The university has officially recognized an LGBT peer-support group for students. The group, Voice, has existed since 2012 without any formal recognition from the Office of Student Life.
Dr. Phil Schubert, president of the university, said the decision by the Senior Leadership Team and recognition of the group at the beginning of the semester came as a result of a Board of Trustees’ evaluation of university Sexual Stewardship policies that took place over the last two years. Despite the recognition, no changes have been made to the sexual conduct language in the Student Handbook, which proscribes “sexual immorality, including premarital sex (heterosexual and homosexual activity.)”
In Spring 2016, the board established broad values to guide the university as it continues to make decisions related to students and others who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
Dr. Barry Packer, chairman of the board, said the board developed the framework for administration to make decisions based on three factors:
- We affirm the dignity and worth of all human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and we strive to love and welcome all individuals.
- We believe Scripture teaches that God intends for sexual relations to be reserved for marriage between a man and woman.
- We encourage everyone in the ACU community to engage this issue with civility and respect.
With the board’s stance as a starting point, administration began to evaluate how to best move forward with LGBT issues on campus, Schubert said.
“We began to think about if that is the guidance given by the Board, how does that play itself out in our everyday policies, procedures, the way we talk about and do things on this campus?” he said. “We need to check what we are doing against those three principles because those are pretty big and pretty important.”
As Schubert and other leaders in administration approached the idea of recognizing Voice as a group, he said they kept one principle front and center: affirming the traditional view of marriage between one man and one woman.
“We had some conversations with the leadership of Voice and we talked about if we were to officially recognize them, would they be comfortable in respecting the policies and values of the university,” Schubert said. “And they told us ‘we are.’”
Voice was created in 2012 to be a group for students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender to feel safe and able to talk through issues regarding faith and sexuality. Since its inception, the group has not functioned as an advocacy group or as a typical student organization or club. Designated as a “peer education and support group,” Voice caters to both LGBT and straight students, providing opportunities for conversation.
Dr. Kristina Campos Davis, assistant professor of communication, along with Mark Lewis, dean of students, and a leadership team sponsor Voice. Voice meets every other Monday night, and on the off-weeks, the group conducts a Thursday small group Chapel called Faith and Sexuality Chapel, which any student is welcome to attend.
Dr. Chris Riley, vice president of Student Life, has worked with Davis and other leaders of Voice both before and after the group was recognized by the university.
“We are working through existing channels of support and they’ve been very cognizant of the fact that not everyone will agree with what they do and who they are,” Riley said. “But we are working through personal relationships instead of a big announcement.”
When SLT told the Board of Trustees of its plans to recognize Voice, the board’s response was positive, Packer said.
“I can think of no better place for students who identify as LGBT or who experience same-sex attraction to be than on the campus of a Christian university that loves and welcomes them and gives them a safe place to discuss their ultimate identity in Jesus Christ,” Packer said in an email. “These are difficult issues, yet regardless of one’s perspective, we encourage all of those in the ACU community to engage this issue with Christian care and compassion.”
Since working through the Board’s statement and receiving the university’s recognition, Davis said she has seen positive results for the group thus far.
“It has helped enormously to know the university backs us,” Davis said. “The most important thing to know is that ACU is supportive of our students in the sense that they are providing a place where LGBTQ students can feel safe.”
Some use Q in the acronym to describe individuals who describe themselves as queer or sexually questioning.
However, Davis did admit she was a little worried about people’s responses to news of Voice’s recognition.
“I think it is a really hard balance for the university because yes, I’m worried our constituents off campus are going to be upset, whereas most on campus will probably accept it,” Davis said. “I feel like we are kind of in a situation where we are having to balance [the university’s] desires with what’s best for our students. But the problem is, we have gay students on our campus. Our options are ignore them, treat them hatefully, or, or what? That just doesn’t seem like an option.”
On one hand, Davis said some try to see the group as an advocacy group while others try to pin it down as conversion therapy.
“This is not a student organization in a way that a social club would be,” Davis said. “We are not an advocacy organization, but by the same token, we are also not a reparative therapy group, which I think is the other side of what people are worried about. We simply want to love and help our students wherever they are in the spectrum.”
This spectrum even includes friends or allies of LGBT students who are interested in learning how to engage in conversations about LGBT issues.
Junior biochemistry major Hailey Burden said being a part of Voice has transformed her time at ACU. Burden, who grew up in Abilene, has been navigating the LGBT journey since coming out her freshman year of high school.
“Coming to ACU, I knew it would be a challenge,” Burden said. “I didn’t think there would be anything like Voice, and I didn’t really think anybody would care. I told myself to just stay under the radar. I came in thinking that I don’t have to talk about it, but it was a lot harder than I thought it would be.”
Burden’s first year on campus was challenging, starting at Wildcat Week, during which she said she got lots of stares because of her appearance – short hair, tattoos and gauges. After a difficult year of looking for a place to belong, she heard of Voice through word of mouth and started to get involved.
“Finding this community, even though it’s small, I was able to build relationships with people that made me feel more comfortable here,” Burden said. “Now that it is recognized, students could see that there actually is something that applies to who I am.”
Burden said she now feels like she has a place on campus and hopes others will begin to have healthy conversations surrounding the issues.
“Now that they recognize Voice, we’re going to have to wrestle with the question of ‘OK it’s recognized, but do we really want to talk about it?’” Burden said. “I hope it becomes more normal to have this organization.”
Schubert planned to notify faculty of the decision Thursday afternoon, but prior to the formal announcement of Voice’s recognition, responses from faculty have been varied.
Dr. Tom Lee, chair of the Faculty Senate, said the topic has only recently come up to the Faculty Senate, but he anticipates more conversations in the future.
“I would like to know a little bit more, and I know President Schubert wanted the faculty to know more,” Lee said. “He wanted the word out, but somehow it didn’t get out. Speaking only for myself, I am in favor of a support group, but we definitely need more discussion moving forward.”
Dr. Neal Coates, chair of the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice, said he takes issue with the lack of communication from upper administration about Voice’s recognition.
“Not communicating on issues that go perhaps to the core of the university’s purpose makes people pull their hair out,” Coates said.
Coates said the goal for this group hasn’t been clearly explained to the faculty at large.
“We need to know if Voice is actively encouraging our students and when they are alumni to be chaste and aim for godly marriage,” Coates said. “We need confirmation that is the purpose of this group and whether the group will be in line with the Board’s statement regarding spiritual marriage. We need confirmation that faculty sponsorship will not be advocating for a lifestyle of LGBTQ.”
The Voice mission statement clearly states that “Voice will NOT antagonize institutions or organizations because of their stances on LGBT issues, and Voice will not advocate behavior that violates the ACU Student Handbook.”
From administration’s perspective, Voice is not an instrument for advocacy.
“It seems to us to be a very healthy way to engage members of our community in good, productive and fulfilling conversation while still being clear about what we believe,” Chris Riley said.
As this conversation developed during the last several years, Dr. Kristina Davis said she remembered the moment in a faculty meeting where Schubert said ACU would be an institution that loves all students.
“It doesn’t mean we advocate for and that doesn’t mean we are going to change our values,” Davis said. “But we are not going to hurt these students.”
For now, administration will continue to work through what it means to recognize Voice and how it could affect the future of policies in the Student Handbook. Still no major changes will be made until more discussions take place, Schubert said.
“If we look at the precedent, we are not expecting any major shifts about how we’ll handle things in the future,” Schubert said. “I hope we move forward in a way that is more understandable and clear, but there is no major shift in how university will handles things.”