How College Chaplains Became Vanguards For LGBTQ Acceptance On Campus

Marchers carry a large rainbow flag during the annual Pride parade in Portland, Maine. Photo by Mercedes Mehling/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — It was a little after 10 p.m. on a Monday night 40 years ago, when the Rev. Sue Anne Steffey Morrow, assistant dean of the chapel at Princeton University, heard voices from the café in the basement of Murray-Dodge Hall, home to the Office of Religious Life. Intrigued, she followed the voices downstairs to a dimly lit corner of the café, where a group of seven students looked at her with stunned expressions.  

“They were gay students who met secretly after campus hours, and they had no name, which was symbolic to their invisibility on campus, and their fear of being called out,” said Morrow, now the school chaplain at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey.

“They were so surprised when I introduced myself and asked how I could help them,” said Morrow. “Why would the dean of religious life possibly help them?”  

The Rev. Sue Anne Steffey Morrow. Photo courtesy of Lawrenceville School

The Rev. Sue Anne Steffey Morrow. Photo courtesy of Lawrenceville School

That was 1981, the early dawn of the AIDS era. Over the next few years, Morrow worked closely with Princeton’s dean of student life, as well as an array of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff to bring visibility to LGBT students on campus. She found them a space of their own and hired an intern from Princeton Theological Seminary to manage the space and host LGBT activities, a post that evolved into a full-time professional position in 2001, which became known as the LGBT student services coordinator.

In 1989, Morrow founded an annual “Gay Jeans Day,” on which students who were LGBT allies dressed in jeans to show their support and worked with students to foster activism aimed at getting the national and local government to help in the fight against AIDS.

In 1996, she hosted the first same-sex wedding at the University Chapel — an august neo-Gothic building at the center of campus that belies its modest name — much to the chagrin of conservative students, alumni, and trustees.  
“The core message of the Christian gospel is about loving each other and lifting each other up, and that seemed just part of who we were as Office of Religious Life,” said Morrow. “Creating equal, just, safe spaces was then, and now, a part of who I am as a minister and pastor.”  

W{holy} Queer logo. Courtesy image

W{holy} Queer logo. Courtesy image

Forty years later, even as some religious colleges continue to seek religious exemption from anti-LGBTQ discrimination laws, it’s common for the office of religious life on American campuses to be a place where LGBTQ students continue to turn to for support. 

At Yale University, the university chaplain’s office joins with the office of LGBTQ resources and the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life to host W{holy} Queer, a monthly series where students meet to discuss the intersection between their queer and religious identities.

“Initiatives like these are happening on campuses across our country in different ways, different forms,” said Maytal Saltiel, associate university chaplain at Yale and president of the Association for Chaplaincy and Spiritual Life in Higher Education. 

“More and more people are recognizing the need to fulfill these spaces for students who come from diverse faith and nonfaith backgrounds, gender identities and sexual orientations, because that’s what makes them a whole person,” Saltiel added.  

Maytal Saltiel. Photo via Yale

Maytal Saltiel. Photo via Yale

Saltiel believes it is important for chaplains to talk about all that matters to a person, including sexual orientation, because “they are matters of the heart and soul, and that’s what people come to chaplains to talk about.”  

At some universities, however, efforts on behalf of LGBTQ students by offices of spiritual and religious life still meet with skepticism. 

In 2018, the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at Duke University helped create an intersectional and interfaith space for students to discuss faith and sexuality, which grew out of a Presbyterian campus ministry student group known as Liberating the Faith, now known as the Duke Queer and Trans Christians Discussion Group.  

“Honestly, it wasn’t so successful, and we ended up losing people from the group,” says Angel Collie, assistant director of the center, who was a facilitator of Liberating the Faith.  

Collie said that students who came from historically conservative Christian backgrounds often found it difficult to be questioning their gender and sexuality while encountering people of diverse faiths for the first time. “It was almost a little too much for them,” Collie explained.  

A member of the LGBTQ community himself, Collie said he understands the hesitancy, which he said comes from a genuine place of hurt that LGBTQ people can develop in conservative religious spaces.  

“At times it is just as hard to be a person of faith within queer and trans communities as it is to be a queer trans person within some communities of faith,” said Collie. “The reality of the harm and the trauma caused in the past means that there is still a lot of work to be done in real concrete ways.” Putting out welcome signs or simply calling yourself inclusive is often not enough, he said; rather, people must be willing to undergo change by exploring both the sacred and queer identity.

Angel Collie. Photo via Duke

Angel Collie. Photo via Duke

Despite the tensions, Collie said faith communities on campus are making a lot of progress in becoming more inclusive and in accepting of the intersection of faith and sexuality.  

At Duke, he said, they “have really been working to brand themselves as a welcoming and inclusive environment through the influence that they have.”   

He has equal hopes that LGBTQ people can come to trust religion. Asked what he wanted LGBTQ people to know, Collie said: “I would say that there are spaces for you. There are people who have journeyed through similar paths. And you are not alone.” 

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

Thirty-two percent of vaccinated Americans reported in June that a faith-based approach made them more likely to get vaccinated, according to the survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).   
As the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. echoed Theodore Parker, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Let’s bend it together.
In both my work as an interfaith leader and a dancer, rethinking is all about opening our minds, asking questions, and having conversations.
Some U.S. churches have been reckoning with this activity for years through ceremonies, apologies and archival investigations, while others are just getting started.
A global study of the communication patterns of 1.3 million workers during the global lockdown showed the average workday increased by 8.2% during the pandemic, and the average number of virtual meetings per person expanded by almost 13%.
Across Missouri, hundreds of pastors, priests and other church leaders are reaching out to urge vaccinations in a state under siege from the delta variant. Health experts say the spread is due largely to low vaccination rates — Missouri lags about 10 percentage points behind the national average for people who have initiated shots.
The solution, said Chris Palusky, president and CEO of Bethany Christian Services, is “the loving care of a family, not another orphanage.” He pointed to Scripture passages that say God sets the lonely in families and call on Christians to care for those who have been orphaned.
The following interview features Debra Fraser-Howze, founder and president of Choose Healthy Life, an initiative that fortifies community infrastructure to better address the pandemic in Black communities. The interview was conducted by Shauna Morin for IFYC; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The seven monks have been clearing brush from around the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and running a sprinkler system dubbed “Dharma rain,” which helps keep a layer of moister around the buildings.
Over 800 Muslim Americans are expected to attend the family-focused event at the Green Meadows Petting Farm in Ijamsville, Maryland, making it one of the larger such gatherings around the country in the era of COVID-19.
Besides demanding equitable distribution of vaccines, the Interfaith Vigil for Global COVID-19 Vaccine Access called on the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rights for vaccine manufacturing in order to enable more countries to produce COVID-19 vaccines domestically.
Eid al-Adha, or the “Feast of Sacrifice,” is typically marked by communal prayers, large social gatherings, slaughtering of livestock and giving meat to the needy.
Our Lady of La Vang is said to have appeared in a remote rainforest in the late 1700s to a group of Catholics fleeing persecution in Vietnam.
This article is part of a series called Faith in the Field that explores responses to Covid-19—including vaccination efforts—within different faith communities. 
Yet the debate about the vaccine in Tennessee is not solely a debate about science. Rather, I believe the vaccine debate is also a referendum on our public capacity to embrace vulnerability.
The study found that while there are many promising signs that students perceive support for their RSSIs on campus, there is also considerable room for improving welcome, particularly for students whose RSSIs are a minority.
Coronavirus deaths among clergy are not just a Catholic problem, said Andrew Chesnut, chair of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, with faith leaders across denominations having elevated exposure rates as “spiritual front-line workers” ministering to the sick and dying in hospitals and nursing homes.
Legislation legalizing human composting has encountered religious resistance from the Catholic Church.
From the 26th of November, 2020, a farmers protest has been in existence on the outskirts of Delhi, India’s capital city. For the past eight months, farmers in the tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, have been fighting three laws that threaten the future of agriculture in the country.
Sivan and I feel that it is crucial to work for increased vaccination rates, particularly with more transmissible and potentially more deadly variants emerging across the country and throughout the world.
We made calls to friends, disseminated flyers, engaged in social media marketing, partnered with faith-based communities, and engaged the local health department to encourage members of our community to come to our upcoming clinic and get vaccinated.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.