On Oct. 12, at a student-led prayer service devoted to National Coming Out Day the day before, administrators at the Yale Divinity School announced the creation of a scholarship specifically for students who identify as LGBTQ.
The scholarship, endowed by a joint gift of $50,000 from Stephen Henderson DIV ’87 and his husband, James LaForce, will supplement the education of one LGTBQ student pursuing a Masters of Arts and Religion degree at Yale each year, starting next fall. As the endowment grows, the number of students funded may increase. The YDS has many endowed aid packages earmarked for students who identify with a range of underrepresented groups, including two scholarships created last year for Latino students. Just last week, another such scholarship was announced for students preparing for Lutheran ministry. But the Henderson-LaForce Scholarship is the first for LGBTQ students.
Multiple students and alumni interviewed said the YDS is known for its progressive stance among institutions of religious education. This coming Thursday, the school will award its William Sloane Coffin ’56 Award for Peace and Justice to Anne Stanback DIV ’85, who has worked for marriage equality at state and national levels.
Henderson told the News that even during his time at YDS in the 1980s, the school was an intellectually and religiously freeing community.
“I’m not sure that Yale Divinity School saved my life, but it definitely saved my mind, in that I just felt freer to think and to question,” said Henderson, who attended the YDS on a scholarship.
He added that he was motivated to donate by the hope that he may be able to provide the same opportunity for an LGBTQ student today. Henderson noted that though the LGTBQ community has made great gains for legal rights and social acknowledgement over the last 25 years, there are still communities in the US — especially religious communities — where homophobia runs rampant.
Henderson said he believes this intolerance stems in part from fundamentalist readings of certain Bible passages, and added that he hopes his scholarship will contribute to a growing number of religious scholars who contest intolerant readings of the Bible.
According to Jim Hackney DIV ’79, senior director of development at YDS, the school has a large active LGBTQ population, some members of which have been kicked out of other educational institutions for their sexual orientation.
“There are other seminaries around the nation where people who are out are not welcome, and we very much want members of that community to know that they are welcomed at Yale Divinity School,” Hackney said. “By having this scholarship for people who are looking to come to YDS that identify in that group, this is a very specific invitation to say, ‘We welcome you.’”
The $50,000 gift from Henderson and LaForce was matched by a contribution from the Yale Divinity Challenge, part of the University’s Access Yale Fundraising initiative, which is designed to encourage donations for minority-specific scholarships. The University’s contribution raised the initial principal of the endowment to $100,000.
The announcement at the student-led service came after three LGTBQ students shared stories about their experiences with coming out. Though students and faculty in the pews kept quiet in order to respect the solemnity of the service, they were visibly excited by the news, according to Michael Kurth DIV ’18, who was in attendance.
“To have that kind of prayer service together as a community was really impactful,” said Kurth.
Since the scholarship is self-identified, students need only indicate on their applications that they are LGBTQ in order to be eligible for the scholarship.