The Treatment of a Gay Student at Messiah College May 13, 2011

The Treatment of a Gay Student at Messiah College

You have to feel bad for a college student who goes through this:

In October, his wallet, student ID and room key were stolen.

Then, he said, he received a death threat on Facebook.

A few weeks ago, he found his replacement ID cut into pieces and covered in urine.

And it all happened at Messiah College, a private Christian school in Grantham, Pennsylvania.

What did Isaiah Thomas do to deserve that kind of treatment?

Here’s a hint:

“I’ve had a professor who actually called me an abomination in class,” Thomas said.

When even the professors are against you for being gay, you know you’re not at the right school. I know bullying happens all over the country, but there’s a special sort of targeted bigotry that is found only at Christian schools, where if you’re gay, you don’t deserve to be treated like a fellow human being.

Which is really ironic given this banner that appears on the school’s website:

I looked but I didn’t see the asterisk pointing to the fine print: *Does not apply to GLBT students

One bit of positive news to come out of this story is that Thomas is getting the hell out of Messiah.

[Thomas] said he plans to transfer at the end of this term.

“Messiah College has not been the most warming place at all. At all. It’s been very hard,” said Thomas, a 2010 graduate of Harrisburg’s SciTech High on a full scholarship.

“I rather you tell me I can’t come than bring me here and strip me of who I am,” he said. “That’s worse than telling someone they can’t come.”

Another piece of good news is that alumni of Messiah are standing in support of Thomas and against the school’s ass-backwards policy on GLBT students:

Messiah College can do better than this. Harassment of any sort reflects poorly on the campus. We understand that the college cannot control the actions of each individual student. Nevertheless, we have seen many instances where Messiah College avoids acting in compassion toward its LGBTQ students and alumni, consequently fostering an unsafe and noninclusive campus climate.

Vague and condescending discussions of “hating the sin and loving the sinner” can lead to students feeling dehumanized and further marginalized. Reluctance to clarify the school’s position can lead to LGBTQ students being disciplined for behavior the school accepts from its straight students. We understand the college’s resistance to adopting a fully inclusive policy, for fear of angering donors, partner institutions, and leaders. We understand the hesitance to step on toes. Nevertheless, while the Messiah College spends years drafting and clarifying its position, LGBTQ students continue to suffer.

The alumni are urging the school to remove the clause in the “Community Covenant” (PDF) that forbids “homosexual behavior.” They also want the school to take steps to “make the college a truly safe space for LGBTQ students.”

A petition regarding this change already has well over 100 signatures. And the Facebook page is growing fast.

This all comes on the heels of the publication of the Harding University Queer Press (and the subsequent blocked access to its website on campus grounds).

This is also after the founding of OneWheaton, a community of LGBTQs and allies from Wheaton College (the alma mater of Billy Graham).

This is also after the publication of a fantastic New York Times piece by Erik Eckholm about the “battles for acceptance by gay and lesbian students” at Christian schools.

The times are changing, and the people leading the Christian schools are on the wrong side of history. It’s getting harder for them to discriminate against gay people without receiving strong backlash from other Christian students.

All I can say is: It’s about damn time.

(Thanks to Julie for the link)


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  • The alumni are urging the school to remove the clause in the “Community Covenant” (PDF) that forbids “homosexual behavior.” They also want the school to take steps to “make the college a truly safe space for LGBTQ students.”

    I do hope that “homosexual behaviour” is explicitly defined. If not then the ridiculous “gay lifestyle” argument will just get trotted out. What does it mean, exactly? If they can’t define it then they can’t enforce it.

    Also does the USA not have equality laws that override these dogmatic and archaic behavioural clauses? Can a student or teacher not turn round and say, “by acting in this way you are breaking the law”? If you don’t then surely it is past time that you got something like that.

    In the PDF they lump homosexual behaviour in with some stuff that seems to be a mix of bad, mundane and good things. I’m not sure if there are targets to do all of them in fresher’s week or something, who knows?

    we are to avoid such sinful practices as drunkenness, stealing, dishonesty, profanity, occult practices, sexual intercourse outside of marriage, homosexual behavior, and sexually exploitative or abusive behavior.

  • Purely ancedotal–I have a (former) close friend who attended Messiah College. He decided to send me an email recently telling me I was raising immoral children because I was an atheist. Then he cut off all communication.
    sigh.

  • Mel

    I am a Messiah College alumni. It’s because of stories like this that I realized my christianity was cutting into my humanity; one of the main reasons I moved on to “liberal christianity” and then to atheism. Hey there’s hope for us!
    Petition signed, FB page liked. Thanks for posting, as I’m sure I wouldn’t find this in any other alumni paper.

  • I don’t know if it’s still case, but as recently as 20 years ago, dancing was forbidden at Messiah college – They actually sent out people to local dance spots to make sure that students weren’t out partying. My ex-wife is an alumni.

    This behavior is unsurprising at best.

  • Alex

    As an alum of the (very liberal) Wheaton College in Massachusetts, I really wish the Wheaton College in Illinois would disappear or change its name.

  • @Brian: That is definitely not the case anymore! The school actually sponsors dances, and if you showed up at one, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between that and any secular school’s homecoming or whatever.

    @Mel: When did you graduate? Could you possibly circulate this among your classmates? They are especially interested in getting signatures from alumni before 2004, since there are already a lot from since then. Thanks for signing!

  • JD

    God is not love if the behavior of his followers is like this. I love how they think they’re good people as a group but so few do speak up against violence, vandalism, property destruction, bullying, constant humiliation, Pat Robertson and so on. Quite frankly, described above, is a form of terrorism, even if it’s a mild one.

    An horrifying level of cognitive dissonance to not see the level of hypocrisy.

  • Jeff Ritter

    I do not condone these actions in any way. With that said, if it’s a private school doesn’t that give them the right to set their own policies, regarless of how hypocritcal and prejudice they may be?

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    It’s not surprising that an institution based on ignorance and intolerance is ignorant and intolerant is it? What kind of openly gay student chooses to go to such a school in the 1st place? Even an openly liberal Christian school would seem like a bad idea. You can’t really trust even the best of them not to bombard you with their salvation propaganda.

  • John

    A homosexual wanting to go to a Christian college makes about as much sense as a Jewish person wanting to join the Nazi party, or a non-white person wanting to join the KKK! Why would ANYONE want to “ingratiate” themeselves into an enviornment where hostility towards that person’s “identity” is a BASIS of the college’s existence?

  • qwertyuiop

    One of many reasons that religious schools should not even exist.

  • SWare

    “In October, his wallet, student ID and room key were stolen.
    Then, he said, he received a death threat on Facebook.
    A few weeks ago, he found his replacement ID cut into pieces and covered in urine.”

    So, is this what Jesus would do?

  • Nik

    @John,

    He may not have had a choice. If his parents decided that he had to go to THAT school, and he was under 18 when he started college, his choices would be to a) go to that college, or b) don’t go to college at all. He may have thought it was his only chance to go to college.

    I know this because the same thing almost happened to me. I got full scholarships to two colleges – the one I wanted to go to (a Seven Sister college), and the one my parents wanted me to go to (a HBCU). Because my birthday is in late October, I would have started school while still 17, and needing my parents’ permision to attend. My mother would NOT give me her permission (she and my father were not together, and she was the custodial parent). I almost didn’t go to school at all, until a friend of the family talked her into given me permission to go to the school of my choice.

    Parents can make things really difficult for their kids, even kids trying to do the right thing.

  • Tim

    Why would a gay student want to go to a Christian college in the first place? I know we should give them the benefit of the doubt, but did he expect anything different? We waste energy trying to teach an old dog new tricks, trying to get Christian “colleges” to join the 21st Century (or at least stop being bigoted assholes). We should leave them in the past where they belong and create a future that is tolerant and safe for everyone, and if the Christians want to join then they’ll have to make a change on their own.

  • Sean Santos

    Some people are in denial about their own sexuality until they reach college (sometimes even longer). The people most likely to be in denial are the ones raised in environments that either downplay the very existence of gay people, or else give a really distorted picture of things (portraying homosexuality as a form of immoral choice, or a reaction to trauma or abuse). I suspect that a lot of people who end up attending religious colleges are in this category, and don’t come to terms with their situation until after making the college decision.

    This isn’t the case with Thomas, but you get the idea that not everyone knows what they are walking into. Even with students who walk in as already openly gay, they may not realize how many problems they are going to face if they come from a church or community that doesn’t make a big deal out of it, and don’t realize that it is such a huge deal for these religious universities.

  • Mel

    @Julie, I am a 1996 graduate (ack!) and will see what I can do about circulating the petition, although I am not feeling too hopeful about my classmates. Although, some of them may have “moved on” like me. 🙂

    Here’s a link to the Pennlive article for those interested:
    http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2011/05/gay_student_to_transfer_out_sa.html

    I will also add that there are many reasons why someone like Thomas would want to attend Messiah, among them being that it is an academically competitive school, and that there are are plenty of gay people who are willing to do the mental gymnastics required to be both “christian” and LGBT.
    This straight supporter tried to do those same mental gymnastics for many years, but then I realized doing gymnastics in bull-shit is no fun. 🙂

  • Mel

    It’s me again.
    Follow-up article:
    http://www.pennlive.com/editorials/index.ssf/2011/05/gay_rights_as_society_appears.html

    In which a professor states “Of course we welcome teh gayz, but they better not be doing any of that gayz stuff.”

    And then I got this in my e-mail as part of a Messiah response to the articles:
    http://www.messiah.edu/offices/president/utf-8&aq=t&rls/document.html

    I grew up Mennonite, which is very close to the Brethren in Christ tradition Messiah comes from. There is lots of dialogue about having “loving dialogue” and then more “loving dialogue” if the first dialogue wasn’t loving enough….Can’t tell you how tired I got of that.

    I’m done now, I think.

  • k

    The article says he is on full scholarship. This is a perfectly compelling reason for many people to go to a Christian school, even if you are gay.

    Also, please remember that not all students figure out they are LGBT before college. I know I came out during college and so did many of my friends. As a PA native from a school that sends quite a few kids to Messiah, I got a lot of pamphlets from them. If they had offered me a full ride I might have taken it. Because I was someone who didn’t think about my own sexuality in high school, I wouldn’t have even thought to check the school’s code of conduct for bans on “homosexual behavior” or to inquire about the climate for queer kids.

    I think a lot of people treat the religious aspects of Christian-run schools (college or K-12) as mere annoyances. They think “well, I got a scholarship to go here/I don’t really have a choice, I can put up with going to church once a week”. They even put up with restrictions on behavior such as no pre-marital hanky panky, thinking that “I won’t get caught”, because, well, most people don’t get caught. They’re willing to trade a shot at education for some hypothetical probably-won’t-happen restrictions on their liberty.

    Thing is, these restrictions aren’t hypothetical.

    I think even students who are openly gay in high school may underestimate the nature of the climate at a Christian school, especially if they are Christian themselves. They might know about the formal restrictions on their activities and expect to be closeted during their time at the school, but probably don’t know that harassment of LGBT students is frequent and encouraged, and don’t know they have no recourse if even the worst kind of harassment happens. They might not know that their college funnels money to anti-LGBT causes or trains anti-LGBT lawyers and religious leaders, or that they will have to take classes where anti-LGBT viewpoints will be taught as truth. If they come from a Christian community they might not even realize the college they are going to is a hack school or is even unaccredited due to its high local reputation.

    I don’t know why Thomas went to Messiah, but I do know we should be blaming the schools with these sorts of policies & cultures, rather than the LGBT students who decide to attend them for whatever reason.

  • Jeff

    Good thing they have the Bible to make them so much more moral, ethical and compassionate than we are.

    Messiah College can do better than this.

    Yes, well – apparently, it can’t.

  • Anonymous

    I’m a student (soon to be alum) at Messiah College, actually knew of Thomas (not as a friend, but Messiah is a small school so I knew of him) seemed like a nice guy. 

    It really is a shame what happened to him, didn’t realize this occurred since I’ve been off campus for the past few months. I’ve been growing weary of Messiah’s close-minded attitude towards a lot of policies however generally I do like the school, the people, and the atmosphere. I don’t think it’s fair to judge the student population by the administrators…sure there are plenty of ignorant students at messiah but the same goes at other schools as well. Again, please realize I’m not downplaying what happened, this was a bad situation obviously, just I find it interesting people are so quick to judge Christians in this regard.

    I guess the main “shocker” here is that this occurred at a Christian school, and that it’s somehow supposed to be better. Well, it should be I suppose however they’re still people running the place and just like other schools there will be issues with this sort of thing. 

    All in all, I’m glad I’m graduating soon..getting tired of Messiah’s strange policies (visitation, drinking, etc.) and my faith has pretty much gone down the tubes the past 3-4 months and it’s starting to feel kind of lonely not having non-Christian friends to talk to (interesting reversal there huh? Used to feel the exact opposite)