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.