LGBTQ Activism and Inequalities at Christian Colleges and Universities

Over the past decade, I have been conducting research on LGBTQ activism and policies at Christian universities. My book Gay on God’s Campus addresses why people join and commit to LGBTQ activist groups across Christian colleges and universities, as well as how LGBTQ activist groups impact both their campuses and their participants. Recent articles in Contexts, Sociology of Religion, and Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change explore how LGBTQ activist groups navigate campus debates over religion, gender, and sexuality. Other recent articles in Social Currents and Religions explain the presence of LGBTQ groups and/or inclusive non-discrimination statements across Christian colleges and universities in the United States, while articles in Socius and Sociological Spectrum account for the presence of discriminatory student handbook bans on “homosexual acts” and heteronormative residence life policies at Christian colleges and universities. Please contact me if you would like copies of any of these articles.

Avishai, Orit, Jonathan S. Coley, Golshan Golriz, and Dawne Moon. 2024. “How LGBTQ+ People are Creating Change in their Faith Communities.” Contexts 23(1): 24-29. (external link)

The general public tends to view religion as a source of oppression for LGBTQ+ people, but many socially conservative communities of faith are becoming more inclusive thanks to internal activism. We explore how LGBTQ+ people are drawing on religious teachings and practices to promote social change within their religious communities.

Coley, Jonathan S., Daniel R. Morrison, Lexie L. Taylor, Jessica L. Schachle-Gordon, and Gabby Gomez. 2023. “Gendered Organizations as Heterosexualized Organizations: The Case of Housing, Roommate, and Visitation Policies at Christian Colleges and Universities.” Socius 9: 1-17. (external link)

Gendered organization theory highlights the gendered character of organizations. Recent extensions of gendered organization theory show that gendered organizations are simultaneously “racialized,” “cisgendered,” and “classed.” However, prominent studies in this literature downplay the importance of sexuality to gendered organizations. Building on recent critiques of gendered organization theory, and innovating with the concept of heterosexualized organizations, we assess the centrality of sexuality to the gendering of organizations using the case of housing, roommate, and visitation policies at Christian colleges and universities. Specifically, we assess whether some Christian colleges and universities’ heteronormative belief that all students are (or should be) heterosexual is linked to their decision to maintain gendered housing, roommate, and visitation policies. Through logistic regression analyses of residence life policies across 609 Christian colleges and universities, we find that schools that maintain bans on so-called “homosexual behavior” tend to also maintain gendered residence life policies. This suggests that many gendered organizations are also heterosexualized organizations. Our study holds important implications for theories of organizational inequalities, as well as for research on gender, sexuality, and higher education.

Coley, Jonathan S. 2020. “Reframing, Reconciling, and Individualizing: How LGBTQ Activist Groups Shape Approaches to Religion and Sexuality.” Sociology of Religion 81(1): 45-67. (external link)

Past research reveals the multiple ways that people grapple with the connections between religious and sexual identities. Some people perceive religious identities to be in conflict with LGBQ identities, but others believe such identities to be compatible. Some people look to religious authorities for guidance in understanding the connections between religious and LGBQ identities, whereas others rely on strategies of religious individualism. What factors affect people’s approaches to understanding the connections between religious and sexual identities? Drawing on 77 interviews with participants in LGBTQ activist groups at four Christian colleges and universities, and employing Goffmanian insights, this article shows how LGBTQ activist groups’ different audiences inspire distinct approaches to understanding religion and sexuality. The study demonstrates that activist groups can powerfully shape understandings of seemingly disparate social identities and suggests a theoretical framework for future research.

Coley, Jonathan S. 2020. “Have Christian Colleges and Universities Become More Inclusive of LGBTQ Students Since Obergefell v. Hodges?” Religions 11(9), article 461. (external link)

Due to rapid changes in societal attitudes toward LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) people, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, Christian colleges and universities are experiencing more pressure to become inclusive of LGBTQ students. This article draws on U.S. Department of Education data on all four-year, not-for-profit Christian colleges and universities, as well as an original longitudinal dataset of LGBTQ student groups across Christian colleges and universities, to describe the landscape of LGBTQ student inclusion on Christian campuses before and after Obergefell v. Hodges. In 2013, two years before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, just under half (45%) of Christian colleges and universities had LGBTQ student groups. However, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision has evidently had little effect on holdouts: in 2019, the percentage of Christian colleges and universities that were home to LGBTQ student groups was only slightly higher (47%). Logistic regression analyses reveal that Christian colleges and universities that have recently become home to LGBTQ student groups were already predisposed to having LGBTQ groups in the first place, given that they are associated with social justice-minded denominations, have large student bodies, and have higher percentages of women students. The article’s findings hold implications for ongoing research on the status of LGBTQ people within Christian institutions.

Coley, Jonathan. 2018. Gay on God’s Campus: Mobilizing for LGBT Equality at Christian Colleges and Universities. The University of North Carolina Press. (order)

Although the LGBT movement has made rapid gains in the United States, LGBT people continue to face discrimination in faith communities. In this book, sociologist Jonathan S. Coley documents why and how student activists mobilize for greater inclusion at Christian colleges and universities. Drawing on interviews with student activists at a range of Christian institutions of higher learning, Coley shows that students, initially drawn to activism because of their own political, religious, or LGBT identities, are forming direct action groups that transform university policies, educational groups that open up campus dialogue, and solidarity groups that facilitate their members’ personal growth. He also shows how these LGBT activists apply their skills and values after graduation in subsequent political campaigns, careers, and family lives, potentially serving as change agents in their faith communities for years to come. Coley’s findings shed light on a new frontier of LGBT activism and challenge prevailing wisdom about the characteristics of activists, the purpose of activist groups, and ultimately the nature of activism itself.

Coley, Jonathan S. 2018. “Theologies of Exclusion: Christian Universities and Discrimination against Sexual Minorities.” Sociological Spectrum 38(6): 422-437. (external link)

In an era of rapidly evolving attitudes toward LGBT rights, why do some Christian colleges and universities continue to discriminate against lesbian, gay, and bisexual students? The most intuitive answer to this question might point to many religious traditions’ conservative teachings about same-sex relationships. Nevertheless, many schools associated with socially conservative religious traditions are actually inclusive of their sexual minority students. Building on recent insights from the literature on religion and the “culture wars,” and analyzing original data on student handbook bans on same-sex relationships and “homosexual behavior” across 682 Christian colleges and universities, I show that it is when schools are associated with individualist religious traditions that emphasize personal piety that conservative teachings on same-sex relationships are associated with discrimination against sexual minorities. The study holds implications both for research on the exclusion of sexual minorities in schools and theoretical debates on the relationship between religion and social injustice.

Coley, Jonathan S. 2017. “Reconciling Religion and LGBT Rights: Christian Universities, Theological Orientations, and LGBT Inclusion.” Social Currents 4(1): 87-106. (external link)

socialcurrentsWhy do some Christian colleges and universities approve LGBT groups and non-discrimination policies while others resist them? Scholars are beginning to develop models to explain LGBT inclusion in schools, but they have undertheorized the role of religion in facilitating or impeding LGBT inclusion. In this article, I draw from literature on religion and the “culture wars,” especially insights on religions’ theological orientations, to explain Christian colleges and universities’ inclusion of LGBT students. I show that communal orientations – theological emphases on social justice – strongly predict the adoption of LGBT groups and non-discrimination policies at Christian colleges and universities. By contrast, individualist orientations – theological emphases on personal piety – impede the adoption of such groups and policies. Importantly, I find little support for alternative explanations of Christian colleges and universities’ inclusion of LGBT students that focus on liberal or conservative teachings on same-sex relationships. Beyond bridging literatures on the political sociology of LGBT rights and religion and the culture wars, the article supports an emerging theoretical framework for understanding the role of religion in a wide range of social justice debates.

Coley, Jonathan S. 2014. “Social Movements and Bridge Building: Religious and Sexual Identity Conflicts.” Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change 37: 125-151. (external link)

rsmccSocial movement scholars have increasingly drawn attention to the process of “bridge building” in social movements – that is, the process by which activists attempt to resolve conflicts stemming from different collective identities. However, most scholars assume that social movements primarily attempt to resolve tensions among activists themselves, and thus that bridge building is a means to other ends rather than a primary goal of social movement activism. In this article, I challenge these assumptions through a case study of a “bridging organization” known as Bridge Builders, which sought as its primary goal to “bridge the gap between the LGBT and Christian communities” at a Christian university in Nashville, Tennessee. I highlight the mechanisms by which Bridge Builders attempted to facilitate bridge building at the university, and I argue that Bridge Builders succeeded in bridging (a) disparate institutional identities at their university, (b) “structural holes” between LGBT- and religious-identified groups at their university, and (c) oppositional personal identities among organizational members. As I discuss in the conclusion, the case of Bridge Builders has implications for literatures on bridge building in social movements, cultural and biographical consequences of social movements, and social movement strategy.