mark yarhouse talked to my christian college on sexuality and this is how it went

Alright, here’s the full, unedited version of the article that was published in the Bethel Clarion earlier this week, detailing my stream of thought about the Mark Yarhouse sexuality event last week. The Clarion staff did a great job editing it, but it definitely read more like a newspaper article (as it should have) than some of my normal writing, so I wanted to stick the original version up on here. Take a read if you weren’t at the event or haven’t already.

I checked the time on my phone as I speed walked through the BC on my way to the Underground. It was already 8:01pm and I was late, having just come from helping lead an exam review session for CWC.  Mark Yarhouse, a psychologist and professor from Regent University, was giving a talk on sexuality and I was going to be there, though a bit reluctant at first. From what I had heard and read of him in the past, I wasn’t incredibly optimistic about the event, but the Underground was relatively full, so I slid into the second row from the front and took out my notebook just as it was beginning.

Over the course of his talk, which consisted of a presentation of his research on sexual minorities at Christian colleges and a Q&A afterward, I found myself pleasantly surprised at how well he handled the topic and how nuanced many of his answers were, a sentiment that I found many other LGBT students in attendance shared following the event.

Among the positives in his presentation, he gave a mildly muddled, but overall helpful explanation of why it’s important to LGBT people to identify as “gay,” “lesbian,” etc., rather than “same-sex attracted” or “homosexual.” This is an important distinction for the Bethel community to realize because using non-standard terminology can often carry dehumanizing connotations for LGBT students, even Christian LGBT students, because they often have roots that go back to ex-gay reparative therapy movements or when homosexuality was still considered a mental health disorder, two things that he also touched on briefly.

In addition, he affirmed several fundamental truths of existence for LGBT Christians that often get glossed over the highly politicized culture wars over LGBT issues. Among these, he made it clear that it is very possible to be gay or lesbian or transgender and also a Christian, defending that those two things are not mutually exclusive, something that is still debated in some Christian circles. Further, he noted that even though he doesn’t take an affirming stance in terms of same-sex marriage or sexual relationships, that doesn’t mean that people who do are necessarily wrong. He explained that many of his LGBT friends hold different positions there, but that doesn’t have any impact on the quality or legitimacy of their relationship, because there are many good Christians who happen to fall on different sides of that spectrum of belief. This is so significant because these types of differences tend to be highly polarized, with either side being alternately considered morally right or morally wrong, so the fact that he also explicitly stated that he never questioned the faith of his friends who held to differing beliefs is a good example of how non-affirming Christians can and should react to those kinds of differences, choosing to maintain relationships with people who hold other perspectives rather than feeling the constant need to remind them that we disagree with them. And this goes for both sides, affirming and non-affirming.

Finally, he also spoke quite a bit on what it might look like to engage with these kinds of issues on Christian college campuses, his main point being that we should strive to create safe spaces where LGBT students can still feel wanted and fully included in those communities. Thus, he spoke against using the phrase “love the sinner; hate the sin,” a popular saying that has been used in reference to LGBT Christians and only serves to reduce those people to their sexuality while simultaneously dehumanizing them. In addition, he indicated that he’s not a proponent of reparative therapy, meant to make LGBT Christians straight, and only reserves the right of sexual orientation change efforts to informed adults who voluntarily seek it out. Rather, he advocated for the climate change on Christian college campuses and support for LGBT students, pointing out that LGBT students have no fewer needs for intimacy than straight students, that coming from interpersonal relationships and social and institutional support among other sources. Thus, while his claims that policy change is probably not the most realistic expectation for LGBT students might upset some and be considered less than satisfactory, his calls for broader and deeper support for LGBT students at Christian colleges are a bright spot and definitely a good starting point for schools like Bethel.

Overall, it was refreshing to hear a speaker that represented our stories more or less accurately, portrayed us in a humanizing way, and helped other students and faculty understand what it’s like to walk the journeys that we do a little better. Though ideally we would be hearing these stories from LGBT Christians and students themselves, the mere fact that this event occurred and that he was willing to engage with the difficult questions many of us raised is a positive step toward the right direction for a place like Bethel, especially for students who still harbor fears of alienation, unacceptance, or backlash related to coming out.

Beyond that, though events like this may be considered to be only baby steps by students who are looking for more sweeping reform and change, they are still strides in the right direction and help raise greater awareness for topics like this at Bethel. It’s my opinion that events like these are the beginnings of creating places of openness and safety where LGBT students can feel comfortable and supported coming out and being a part the community fully, not fearing reprisal, condemnation, or questioning of their faith, but rather feeling wanted, included, and valued.

Obviously, there’s still more work to do, but I personally hope that all the positive progress will encourage more students to come out and share their stories, being willing to help drive the movement to create safe spaces and be the change that they’re looking for, both for their own benefit and for the benefit of students that will come to Bethel in the future. Though it might take a while to get there, the progress and openness that I’ve seen gives me a vision of Bethel possibly becoming a model of how Christian colleges, though non-affirming officially, can become safe spaces that advocate for the humanity and inclusion of LGBT students.

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