Can Gay Students Survive at a Christian College?

Two gay volleyball players at a South Carolina college raise an important debate about acceptance.
Erskine College's men's volleyball team has included two openly gay players. (Photo: Juan Varona/Facebook)
Mar 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Hugh Ryan's work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, The Guardian, and The Daily Beast.

Nearly one year ago, Juan Varona, a volleyball player at South Carolina’s Erskine College, was profiled at Outsports, a website that celebrates openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual athletes. Initially, the reaction at Erskine—a private Christian college with about 600 students—was minimal. “Everyone treated me the same,” Varona, 21, tells TakePart.

Last week, however, Erskine and its two gay volleyball players bounced back into the news. On Feb. 20, Erskine issued a “Statement on Human Sexuality” that read, in part: “Sexual relations…between persons of the same sex are spoken of in scripture as sin and contrary to the will of the Creator.” The statement ended ominously: “Members of the Erskine community are expected to follow the teachings of scripture concerning matters of human sexuality and institutional decisions will be made in light of this position.”

Erskine was widely criticized. "College's New Policy Comes Out Against Homosexuality," went the Sports Illustrated headline. By Feb. 27, the college had released a statement clarifying that its original announcement was simply a "point of reference.” The college insisted, “All types of students are welcome.”

Nevertheless, the controversy continues to introduce the country to Erskine. The episode appears to be the latest flash point in a larger battle between religious reformers and traditionalists over Erskine’s future. It is also driving a vigorous debate about intellectual freedom and how private religious colleges handle openly gay students and employees. But within the debate, there is little clarity about what prompted Erskine to make its announcement last month.

To begin answering the question, it helps to know something about Erskine. The college was created more than 175 years ago by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, one of the country’s oldest Presbyterian Church of America denominations. The denomination is socially conservative and has about 39,000 members. Last summer, Dr. Paul Kooistra became Erskine’s president. Kooistra is an ordained minister who sits on an influential body of PCA leaders.

Kooistra has been under pressure from observers inside the larger Presbyterian church and outside Erskine to address social issues—in particular, LGBT people. When Kooistra’s tenure was announced, ARPTalk, a website that chronicles Presbyterian issues, published a lengthy post noting some of the challenges he’d face. “A gay and lesbian community has been tolerated for years” at Erskine, which the post described as having a "secularized and anti-evangelical culture." The post continued: “Now, one of the most pressing matters confronting any college president…is the legal challenge of how to circumvent the Obama Administration’s executive order to not discriminate against homosexuals.”

Shortly before Kooistra’s arrival at Erskine, a PCA committee made a presentation to a major annual gathering of Presbyterian leaders. The committee outlined “five key issues currently confronting the denomination.” The role of women was listed as a leading issue. (“Giving women a greater voice and more visible roles, while maintaining the denomination’s position on male ordained leadership in governing,” a blog post notes.) Homosexuality was the second-leading issue, with a particular focus on how the Presbyterian church “may best minister in a fallen world to homosexual persons, graciously sharing the Gospel and maintaining the biblical standards of conduct and biblical marriage.”

Erskine’s Feb. 20 statement surprised many people on campus, leaving students scratching their heads to figure out why sexuality has been so politicized on campus, where the mood, Varona says, is "scary."

"I feel the same as I have always felt about this school," Varona tells TakePart. "Nobody has changed towards me, and I am aware that this decision was made by the board of trustees—a group of people [who] are not necessarily in touch with campus." For now, the business and Spanish major is focused on coursework. He recently quit Erskine's men's volleyball team, for personal reasons. "I am not certain yet about my future in this school," he says, adding, "I am keeping all my possiblities open. If I do transfer, I plan to continue to play volleyball." Another openly gay Erskine student profiled by Outsports, Andrew Davis, remains on the team.

Varona hopes that the episode will be a learning moment—for Erskine and for Christians everywhere. “People should focus on the love God has for every single one of us, no matter who we are,” he says, “and not on judging people. That is His job.”