LGBTQ students feel ‘unwelcome’ at Christian colleges, report says

In a recent survey, many express depression, anxiety and feeling 'on edge' over policies and practices at institutions.

Gender minority students say they are struggling to find welcoming, inclusive campus environments at Christian colleges and universities, according to a large survey released Monday by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) and College Pulse.

In the report “The LGBTQ+ Student Divide: The State of Sexual and Gender Minority Students at Taxpayer-Funded Christian Colleges,” those students enrolled in four-year degree programs say they are experiencing isolation, depression, anxiety and harm because of longstanding policies or because of a lack of recognition at their institutions. More than 40% say are they not comfortable with sharing their gender identity on their campuses.

“Not only are LGBTQ+ students more likely to feel like they do not belong to their campus community, they are also more likely to experience disciplinary action from their institutions themselves,” said Paul Carlos Southwick, director of Director of REAP, which empowers queer, trans and non-binary students at religious colleges and universities and conducted the study of 3,000 students. “Some face mandatory counselling, reparative therapy, and loss of campus privileges when their identities are brought to the attention of campus administration.”

More than 1 in 10 of those surveyed at Christian college and university campuses say they are “non-heterosexual” … or not straight, with 6% identifying as bisexual. However, the number of students in the report who say they are not strictly heterosexual – those who are same-sex attracted – is around 30%.

The survey, done in early February, quotes several students at major Christian colleges and universities who report there is “no degree of support” for students or LBGTQ clubs and say they “feel unwelcomed by professors and staff.” Some report feeling “very nervous”, “almost on edge every day” or “safe as long as no one knows.” One student said she feels discriminated against. Another said “90% of my Bible professors talked openly about homosexuality being a ‘sin’.”

According to the survey, gender minority students say they are twice as likely to receive discipline from their college than those who are cisgender.

“These findings should serve as a wake-up call for all higher education stakeholders to address the ongoing abuses taking place at publicly funded institutions,” Southwick said.

Inside the numbers

Nearly three times as many of the gender minority students at Christian colleges and universities said they experienced depression than those who were cisgender students. Nearly five times as many said they had been bullied or faced sexual harassment than cisgender students in the survey.

More alarming was that 13% of gender minorities said they had been sexually assaulted compared with 2% of cisgender students.

The fallout has been severe for those impacted:

  • Nearly 30% have entertained suicidal thoughts (compared with 7% for cisgender students)
  • Another 28% said they have turned to alcohol use (11% for cisgender)
  • Some 15% said they have used illegal substances (5% for cisgender)
  • And 12% said they have experienced eating disorders (6% for cisgender)

The report’s authors say that nearly 40% of gender minorities have faced adversity in some form on their campus. The number was less than 20% for other students.

Many students simply want to be part of an inclusive and accepting environment but feel they can’t be themselves at these colleges and universities: 23% feel they aren’t accepted by those on campus, 19% say they can’t date the person they want to and 14% say they don’t take part in prayer groups.

Though most of the students say their institutions haven’t “taken action against them”, 8% say their college or university suggested to them to change their sexual orientation. That lack of understanding prompted one student to say he would definitely not recommend his college to others who were not straight.

“Every year, millions of high school seniors make decisions about which college they’ll attend,” said College Pulse co-founder and CEO Terren Klein. “While students and families take into account a variety of factors in their decision, what they all have in common is the hope for a good education and a path to a bright future. Our work is about elevating the voice of every student to ensure they have an equal opportunity to fulfill that hope.”

For those “tax-payer funded” colleges and universities with strict policies, authors noted that the prevalence of LBGTQ students on their campuses should serve as a wakeup call. Preserving the safety and positive outcomes for all students should be the goal of every institution, they say, and institutions should review policies to ensure that they are not being exclusionary.

“Moreover, the experiences of sexual and gender minority students at taxpayer-funded religious colleges and universities may have important implications for religious exemptions to civil rights statutes like Title IX and the debates surrounding the Equality Act,” authors said in their conclusion.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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