Evan Leatherwood ’02 will not call himself a Christian — because he is gay.
He didn’t always feel this way. When Leatherwood first came to Yale, he wanted to become a Catholic priest. But after two years of serving as a student leader at St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center, enrolling in religious studies courses, and studying the Bible on his own, he changed his mind.
“I felt supported and fulfilled by the Catholic Church,” Leatherwood said. “But as I became more educated about theology and related theology to my personal beliefs — [I realized] that homosexuality and Christianity are pretty much incompatible.”
To resolve his faith and sexual identity, Leatherwood did what every undergraduate is supposed to do. He took advantage of Yale’s academic resources and intellectual climate to answer tough questions about who he is and what he believes.
He explains his conclusion in no uncertain terms.
“It’s quixotic to try to be religious and gay,” he said.
Others are less sure.
“Religion has gotten a bad rap,” said Emily Wills ’04, a coordinator at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Cooperative at Yale and a practicing Quaker. “Many do make the dangerous assumption that all religions are against queer people, because the only face they see may be the religious right.”
Josh Wright ’02, a member of the Queer-Straight Alliance, pointed out that many gay and lesbian students here have had negative experiences with religion.
They don’t see any useful way to discuss it and — whether they’ve rejected faith consciously or just don’t know what religious options are available — they’ve concluded that Yale’s religious resources aren’t relevant to them.
“Religion is where the positive gay experience at Yale breaks down,” he said.
Who wants to talk about it?
“I think it’s easier to admit you’re gay at Yale than to admit you’re religious,” said Josh Dunn ’03.
Plenty of Yalies do find religion here, but “there is a sentiment that people are uncomfortable talking about religion, that it’s not politically correct,” Associate University Chaplain Cynthia Terry said.
Whether they consider faith a personal matter or simply do not believe at all, typically garrulous Yalies shut up when it comes to religion.
For gay and lesbian students trying to decide what they believe, there is plenty to talk about.
“You’re already contesting who you are on a regular basis,” Wills said. “Some people go the whole nine yards and reject their faith completely; others cling to it because they have to cling to something when everything else is in flux.”
In February 2000, a group of students tried to fix that.
Their solution took the form of a four-week program of guest speakers and discussion called “Opening Doors: Entering a Conversation Between Sexual Orientation and Christianity.”
According to Abbi Coursolle ’02, a conference organizer, Opening Doors recruited speakers who identified as gay and religious, and each of the weekly events focused on a different question, from finding a gay-friendly church to the legal issues of gay marriage.
But according to Emily Grant ’02, editor-at-large of the Yale Free Press, Opening Doors wasn’t a productive discussion at all.
“The conference didn’t invite anyone with the opinion that homosexual activity is wrong,” she said. “There was no dialogue. It was a monologue.”
Lukas Halim ’02, a Yale Free Press reporter who attended the conference with a friend, described it as “one of those lefty share-and-care type things.”
“From an intellectual standpoint, everyone was in total agreement. I guess it made people feel good, if they already shared that persuasion,” he said.
Wright, who organized the discussion groups for the conference, said people who believe it is impossible to reconcile homosexuality and Christianity are too steadfast in their convictions to be interested in real dialogue.
Opening Doors disappointed some members of the very community the conference aimed to serve.
Ryan Alvarez ’03, who has spent most of his Yale career reconciling his sexuality with his Baptist upbringing, agreed that the conversation was one-sided.
Opening Doors “was a bunch of gay people not addressing any of the questions I had,” he said. “The panel just kept saying, ‘It’s okay to be gay and religious,’ but they didn’t tell me anything.”
Alvarez decided that the group discussion approach was not useful for him.
“I didn’t want it to be easy to discard my background,” he said. “I figured it out the hard way — that’s why I’m so sure of myself now and happy with who I am.”
Perhaps this is one case where the Yale tradition of open, intellectual debate just won’t fit.
It’s a private choice
Many gay and lesbian students at Yale agree with Alvarez. When it comes to religion, they’d rather go it alone. Those who have found their way to organized religion had to resolve their feelings on their own terms first.
Andi Young ’02 was raised as a Lutheran in a conservative parish in Colorado. She was always uncomfortable with the faith, especially the Christian portrayal of women.
She renounced Christianity and bounced through various traditions of Wicca before “chalking it all up to BS,” she said.
At college, Young had trouble finding any religious community that appealed to her. Her lesbian sexuality only made the search more difficult.
“Spiritual community is hard to find here,” she said. “People go to Bi-Ways and the Women’s Center to find out about gay and lesbian parties. — There’s no real place to go to say, ‘I don’t know what I believe.'”
The hectic pace of Yale life left Young with no time to experiment with a new religious tradition. It took a semester in Nepal for her to hit on the religious identity that was right for her — Tibetan Buddhism.
Other gay and lesbian students have found their way to one of the organized religious communities on campus and find those communities empowering.
Alvarez grew up Baptist. He attended a Baptist high school in Los Angeles, where he could have been suspended for being a homosexual. Before coming to college, he resented his sexuality.
“At that point, I didn’t realize that Yale had such a strong gay community,” Alvarez said. “I just thought that being gay was wrong by the Bible. I wasn’t sure what I was; I thought maybe I could do the ‘bi thing.’ I’d see what happened, but I definitely would not be gay.”
Once at Yale, Alvarez took religious studies classes, talked with his classmates, reread the Bible, and arrived at his own conclusions.
“I just knew I’d been gay my whole life and Christian my whole life — both were a part of me, inseparable,” he said.
Alvarez now worships with the Black Church at Yale. But he was quick to emphasize that he had to resolve his faith and his sexuality on his own first.
“At my [Baptist] high school they warned us, you’ll get to college and there will be all these postmodern, existentialist, satanic forces,” Alvarez remembers. “But here I realized that I’m smart enough and old enough to read the Bible for myself and make it my own Christianity.”
Davi Bernstein ’03 is an Orthodox Jew and president of the Young Israel House at Yale. In an e-mail from Jerusalem, he could not offer enough praise for the Orthodox Jewish community on campus.
“If Yale’s Orthodox community were the standard — a lot of pained Orthodox homosexuals convinced their co-religionists hate them would be emancipated from their fears,” he wrote.
Open minds, open doors
Many gay Yalies of faith must reconcile their religious and sexual identities for themselves. While these are personal decisions, Yale provides the spiritual resources in the form of gay-friendly congregations and supportive friendships.
Religious leaders on campus are anxious to welcome the gay and lesbian students who want organized worship.
While homosexuality is a contentious issue in the Catholic Church, the Rev. Robert Beloin of the St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center said that gay people are welcome in every aspect of chapel life.
“We’d rather see them take part in the regular chapel program than segregate them to some support group in the basement,” Beloin said. “They’re first class citizens, like everyone else.”
Terry pointed out that the United Church of Christ churches on campus are open and affirming to homosexuals.
“There is active inclusion of homosexuals in normal ways — gay couples are listed together in directories, the same as heterosexuals,” she said.
David Cavill DIV ’02 spoke of “a new guard of queer spirituality” that is reconciling religion and spirituality.
“There are more and more queer spiritual role models in ordinary mainstream congregations, and no one’s thinking twice about it,” he said.
Terry can empathize with the struggles gay and lesbian students may face. Now in her ninth year with the United Church of Christ at Yale, she affiliated with the Presbyterian Church when she enrolled at the Divinity School.
But the Presbyterian Church does not ordain gay or lesbian ministers, so when she realized this was her calling, she had to break with the denomination in which her family had worshiped for generations.
After Terry came out to the ordination committee and entered the United Church of Christ, she still faced the prospect of coming out to members of her church and the Yale community. Terry came out to her new congregation when she and her partner learned they were having a baby.
“Before that, I felt that three or four students already knew, but I had wanted to establish myself as a person here first, then introduce my sexuality as additional information — not as my whole person,” said Terry.
The congregation was instantly accepting and celebrated her pregnancy with her, Terry remembers. She credits the support she has found in the Yale community to the University’s diversity.
“I had already dealt a lot with any tensions between sexuality and Christianity in terms of friends and other people in my life,” said Terry. “I reconciled that these aren’t antithetical, that the experience of falling in love with another woman is a gift from God.”
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