Andrews University made headlines this month when Campus Pride updated its “Shame List.” Campus Pride is a national nonprofit organization with the goal of supporting LGBTQ+ students on college campuses. Their website annually compiles the aforementioned “Shame List” so that LGBTQ+ students making decisions about where to attend college can be well-informed about which ones will be accepting environments and which ones will not.
The “Shame List,” subtitled, “The Absolute Worst Campuses for LGBTQ Youth,” is a list of colleges and universities which may be unsafe for LGBTQ+ students. The site indicates that the purpose of the list is, to use Campus Pride’s characterization, “calling out the harmful and shameful acts of religion-based prejudice and bigotry.” The webpage on which the list can be found cites two reasons for which a college or university can be added to the list. Firstly, if the university “Received and/or applied for a Title IX exemption to discriminate against LGBTQ youth.” Receiving the exemption allows those schools the ability to discriminate against their students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and other typically Title IX-protected statuses.
The second reason is if the college or university has “Demonstrated past history and track record of anti-LGBTQ actions, programs and practices.” Of the 101 schools on the list, Andrews is one of only fourteen schools that have not applied for and / or received Title IX Exemption. Regardless, Campus Pride claims, “Andrews University has qualified for the Shame List because it has opposed student advocacy for LGBTQ homeless youth, along with banning same-sex relationships and official LGBTQ student groups.” As Campus Pride mentions, AU’s Gay-Straight Alliance, AULL4One, is not allowed to be an official club on campus, and therefore is not allowed to meet on campus or have formal fundraisers or activities.
While AULL4One’s unofficial status has made it more difficult for LGBTQ+ students to find supportive spaces on campus, it has also provided a catalyst for much-needed dialogue between the students and administration. Out of this dialogue, several improvements have been made to how LGBTQ+ issues are approached on campus, which LGBTQ+ students found promising. Because of these positive changes, many students expressed surprise about AU’s inclusion on the list. One student responded,
“I was a little surprised we were on there. Andrews is a Christian campus and is moving forward as fast as both political sides of the spectrum will let them… I think the new policy was very inclusive (aside from trans issues) about saying that we are all a part of the Andrews community. It makes me feel more a part of the community here especially considering that they even acknowledge my existence as a lesbian. I feel much more comfortable as a gay student recently as opposed to my freshman year.”
Another, while cognizant of changes which are still needed in the future, articulated the optimism which many LGBTQ+ students on campus seem to be feeling:
“I have seen a commitment to eliminating discrimination and harassment of LGBT students which is more than I can say for other schools… For now, the Student Life policy/framework that has been put in place is something that I never would have considered possible within an Adventist institution. Since my freshman year I have seen lots of ups and downs regarding how LGBT students are able to interact on campus, and this marks a significant step for AU. And while I am optimistic for the future and will continue to fight for the rights and well-being of future LGBT students on campus, I know that there will still be struggles that we will have to face. Even though the culture and environment for us has improved, there are still situations where I don’t feel comfortable openly expressing my sexuality. My hope is that by working towards a better campus for LGBT students, the people who need to feel safe on this campus will be able to without a doubt.”
The new AU policies to which these students refer can be found in Appendix 1 of the Student Handbook, entitled, “A Seventh-day Adventist Framework for Relating to Sexual Orientation Differences on the Campus of Andrews University.” The “Belonging and Participation” and “Choice and Conduct” sections of the appendix speak to the comments of the students above in regards to AU becoming a more inclusive space. Under “Belonging and Participation,” the handbook acknowledges the unique struggles of LGBTQ+ students from Christian backgrounds, especially in finding a safe space within the Christian community. As the handbook states, these students may face “the fear of being hurt or marginalized… This can cause deep wounds and conflicts about God, religious identity, belonging and self-worth.” The handbook indicates that AU should be a welcome place for “all students who live in harmony with the values of the University and the biblical standards of the Adventist church – no matter their sexual orientation.” Under “Choice and Conduct,” the handbook continues, stating “Although there is no consensus on what leads to same-sex orientation, it is usually understood to involve the complex interaction between nature and nurture.” This acknowledgement that LGBTQ+ students are not “choosing” their orientation is hugely affirming to students who have felt the effects of aggression for aspects of the self which are uncontrollable.
Based on these new policies, students from other Adventist schools also mentioned their surprise that Andrews appeared on the “Shame List” and not any other Adventist institutions which have less-inclusive language. A student from Southern Adventist University reacted to AU’s new policies with constructive optimism:
“Looking through Andrews University’s newest policies gives me some hope that our campuses are beginning to recognize that there is a need to address controversial topics such as sexual orientation and gender identities. However, I worry at the same time, due to the vagueness of some of the statements made, such as the suggestion that a “professional” is needed for one to understand and “decide” their sexual orientation should they be questioning it. I have hope that one day our campuses will be more open to proper education and open discussion on these topics. One day.”
In addition to the concern about the handbook voiced by the student above, there is still the issue of gender identity inclusivity, to which the first student alluded above, an issue the handbook still ignores. A smaller sub-committee has been appointed within the larger taskforce with a specific assignment to continue to consider the issues transgender students may face, but no recommendations have been made official policy as of yet. Another area of concern appears under the heading, “Advocacy,” which indicates how students should act in a public forum in response to “sexual orientation issues.” The handbook instructs, “In public settings, including campus activities and University media outlets, student should not advocate or instigate views or behaviors that are inconsistent with the biblical teachings of the Adventist church.” Denial of the ability to advocate for views that diverge from the teachings of the Adventist church come off as oppressive to those who wish to see Andrews as a safe venue for such advocacy. Additionally, as Campus Pride points out, the handbook does explicitly forbid same-sex relationships, stating “We believe that romantic relationships are appropriate only between a man and a woman.” Although some parts of the Appendix do work to create a safer place, statements such as these are the ones which have qualified AU for the “Shame List.”
Promisingly, AU administration has been focused on positive change in their responses to the “Shame List.” When asked about AU’s appearance on the “Shame List,” President Luxton responded,
“As a campus we understand this is a significant and complex issue and we need to find multiple ways of responding. When it comes to the climate on campus, there have been internal conversations between our LGBTQ students and the rest of the Andrews community; we have to make sure that this is a welcoming and safe campus. When it comes to theology, the Adventist church has a stated position which the University upholds and it is in the student handbook; this position however does not deny our personal responsibility to treat our peers amicably. We owe it to ourselves and each other to treat each other with respect and dignity.”
The University’s official statement echoes President Luxton’s sentiments of continuing the work of becoming a welcoming and safe place for all students, stating,
“At Andrews University, we are strongly committed to non-discrimination in the admission and enrollment of our students on the basis of gender, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. We recognize that LGBT students may be marginalized on faith-based campuses. As a result, in the past few years, we have actively worked alongside our LGBT student community to more fully realize our commitment to creating a harassment-free environment for all students. Andrews is proud of its LGBT students, and they have contributed in many important ways to the University’s faith and learning community. We will continue to invite their participation as the University seeks to create a campus culture that is reflective of the Seventh-day Adventist commitment to biblical faithfulness, which includes demonstrating care and compassion for all persons.”
Although Andrews University has certainly become a safer place for LGBTQ+ students in the past few years, the university’s inclusion in the “Shame List” goes to show that some believe recent strides have not been enough. While the progress that has been made is certainly encouraging, these steps are less apparent to groups like Campus Pride, who do not see the minute machinations of progress and continued partnership with the LGBTQ+ community that are more apparent to active participants in that progress. That progress includes ongoing work with taskforces dealing with the framework and policies for our LGBTQ+ community and one committed to better understanding and responding to the issues surrounding teen homelessness, including research into the risk factors that may lead to substance abuse, harm and/or homelessness among Adventist LGBTQ+ teens. However, due to some of the restrictive language which still appears in the handbook and given that the University supports and adheres to the Seventh-day Adventist church’s official stance on marriage and relationships, which is reflected in its policies, the inclusion on the “Shame List” seems inevitable.
(All student responses provided by the Intercollegiate Adventist GSA Coalition (IAGC))