The LGBTQ+ community at Wheaton: student stories

By Elisabeth Stringer and Laura Howard

Junior John Mark Daniel is an RA, Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) student and Community Art major from Eden, North Carolina. He constantly reminds his friends to take care of themselves — he once handed out lavender oil to his HNGR cohort after a stressful meeting. He’s constantly working on creative projects and searching out the beauty in the world. And as someone who’s gay, he’s also a part of the LGBTQ+ community on campus.

Daniel and four other LGBTQ+ students sat down with us to talk about their experiences at Wheaton. These are glimpses into their stories.

Coming to Wheaton

Daniel, who grew up in a conservative Christian home, was initially reluctant to face his sexuality at Wheaton. “Because, you know, it’s the first time I ever left home,” he said of his first year here. “The last thing I wanted to dive into with all these other changes was my sexual identity.” Over the course of his time at Wheaton, he slowly began to open up to mentors and friends. “They all reacted in different ways,” Daniel remembered. “Some people just said ‘Oh!’ and then would just sit there in silence and try to think of a question to ask me.”

Senior Emily Paddon had a different experience. She realized she was bisexual when she found herself attracted to one of her female friends the week before finals her junior year. “So I kind of freaked out a lot,” she said. “I remember telling one of my friends. He was the first person I told, and I was just kind of scared.” Paddon’s friend assured her that her sexuality would not change their friendship, and after spending hours over Christmas break watching other people discuss their sexuality on YouTube, Paddon began to accept it and immediately began to come out to her friends. “I actually had a lot of insecurity about ,” Paddon remarked. “Like, you’re supposed to be in the closet for a while because that’s how everyone else’s story goes … and then I was like, ‘No, I don’t care, I’m happy and I don’t have any regrets.’”

Mary* knew she was bisexual coming into Wheaton. Since she grew up in a conservative environment in the South, she had been hopeful that at Passage she could talk about her sexuality and “kind of kickstart being more open at Wheaton” than she had at home. Before she had the chance to tell her story, however, the other women in her group had a conversation about the LGBTQ+ community that dissuaded her from sharing: “They just said a lot of very hurtful stuff that I don’t think they ever would have said to me if they knew that I was gay.” Mary is accustomed to “people very much assuming that I am straight,” whether at Passage or in the classroom or in her DSG. She feels it’s as if Wheaton community members think to themselves, “we’re all Christians, we’re all straight here,” and encountering this assumption is painful.

Every story we heard was different. “There are a lot of letters in the LGBTQIA+ acronym because there are a lot of different experiences,” Mary warned. “Please don’t take one person’s experience as a queer person to be the universal experience.

Experiences at Wheaton

“I have never felt normal here,” senior Jon Gonzalez shared when we asked about his experience on campus as a gay man. Gonzalez, an Art and Communication double-major from Austin, Texas, attempted to suppress his sexuality throughout high school. He came to Wheaton in part because he imagined Wheaton would be a place where he could continue to ignore it. “It wasn’t at all,” he said. “I had to come to terms with it. Wheaton was not the best place to do that; it made for a lot of obstacles.”

For Gonzalez, certain places on campus feel less safe than others. One of those places is Traber, where he lived during his first and second years at Wheaton. “, there’s a heavy emphasis on what it means to be a ‘man’ — put that in quotes,” he laughed. “I had to present myself in a certain way to be accepted.”

Despite the pain he’s suffered at Wheaton, Gonzalez remains grateful for the people and places that have welcomed him and invited him to flourish. Adams Hall has been one such place for him: “I can express myself through art there. It’s a safe place for me to ask questions, to be myself. It’s a place of liberation.”

Creating artwork has been a way that he’s been able to come to grips with his sexuality and tell his story. Gonzalez’s recent senior show, titled “THX4NTH” (Thank You for Nothing) featured pictures of him and his friends modeling clothing he made from plastic trash bags emblazoned with the words “thank you.” He explained, “I’ve often felt like trash . . . having been underestimated and reduced in a lot of ways and just kind of trampled on, and for me this project is about reclaiming dignity.”

As Gonzalez has stopped making attempts to hide his sexuality, he has also faced the threat of physical violence: “The other day an employee attacked me at Sam’s out of the blue based off of surface level assumptions — my voice, the way I look, knowing nothing about me — came at me with Scripture, and Public Safety wound up getting involved. He was later fired.”

It is encounters like these throughout his life that have contributed to Gonzalez’s difficulty to reconcile his faith and sexuality. In high school, Gonzalez remembered, “I would just ask God, ‘Why?’ I was so angry, like, this isn’t fair, I can’t control this! I hated myself. I had to stop thinking like that.” He now is more comfortable with his sexual identity, but has struggled to reconcile himself to the church. “A lot of how I have come to know and understand God has been out of total fear,” he explained. “I don’t want to abandon my faith, but it’s hard to have faith when you’re not really validated as a Christian and you’re kind of getting put in a box that is being shipped to hell.”

As we talked, Gonzalez seemed to surprise himself, realizing recent ways in which his understanding of God has improved. He named his Christian Thought class this semester as a place where he’s been able to reflect on the life of Jesus more positively. Gonzalez wishes others would view him with the love and understanding that he’s learned Christ has for him. “Jesus lived my pain and my suffering,” he said emphatically. “So that is reassuring and that is beautiful. But fades so quickly because I associate myself more with a sin and a crime than I do with the love of God — because I’ve felt more pressure and pain than I have love from the Church.”

Gonzalez is not the only LGBTQ+ student to feel unwelcome on campus. “Obviously seeing the stuff on the CPO board is hard,” Mary said, “even if it’s not directed toward you. No one ever wants to hear that no one wants you here.”

Teresa* echoed these sentiments. As a first-year bisexual student, Teresa came out to one of her Passage professors and found him a safe and helpful person with whom to discuss her story and theological questions. When asked about how her sexuality affects her experience on campus, Teresa said she feels that the reality of her being made in the image of God is often questioned in covert ways at Wheaton. Teresa recalled one chapel that prompted her to turn to Rebecca Meyer, ministry associate for care and counseling, and ask, “Rebecca, am I not in the image of God?”

Despite her feeling unwelcome in some places, Teresa has found community with other LGBTQ+ students, especially in Refuge, the group on campus run by Meyer dedicated to supporting such students. “Mostly it’s about processing how far we’ve come and where we’re at,” she described, smiling, “and reminding each other that you are very, very worthy, and you have come this far, and you are strong.” Though she’s still processing, Teresa’s at a point where she feels able to encourage other LGBTQ+ students. “I would say, it’s okay,” she said. “You are not broken. God doesn’t hate you. You are made in the image of God. You are worthy and you are loveable.”

Changing the conversation

While they identified positive aspects of life as an LGBTQ+ student at Wheaton, our interviewees were quick to point out areas that could change for the better.

Paddon proposed that the college could better communicate love to the LGBTQ+ community. “A common sentiment among the LGBTQ community is that, like, the allows us to be here, but do they really want us? And I think they do! I just think they do a really bad job communicating that.”

To begin with, Paddon wants the theological conversation to be expanded. “I really wish there were more opportunities just for queer students to tell their experiences,” she lamented. Though she recognizes the college’s official theological stance, Paddon would like to give students an opportunity to engage with affirming voices. (An “affirming” theological stance holds that God is not opposed to monogamous, consensual same-sex relationships). “It’s very problematic that we’re not allowed to have theologically affirming speakers here,” Paddon explained. “I think that’s kind of anti-liberal arts, and it doesn’t make sense. It would actually be to Wheaton’s advantage to let students learn about different perspectives while they’re here.”

Daniel pointed out a lack of conversation on campus — even among the LGBTQ+ community — about those who are transgender or genderqueer. He observed, “Gender identity isn’t even a conversation. The fact of the matter is that there are people on campus that are suffering that we don’t even talk about at all.”

Mary reminded us that the terms used in conversation are important. “Associating yourself with a label is not something everyone wants to do, and that’s definitely okay,” she said. “As someone who definitely does identify with the label ‘bisexual’ — and having that identification process be something that’s very important to my experience — it definitely is very frustrating and pretty invalidating to have someone say, well, you’re not allowed to use those terms.”

She also identified a need for conversation about LGBTQ+ issues to go beyond the LGBTQ+ community. “I think a lot of straight people go through Wheaton without having to think about these issues. What better place to begin discussing these ideas than the college environment — and a Christian college environment?” She explained, “This needs to be something you think about regardless of your sexual orientation.”

Looking Forward

Each student we interviewed expressed a desire to use their experiences as sexual or gender minorities for the sake of other LGBTQ+ students on campus. Daniel has become more open about his sexuality partly because he remembers the  encouragement of seeing older students who were out as part of the LGBTQ+ community when he was a first year student. “I’m not ashamed of being honest about my story and being authentic to who I am and just being empowered by my own story,” Daniels said about where he ended up. “And that is something that is immensely healing.”

Mary testified to the tension she experiences as she feels both the desire to come out “for my sake and for the sake of other queer people on campus” as well as the threat that she poses to herself the more open she becomes: “I have to acknowledge that still is going to be opening me up to receiving a lot more backlash and putting me in a lot more vulnerable position with some of these people who do and say pretty insensitive stuff.”

Gonzalez urged closeted students to come out and to find a community that will love and support them, though he acknowledged that being an LGBTQ+ student at Wheaton can be difficult. “Don’t make sense of yourself from the institution, make sense of yourself from relationships with your friends,” he advised. “Don’t construct an idea of yourself from hatred and bigotry, make sense of yourself from the way that Jesus Christ lived his life.”

Our interviewees had advice for straight students, too. “Give me the chance just like anyone else,” Gonzalez said. “Don’t limit me and strip me of what makes me human because of this one thing.” Mary wishes that straight students would create and find spaces to learn about the LGBTQ+ community in order to alleviate the pressure of teaching from those in the community. She also reminded us, “Everyone here is either Christian or coming from a Christian background … It’s exhausting, how much we’ve heard these arguments.”

Each student encouraged straight students to listen. “If someone ever comes out to you or mentions it to you, don’t brush it off like it’s nothing,” Daniel advised. “Ask them how they’re doing, ask them what it’s like, ask them about their story. I think that that’s one way that we can humanize the story a little bit on campus.”

*Name changed for privacy reasons.

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