Cupped hands hold buttons with the pride flag and raised fists.

In God’s Own Image: LGBT+ Community History at Lipscomb University

Growing up queer in evangelical Christian Southern culture is a unique experience. Having attended the same Christian K–12 school my entire life, I didn’t have access to the tools I needed to understand my gender or sexuality until relatively recently. Maybe I would have been able to do more of that in college had I not gone to a conservative Christian university. But in 2015 I chose to do just that, as many queer people have done before me and continue to do today.

Queer people choose to enroll in Christian colleges and universities for a number of reasons – strong programs, desire for Christian education, or family pressure. What became clear to me in college, though, which I didn’t necessarily realize in high school, was that I would not be the only queer person there. By the fall of 2015, my freshman year, LGBT+ students had begun to engage in overt activism, asserting their right to occupy space in a school that still prohibited their very existence in its student handbook.

Flag depicting name and logo of Lipscomb University.
Lipscomb University is a small Christian liberal arts college in Nashville, Tennessee. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Lipscomb University is a small Christian liberal arts college in Nashville, Tennessee. It has held a conservative faith tradition rooted in the Churches of Christ since its 1891 founding. As such, it has historically left no room for LGBT+ students, faculty, or staff. While the school has shifted in its treatment of the community over time, to date it still refuses to affirm queer students or allow them to form a student organization, which student activists have pushed for in recent years.

For my part, I chose to move through most of my undergraduate career making as little noise as possible – meeting up occasionally with LGBT+ friends for our underground gay brunches and pizza parties, but certainly not trying to push queer rights issues at the school or put myself out there as any kind of activist.

In graduate school at Middle Tennessee State University, however, I learned for the first time that LGBT+ history is a real field that historians study. I still had friends at Lipscomb, and after my own experience there I started to wonder what the LGBT+ community at that school had looked like 50, 20, or even just 10 years earlier. Had LGBT+ students always had an underground student group like the one I had been involved with? What was the climate on campus like for queer students in earlier decades? Did the administration even talk about issues of sexuality? After a lifetime of trying to hide my own queerness in Christian schools, I began to realize that there is a lot of value in sharing these stories. So, for my thesis research, I started an oral history project with LGBT+ alumni and faculty of Lipscomb.

The first person I spoke with for the project was Doug Oliver, who graduated from Lipscomb in the late 1970s. I drove to his house in Birmingham, just a few hours from my home in Murfreesboro, and we hit it off immediately. Later that day, when we went to a restaurant for lunch, a newscaster on one of the televisions running in the background reported that COVID-19 had come to the United States. It didn’t seem that serious at the time, but not long after I got back to Tennessee, the world went into lockdown.

The next nineteen interviews I did were all over Zoom or over the telephone. While not ideal, this method created a new way for me to connect with people and form a community. As I talked with these alumni, it became apparent that there was no real sense of LGBT+ community at Lipscomb until around the mid-2010s. However, even though they were denied community while they were students, many of the older graduates have since reclaimed it. John Bridges, who graduated in the early 1970s, gave me over a dozen names to talk to after our interview. Even though none of them knew each other were gay while they were students at Lipscomb, they had become part of a larger community in the time since. Many have been important players in Nashville’s LGBT+ community for decades, serving in government and ministerial roles, raising money for HIV/AIDS charities, and fostering a sense of acceptance of queer people within the broader local community. Even though Lipscomb had been able to prevent any sense of queer community from forming on their campus, they could not erase that need altogether.

My project also gave people a chance to reconnect in a time of intense isolation. COVID-19 brought social life to a sudden and jarring halt, right as this work was beginning. At a time when most of us were feeling disconnected, both from ourselves and from the outside world, this project gave those of us who participated something bigger than all of us to connect to and connect through. Bridges told me he was having a great time reconnecting with old friends as he told them about the project, and I also was able to connect with new people and old friends alike.

Growing up queer in a conservative Southern context usually means that older role models are hard to come by. Young people are not given space to explore the possibility that they may be anything other than cisgender and heterosexual. People in their churches and local communities work to shield them from the very existence of queer people, unless warning against lifestyles they deem to be sinful. I myself didn’t know any older LGBT+ adults until I was in my twenties. Much like those LGBT+ students who attended Lipscomb when it was unsafe to be “out” even to close friends, I went through middle and high school without disclosing my bisexuality to almost anyone. Since graduating from our Christian K–12, a number of my high school friends have also come out as queer – despite the fact that none of us talked about it while we were in that hostile environment. Clearly, LGBT+ people crave community and will seek it out when they are in a position to safely do so – even if they had previously been in an environment where being involved in such a community was unacceptable.

A person holds a sign reading "Trans Students are Everywhere."
“LGBT+ people crave community and will seek it out when they are in a position to safely do so.” (Marcher at Southern Maine Pride parade, 2010, courtesy Sam T)

I will always be thankful for the connections I have made through doing oral history with the LGBT+ people who came before me at Lipscomb. I hope that recording these stories, engaging with these community members, and establishing these connections will force decision-makers at Lipscomb to recognize that LGBT+ students have always been at the school, have been wronged by the administration, and deserve better treatment moving forward. Personally, I gained a keen awareness of how events that happened before I got to Lipscomb shaped my own experience there. Rather than having a vague idea that other LGBT+ people must have gone to Lipscomb in the years and decades before I did, I now know their faces, names, and stories. They moved the needle for me to have a better experience there than they had, just as those who are there now are moving it for those who come after them.

This project started as thesis research, but it has grown so much bigger. For the first time, LGBT+ people are able to state unequivocally that they have always existed at Lipscomb and at other Southern Christian universities. But not much else has changed at Lipscomb since this project began. Only a handful of people on campus know about these interviews, and those who do are not making policy decisions on how to improve the lives of LGBT+ students. A proposed LGBT+ student group has now been stuck in the pipeline for nearly two years, being neither officially rejected nor accepted by the university. At the same time, Lipscomb is one of several Christian universities named in a lawsuit recently filed against the US Department of Education, stating that the schools’ failure to protect gender and sexual minorities from discrimination violated Title IX. Lipscomb and the other schools have claimed a religious exemption to Title IX rules protecting LGBT+ students, but the lawsuit argues that this is unconstitutional. Whether real change is coming soon or not, I hope that this project will show current LGBT+ students that they are part of a community that has always existed and always persisted at Lipscomb and schools like it.

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