When I enrolled as a full-time undergrad at Indiana Wesleyan University in 2008, the student handbook prohibited "homosexual behavior" without defining the term. That phrase remained intact when I graduated in 2012, and it was still there last fall—but not anymore.
Newly revised for the 2017-2018 academic year, the IWU student handbook no longer contains any mention of the words "homosexual behavior," a phrase I found vague and overbroad. It could have been construed as prohibiting not only sex acts but platonic social activity as well, such as going on a date with a member of your own sex or merely self-identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual. Its removal was a much-needed edit, to be sure.
On the one hand, the change in language seems to clarify that the conservative evangelical school’s policies pertain narrowly to certain sexual activities, not identities. That would mean, at least from a written policy standpoint, that students should be able to publicly embrace a queer identity without fear of formal discipline, as long as they don’t have sex. On the other hand, the new policy can still be construed as prohibiting much more than sexual activity for queer students. That ambiguity is a problem.
I have repeatedly asked administrators to offer some interpretive guidance to explain the policy’s parameters. They’ve readily discussed IWU’s philosophical approach to matters of sexual orientation and gender identity in broad terms, but they remain reticent to answer a few specific questions that, I believe, are too important to leave up in the air. Since my line of questioning has stalled, I’ll share my remaining questions below. Perhaps you’ll have better luck tracking down answers.
Last Year's Handbook
Before I detail my questions about the new handbook, I need to offer some context. A year ago, the university unveiled a new policy on human sexuality and tacked it onto the 2016-2017 handbook.
Rather than overhaul the existing rules, administrators added a 900-word statement to the end of the book. They titled this appendix IWU’s “Philosophy on Human Sexuality and Gender Identity,” implying that it should be seen as a mere philosophical statement, not a set of rules. But the statement itself spelled out new behavioral guidelines and promised punishment for those who don’t comply.
Give this passage of the 2016-2017 handbook a read:
“All employees of Indiana Wesleyan University, all undergraduate students studying at the University’s residential campus, and all students living on the residential campus, therefore agree to abide by the Biblical standards of behavior articulated by The Wesleyan Church. With regard to sexuality and marriage this means that we agree to refrain from inappropriate sexual relationships outside of marriage between a man and a woman. We also agree to refrain from gender presentation that is incongruent with one’s birth documentation. Failure to abide by this community commitment will lead to appropriate inquiry, discernment, and action by the relevant university offices.”
That paragraph is a heavy hitter. It contains three apparent rules: Residential students must (1) abide by the totality of Wesleyan teaching on human sexuality, (2) abstain from sex outside of heterosexual marriage, and (3) “refrain from gender presentation that is incongruent with one’s birth documentation.” Two of those rules—the first and third—were new to the handbook. What happens if students don’t comply? They face questions from IWU officials who exercise some degree of “discernment” in how to handle the issues arising from a given student’s sexuality and gender presentation.
When I first asked administrators about these two new rules, they insisted that they weren’t rules at all. Brandon Hill, IWU’s vice president for life calling and integrative learning, said the “philosophy statement” outlines a broad framework without directly addressing existing policy. “It was determined that the new philosophy statement did not lead towards any homosexual or gender identity policy changes in the Student Handbook,” Hill wrote in an August 2016 email. That’s not entirely accurate, however, as I’ll explain below.
Keith Newman, who was executive vice president of IWU’s residential campus at the time, similarly described the appendix as part of an ongoing effort to articulate IWU’s broad vision as “a place of ‘grace and truth.’” Newman, who has since been hired as president of Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma, said he couldn’t provide the additional specificity I sought.
“We seek to be a place where it is possible to practice civil discourse with respect for all parties involved,” Newman wrote in a September 2016 email. “This work is difficult. It does not fit into a list of ‘dos and don’ts.’”
When I took my questions up the chain of command to IWU President David Wright, he confirmed that the philosophical statement did, in fact, contain rules: “This statement and the policies informed by it, by their nature, are agreements that people make when they join the university community,” Wright wrote in a September 2016 email. Older versions of the handbook made no mention of gender presentation or transgender students—“it’s just not touched on in any of our policy language at all,” Wright had said in a 2014 interview with The Sojourn—so any claim that the appendix to IWU’s 2016-2017 handbook is a mere recitation of longstanding policies seems wholly inadequate. This was more than a philosophy statement; these were new rules.
“There has been a great deal of discussion about this statement over the past couple of years,” Wright added in his email. “Some have pushed for very detailed prescriptions and proscriptions of required behavior. The examples were reminiscent of older dress policies at IWU that gave very specific guidelines about what could and couldn't be worn on campus. In the end, the framers of this policy decided not to go down that avenue. They chose instead to craft a framework that articulates broader principles. In living out these principles together, there are many avenues for consultation and conversation.”
This sounds good, in theory, until you realize that LGBT students are “living out these principles together” on a provisional basis. It’s as if all LGBT freshmen are placed on probation from the moment they step onto IWU’s manicured campus. The looming prospect of invasive questions from university staff is enough to keep most LGBT students in the closet. That harms the closeted students, undermines IWU’s mission, and deprives the entire campus community of open and honest dialogue on matters of theology and sexual ethics.
During my junior year on campus, my Resident Assistant casually asked whether I’m attracted to members of my own sex. Although I didn’t (and still don’t) know precisely where IWU’s policies stand, I knew that RAs are on the front lines of the student disciplinary process. Since his question was more of a hypothesis than an open-ended inquiry, I felt outed. I couldn’t carry on as if he hadn’t asked, but the stubborn ambiguity in IWU’s policies meant I couldn’t safely bear my soul to him either. Instead of feeling like the guys in Scripture Hall had offered to share the burden of my burgeoning gay identity, I felt violated.
I recounted this story to Wright, who was kind enough to meet for coffee last November. I explained that, if IWU aims to confront inhospitality toward LGBT people on campus, then it must recognize that ambiguous policies passively reinforce an inhospitable environment. Wright mentioned that a policy revision was underway. I took that as a good sign.
This Year's Handbook
I had hoped IWU would carefully revise the ill-conceived provisions in its year-old philosophical statement on sexuality. Regrettably, the 2017-2018 revisions doubled down, incorporating almost all of the appendix into the handbook’s main text. This brings me to my three big unanswered questions.
Question #1: Are students permitted to self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual; are they permitted to engage in same-sex dating behavior, if they abstain from sex?
The updated handbook makes clear that sexual contact between members of the same sex is always prohibited for staff and residential students, regardless of their marital status. I don’t take issue with that rule, per se. When you consider the university’s track record of conflating “being gay” with “having gay sex,” however, there’s a real risk that rule-enforcers will fail to see the distinction between sexual activity and sexual identity.
“There is a misconception that students who openly identify as part of the LGBTQ community are automatically dismissed from the institution or suspended, and that’s not true,” IWU’s Dean of Student Conduct and Community Standards Andrew Parker said during a Student Government Association forum event in 2014, as The Sojourn reported. Parker went on to explain that a violation would occur only when a physical act had been performed—such as kissing or “any acts that are equated culturally with homosexual behavior,” The Sojourn reported, paraphrasing Parker’s words. (Does this include hand-holding? Physically going on a date? Wearing a rainbow shirt with the words “I’m gay”? I ask because I do not know the answer, and if I don’t know the answer after years of asking, then incoming freshmen won’t know the answer either.)
Hill expressed a sentiment similar to Parker’s during a student chapel service in September 2016: "I think that we've had kind of a false rumor out there that you're not allowed to be something other than heterosexual if you're here, and I don't think that that's true,” Hill said. “We recognize that people are on a journey. We do have an expectation for behavior, but we want people to come as they are, and we want to walk with them on that journey."
Wright described this as a commitment to Godly hospitality: “We welcome those who wish to join the IWU community in good will,” he wrote in an email. “We ask them to respect the shared commitments of the IWU community. In turn, the IWU community is committed to treating all who come here with the respect, dignity, and Christian love that is their due as persons created in God’s image.”
Why it matters: If administrators who claim to have behavioral expectations of LGBT students refuse to specify in writing what those expectations are, they cannot reasonably expect current and prospective students to know what standard IWU has set for queer students. Even worse, if the university takes punitive action of any kind—that includes invasive questioning—when a student self-identifies as LGBT, then it has effectively punished the student for holding and expressing theological views contrary to Wesleyan teaching. That flies in the face of IWU’s mission as I understand it. (Imagine a student being called to a disciplinarian’s office because he publicly identified himself as a Calvinist.)
Question #2: Are students permitted to advocate for the full social, political, and theological affirmation of LGBT people?
Students and alumni staged a peaceful demonstration on campus in spring 2016 after the university announced that then-Gov. Mike Pence had accepted an invitation to serve as commencement speaker. The protesters respectfully pushed back against a number of the positions Pence has espoused, including his anti-LGBT record. Four months later, IWU unveiled its 2016-2017 student handbook with a new clause governing student demonstrations. It expressly barred alumni and other non-students from participating in any such events on campus, even if the events remain entirely peaceful and respectful.
The rule on demonstrations was tempered somewhat by a new written commitment regarding matters of sexuality: “we welcome discussions of different viewpoints and experiences, but we commit ourselves to uphold the common behavioral standards of our Christian community,” the statement read. If you check the 2017-2018 student handbook, however, you’ll see that the commitment to welcoming a diversity of viewpoints on matters of sexuality has been deleted, while the rule on demonstrations remains. This combination would seem to suppress pro-LGBT voices, quietly.
For what it’s worth, some Christian schools have resorted to an outright ban on pro-LGBT advocacy. Southern Nazarene University, for example, where Newman now serves as president, prohibits all members of its campus community from participating in “the advocacy of understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching as understood by the Church of the Nazarene.” The handbook directs readers to a section of the denomination’s manual, which states, “We deplore any action or statement that would seem to imply compatibility between Christian morality and the practice of homosexuality.” Wow. At least they’re forthcoming about it.
When I brought these passages to Newman’s attention last spring, he said he hopes to serve the SNU campus community in a way that honors God. “The issue of sexuality came up during my interview at SNU and I made it crystal clear that I wanted SNU to be a safe place for all students,” Newman wrote in an email.
Why it matters: Although IWU administrators have voiced commitments to serve “all students,” they have declined to answer whether IWU will tolerate pro-LGBT advocacy. If a university will not tolerate pro-LGBT advocacy, then any hospitality it extends to LGBT students is offered on the condition that those students keep quiet about their views, needs, and experiences. That condition is unnecessary. Permitting the delivery of a message on campus doesn’t constitute an endorsement of its particulars.
Question #3: Does IWU welcome transgender students?
The most disappointing clause in IWU’s 2017-2018 handbook is the one prohibiting “gender presentation that is incongruent with one’s birth documentation.” As someone who has never fit the mold of masculinity handed to him by society, I am saddened that IWU feels so threatened by cultural tides that it has enacted a ban on gender-bending. This clause seems to hinge, subjectively, on whether a given garment, hairstyle, mannerism, or pattern of speech can be neatly categorized as either masculine or feminine, then confidently accepted or rejected based on the sex listed on a given student’s birth certificate. This rule is detrimental to all students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. For transgender students, it’s poison.
This rule is clearly a response to growing acceptance of transgender people in American society. It comes after IWU requested an additional waiver from the antidiscrimination provisions of Title IX to avoid being forced by the federal government to serve transgender students in one particular way or another.
What I find so frustrating about IWU’s gender-bending ban is its departure from The Wesleyan Church’s historical affirmation of certain feminist messages. Wesleyan women are encouraged to fill leadership positions in ministry. A woman served recently as the denomination’s general superintendent, and a woman serves today as president of Wesley Seminary at IWU. A slightly more conservative denomination would point to these Wesleyan women in leadership over men as examples of behavior contrary to Christian teachings on gender. (As if usurping male headship weren’t offensive enough, these women have further flouted gender norms by trading their skirts for pants!) My point is that Wesleyans have historically been leaders in teaching that Godly womanhood can look many, many different ways, so it’s disheartening to hear a Wesleyan institution argue that gender presentation is overt, binary, and worthy of institutional regulation.
Furthermore, the gender-bending ban directly contradicts IWU’s own commitment to combat discrimination on the basis of “an individual’s actual or perceived … sex”—a commitment made right there in the same student handbook.
Why it matters: There are transgender students who wish to benefit from the embodied learning a Christian campus community affords. Before figuring out how IWU will accommodate them on a campus where all residence halls and locker rooms are segregated by sex, administrators have a simpler prerequisite question to answer. If the administration is committed to principles of hospitality and inclusion, it will find one or more ways to accommodate transgender students. If it's not, then it won't.
The Big Question
The point I'm trying to make is that LGBT identities are real and meaningful, even if self-assigned. They are not defined by sexual activity. So institutions like IWU can regulate sexual activity without regulating identity. When vaguely worded rules frighten LGBT students into the closet, however, they deprive the student body of experiencing life in a diverse community.
As a Wesleyan institution, IWU must cling to its beliefs. It must refuse to compromise on the core principles that justify its very existence. Some will have you believe this means IWU must reject my argument and stand against a rising tide of acceptance for same-sex romance. I contend, however, that I have never asked the institution to change its beliefs on the morality of same-sex romance or transgender identities. Rather, I am asking the institution to embody more fully the beliefs it claims to hold dear. As I see them, those beliefs entail a commitment to higher education that emphasizes Wesleyan thought in a Christian residential community composed of students from various backgrounds and traditions. This community is held together by a commitment to the university's mission, not by assent or adherence to Wesleyan theology.
Students attend IWU to study, celebrate, and critique Wesleyan ways of thinking as they suss out what it means to live Christian values, both as individuals and as communities. The big overarching question, then, is how IWU will keep this commitment to Christian learning in community, without abandoning its Wesleyan distinctives, when LGBT students apply and enroll.
Photo (at top): Wikimedia commons user Manutdglory