Growing up gay or transgender in a traditional Christian environment is not an easy process. Most young adults who find themselves attracted to members of their own sex must first handle their own internalized fear and disgust of homosexuality. If they do come to terms with this and come out to their family, they often face additional disapproval and hostility. In some cases, this culminates in losing their place at home or in being sent to therapists who promise to make them straight, despite widespread rejection and debunking of these practices.
For many individuals, an understanding of their own sexuality first occurs in college, when separated from parents and given more personal freedom. However, some colleges are more tolerant of this process than others. Patrick Henry College, a Christian liberal arts school in Virginia known for its highly conservative bent, is not a shining example in this arena. PHC’s chancellor and founder, Dr. Michael Farris, recently made headlines when he stated that homosexuals could not exist at the school, because they “could not sign our honor code…Part of the honor code is to be sexually pure.”
It seems Farris had overlooked the existence of an independently operated blog, QueerPHC, that exists to support queer PHC students and alumni. And, as one of the blog’s contributors, Kate Kane (contributors generally write under pseudonyms), noted, “There’s a stark difference in the definition of our terms. In the eyes of those like Farris, homosexuality is just a sexual action or sexual lifestyle. For us, it’s an orientation, a marker of personal identity…In a student body where there are so many virgins, why is it difficult to believe in the existence of a gay virgin?” The implication is that gay students could easily exist, closeted and celibate, at PHC and that the school is failing to address this population in a constructive manner.
This failure is epitomized by PHC officials’ reaction to the QueerPHC blog. It has been blocked on campus computers and students are forbidden to access it. QueerPHC warns readers against accessing the blog on their personal laptops and cell phones while on the campus Internet network and provides instructions on how to clear Internet browsing history. It is unacceptable that students have to live in fear of punishment simply for reading a blog, no matter their sexual orientation. And while they are legally able to do so as a private institution, PHC is severely abusing its students’ right to freedom of speech.
This became even more clear on December 1 when Farris threatened on Facebook to sue QueerPHC. His post claimed that QueerPHC’s use of the name Patrick Henry College was a violation of copyright laws and that the college planned to initiate legal action against the blog and discover the identities of the pseudonymous bloggers.
QueerPHC called Farris’ bluff in their response, “The demand that we stop using the school’s name is really a thinly disguised demand that we shut up.” Luckily the threats were short-lived, and Farris posted a followup withdrawing his previous post and stating, “While we believe in the inappropriate nature of the use of our trademarked name, we believe that litigation is not appropriate.”
For now QueerPHC will continue to provide a forum for PHC students to discuss issues of sexuality. However, the culture of intimidation and censorship at this school is highly problematic. Universities are intended to foster discussion, generate new ideas, and prompt self-discovery. Even classes at PHC often force students to question their own beliefs. Therefore the school’s melodramatic response to an independent blog is inconsistent with both the purpose of pursuing higher education and the ethos of PHC.
In addition, students’ beliefs are unlikely to be permanently solidified by a culture of censorship and exclusion, as opposed to one of discussion. PHC can deny that homosexuality exists on its campus, but they can’t deny its existence outside of campus. Simply avoiding discussion of the issue leaves students ill equipped to face major political and cultural issues of their generation. The de facto censorship employed by the school is particularly ironic considering PHC’s strong emphasis on legal advocacy, personal liberty, and First Amendment freedoms that allow the school to exist.
LGBT students might find themselves at PHC for a variety of reasons. Perhaps parents will only fund a traditional Christian education, or perhaps they do not discover their sexuality until after their enrollment. These students should be able to have access to a blog that is independent of the school and fields a diversity of opinions about homosexuality in a safe online space. Additionally straight PHC students should be allowed to read websites that provide insight on contemporary political and cultural issues, even if some of the opinions expressed differ from those of the school’s leadership. That is the role that QueerPHC fills. It provides a much needed dialogue, rather than a diatribe, on the issue of homosexuality. Patrick Henry College should consider doing the same.