On a gorgeous summer night in August 2007, Diana DIV ’08 picked up her partner Sarah from John F. Kennedy Airport.
Diana and Sarah were planning to go to Hammonasset Beach in Madison, Conn. to propose to one another, but when they stopped to visit the Yale Divinity School — they decided to pop the question right away.
“It was at the chapel that the lightening bolt sort of hit,” Diana recalled of the Marquand Chapel at the center of the campus, where the two first realized they were more than friends. At the time, Diana was in her first year and Sarah was an exchange student at the Divinity School from England. The couple now plans to marry there this summer.
Diana and Sarah were not eager to get into specifics. They withheld the date of their wedding, which Diana hesitated to even call a marriage, and asked not to print their last names. Their unconventional love story — reconciling faith with sexuality — rings true for many gay and lesbian students at the Divinity School who want to pursue careers in certain denominations of the Christian ministry.
And while Yale’s fairly liberal campus offers a haven for gay and lesbian students to pursue their religious and romantic aspirations freely, those seeking careers in the ministry face a world less accepting beyond the school grounds.
A RELIGIOUS HAVEN
Obadiah Ballinger DIV ’08 and Javen Swanson DIV ’09 are also getting married in Marquand Chapel on May 22.
“Marquand Chapel is a very safe place for us,” Swanson said. It is a place, Ballinger added, where they can worship without the fear of prejudice.
And for both pairs — Ballinger and Swanson and Diana and Sarah — the ceremony performed at Marquand Chapel will be celebrated as more of a religious union than a legal one. Swanson said they were planning on having a ceremony regardless of the legalization of gay marriage in Connecticut, but when the state Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage on Oct. 10, he said, the idea of the union seemed more legitimate “There was something about that that made it more real,” he said.
And the ceremony, they said, will look like a traditional wedding. Associate Dean of Students, Dale Peterson, who is an ordained minister of the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., is one of the religious officials who will preside over their wedding. Ballinger and Swanson, who both identify with denominations of the Christian faith, said they plan to say vows and take communion.
The friendly couple, both attractive 20-somethings, met in their New Testament Greek class about three years ago. They agreed that the Divinity School has been a welcoming place for LGBT students.
Currently, there are around 100 e-mail addresses on the LGBT Coalition’s panlist at the Divinity School, which includes people who identify as LGBT and allies, said Michael O’Loughlin DIV ’09, a coordinator for the Coalition. “We’re really lucky that we have a safe place,” he said.
And the curriculum reflects this as well.
“About a year ago one of my Div School students asked if I would teach a class about coming out,” said Kristen Leslie DIV ’86, Associate Professor in Pastoral Care and Counseling. This semester, she ended up creating a class on how to care for LGBT people in a religious community called “Identity and Community: Pastoral Care in the 21st Century.” Some students call it “Gay Care.”
Still, there are some people on campus with a more conservative spirit.
Stephen Gaetano DIV ’09, a coordinator of the Catholic Student Fellowship, said he does not feel comfortable voicing his more conservative viewpoints but said that he stands by the Catholic Church’s teachings when it comes to issues such as homosexuality.
“As a relatively conservative person, I tend to stay quiet,” Gaetano said. “I do feel sort of out of place.”
‘GOD VERSUS GAYS’
In a world where anti-gay marriage sentiment has mostly come from religious organizations, gay students at the Divinity School struggle with their identities.
“Too often it’s boiled down to God versus gays,” Ballinger said. “We’re living proof that that is a false dichotomy.”
But Diana, who is ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, still feels the pressure of her denomination, which does not sanction same-sex marriage. Sarah is a priest in the Church of England. The Episcopal Church has not fully sanctioned same-sex marriages, although it has affirmed its support of gay and lesbian people and opposes government action prohibiting civil marriages or unions.
“I very much believe in pursuing the rights, and I’m thrilled with what happened in Connecticut,” Diana said. “But on the other hand, I want to be respectful of where the Episcopal Church is right now — and that may change.” Since Sarah’s visa status will not allow the couple to legally marry in Connecticut, the two are planning instead to get a civil partnership in England, where Sarah is a citizen.
But this settlement will also require Sarah to make a career sacrifice — her bishop refused to accept her work while she is in a same-sex civil partnership, Diana said.
“It’s been really stressful for her to separate her public and private life in this way,” Diana said. “I think she is relieved to be leaving, but really sad at the same time that the Church has hurt her so much.”
The strains of continuing a religious role and a same-sex relationship also fall on Ballinger and Swanson.
While Ballinger — who is the religious organizer for Love Makes a Family, a Connecticut non-profit group that advocates equal rights for same-sex couples — is on the path to being ordained in the United Church of Christ, Swanson is hoping to be ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Although the United Church of Christ supports same-sex marriage and welcomes people of all sexual orientations, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America currently only ordains gay candidates if they are celibate. Whether or not Swanson can be ordained is contingent on a vote the Church is holding this summer.
If the vote does not pass, Swanson said, their marriage process could get complicated. It may even prevent his ordination.
“But we’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Swanson said.