Rev. Darren McDonald is currently serving as Co-Chair of the Board for Safety Net (along with KT Latimer), a national network of LGBTQ&A student and alumni groups related to religious institutes of higher learning where the school’s religious beliefs around sexuality and gender identity play a key role in the challenges faced by LGBTQ&A students, alumni, faculty, and staff.
You might wonder why I, as a gay partially sighted man, would choose to attend an Evangelical Christian college and seminary. As I have worked to promote safety for LGBTQ&A (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and allied) students at my previous alma maters Westmont College (BA, 2002) and Fuller Theological Seminary (M.Div., 2006), I have faced this question not only from fellow Christians who consider me their enemy but also from my fellow queer family who assume I “chose” to attend “such a bigoted place.” As someone who has feared for my own physical, emotional, and professional integrity and safety at these schools, I understand how my history at such institutions might perplex and worry. At the same time, I will not and cannot flee from my own history. I know something of what it is like to be closeted at an institution that has defined itself, in part, by its opposition to those whom I love.
I was raised by Evangelical Christians in Arcadia, CA, the town in which the anti-gay family ministry Focus on the Family was founded. While my parents have always been loving, supportive, and responsive, they participated in an Evangelical Christian culture that was decidedly anti-sex. In this abstinence celebrating culture, sex of all kinds was taboo – a fleshy, broken, and profoundly dangerous activity that was a necessary evil only to the extent that it led to “procreation.” This worldview led to a sex-ethics of avoidance. Our youth group included regular mentions of the evils of masturbation, the attack of homosexuals on the church, and even on one occasion the dangers of interracial marriage.
I was an intensely devout child who relied upon God for meaning and solace as I experienced grief in my family (a chronically ill mother and several deaths of loved ones) and bullying in the school system as a partially sighted student. I loved God through scripture, song, and prayer, and I developed as a dedicated youth ministry leader at Arcadia Presbyterian Church. Church was incredibly important to me, as it was the one place where I had a voice, friends, and the opportunity to lead as a partially sighted person. Throughout my education in the Arcadia Unified School District, I was confined to the ghetto of special education (despite my intelligence, I am nearing the completion of my seconed master’s degree) and the subject of daily ableist bullying. At Arcadia Presbyterian Church, I was the gifted, faithful, and devout child of pillars of the church community.
Given the central importance of my faith and church community in my life, it makes sense that I grew up denying and suppressing my sexual orientation. All of my life, I had been warned about the “homosexual agenda” and how “gays” were attacking the very church and God that I had dedicated my life to serving by the time I was twelve. I was uncomfortable with sex and my body, not God and my church. I certainly was not the demonic other that I had been taught was working to undermine my faith. This is why I was able to argue in my church’s patio in between worship services that “Matt Damon is cuter than Ben Affleck” and still follow that up with “but I’m not gay.” Evangelicalism’s anti-sex assumptions help explain how my friends and youth group leaders believed me and were surprised when I came out. The ableist myth of asexuality (the assumption that people with disabilities are somehow neither interested in or able to have sexual relationships) also made it easier for family and friends to not worry when I never went to a school dance or dated.
It was in this spirit of denial and piety that I enrolled at Westmont College. The idea of going to a college that looked like a giant youth group appealed to me. I was also encouraged by the college’s size (at around 1200 students, Westmont’s entire student body was about the size of my class at Arcadia High School), as I believed that Westmont would respect me as a student and not just another disabled person they had to deal with. I expected that Westmont would prepare me for the ministry to which I was called.
In many ways Westmont exceeded those expectations. I was accepted as a student and friend rather than marginalized for my vision (though I did witness a chapel speaker attempt to forcibly heal a non-consenting blind friend of mine, because he assumed that her tears were due to her blindness and not the nearby UCSB students whose deaths were being ignored during the chapel service on God’s mission). I made close friendships that have remained key sources of strength and support (some of whom were extremely helpful and supportive in my coming out process). I grew deeper into my faith as a Christian, and I was empowered intellectually to explore my faith and studies with critical and careful examination.
Perhaps the greatest gift my parents gave me was the belief that God was strong enough to handle my questions and uncertainty. This, along with my education at Westmont College, gave me the courage to accept the ambiguities of spirituality and to hold questions without accepting easy answers, an ability that became critically important for me as my sexuality began to emerge.
For most of my time at Westmont, I continued to deny my sexuality. In part, this was still due to my discomfort with a gay identity. I increasingly knew that I was only interested sexually in men, but I also believed that God had called me to lifelong celibacy. I should note that this message was not explicitly promoted by Westmont. If anything, Westmont began to shape my thinking in a more sex positive (though still heteronormative) direction. For example, Westmont’s anti-gay but pro-sex old testament professor, Dr. Tremper Longman, III, was famous amongst students for highlighting the similarities between Hebrew scriptural text Song of Songs and erotic poetry from the ancient near east.
At the same time, Westmont’s student life handbook remained anti-sex, as Westmont’s community standards prohibit undefined “sexual activity” outside of marriage, it also prohibits activities “promoting such activity” (such as dancing with the opposite gender, or even being in the same dorm room as someone of the opposite gender after midnight or before noon even if students are married). In order to maintain this policy, Westmont requires that doors be at least halfway open and allow “unrestricted visual access” when men and women were in the same room. Given this level of paranoia, it is not surprising that Westmont’s official position also prohibits anti-“homosexual practice” (also undefined), though Westmont is much less strict in enforcing its rules against heterosexual couples.
Westmont’s student body, while resisting their schools student life policies around heterosexual sex, was often even more vehemently anti-gay than the school’s administrators. At times, this took a particularly paranoid form, such as when friends of mine who were roommates received hate mail because other students thought they were gay because they spent too much time together. At other times, it involved the public shaming of those who did not conform to the expected traditional gender norms (which many Evangelicals still assume is the same as being gay, failing to recognize that gender and sexual orientation are not the same thing). I will forever remember my first Spring Sing (an annual “Broadway style” competition between the residence halls that Westmont holds at the Santa Barbara Bowl), when my role was to wear a dress and chase one of the other residents of Page Hall threatening to kiss him. Sadly, I did not have the courage to refuse to do this, despite my roommate warning me “they’re laughing at you, not with you.” Spring Sing is one of the most well known and important traditions at Westmont, but it can also often be a time of public embarrassment and fear for those who depart from heterosexist norms.
That fear kept me in the closet through college and into seminary. Despite having a best friend who was already an ally of LGBT folks while we were still in college, I did not feel safe enough to risk naming what I felt until I was several years removed from Westmont. Even then, I hated who I was enough to consider suicide, and I spent time seeing an ex-gay mentor in hope of freeing myself from my sexuality. Only with the patience of friends, good therapy from a supportive psychiatrist, and recognizing that my desire to not die alone was making my hope for celibacy impossible, was I able to begin the work of coming out. While some of my family and classmates have rejected me, as I feared, claiming my experience and my sexual identity finally gave me the opportunity to experience the acceptance of God, my brother, my deeply loving and supportive parents, my friends, and eventually myself.
Attending an Anti-Gay Evangelical school while closeted can be a terrifying experience. LGBT students, like me, have to watch as their sexuality is questioned in chapel, in the classroom, and in their dormitories. They also have to live with the fear that their sexuality might be discovered at a college that is frankly paranoid when it comes to sexuality. Accepting oneself as a sexual minority in a school that demonizes those that depart from heterosexist and anti-sex norms carries the risk of losing family, friends, physical and emotional safety, and often one’s church. Given the religious background that most Christian colleges come from, it also feels like one must choose between God and one’s sexuality or gender identity, since most children raised in Anti-Gay Evangelical homes are raised to believe that God and “bible believing” Christians see LGBT person as a demonic enemy. The saddest part of this toxic fear is how it can separate the handful of LGBT students who find themselves at that school. This feeds into the greatest lie and fear of the closet – that LGBT students are alone in facing a heterosexist and transphobic world.
Knowing within my own history the physical fear of this experience, I have dedicated myself to the work of trying to change the culture at Christian colleges through providing leadership in OneWestmont (Westmont’s unsanctioned LGBT alumni group) and Safety Net (a national network of LGBT student and alumni groups at anti-LGBT religious institutions involving over fifty schools ranging from Bob Jones University to BYU.) It is my hope that through our work, students and alumni can know that they are not alone in their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and, by knowing that they are not alone, can realize their beautiful and blessed humanity and claim their identity with pride.