Zabrina Zablan attended Azusa Pacific University (APU), a prestigious evangelical college in Southern California, for one main reason: to “pray away the gay.” If she studied the Bible enough, she thought, maybe God would deliver her from a sexual orientation that her conservative religious family viewed as sinful.

Instead, she fell in love.

Zablan met Ipo Duvauchelle, a fellow APU student, and the two women began dating. Zablan and Duvauchelle shared similar worldviews, a warm sense of humor, and a deep faith. It seemed God was not interested in breaking up the happy lesbian couple. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for university administration.

At first, Zablan and Duvauchelle dated without issue. Despite the university’s official stance that same-sex relationships were sinful, the couple found that there was an informal “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy at the school. Zablan and Duvauchelle were able to find pockets of LGBTQ-affirming students and faculty who celebrated their relationship.

Meanwhile, Zablan became increasingly involved in student leadership. As a Native Hawaiian, she was passionate about creating space on campus for diverse students. She became a leader of APU’s Pacific Islander Organization, and by the time Zablan entered her senior year, she was a prominent figure on campus, admired by students and faculty alike.

But in February 2016, mere months before she was set to graduate, Zablan was called into a meeting with the school’s administration. She was told that someone on campus had filed an official complaint about her same-sex relationship with Duvauchelle. “I was given one of two options: I could either break up with Ipo, or I could stay in the relationship, lose all of my scholarships, and step down from my leadership positions,” Zablan recalls.

Evangelical institutions like APU must contend with a younger generation of increasingly affirming LGBTQ Christian students and faculty, while still relying on millions of dollars in conservative donor funding.

Zablan — like most students at evangelical colleges across the country — had signed a Christian Mission Statement in her freshman year. The statement outlined a biblical system of values students were required to adhere to. In the meeting, the administration produced Zablan’s signed contract, emphasizing a policy in the Student Standards of Conduct, which at the time, stated that “students may not engage in a romanticized same-sex relationship.”

“I didn’t know what to do,” Zablan recalls. “I was frozen.”

Zablan felt she had no choice but to break up with Duvauchelle — her entire college education was at stake. Duvauchelle, who had graduated two years prior, was banned from setting foot on campus. The threat of expulsion hung over Zablan daily and filled her with shame, trauma, and anger. “The last four months of school were miserable,” Zablan recalls. “[Members of the] administration would say ‘hello,’ and I would ignore them. I was thinking, ‘Don’t talk to me. You ruined my entire college experience within a 30-minute conversation.’”

Zablan’s story illustrates the painful human cost of LGBTQ discrimination on conservative Christian college campuses. As these schools look to the future, LGBTQ inclusion is perhaps the most pressing and controversial issue they face. Evangelical institutions like APU must contend with a younger generation of increasingly affirming LGBTQ Christian students and faculty, while still relying on millions of dollars in conservative donor funding. In addition to internal fission over this issue, these schools also face increasing external pressure on a legislative level, as the national debate over our country’s anti-discrimination laws rages on.

At the center of the issue is Title IX of the Higher Education Amendments of 1972, which states that, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Whether the phrase “on the basis of sex” should be interpreted to include sexual orientation is a source of contention. During the Obama era, civil rights protections under Title IX were extended to transgender students. These protections have been rescinded by the Trump administration, but there remains widespread concern about the issue among evangelical school administrations. Colleges can apply for a “religious exemption” to Title IX, but as conservative Christian scholar Carl Trueman predicts in his essay “Preparing for Winter,” “the religious exemption in Title IX will, I suspect, either fall or become so attenuated as to be in practice meaningless.”

Even Christian universities that don’t receive federal funding could eventually lose their tax-exempt status over LGBTQ discrimination. Many leaders cite the 1983 Supreme Court ruling in Bob Jones University v. United States — where a university was denied tax-exempt status because of its discriminatory policy against interracial dating — as a precedent-setting case that could dramatically impact Christian universities. As Trueman continues: “In an era where a close analogy is assumed between civil rights regarding race and civil rights regarding sexual identity, the Bob Jones precedent could easily lead to the revocation of tax-exempt status for schools committed to traditional views of marriage and sexual morality.” Though it could take decades, civil rights progress for the LGBTQ community “is likely to annihilate many of those institutions which refuse to accommodate themselves to the dominant sexual culture.”

But as many conservative religious administrators prepare to fight to the death to discriminate against LGBTQ students — some going so far as to sign the anti-LGBTQ Nashville Statement — another crucial question arises: Who are they fighting for? Fifty-three percent of young evangelicals support same-sex marriage, and students on conservative Christian campuses are becoming increasingly welcoming of their LGBTQ peers. Even if certain schools maintain their policies, how many applicants will be interested in attending a college that denies certain students basic civil rights?

Brave Commons — the nation’s first advocacy group for queer students at Christian colleges — estimates there are approximately 40 to 45 LGBTQ student groups at evangelical universities across the U.S., though many are driven underground, fearing repercussions. Still, their numbers are growing, and these youthful activists are creating vital safe spaces for queer students. “These students may not be harmed physically by these institutions, but you better believe that they are being killed on the inside,” says Erin Green, co-executive director of Brave Commons. “[The oppressive theology] of these institutions is directly responsible for suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, and isolation.”

Progress will be slow and painful, and many activists argue that the safest option for LGBTQ students is to move off evangelical campuses altogether. Obviously, this is not possible in every case, and LGBTQ students will continue to attend conservative Christian institutions for years to come. Here, then, is the ultimate challenge: How to create new, safe spaces outside the establishment, while also working to change the establishment itself? It’s an urgent question that LGBTQ activists are working tirelessly to answer. The lives of queer, Christian students are quite literally at stake.

Though Zablan graduated from APU in 2016, her story doesn’t end there. In the spring of 2018, student activists from Haven — APU’s LGBTQ student group — successfully lobbied for policy changes that reduced the administration’s ability to discriminate against queer students. Though APU is far from being fully LGBTQ-affirming, even incremental progress is groundbreaking in a conservative evangelical landscape. If sustained, these changes could provide a roadmap toward greater LGBTQ inclusion on other Christian campuses across the U.S.

In response to queer student advocacy, APU’s administration held meetings with Haven, Brave Common’s Erin Green, and two secular LGBTQ advocacy groups. “[Zablan’s] story was told to those LGBTQ organizations who visited the school. You should’ve seen the look of shame on [APU administrators’] faces,” Green says. “It seemed like APU recognized its history of doing negative, damaging things towards the LGBTQ community.”

This fall, the university launched an official LGBTQ office and pilot program, something unheard of on most evangelical college campuses. APU has also eliminated the policy forbidding “romanticized same-sex relationships.” Nonetheless, APU still holds its traditional evangelical stance that “sexual union is intended by God to take place only within the marriage covenant between a man and a woman.”

Rachel White, associate director of public relations at APU, provided the following statement about the policy change: “The university holds to a biblical definition of marriage as noted in our Statement on Human Sexuality: Identity Statements. The conduct adjustments mean that we hold all students to the same standards of fidelity to abstinence and accountability outside the context of marriage. In truth, we must all steward our sexuality. Our behavioral expectations provide guidelines for holy living.”

“It’s one thing [for administrators] to sit in a room with queer students and to say to us, ‘This policy is harmful, triggering, discriminatory, and we’re going to get rid of it.’” Green says. “But then when the chips are down, they have to be very careful about the way they present that to the public because they may potentially lose donors and students.”

“I would like to see reconciliation between our community and Christian colleges.”

Zablan and Duvauchelle say they still don’t trust APU’s administration to advocate for queer students. “Until APU has people in the LGBTQ community involved with decision making, programming, policy review, and development, I don’t believe the university can truly sustain a safe space for LGBTQ people on campus,” Duvauchelle insists.

Courtney Fredericks, a current APU student and co-president of Haven, is more hopeful. Though the LGBTQ pilot program is still considered highly controversial by some members of the administration (and its survival is not guaranteed), she is thrilled there is now a school-sanctioned space for LGBTQ students. “I’m really optimistic that the board of trustees will see that this program meets a need for queer students on this campus who require resources and safe spaces,” Fredericks says. “It is my hope that this LGBTQ+ program will eventually look exactly like the programs at secular schools: fully integrated and accepted.”

Green also wants to give the administration the benefit of the doubt, hoping that the hard work of student activists will have a lasting impact both at APU and in the larger evangelical university landscape. “We’re going to keep holding APU accountable to their word because there’s a lot more work to be done,” Green says. “I would like to see reconciliation between our community and Christian colleges.”

What will it take to achieve this reconciliation? It’s a difficult question to answer, as no evangelical college in the U.S. has become fully LGBTQ affirming. But if any school comes even close, it’s Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan — perhaps the country’s most evolved conservative Christian college on this issue.

According to its student conduct policy, Calvin “prohibits unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, religion, disability, gender, marital status, sexual orientation,” while still maintaining an official biblical stance that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is a sin. The tension between these two policies could be interpreted as either a sign of progress for civil rights or pragmatism in the face of anti-discrimination laws. As with APU’s similarly conflicted policies, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Gwyneth Findlay, who graduated from Calvin in 2018, was an active member of SAGA (Sexuality and Gender Awareness), the college’s official LGBTQ group. Though Findlay was grateful for a school-sanctioned queer community at a conservative Christian university, she still found significant repression even within SAGA. “Experientially, SAGA is an [LGBTQ] affirming student group, but officially, it is not,” Findlay says. “Any time that SAGA discusses theology, it has to be prefaced with the official stance of the church, which is therefore the stance of the school. It also was an official rule that SAGA couldn’t talk about LGBTQ relationships.”

Frustrated by these limitations, Findlay discovered an underground LGBTQ Bible study at Calvin nicknamed “secret gay club.” There, students discussed queer relationships and worked to rectify their spirituality with their sexuality, something not permitted by SAGA. Even though Findlay found pockets of acceptance, she became increasingly angered by the official anti-LGBTQ rhetoric promoted by Calvin at lectures, events, and in the classroom.

“By my senior year, I wanted an activist focus. I needed to challenge theologies instead of always trying to hear both sides of the discussion and listening to people who believe that I’m lesser,” Findlay recalls. “My ‘senioritis’ kicked in in a different way, where instead of being sick of academic work, I was just sick of defending my humanity.”

In 2017, Calvin College hosted a conference titled “Caring Well,” in which mandatory celibacy was presented as the only faithful option for LGBTQ Christians. Findlay organized a protest of the event with the help of a queer, Christian activist named Michael Vazquez. Though he was just another peaceful demonstrator at the time, Vazquez would eventually change the face of LGBTQ student advocacy on Christian college campuses across the country.

Before he founded Brave Commons and became America’s foremost organizer of queer, Christian students, Michael Vazquez was simply a college undergrad in search of a good group of friends.

In 2011, during his first year at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, Vazquez was invited to worship with a group from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship — an evangelical campus ministry with a significant presence at many secular universities. Vazquez believed he had finally found his tribe. “I was surprised by the depth of welcome in this evangelical community,” Vazquez recalls. “They were like my family.”

After about a month, Vazquez came out as gay to his InterVarsity community. He was only 20 at the time and had spent much of his youth struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. InterVarsity leadership explained to him that the organization believed gay sex was a sin. Eager to keep his place in this new “family,” Vazquez aligned with InterVarsity theology. He tried dating women at first and, when that failed, became celibate.

Ironically, it was his own faith that saved Vazquez from succumbing to the toxic theological pressure.

Meanwhile, Vazquez engaged in a process that InterVarsity calls prayer ministry, where he was subjected to conversion therapy techniques designed to “cure” him of his homosexuality. “I would have weekly required meetings where I would sit with my supervisor in his bedroom and he would guide me through this creepy prayer experience,” Vazquez says. “You’d have a conversation with Jesus about your sexual orientation and invite the Holy Spirit to excavate the root ‘cause’ of your ‘same-sex attraction.’ The main problem, of the million problems with this, is that often [LGBTQ] folks will conjure memories that never took place to find a way out of this experience. The damage done is just wild.”

Vazquez continued this “deeply traumatizing” process for four of the six years he was involved with InterVarsity. His supervisor even instructed Vazquez to “start watching straight porn” to “help rewire” his brain. Ironically, it was his own faith that saved Vazquez from succumbing to the toxic theological pressure of InterVarsity. “My supervisor would say, ‘You’re not trying hard enough.’” Vazquez recalls. “But in my heart I was thinking, ‘Well maybe nothing’s happening because nothing’s supposed to happen.’”

Vazquez became a “work horse” in an effort to compensate for his inability to change his sexuality and was soon hired by InterVarsity. But behind the scenes, he began studying LGBTQ-affirming biblical scholarship and nurtured a growing belief that “same-sex attraction” was not a sin. As Vazquez began to embrace his sexuality, he discovered a secret network of InterVarsity employees who also opposed the organization’s theology toward LGBTQ individuals. In March 2015, as a response to the growing internal division over this issue, InterVarsity circulated a document on human sexuality, reinforcing its position that “God’s intention for sexual expression is to be between a husband and wife in marriage.”

Vazquez was undeterred. In May 2016, he organized with other queer staff members and attempted to change InterVarsity’s policies from within. “[We did] 30 days of prayer around stories of queer students and staff. We compiled these stories into a document and shared it with 1,600+ InterVarsity staff and said, ‘These stories of trauma and pain come as a direct result of the theology that we have been implementing [at InterVarsity] for years.’”

Vazquez and the queer Christian collective met with InterVarsity cabinet members multiple times over the summer of 2016, unsuccessfully attempting to change their hearts. In October 2016, InterVarsity announced a new policy to begin “involuntarily terminating” employees who supported same-sex marriage. A petition demanding a reversal of the #InterVarsityPurge circulated widely, but InterVarsity refused to change the policy.

Vazquez no longer had the patience to attempt change from within the institution. He moved to Michigan to attend grad school at the Western Theological Seminary and started reaching out to local queer college students to organize underground LGBTQ-affirming communities in some of the nation’s top Christian universities, including Wheaton, Hope, and Calvin Colleges. In the winter of 2017, he organized two peaceful protests that challenged the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric of these conservative schools (one of which was the aforementioned demonstration at Calvin). Vazquez quickly established a reputation among these institutions as a controversial figure and was expelled by Western Theological Seminary because of his activism.

In January 2018, Vazquez founded Brave Commons, the first (and so far only) advocacy group for LGBTQ students at conservative Christian colleges. He held an inaugural LGBTQ student leadership retreat in February 2018, followed by Brave Common’s first official public conference in Wheaton, Illinois, this spring. Word of Vazquez’s work spread, and more queer Christian student organizations reached out for support. Vazquez soon hired Erin Green and Lauren Illeana Sotolongo — two student activists already doing this work in other parts of the country — as his co-executive directors. As his organization continues to expand, it’s become clear that Vazquez has tapped into a great need.

“The question that Christian colleges and universities across the country are seeking to navigate is, how do they live out their call to do both?”

“There are many factors that contribute to the swell of activism in this moment,” Vazquez says. “But I feel like bravery is a significant component. You’ve seen students at these institutions willing to put themselves at great risk of harm in order to advocate. When people in those spaces take action, it gives other students hope.”

Brave Commons simultaneously works to remove students from damaging systems, while also attempting to change those systems. There is a genuine desire on behalf of many of these activists to work alongside conservative evangelical universities. But are these institutions truly open to change? Greta Hays, director of communications and public affairs, Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) — a global higher education association representing over 180 Christian institutions, including those mentioned in this piece — claims they are.

“There is often a dichotomy created that an institution must change its theological perspective or it cannot care for its LGBTQ students well,” Hays said in an emailed statement. “The question that Christian colleges and universities across the country are seeking to navigate is, how do they live out their call to do both? How do they both care for and show compassion towards all students, affirming that they are loved by their Creator God and their community, while upholding their institutions’ theological convictions? These two items are often pitted against each other, yet we continue to see many of our campuses working towards this more holistic expression of their biblical convictions.”

The conclusion to Zablan and Duvauchelle’s story is a joyful one. The couple reunited in September 2016 and eventually got engaged. Zablan recently started her own wedding planning business — cheekily called The Gay Agenda — to help other LGBTQ couples find their own happy endings. And though their experience at APU left them questioning whether they could ever enter a church again, the couple eventually found refuge at New Abbey, a progressive, LGBTQ-affirming congregation.

“We came from a school that professes Christ, but tore us apart,” Duvauchelle says. “Then we came to New Abbey, where they validated and supported our love. It was the most full-circle healing we had ever experienced.”

Of course, not every story ends as happily as theirs, and many students remain in toxic and traumatizing environments. This is why Vazquez views his mission with Brave Commons as vital. “What we’re creating here feels like an underground railroad for queer students,” Vazquez says. “How do we get these students to safety? Then once they’re safe, some of these students decide they will stand up and put themselves at great risk to bring other students to safety. They will not be content until they help other people get their freedom as well.”