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10 things that queer students at non-affirming religious colleges should watch out for

Non-affirming religious colleges and universities use a variety of tactics and strategies to keep LGBTQIA+ students from rising up and fighting back against the school's anti-LGBTQIA+ policies. Many of these schools will deceive students, gaslight them and do anything they can to hide the truth of their discrimination and avoid accountability. These are a few of the things that queer students should watch out for.

1. Getting students into one (isolated) room

Christian colleges need to control the narratives that their students hear in order to maintain power and dominance, and one of the most effective ways they can do that is by getting students together in one room with an administrator or other high-level employee who will “answer questions” or “clarify the university’s position.” This type of conversation will always make the university look good because the administration appears open and approachable to students while still spinning a very particular narrative that paints the school in a positive light.

The existence of social media and other ways of accessing information is a threat to these colleges because it disrupts their ability to carefully interpret and explain a situation to students. But that is why it is always important for students to do their own research and consider outside perspectives because the university will always do whatever they can to make themselves appear like the good guys.

2. Waiting to graduate the problem

In general, most students graduate from college between 4-6 years, which means that the student body is constantly turning over. So if there happens to be a group of students who are particularly passionate about fighting for LGBTQIA+ rights on campus, oftentimes, the university can just wait it out until those students graduate. The movement that those students built has to start from scratch again.

This cycle can seriously hinder collective movements and allow universities to stall progress from generation to generation. And this is why it can be important for students to get involved with queer activism during the first or second year of college so that they learn from the students who came and fought before them.

3. Inclusive buzzwords

One of the many reasons that students choose to attend religious colleges is because these colleges are excellent at gaslighting students into buying into a false idea and claim of inclusion. Many of these schools use language that suggests that they are welcoming towards LGBTQIA+ students, going so far as to say things like they affirm the “worth and dignity of every student.”

One of the key phrases that these colleges will often slip into their affirmations of LGBTQIA+ students is something like “in accordance with our Christian values.” The “Christian values'' in question are often anti-LGBTQIA+ beliefs, and by including this phrase, colleges are communicating that their support of LGBTQIA+ students has limits and boundaries.

4. Taking you to coffee

There is nothing wrong with having a conversation about the injustices that LGBTQIA+ students are facing, but oftentimes, the people in power want to make sure that the issue never moves past just conversations. That is why people will insist on having coffee, having closed-door meetings, or just talking through the issues affecting LGBTQIA+ students without actually doing anything to address the problem.

Sometimes, these conversations will be framed in a way that gaslights students into thinking that the problem is with them rather than the university by pressuring the student into believing that the university is doing everything it can to be more accommodating. These weaponized conversations often prolong the issue and delay the act of taking steps to address the injustices happening. Furthermore, queer, trans, and non-binary students have to relive their trauma through storytelling and vulnerability in conversations with the administration while those stories are often exploited and listened to in vain by decision-makers at the school.

5. Pressuring people into silence

Many people who survive traumatic experiences at religious colleges just want to leave and be done. It is understandable. And other times, schools will intentionally pressure or intimidate people in silence by threatening scholarships or a person’s ability to graduate.

But the silence of students, alumni, and employees at these universities is often what allows abuse and harassment to continue for years without accountability.

Sometimes, a religious school’s biggest nightmare is a PR crisis, which is why they pressure people into staying quiet. Once stories about how a school treats its LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC students come out, it prevents the school from intentionally misleading people into thinking the school is more accepting than it really is. That’s why speaking out is so important, even if it has to be done anonymously.

6. Offering to lead a school-sanctioned LGBTQ student group

Many Christian colleges do not have a school-sanctioned LGBTQIA+ student group, which either leaves queer students isolated or causes them to form underground clubs. On some occasions, the school will agree to sanction an LGBTQIA+ student group as long as the university has a say in what the group is and isn’t allowed to do. While this may feel like progress for students who have been fighting for recognition, it can also be dangerous because it allows the university to control queer voices on campus and silence dissent.

Some Christian colleges will tolerate queer students as long as they don’t cause too much trouble. But tolerance is not the same as acceptance.

7. Hidden Title IX exemptions

In 2020, the Department of Education, under the Trump administration, updated the Title IX policy so schools can claim a religious exemption without requesting one in writing. And, if someone does file a Title IX complaint against the school, the school can still request an exemption even after receiving the complaint.

This means that students often have no way of confirming whether the school they are attending is exempt from parts of Title IX or not, since many schools don’t announce it.

And to make matters worse, Title IX complaints filed at these schools are often dismissed because a school can request a religious exemption whenever needed.

8. Restricting information and blocking resources

Not only do religious colleges determine what information is suitable to be taught in classrooms, but they also determine what information is suitable to be accessed online.

Many religious colleges restrict certain websites for students who are logged onto the campus Wi-Fi, which can prevent LGBTQIA+ students from reading or engaging with information or resources that might help them.

Christian colleges may also recommend that queer students speak with student counseling services, or students may seek out these services themselves. However, students should be careful because these counseling services are not always equipped to address LGBTQIA+ experiences, and may end up doing additional harm. It is important to know whether the mental health resources, or even diversity, equity, and inclusion resources, that your school offers are LGBTQIA+ friendly.

9. Administration passing the buck

Even as students, professors, and staff become more diverse, the administration and the board of trustees often remain dominated by white, cisgender, heterosexual men who are intent on upholding the moral and cultural standards they deem acceptable. In other words, they remain rooted in the past instead of letting the school move into the future.

However, because decisions must go through these governing bodies, students often end up having to speak with different members of the administration and the board, and they will often find that responsibility is constantly pushed to the next level of power. If a student asks the dean why there is no progress being made on an LGBTQIA+ initiative, the dean may say that the decision is up to the president. If a student asks the president why no progress has been made, the president may say that the board has to vote on the initiative. This is another tactic that Christian colleges can use to delay progress and to make students more sympathetic to administrators because the responsibility of enforcing anti-LGBTQIA+ policies is always passed off to someone else.

10. Aggressions during lectures and chapel

Queer students should always be on the lookout for micro and macro aggressions that happen during class lectures, chapels, and other university events. But, especially when queer people are treated as a topic for debate rather than human beings. One of the ways that professors or schools try to appear more open-minded is by saying that they welcome “diverse perspectives,” but in the end, queer students are the ones who get hurt because their identities end up questioned and debated.

There are also more overt aggressions that happen in these settings, and this kind of anti-LGBTQIA+ messaging can subliminally teach queer students to despise themselves. When the only messages that queer students hear in school are messages that dehumanize and devalue queer people, it keeps queer people from seeing their own self-worth and dignity. It is important to recognize the spaces where this is happening and to engage with counter-narratives that affirm the sacredness of queerness.


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