Valerie Pavilonis

On a cool afternoon in September, hundreds of rainbow-clothed people marched down Chapel Street. As they approached the New Haven Green, counterprotesters handed them coins printed with the Ten Commandments. They shouted Bible verses through megaphones: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.” The Pride marchers responded by chanting, “Love, love, love is love,” until the voices of the counterprotesters were drowned out. Ten of these marchers were Yale students wearing matching rainbow buttons. They were attending as members of Yale Progressive Christian Students, or YPCS.

Abby Langford ’22 is one of the group’s leaders. When she first arrived at Yale, Langford had set out to find a progressive Christian community. Growing up in a conservative Methodist church, she was taught the “non-affirming” view of queerness — that is, queerness goes against God’s intention for marriage, and acting on queer impulses is sinning against God, so God wants queer Christians to choose celibacy. At Yale, she wanted to find a space where she could “question fundamental theological problems.”

After trying several traditional campus ministries, she said she had difficulty finding one that made her comfortable. Then she found a church near campus that holds the “affirming” view, which sees no contradiction between following God and fully expressing one’s queerness. There, she met a pastor, the Rev. Vicki Flippin, and several students who were interested in starting a new campus ministry that adheres to progressive values like queer affirmation and feminism. 

YPCS entered a religious landscape at Yale that already included at least 21 Christian groups, representing a range of doctrines, purposes and gathering styles. To Langford and Flippin, YPCS filled a need as an explicitly progressively oriented Christian ministry, open to all students exploring faith. They said a Christian group like this felt especially necessary at the so-called “Gay Ivy,” a campus where more than a quarter of undergraduates identify as LGBTQ per annual surveys conducted by the News. This figure is far greater than the 4.5 percent of adults in the U.S. who identify as queer according to a 2017 Gallup poll.

Yale has several groups for students who identify as both religious and queer or questioning. Among them, Ichthys — named for the fish-like symbol first used by early Christians evading Roman persecution — was founded by Yale students five years ago as a space for queer Christians to work through challenges particular to their sexuality and faith. Kelsey Evans ’21, this year’s president, said that members share the basic view that queerness is compatible with the Christian faith. They discuss everything from premarital sex to navigating difficult family interactions. “Rather than just saying, ‘Oh, you can have both [identities],’ we discuss in a practical way, ‘Here’s how you can have both together,’” Evans said. 

Timothy White ’20, who led the group before Evans, said the group provides a space for queer people to process their traumatic experiences with the church — which he said are so common and complex that they could “fill libraries.” For instance, White said that when one member came out to her religious leader, “he compared her identity as a gay person with a pubescent fixation on inanimate household objects, saying both were just a phase.” Ichthys helped her confirm how absurd that comparison was, affirming her identity both in Christ and as a gay person. Discussions with Ichthys members, he said, made him feel safe in a context where “people can understand in a precise way what other people are going through. It’s been a deeply hopeful space.”

Both groups hope to engage with the community to represent queer affirmation and promote how it can be reconciled with Christianity. Langford emphasized that most of the counterprotesters at Pride were “doing it from the basis of being Christian.” She recalled the incident in early November on Yale’s campus when a street preacher shouted homophobic slurs and condemned passersby to hell under the pretense of Christianity. Langford pointed out how easy it would be for non-Christians, especially those in the LGBTQ community, to associate Christianity with hatred against queer people. “Being [at Pride] as a progressive Christian space changes the narrative of what Christianity is, not only to people outside the parade but also to people in the parade itself,” Langford said. 

Leading YPCS has given her the opportunity to instigate conversations with friends as well as the community. “In my residential college, I can tell people, ‘I’m part of a progressive Christian student group, and today we talked about being queer,’” she said. “And that changes things for people who might have a very limited view of what Christianity is. Not all Christians are anti-gay.”

‘How blessed am I?’

When I met Mario Andrade ’19, he arrived at Blue State on York Street one minute late and apologized repeatedly — he said a friend had been at his apartment to pray about his struggle to maintain and justify his celibacy. His round, stubbled face radiated a weary warmth. He explained that throughout his time at Yale and since graduation, he has tried and tried to find “loopholes” in the Bible, but he hasn’t been able to substantiate the affirming view. 

Andrade was in third grade when he first liked a boy. He kept his feelings to himself, thinking, “This is not what’s supposed to happen.” As he grew up, he continued ignoring his attraction to men.

Andrade and his best friend Justin — described under a pseudonym for anonymity — converted to Christianity at a summer church retreat after 10th grade. They cornered the speaker for an hourslong conversation. More than any theological answers he gave, Andrade was struck by the intensity of his love for these students he barely knew. “He hugged each of us at the end, with tears in his eyes, and there was just something in that hug, this power and this love,” he said. “Why does he care this much? It’s gotta be because there’s something else.” Andrade decided to commit to Christianity, and Justin followed suit.

In junior year, Justin came out to Andrade as gay. And in what was his first time confiding his sexuality to anyone, Andrade told him, “I know exactly how you feel.” He confessed something else too: He was attracted to his best friend. 

At first, they decided not to date out of fear of ostracization by their classmates — neither of them sensed a conflict between their Christianity and their sexuality. But as Andrade studied the Bible through the rest of high school, he began to reconsider. He eventually came to the difficult conclusion — the Bible is clear: “God’s ideals for marriage were already set up at the beginning,” he said, as a union between a man and a woman.

Even as he came to accept that view, he could find nothing in the Bible that explained why God would create people like him. Why would he define marriage and sex narrowly as between a man and a woman, then create so many people who could never enjoy intimacy? 

He wanted to explore these questions, but he did not join Ichthys. Most, if not all members, he said, believed in the affirming view, which he didn’t want to adopt without giving it enough thought. In addition, he was afraid of being ostracized for being skeptical of the affirming view before he could work through his concerns. “I would probably be branded as someone who was against my own kind,” he said. Instead, Andrade joined Beta Upsilon Chi, Yale’s Christian fraternity, as well as Yale Students for Christ, which holds weekly Bible studies. 

For two years, as he became closer to the brothers, he tried to muster the courage to come out to them. He knew it could ruin his friendships. What if hugs became off-limits? These guys were his closest friends at Yale, and he couldn’t lose them. 

One night in the fall of his junior year, he and his BYX big brother went out for pizza. As they sat on the curb outside afterwards, he struggled in silence, then finally squeaked the words out. For two minutes, his big brother was silent. “I think I just shot our friendship,” Andrade remembered thinking. Then, he said his big brother gently asked, “How can I support you?”

Andrade eventually came out to the rest of the fraternity, and from then on, the long, sleepless nights of grappling with his non-affirming stance and questioning God were no longer spent in solitude. His brothers’ friendship anchored him as he cried to God: “Why is this the case? Why don’t you give a better answer? This doesn’t make any sense. This seems so arbitrary.”

He felt comforted that his anger at God was shared. Many of the brothers had at one point felt deeply angered or betrayed by him. So had Jesus. “The person who had the most disappointment with God was Jesus,” he said. “He asked God to take the cross away from him, and heaven was silent.” While this didn’t alleviate Andrade’s pain or make it disappear, it reminded him that “it’s OK to be like, yeah this sucks, and just cry, and sit there.” His long nights of wrestling and mourning have persisted. “Once you’ve accepted the non-affirming view, then you’re left with the reality of it,” he said. “I will likely never be fully sexually fulfilled in the way I would like to be.”

In asking God why and reaching no clear answers, Andrade has “learned a lot of humility,” he said. “All of my questions are those ethereal ones that go straight to the core of humanity, and I will have no way to answer them until I see God face to face.”

Meanwhile, he said that in avoiding intimacy, the biggest lesson he’s learned is that “love hurts.” It hurts deeply to “open yourself up enough to let someone in,” then counteract your own attraction on a daily basis. But his friendship with the man he’s in love with right now means the world to him. “Regardless of how hard it is every day to see him, overall, how blessed am I?” he said. “I’m so thankful to have a friend that I love so much that it hurts.”

‘A need for clarity’

Although Ichthys came to be an instrumental part of his life, when Timothy White ’20 first arrived at Yale, he wasn’t interested in specialized groups like it. Rather, he was eager to find a general Christian ministry that believed in radical inclusion. He first joined the now-defunct InterVarsity ministry, where students came from a variety of theological backgrounds. They welcomed him, sexuality and all, and he felt like he had found a home. After a year, he said, he wanted to serve the group and God by taking a leadership position. He approached a staff member about it. “[He] graciously told me that InterVarsity’s theology was strictly non-affirming, but said that it could still work for me to be a leader,” he wrote in a 2019 blog post. “Confused, and wanting to make sure I understood exactly what that meant, I asked him what would happen if I started to date a boy while being a leader for InterVarsity. He paused for a moment, and then said, ‘Well, that probably wouldn’t work.’” 

White left the ministry feeling blindsided. He joined Ichthys soon after. Since then, White has advocated for clarity — for Christian groups to be clear about their policies regarding queer people. He was inspired by a crowdsourced website called Church Clarity, which at the time of publication has rated 3,631 churches across the country on whether they hire, ordain and marry queer people. It also gives them a “clear” or “unclear” rating for how accessible this information is from their websites. He wants Christian ministries at Yale to be transparent about whether they allow queer, non-celibate people in student leadership and on staff. This not only prevents students from being blindsided like he was at InterVarsity, but also opens the way for conversations about sexuality. “I can connect with someone with a different theological stance from me if we both agree on a need for clarity,” he said.

The Episcopal Church at Yale, the Luther House, and United Church on the Green have policy statements on LGBT inclusion on their websites, as does Yale Progressive Christian Students. Christian Union’s website clearly states its position that homosexuality is a form of sexual immorality, although it lacks a statement on any ensuing policy. But none of the other Christian groups listed on the Chaplain’s Office website offer any concrete position at all. Those like St. Thomas More and Chi Alpha lack a policy statement on queer student leaders, and neither responded to requests for comment. Yale Students for Christ’s website also lacks a statement — Sang Yung, its leader and a Chaplain’s Office affiliate, wrote in correspondence with the News that his approach is “intentionally non-policy driven on this and would want to walk with individuals sensitively and lovingly, wherever they’re coming from.” 

White said he has discussed the need for clarity with leaders of these campus ministries, and said they have been thoughtful in considering it. But he senses “a fear that with increased clarity will come increased criticism, especially at a campus as progressive as Yale.” 

Navigating Identity at the “Gay Ivy”

Yale’s culture tends to celebrate queerness and mock Christianity, putting queer Christians in a difficult place. “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with friends, acquaintances, people who are perplexed at the idea that I can be gay and Christian,” White said.

White said he has felt comfortable being gay at Yale, enjoying its “thriving scene and sheer number of queer people.” At the same time, he said, “There’s this weird distance between the general campus culture and queer inclusion and jokes about the Gay Ivy, and an understanding of the diversity of Christian life at Yale,” he said.

Alex Opsahl ’22, who identifies as bisexual, feels the same way. “I feel more comfortable being out and queer in Christian spaces than I do being open about my Christianity in very queer spaces,” she said. Her queer peers don’t explicitly condemn her faith, but they sometimes make offhand comments. Last semester, she overheard someone say, “I saw someone praying in the dining hall, and I felt worried for my rights.”

“It saddens me when people who have never experienced or known anything about Christianity just assume that the faith is inherently hateful, and that my Christianity must be a source of trauma for me and my queerness,” she said. “I think it’s true of a lot of people. But it’s not true for me.”

For Andrade, the strength of the queer presence at Yale was a constant reminder of the trauma in his decision to be celibate. “You don’t have to look very far to see two guys holding hands, and for me it was like, that’s what I want,” he said. “It was always there, I was always reminded of it.” 

At the same time, he offered a critique of Yale culture that seems to represent a crucial difference between the affirming and non-affirming views. “I think that Yale is a place where queerness is elevated to a point of being your entire identity,” he said. “For someone like me who says, no, Christ is my identity, not what I necessarily feel — that was really really hard.” 

For Andrade, the ability to say, “I am a beloved child of God, and also, I have same-sex attraction,” helps him not act on his sexuality since he sees it as not fundamental to who he is. On the flip side, queer Christians with the affirming view consider their queerness a part of their identities, which is then affirmed by God — “I, fundamentally a queer person, am a beloved child of God.” To them, queerness intrinsically includes the full expression of queer love, and it even intensifies connection to God. “For me, romantic intimacy with women is imaginative,” Opsahl said. “You can act in a more true expression of love, and it’s a very spiritually moving, godly experience.”

These personal decisions about stance and identity have concrete consequences for others. Counterprotesters heckle Pride marchers (“I hate that,” Andrade said), and at the extreme, the Westboro Baptist Church vitriolically protests weddings. Conversations between non-affirming Christians and their queer friends insinuate that they consider their friends’ behavior (and therefore, in the queer friends’ eyes, identity) to be evil. Protests in 2011 surrounding the Yale campus visit of Christopher Yuan, a non-affirming gay minister, threatened the ability of Christians with the non-affirming stance — including queer Christians — to discuss their theological views. But when I asked both Andrade and White about the implications of their views for others, they fell silent for a minute, then said they felt deeply uncomfortable asking others to change. 

“I never want to prescribe a particular way of living life onto another queer Christian,” White said. “I just want everyone to feel loved.”

Love is —

Langford said that through YPCS, she’s come to resonate with the idea that God is love. “The love I see in other people and in the world is how I experience God,” she said. Similarly, White said his friends and family’s support has communicated God’s love to him, and “the spring of 2015 when I came out was among the times in my life when I’ve felt most connected to God.” For Opsahl, romantic intimacy has taught her that “loving another person is a way of loving God’s whole creation,” she said. “Rather than just one line between two people, it’s a web of love.” 

Andrade said that his friends’ love for him, shown through presence and encouragement, have provided what he considers “the most tangible proof that God exists.”

Two weeks before we met at Blue State, Andrade had a long phone call with Justin and caught up. Since they became Christian together and came out to each other years ago, they have taken different paths. Justin holds the affirming view and has a boyfriend. Andrade doesn’t. He told his friend about just how hard it still was, how he was constantly struggling. “It would be so much easier to just give up,” he said. To walk away from the faith entirely, to date, to love with his body. 

As they talked, Andrade thought about their eight years of friendship, and how different they are. Andrade is emotional, Justin is not; Andrade sits with and struggles with things, Justin can move on from things quickly. And yet, feeling the weight of Justin’s love in his voice, Andrade saw that “his love for me stemmed from something far greater than even himself.” 

“Maybe this is God,” he thought. “When I’m just crying out in the darkness, maybe him just being there is God’s way of comforting me.”

His friends’ abundant love for him anchor him during his happiest and his hardest times, Andrade said. “Through them, I’ve seen glimpses of [Jesus’] love for me — this love that I crave. And Christ’s love is supposed to be even better than these glimpses.” 

His face softened into longing. “It’s like, wow. Whoa. What’s that going to feel like? Because this feels so good.”

Clarification, March 29: This article has been updated to better reflect Langford’s views. 

Isabella Zou |

Isabella Zou serves as co-editor in chief of the Yale Daily News Magazine. She previously worked as an associate editor and staff writer for the Magazine, writing features on faith and homelessness. Originally from Austin, TX, she is a rising junior in Timothy Dwight College majoring in ethnicity, race and migration.