuality (along with premarital sex and public drinking). While Safety Net acknowledged the difficult position that Shorter University’s president found himself in as he sought to preserve the school’s understanding of Biblical Christianity through the drafting of this lifestyle pledge, the letters highlighted the importance of creating a safe environment for LGBTQ students, faculty, and administration and commended the faculty in their choice to stand with LGBTQ people by refusing to sign this lifestyle pledge.
In November of 2012, Safety Net (and several of the groups affiliatedwith Safety Net) sent a letter to Evangelicals for Social Action’s PRISM magazine in response to their November/December 2012 issue “Beyond Labels: Finding Our Identity in Christ, Not Sexual Orientation.” This letter highlighted how the issue problematically spoke about LGBT+ Christians rather than engaging in meaningful dialog with LGBT+ Christians whose perspective differs from PRISM’s party line that biblical Christianity only allows for sexual intimacy amongst heterosexuals.
Many members of Safety Net in Southern California met on March 16, 2013, for the first time at a Soulforce SoCal Conference which Ellie Ash-Bala organized at Pomona College. Thirty students and alumni from six different colleges, many of whom could not safely speak or gather publicly on their campuses, gathered to hear a keynote presentation by Soulforce’s co-founder Mel White and to attend a variety of workshops on the topics of gender, sexuality, scripture, and organizing for change at Christian colleges.
Representatives from Safety Net, OneWheaton, and Soulforce, including current board chairpersons KT Latimer and Darren McDonald, sought to attend the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities “Changing Faces” diversity conference on April 6, 2013, but with the exception of Haven Herrin (and Soulforce staff member Zachary Pullin) they were denied entry under premises of the conference being full (despite additional, non-LGBT attendees being allowed to sign up for the conference at the door). This did not deter Safety Net, as their members handed out doughnuts and coffee in the conference lobby (at the invitation of Warner Pacific staff) and struck up conversations with interested conference attendees.
Safety Net’s inaugural leadership team (Soulforce’s Haven Herrin, BJUnity’s Jeffrey Hoffman, OneWheaton’s KT Latimer, OneWestmont’s Darren McDonald, Cedarville Out’s David Olsen, and OneGeorgeFox’s Paul Southwick) was confirmed by an online vote over the week of November 25, 2012. The Safety Net board began to consider best practices for the Safety Net community, organizational structure, and website development. Much of the Board’s early discussions focused on the relationship between Safety Net and Soulforce. While Soulforce and Safety Net are committed to supporting each other’s work on behalf of the LGBTQ&A communities at Christian colleges and universities, Safety Net’s board decided to establish itself as a separate entity. On October 9, 2013, Ellie Ash-Bala (from Azusa Pacific and Fuller) and A.J. Mendoza (from OneGeorgeFox and Common Ground) were appointed to the Safety Net board.
On February 13, 2014, Safety Net announced its launch to the public with the unveiling of its website and a party celebrating the work of Safety Net in Los Angeles. This event coincided with the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities’ triennial International Forum on Christian Higher Education. Safety Net maintained an unofficial presence at this conference.