Editors’ note: Apologies for the few weeks’ unannounced hiatus we had to take with this blog. Several of us are academics caught up in end-of-academic-year activities and deadlines. I myself have been caught up in end-of-season activities in the church where I am organist and choirmaster, and a sudden turn of events involving my young friend Christopher Peterman temporarily drew my attention from this blog and our organization. I volunteered to help him tell his story to the press. The following post was only half-written when that sudden flurry of activity occurred, and I must acknowledge inspiration from Rachel Patrick’s similarly-titled post. – Jeffrey Hoffman
Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And of some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire;
– Jude 1: 21-23a
If you had asked me a year ago whether I would ever see myself in the role of executive director of a fledgling gay rights organization, I would have laughed at you. When I finally regained my composure, I probably would have said something like “being gay is a very small part of my identity and somewhere down the list near the fact that I am a movie buff and an avid reader of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings. I’m neither proud of it nor ashamed of it. It just is. I’m a Christian, an Anglican, a classical musician, a composer, a writer… so many other labels I would use to define myself before I would identify myself as being gay.” Don’t get me wrong. I came out of the closet many years ago, though for years I merely acknowledged my sexuality without actually embracing it. I have been a spectator at Pride Marches in the past, but never someone who was interested in marching. So why do I find myself preparing to lead a group of LGBTQQI and Affirming former students and alumni of Bob Jones University down Fifth Avenue next month in our first-ever participation in New York City’s Pride March?
I was eighteen years of age when I left Bob Jones University for good. It had long been my dream to study music in a famous conservatory in New York City or perhaps even abroad, but I had been convinced by my teachers at BJU that I wasn’t either good enough or spiritually ready to do such a thing. My guidance counselor at Bob Jones Academy only ever asked me one question in our one meeting: “So, Jeffrey, what do you think you might like to major in at Bob Jones University next fall?” It was her job to make sure I attended college at BJU. Other college choices were not something she was prepared to talk about.
I entered BJU knowing in my heart that I didn’t belong there anymore. I had begun to question so much of the theology I had been taught from birth – the theology of racial segregation, Bibliolatry, separatism, door-to-door “soulwinning,” music, dress “standards“; in short, everything that defined Bob Jones-style fundamentalism externally – but I stayed, because it was what my BJU alumni parents wanted, well, demanded of me, what my teachers insisted was “God’s will” for my life, what my closest friends were all doing, and, after all, it was the only life I had ever known. I worked two jobs that summer because my parents insisted I was to pay for my college education at BJU myself. Both jobs were in environments where my allergies were badly affected. By the middle of my second month as a college student at BJU, I was sick. Very sick. I had pneumonia and didn’t know it until I collapsed one day on the stoop of my parents’ home at lunchtime.
During the requisite recovery period, I devoured many books of theology that I got from the library or the local Christian bookstore. I remember reading Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There, C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, John Fischer’s Real Christians Don’t Dance and also thoroughly immersing myself in the Bible, particularly the four Gospels and the book of Ephesians. By the time I had recovered from my illness, I had also realized what I had long suspected: I am not a fundamentalist. I cannot be a fundamentalist. God does not want me to be a fundamentalist. I was born on the campus of Bob Jones University. I lived entirely within that fundamentalist environment for the first eighteen years of my life. And I didn’t belong there. It wasn’t – despite all the glossy advertisements and recruiting brochures and all the numerous claims by the faculty, staff and administration to the contrary – God’s Special Place for me.
I left BJU many years ago and I haven’t looked back since.
Of course, I have family in Greenville, South Carolina, whom I visit regularly. Members of my extended family have attended BJU, and I have long maintained contact with a number of friends within the BJU orbit over the years, but I had moved on.
So what turned me into an activist for gay rights?
In short, it was Bob Jones University that turned me into an activist and an advocate.
Allow me to explain:
I did not want to be reminded of my fundamentalist past. I had indeed attended a famous conservatory of music and built a pretty decent life for myself here in New York City. BJU was a distant albeit painful series of memories, made poignant only when I went home to visit my family and my mother’s grave, just a stone’s throw from BJU’s front gate. I had been in therapy and dealt with all those painful memories, processed them, learned to cope, and moved on. For this reason I largely ignored the social media phenomenon. My younger brother had signed up for Facebook and told me “the old Bob Jones people are coming out of the woodwork.” I wasn’t interested in that much reconnection with that world. I had turned down numerous invitations to join Facebook that had been e-mailed by friends and colleagues. I didn’t really want to be so publicly accessible to people from my past. E-mail alone can be overwhelming, I thought, so why get sucked into Facebook? Besides, I was already in touch with pretty nearly all the people from my past whom I felt could deal with my evolution over the years that had taken me far away from fundamentalism and Bob Jones University.
One day a few years ago, I desperately needed to get in touch with a colleague who had moved… his phone number wasn’t working, his website was down, e-mail bounced, and a Google search only returned working contact information on Facebook, so very reluctantly, I gave in and joined Facebook. Over time, as I had anticipated, old friends began to come out of the woodwork and reconnect. Through them I made new friends who had also come from a similar background. Gradually, I discovered the healthy, vibrant and sometimes dysfunctional and cantankerous community of survivors of Bob Jones University on Facebook. And I started to hear their stories; stories that shocked, appalled, and angered me; stories of spiritual, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that were eerily familiar, like so many I had heard when I was just leaving BJU… and like my own.
Fast forward to spring 2011…
ABC’s 20/20 did an investigation into a highly publicized case in one of the big Independent Fundamental Baptist churches within the Bob Jones University orbit. Like most people who have spent any time at BJU, I knew people from this church. Its former pastor, Chuck Phelps, is one of the super-stars of the network. The story of Tina Anderson’s rape and its subsequent coverup galvanized the community of BJU survivors like nothing else before. A number of survivors went to the trial to show their support for Tina. The rest of us watched events unfolding nearly in real-time via the local newspaper‘s coverage and the local television station’s live blog of the trial.
Slowly, a group of lesbian and gay survivors coalesced as one by one we cautiously came out to each other in private messages or in the survivor groups. Then some bisexual people joined us, trans people came out, some questioning people would private message me or another of my colleagues here at lgbt-BJU.org. Some new secret groups formed. And then the stories got really personal and so very often heart-breaking. You’ve read many of them on this blog. There are many more yet to be told publicly. Many of the people whom we serve are still living in the closet for fear of the near certainty they will be shunned by families and friends if they come out. Others are in various stages of coming out.
So, what compelled me in 2012 to become an activist for gay rights?
The abusive system that fundamentalism has become. The young man I know who attempted suicide after a “counseling session” at BJU. The young woman I know who survived a rape only to be expelled from school for having “spiritual problems.” The middle-aged man who recently confided to me that he has never had a meaningful intimate relationship in his entire life. The memory of the near-daily rants from the chapel platform that echo in pulpits across the United States; those rants that drove me to despairing self-hatred and suicidal thoughts. The many people I have known over the years who received ungodly, hurtful counsel from BJU Administrators. The knowledge that the homophobic hatred that has seized so many within Christian fundamentalism is going to continue to destroy lives unless someone steps in and pulls them out of the fire, as St. Jude’s epistle quoted above puts it.
I cannot remain silent any longer. I am full of words and the Spirit within me compels me (Job 32). The Spirit compels (Acts 20:22-24) other lgbtqia people from BJU and other Christian colleges to speak out. There is a movement for change, a growing, organic, vibrant, exciting movement that has quite literally sprung up overnight: OneWheaton, Voiceless, CedarvilleOut, Biola Queer Underground, FUSGayAlumni, OneGeorgeFox, Baylor University’s Sexual Identity Forum , and many, many other college and alumni groups are forming around the United States and beyond, seeking recognition, respect, dialogue and change.
It’s time for change. It’s time for compassion. It’s time for love.
Please help me confront homophobia by signing the petition. If you are in or near New York City this June 24, gay, straight, bi, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, or whatever label describes the beautiful, unique person you are, please come and march with us. This hate speech has to end.
Together, we are “Having compassion. Making a difference.” And, yes, we are saving lives.