I like guys. There, I said it. I am a male student at Wheaton and I’m exclusively attracted to other males. This essay is about having to be both of those things at the same time.
This is not my first time being publicly open about my sexuality at Wheaton. I started coming out as a freshman, telling close friends and family after years of silence. Soon I felt the need to talk to my floor, Fischer 5E, and several campus groups I was involved in. As word spread about my willingness to talk I was approached by campus newspaper The Record to do an interview, and in the spring semester of my freshman year it was printed, with my name and face appearing under the headline Gay at Wheaton. It was a terrible picture. I looked like a missing child on the back of a milk carton.
That’s how I became Wheaton’s gay poster boy as a freshman. Since then campus turnover has taken its toll and only a handful of people know anymore. And that’s been fine with me.
Yet I’ve found myself wishing I’d had more to say when I gave that interview as a freshman. I was eager to share my experience with the world then, but I hardly had any experience to share. Since then I’ve lived in the Wheaton community, attempting to reconcile my sexuality with my faith, for three years. I’ve gotten to know dozens of others here in the same situation. And I’ve gotten to know Wheaton—the ways it’s both the worst and the best place in the world for someone like me. Now I look at the awkward kid staring out at me from a three-year-old Record and wish he knew any of what I know now.
So even though it’s nobody’s business, I now find myself writing to whoever wants to read, once again Gay at Wheaton for all to see. My intentions are three-fold. I want to tell my story to the campus at large, many of whom have no idea what it’s like for their same-sex attracted fellows, or even that they have them. I also realize that there are more students than even I’m aware of who are at some point on the spectrum of gay experience and could benefit from hearing my story as well. Finally, I hope to open the conversation on the subject of homosexual students at Wheaton, a subject I’ve found to be conspicuously absent, despite much talk of homosexuality.
Rather than attempt to tell my story chronologically, I will arrange it topically. I’ve found that the most difficult part of reconciling homosexuality with Christian faith is that there is no shared language to describe the experience. No one has gone before and named the specific trials, questions and problems we face. The language we do have to choose from is weighed down with political and theological baggage we don’t completely understand. 
Because of this lack of shared language, as often as not the homosexual Christian has to come up with his or her own language to speak about his or her experiences. After wrestling with a problem for months, all I may have to show for it is one sentence where there used to be confusion. What follows are the results of three of my battles at Wheaton, one sentence at a time.
The first sentence is this:
The most harmful and pervasive lie I’ve encountered at Wheaton has been that homosexual students at Wheaton either don’t exist or aren’t worth considering. Outrageously enough, I believed this lie for most of my freshman year.
I came to Wheaton desperate for answers, knowing my faith and sexuality seemed to be at odds, but having no idea how to reconcile them. I hoped I would find Wheaton to be a place that was ready to help me answer some of those questions. I didn’t even know what that would look like at the time. I think I hoped I would find an environment where people felt safe to be open about their sexuality, and where someone more experienced than me could take me aside and tell me what it was I was supposed to do with myself. I didn’t quite find that.
What I did find was a community of mostly straight friends who admitted their ignorance with regard to my struggle, but promised they would be alongside me no matter what. I also met several other same-sex attracted students who had the same questions I had: Did we have to become straight? Was that possible? Were we destined to be lonely? Surely we weren't the only ones in our situation, right?
What I didn’t find was answers, or even any well-worn route toward them. Now I had friends, and we were confused together—we didn’t know what to do with ourselves, and nobody else was telling us. There seemed to be no protocol for us.
Eventually one of my gay friends told me about a support group at the counseling center for same-sex attracted students. I went, hoping this would be a step toward answers. Every Friday, five of us sat in a circle and talked about our experiences with two mostly silent grad student practicum counselors.
It’s hard to describe the way I felt about those meetings. I looked forward to them every week—I’d never been able to talk candidly with others in my situation before. At the same time, though, I felt worse after every session. The more we talked, the more we all felt irrevocably isolated from the rest of the Wheaton community—holed up in the counseling center on Friday mornings, crying because we liked guys. I was even more confused than I’d been before.
Meanwhile, outside our little room in the counseling center, everybody at Wheaton was talking about homosexuality. In April, a gay activist group called Soulforce visited our campus as part of its Equality Ride, which visited dozens of institutions across the country to protest their policies regarding homosexuality. Since Wheaton's covenant does not allow its students to engage in homosexual behavior, Soulforce viewed it as "oppressive" to gay students. In preparation for the Riders' visit, the college hosted speakers, forums and events to educate the student body. Ex-gay speakers gave testimonies in chapel about their miraculous changes in orientation, giving anecdotes about their current spouses and kids. The provost and other administrators took a closer look at Scripture passages that prohibit homosexual behavior, explaining why Wheaton's covenant held its stance.
On one level, this was exactly what I’d been waiting for. Wheaton was suddenly a flurry of information about same-sex attraction, and some of it was extremely helpful. But at the same time the attention on the issue was extremely alienating for those of us at those Friday morning meetings. Despite the floodlights being thrown on the issue of homosexuality, we the homosexual students were still in the dark. Not one of the sessions reached out to same-sex attracted students or illuminated straight students to our struggle. We were occasionally mentioned as a liability—the concern seemed to be that one of us would hear Soulforce’s rhetoric and be won over to the wrong side of a moral debate.
This is one example of a pattern I’ve seen at Wheaton. Every once in awhile, like during the Soulforce visit, the issue of homosexuality flares up on campus, and this usually serves as a valuable time for the campus community to revisit its stance on homosexual behavior and address Wheaton’s place in a wider moral debate. I won’t argue that this is unimportant. Sexual ethics matters, and the entire campus--gay and straight--benefits from discussions like these.
But I want to argue that this type of discussion is always harmful to homosexual students unless coupled with an acknowledgment of our struggle and an active attempt to reach out to our needs. The reason for this is that for us, the issue is one of self-identification. The moral issue for us is not just an issue--it’s an identity crisis. And we can’t be expected to deal with those questions until more urgent needs of community and self-identification have been met. I’ll describe more what this looks like in my third section.
As for Soulforce, they came and went, and I felt unsatisfied by the whole experience. They claimed that Wheaton’s policy prohibiting homosexual behavior was oppressive, but I didn't buy it. Regardless of what I may or may not have believed given my soup of ethical confusion at the time, I knew that the last thing I needed to be doing was having sex with anybody, and I was glad for the paper restriction to hold me to it. Further, the main purpose of the Wheaton prep sessions for Soulforce’s visit was to show us that Wheaton’s stance is based on the overarching story of Scripture, and I was mostly convinced.
Still, what about the six of us wasting away in the Counseling Center? If the Soulforce visit, and the three-month focus on homosexuality it prompted, hadn’t helped me figure out what to do with myself, what would? As the group disbanded at the end of my freshman year, I concluded that nothing would. I felt I had reached the glass ceiling, and from there on out I was on my own. We may exist, but barely.
It took another year and a tragedy to gain a second sentence:
Wheaton is oppressive.
In June 2007, the summer before my junior year, my friend Stephen stepped in front of a train in Germany and killed himself.
Stephen was also in the counseling center group, and had been the first gay student at Wheaton to approach me after I came out. He was a year older than me, and had been coming out to people for a couple months when we met. I had already known him for his brilliant sense of humor and love of philosophy. When I told him I was gay we were in a large group of people. He gave me a bear hug, lifted me off the ground, walked me over to another side of the room, set me down, and told me he was gay too. After that, we frequently met and talked for hours. He was the closest thing to a mentor I had during my first year at Wheaton. Though he was as confused as I was, he was older and smarter and he cared about me. Most importantly, he understood. When he died, it felt like I had lost a comrade in battle.
Stephen and I had talked numerous times about a previous gay Wheaton student, also named Steven, who had committed suicide at a train crossing in the 80s or 90s. We wondered if he was an urban legend, but after Stephen died, a friend sent me a scan of an article about Steven in The Record. Below his picture was a brief description of him, along with remembrances from friends and professors. He was a part of Arena Theater. He wrote poetry. He killed himself on campus, at the President St. train crossing, in March 1988.
The danger of stories like this is that after awhile they become legendary. The 1988 Steven has achieved campus lore status, and after just two years, Stephen is already approaching that status too. But for those of us who knew one of these men or shared their struggles, these stories are far too close to home. In my time at Wheaton, I have known probably two dozen gay students, and almost all of them have shared with me that they were (or had recently been) suicidal.
I have written and re-written that sentence, and I can’t seem to make it painful enough. As it is, it sounds like a statistic, because I can’t share every story. But these people are my friends; they are dozens of my friends. And Stephen was my friend. Of course, Stephen was everyone’s friend. His death was a wake up call to many who had no idea they were so close to someone in so much pain. Chances are, my friends are also your friends.
I remember one specific evening, talking to one of my friends who was at the end of his rope, then walking home, waiting for a train at the President crossing, where 20 years ago Steven died. I didn’t know him, but I have seen his face in the Record I have saved as a PDF on my computer. And I did know Stephen. When I see his face I see it exhausted, across from me at a Saga table, or grinning, cracking me up with poetry about Kant's Categorical Imperative. Sometimes I have to remind myself to remember him that way, as my friend, and not as a legend.
Waiting for the train that night, exhausted, I asked God why so many of my friends wished they were dead. Sometimes it seems like we’ve been told the lie that we don't exist for so long it was bound to start coming true. In many ways, these two deaths, separated by 20 years, are nothing more than isolated tragedies, each with its own set of circumstances. But for me, they are a reminder that “We exist” is a sentence we have to fight for. Dozens of people on campus—your friends and my friends—are buying into the lie at any given time. The only thing that sets these two men apart is that they acted on it.
That’s really all I can say about oppression at Wheaton. Wheaton is not oppressive for the reasons Soulforce was protesting. Homosexual students aren’t actively oppressed under the community covenant. We just can't have sex--which puts us in the same boat as all unmarried Wheaton students. Wheaton is also not oppressively anti-gay, like some other communities. When we finally share our stories, we are usually well received. The community really does desire to help and love us. But they don't necessarily know how, so they keep quiet. As a result, many of us are wasting away, even in the midst of a loving community, under the burden of a well-meaning but deadly silence.
The argument will be made that depression and suicide rates are higher among homosexuals across the board, not just at Wheaton. And it’s true, a radical paradigm shift like coming to grips with one’s sexuality, especially in the Christian faith, is extremely stressful for anyone, and a lowered emotional state is par for the course, at least for awhile. It’s not right, it’s often tragic, and it’s nobody’s fault.
But I’d like to argue that it could be made so much easier for gay Wheaton students. As impossible as it may be to believe here, thousands of Christians outside the Wheaton community (and some inside the Wheaton community) live relatively well-adjusted lives, doing the hard work of reconciling their sexuality with their faith. They do this in community with other Christians, both gay and straight. They deal with the issue the way normal people deal with normal issues, alongside other normal, fallen Christians with normal, fallen, Christian issues.
That’s the truth that kills the lie, the truth I wanted to hear my first day at Wheaton, the truth that needs to be shouted from the rooftops so every closeted gay Christian can hear it. The reason the silence is so oppressive is that it has hidden this truth under a bushel, hidden it from generations of Wheaton students, gay and straight, except those who were willing to search for it like some stupid gay holy grail. Put more simply, it’s my third sentence:
You are not alone.
I learned this truth by mistake. As I said earlier, when I came out I found myself in a wonderful community of mostly straight friends who promised to stick with me. And they did. That community, over and against the support group, has been what has made my Wheaton experience positive. Though it may be obvious, it’s important to say that community was not centered on my sexuality. What bound us together, ironically, was grief—for Stephen, for other loved ones and losses—out of which grew celebration with and for one another in our different, normal struggles.
The other community I discovered accidentally was Church of the Resurrection (Rez). At Rez I found the healthy, intentional community Wheaton is not. While Rez is active in the moral discussion over the issue of homosexuality, it is equally active in reaching within the church to its same-sex attracted members. Rez ushers its homosexual members into communities of discipleship where they are free to be transparent about their struggles just like everybody else.
These communities have two main elements: community for those who are same-sex attracted, and community between those who are same-sex attracted and those who are not. In my experience, both of these elements are necessary for healthy existence as a same-sex attracted Christian.
To define what this type of community would look like at Wheaton, I first have to describe what it isn’t. First, it’s not a support group. As I stated earlier, the support group I was placed me in an isolated community with other same-sex attracted students, and we mostly reinforced each others’ feelings of alienation.
Second, it’s not a dating service. Wherever two or more same-sex attracted students are gathered, people worry they will have sex with each other. This simple fact is the biggest hindrance to community between homosexual students. Same-sex attracted students are afraid to seek each other out because of this fear. Administrators and faculty are afraid to encourage this type of community because of this fear. Though it is a legitimate concern, it is a foolish stumbling block if it is preventing such community entirely. The solution is openness and accountability both among gay students, and between gay students and their straight peers. This is how straight students maintain chastity, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t work for us.
Third, it's not an underground. Part of the reason students are still hesitant to reach out to one another, either by being honest about their own struggle or by being willing to talk to those who are, is because we have little guidance from above. Students at a Christian college look to the administration and faculty for their example. If our elders keep quiet, the student body keeps quiet, and our attempts at real community feel like a clandestine grope for acceptance that doesn't seem to be sanctioned.
Finally, the community I’m describing isn’t a gay-straight alliance. Community between homosexual Christians and heterosexual Christians is community between Christians. We meet not to celebrate our differences but to remember that we are the same. When I share about my sexuality with straight men, we find that our experiences are more similar than different. With this focus on our sameness, we are willing to learn about our differences so we can love each other better.
Since Wheaton isn’t a church, this community can’t be enacted here the way it is at Rez and other churches. Still, I would argue that some type of intentional, organized community that strives to be what I’ve described above is possible and necessary here. It would likely be a student led, informal but regular meeting of straight and gay students, focused on swapping experiences, confessing and forgiving hurts, answering each others' questions about sexuality, and seeking out more experienced resources who can teach us how to love one another.
More important than any intentional group, however, is to seek out this type of community as an attitude of openness and awareness among the student body. Straight students, you are not alone either: remember that you are surrounded by gay Christians whether you know it or not, and be transparently open to hear their stories. Gay students, be ready to talk, wherever you are in your experience. This conversation has to start with you.
I said before that Wheaton was both the best and the worst place for me to be a same-sex attracted Christian. And I meant it. It hasn’t been easy, but I wouldn’t trade my Wheaton experience for anything. The resources here for someone like me are unparalleled—people here take their faith very seriously, and I’ve finally (though it took until my senior year) started to find answers to questions I’ve been asking since I first realized I liked guys. I’ve caught a glimpse of a Wheaton that is the best place for someone like me, and I dream of a Wheaton that knows how to love its gay students, rather than oppressing them in a well-meaning but deadly silence.
 In this essay, I use the phrases “gay”, “homosexual”, and “same-sex attracted” interchangeably. Each of these phrases has a set of political or cultural connotations I’d rather not use, but they’re the words we have. My definition for each is this: one who is sexually attracted, exclusively or not, to the same gender.