Case study among the first of its kind to research LGBTQ+ sense of belonging in Christian communities

Azusa Pacific’s annual Common Day of Learning took place on Wednesday and included more than 50 campus-wide lectures. Among the lectures was one entitled “Sense of Belonging Among Sexual Minorities in Religious Spaces,” which focused on research data and analysis from APU regarding its LGBTQ+ community. The lecture was hosted by undergraduate psychology majors Nicole Minor, Tori Jones and Rey Gonzales.

Minor, Jones and Gonzales hypothesized sexual minority students feel a lower sense of belonging on APU’s campus and in other religious spaces than their straight counterparts. This is due in part to a long withstanding stigma in the church against LGBTQ+ relationships and recent events regarding the APU student handbook, as well as a lack of research on the topic as a whole.

Section Nine of the student handbook places a ban on same-sex relationships on campus. The ban was removed for a short time last year but has since been reinstated.

Minor said Christian campuses tend to react to LGBTQ+ students in one of three ways. Either they exclude them from the community, accept them as people while disagreeing with their lifestyles or are fully allied to helping LGBTQ+ students.

While allyship promotes a sense of belonging on campus, Minor said this was the least popular approach of the three. Instead, students are often asked to sign waivers to prevent discrimination lawsuits and avoid providing certain protections on campuses.

“As a result, sexual minority students were either rejecting their religious identity or rejecting their sexual minority identity,” Minor said. “Which lead to stresses and low self esteem as well as depression in some individuals.”

Minor said even if students don’t face blatant discrimination on Christian campuses due to their sexuality, they might still lack a sense of belonging due to the colleges’ stance on LGBTQ+ issues.

She suggested two possible reasons for why students in these situations compromise their identities.

One reason is the Minority Stress Model, which claims while everyone can experience stress, those from minority backgrounds often experience higher levels of stress more often than those who are not oppressed. Minor said this can lead to some people feeling they don’t belong in Christian spheres where their presence is a consistent stress trigger for them.

The other concept was about intersectionality, where people who come from diverse backgrounds can have multiple identities, such as being a woman and a person of color. Minor said if the stress of one identity outweighs that of another, people from minority backgrounds might choose to ignore one of their identities in order to properly deal with another. This is one reason why some students will not come out about their sexual identities until after they graduate from college.

“There is research to back that it is having negative outcomes on part of our student body,” Minor said. “We’re hoping that APU dives deeper into this and figures out what we can do on our campus to better the environment for sexual minorities.”

The research group sent a questionnaire to APU’s student body regarding faith, sexuality and a sense of belonging in religious spaces. The questionnaire was limited because there was not a high ratio of LGBTQ+ participants in relationship to cisgender/heterosexual participants and it did not include much data on gender identities.

Jones presented the questionnaire results which indicated a low sense of belonging in Christian spheres among sexual minority students. The data also showed people who have disclosed their sexual identities publicly or to their parents experienced lower levels of belonging than those who did not.

Gonzales gave statistics regarding the questionnaire. According to her, beliefs were closely divided with 31 percent of participants believing Section Nine should be abolished and 38 percent believing it should remain. The other 31 percent of participants either did not respond or were “not sure” either way.

When asked whether Section Nine should be removed, 46 percent of participants responded “yes,” 53 percent responded “no” and one percent responded “unsure.”

Gonzales explained the reasoning for this divide. She said most of the responses centered around faith;  both sides claimed their views were more true to Christian values.

Among the attendees at the lecture was Haley Ketola, a senior social work major, who said she was disturbed by the information presented.

“I just truly don’t understand how you can believe in God and deny someone their humanity,” Ketola said. “[Faith] is about oneness and connectedness, and the second you tell someone that who they are is inherently sinful, you disrupt that oneness.”