Ben James, a 19-year-old from Granville, Ohio, attended Huntington University as a freshman this fall. He came out as gay to his floor within the first weeks of the fall semester.
James attempted to form a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) support group on campus for students — homosexual and straight — to dialogue and find support.
The group failed to come together, and James transferred to Ohio Wesleyan University, where he currently studies politics and government.
Starting an LGBT group
James’ originally intended the group to be an informal place for students to dialogue —“a safe place.”
“I had nothing past the simple idea of a safe place for people to question God — gay, lesbian, or not — and talk about problems,” James said during a phone interview. “You can’t talk about it openly at a Christian university.
“I thought it would be really great to start a GSA — Gay Straight Alliance, but I didn’t want to use that name because I thought that the university wouldn’t want a GSA, so I decided to call it ‘LGBT support group/questioning God’ instead,” James said.
James explained that he was also struggling with depression, which was another reason he wanted to start a support group for LGBT people.
In October, James hung several flyers in the Science Hall, Loew Brenn, Wright Hall and the Merillat Centre for the Arts.
James put a flyer on a bulletin board near Director of Social Work Rick Leone’s office.
James said Leone approached him and offered to be the faculty adviser for the LGBT support group. Leone declined to comment.
James also created a Facebook group titled, “HU LGBT Support Group.”
“I posted it as a group and then linked it to my friend list,” James said. “I also put it on the new students Facebook page for Huntington University.”
James put a note on Facebook saying he was starting this LGBT/questioning God support group and suggested those who wanted to be involved send him a private message. He emphasized that the group was to be a safe environment and that no one in the group would be judgmental.
“Most gay people I know have lost their faith in God,” James said. “Unfortunately this has happened due to the church’s response to gay people.”
Coming out at HU
“I came out to everyone on Facebook in September after I had been here for a couple weeks and had gotten to know people pretty well,” James said.
Ben Daron, sophomore and resident assistant on Wright 3rd, where James lived, said James spoke with him before coming out to the floor.
“He explained the situation and said that he was gay, and that he wanted to let the floor know, and he wanted his college experience to live and pursue that life,” Daron said.
Daron told James they would help him as much as they could. Daron talked with Wright Resident Director Nathan Geer at the beginning of the year.
“This was my first year as an RA and that’s not something that’s in the manual,” Daron said.
James came out to his floor at the first floor praise and worship of the fall semester.
“It was a really good time for our floor because in the past our floor has struggled to accept people, but this time it seemed like everybody had the right attitude and the right intentions of accepting him and loving him through Christ,” Daron said.
James said the men on Wright 3rd were extremely supportive of him.
“They were absolutely fantastic,” James said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better floor and honestly imagining coming out on any other floor could only have gone worse.”
However, James did not feel this same support from HU as a whole.
“It was almost like a weight,” James said, “that it isn’t really accepted at all.”
Meeting with administration
James received an email from Ron Coffey, Ph. D., vice president for student life, requesting a private meeting with him the morning after he put up the HU LGBT Support Group Facebook page.
James said Coffey told him they needed to speak immediately because Coffey had received over a dozen emails from people the night the Facebook group was created to inform Coffey about the group.
“The fact that we were even having this conversation…I took it that they weren’t supportive emails,” James said. “He told me that the college couldn’t support anything that would promote the gay lifestyle.”
The Huntington University Community Life Agreement contains three statements related to homosexuality.
“Sexual relations are reserved for the institution of marriage between a man and a woman,” it reads.
Under the section titled “Sexual Activity,” the student handbook reads, “The Bible states that God created sex to be enjoyed within the marriage relationship between a man and a woman (Genesis 2:24, Ephesians 5:31). Other types of sexual relations are clearly condemned (Romans 1:24-27, I Corinthians 6:9-10). As a community, Huntington University affirms the importance of adhering to the biblical standards of sexual purity.”
In the section titled “Sexual Relationships,” the handbook states, “Huntington University affirms the importance of adhering to the biblical standards of sexual purity. Violations of this expectation include but are not limited to, premarital and extramarital sexual activity or homosexual conduct.”
Coffey said he was concerned about the possibility of an LGBT group forming on campus, especially if it were to be an official campus-sponsored group.
“At most institutions, LGBT groups are in place not only for support but also in place to promote the gay lifestyle or at least to advocate for greater acceptance of the gay lifestyle,” Coffey said. “I think that would be the difficulty for Huntington University. We are certainly a welcoming university, but not an affirming university as it relates to the gay lifestyle.”
Coffey told James the group could potentially exist – if it was not called an “LGBT” group.
“I asked him if he would consider a different name, and I think that what I was trying to alert him to was the fact that LGBT groups in general tend to, at most campuses, be more of an advocacy group,” Coffey said. “If he was interested in education and understanding there might be ways we could do that without necessarily calling it that.”
James did not want to have the group if it couldn’t be called an LGBT support group.
“To me that was disheartening,” James said. “If you can’t even call it what its name is then to me there was no point.”
Coffey said there is a process official campus groups must follow in order to be considered a sanctioned group on campus.
“All official groups at the university have to go through a process to be accepted where they would submit a charter through the Student Concerns Committee,” Coffey said. “At that point, they may be invited to answer questions.”
James said his original intent was for the group to be informal. However, he did express a desire for the group to become a formal, school-supported group in the future.
After James’ meeting with Coffey, he went around campus and took down all the flyers.
“If the college can’t and won’t support the group — that wasn’t acceptable to me,” James said.
He said this was the last straw for him, and it influenced his decision to leave HU.
“I was one of the only people I know who was openly gay [at HU],” James said.
Mary Ruthi, Ph.D., professor of sociology, said she would guess that the percentage of homosexual students at HU is similar to the percentage in the total population — two to three percent.
“Since evangelical Christians tend to be less accepting of homosexuality than the general population is, I’m sure it’s sometimes challenging for homosexual students to feel comfortable in the campus culture,” Ruthi said.
James transferred to Ohio Wesleyan University after the fall semester. The school is affiliated with the Methodist church.
James said the OWU campus is open and accepting. He said about 20 percent of the people who attend there are either from outside the United States or multicultural. He thinks this cultural diversity impacts the way the OWU campus treats openly homosexual students.
“My reason for coming out at HU was for Christian people to see that being gay is not just about sex or being effeminate,” James said. “It’s more than that. It [HU] is supposed to be a place of higher learning and understanding. It should be a place where they disciple this.”
Coffey said he agrees that HU is a place for students to build greater understanding.
“Whether or not the university accepts a particular perspective does not necessarily mean the university isn’t interested in understanding or learning,” he said, “but it may mean there will always be a difference of opinion or interpretation as it relates to issues of human sexuality.”
Geer spoke highly of his relationship with James during his time at HU.
“I felt like our relationship was maintained throughout, from the moment I met him, to the moment I found out he was gay, to the moment he left,” Geer said. “I didn’t feel like there was any change in our relationship.”
Geer said he got the sense that James wasn’t leaving because he couldn’t start the group.
“He indicated to me that he was leaving because he wanted to pursue a relationship and he knew he couldn’t do that here.” Geer said. “Rather than break our community life agreement, he went to a place that would allow him to do such. I respect him for that.”
Sophomore Michelle Embree said the forming of an LGBT group on campus seems like a tricky situation.
“On one hand, I realize that, considering the beliefs the university stands for, they wouldn’t want to appear to support homosexual behavior,” Embree said. “On the other hand, since he has now left the university, the community loses the chance to have an impact on him. Also, depending on the intent of the support group, it could have been positive. Being homosexual, whether you think it is wrong or not, is hard to face in a society that disapproves of it.”
Nate Sullivan, a sophomore who lives on Wright 3rd, said he agreed with administration’s decision to not allow the group to form under the LGBT name. However, he said he respected James’ honesty and his willingness to be open with people.
“I don’t think administration is in the wrong to be careful about what they support,” Sullivan said.
Geer said he was sad that James left HU.
“I felt like we as an institution did the best we could to represent Christ-like love towards him and I felt like he chose lifestyle over that,” Geer said. “I thought he could learn from us and we could learn from him. There was opportunity on both sides. There was opportunity to have that dialogue and for everybody to grow. I feel like we lost an opportunity.”