Combing through prayer requests in a Wheaton College chapel in 2010, then-junior Benjamin Matthews decided to do something "absurdly unsafe."
He posted a letter on a public forum bulletin board near students' post office boxes. In the letter, he came out as gay and encouraged fellow gay Christian students - some of whom had anonymously expressed suicidal plans in a pile of the prayer requests - to contact him if they needed help.
In a student body of 2,400 undergraduates in the suburbs of Chicago, at what is sometimes called the Harvard of evangelical schools, Matthews said that 15 male students came out to him. Other students seemed somewhat ambivalent about his coming out, he said.
No one told him he was wrong or needed to change, Matthews said some students were obviously uncomfortable with someone who would come out as gay and remain a Christian.
"I don't think most Wheaton students knew what to do because they've been given 'love the sinner, hate the sin' rhetoric, but they don't know how that plays out in real life," said Matthews, who graduated in 2011. "They would mostly just listen, nod and say, 'Yeah man, that's hard.'"
As is the case at many evangelical colleges, Wheaton students sign an agreement to not have sex outside of marriage, including "the use of pornography ... premarital sex, adultery, homosexual behavior and all other sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage."
On campus, the college created an official group in February for students to explore questions of gender identity and sexual orientation. The group is intended as a "safe place for students who have questions about their sexual orientation or gender identity," where students may self-identify as LGBTQ.
But cultural and political changes have created tensions for the academic and student life environment. As more mainline denominations ordain openly gay clergy and more states pass same-sex laws, some gay evangelicals -- and their allies - are openly deviating from Wheaton's official and long-held positions. Well-known Christian author Rob Bell, a graduate of Wheaton, came out in favor of gay marriage in mid-March.
OneWheaton, a group unaffiliated with the college, wants to offer an alternative view on homosexuality from that of the evangelical school. The group, which is not explicitly religious, wants GLBT students to feel affirmed in their sexuality, acting as a support network for students struggling with their sexual identity, whether they choose to be openly gay or whether they choose to remain celibate. But leaders of the group say that gay Christians do not need to be celibate to retain their religious identify.
"For those of you feeling alienated, it gets better," says OneWheaton's founding statement, signed by about 700 GLBT and straight, alumni, echoing Dan Savage's national "It Gets Better" campaign for gay youth. "Your desire for companionship, intimacy and love is not shameful. It is to be affirmed and celebrated just as you are to be affirmed and celebrated."
A widespread question
Wheaton is hardly the only evangelical college that's seeing a growing spectrum of responses toward homosexuality among students, alumni and staff.
Last year, a group at Biola University in southern California came out with posters and a website called Biola Queer Underground. The group describes itself as "like-minded LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) students and allies who have formed a private underground community in which we share our life struggles, as well as our love and support for one another." Biola then issued a "statement on human sexuality" saying, "God's design for marriage and sexuality is the foundational reason for viewing acts of sexual intimacy between a man and a woman outside of marriage, and any act of sexual intimacy between two person of the same sex, as illegitimate moral options for the confessing Christian."
Groups from at least two Christian schools, Eastern University in Pennsylvania and George Fox University in Oregon, have formed OneEastern and OneGeorgeFox, which launched public websites in 2012.
About 200 LGBT and straight alumni from California's evangelical Westmont College co-signed a letter to the student newspaper suggesting they experienced "doubt, loneliness and fear due to the college's stance on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues."
Many Christian schools have different regional, historical and denominational ties that keep issues related to sexuality complex and keep these institutions from responding monolithically.
Wheaton's well-known alumni include evangelist Billy Graham, former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and former George W. Bush speechwriter Mike Gerson. To come out at the college, OneWheaton's organizers say, is to risk losing a network of fellow-minded alumni.
"Part of OneWheaton is showing that while people are risking their networks, they'll have people they can turn to," said OneWheaton spokeswoman Kristin Winn, who came out six months after graduating in 2007.
The married-sex-only agreement that Wheaton students and faculty sign is part of the college's Community Covenant, which says that students agree the Bible condemns "sexual immorality, such as the use of pornography, premarital sex, adultery, homosexual behavior and all other sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage between a man and woman." Few students self-identify as gay, and if they do, it has different implications based on their expressed beliefs and behavior. Students can self-identify as gay, but college officials consider each student on a case-by-case basis if it comes into question.
"What matters is the moral understanding of the person and how that matches with our institutional identity and the moral behavior that flows from the understanding. There's no formula to how this gets applied," said Wheaton's Provost Stan Jones, a psychologist who has written several books on sexuality.
Students who openly deviate from or openly advocate for deviation from the covenant may be dismissed from the school, Jones said.
Alumni say some gay students have been asked to leave or been counseled to leave Wheaton. No member of Wheaton would be asked or counseled to leave this institution on the basis of sexual orientation alone, Jones said, and he is not aware of any cases where people were dismissed only because of sexual orientation.
Jones said it would be difficult to say whether a student who signed OneWheaton's statement would be in open disagreement with the covenant, though he is not aware of any student who has left or been dismissed over involvement with the group. "We're not in a rush to show people the door," Jones said. "We want Wheaton College to be a community where people can wrestle with these issues."
The balance, college officials say, is between preserving the theological integrity of the school while leaving room for questions.
"Articulating orthodox Christian theological beliefs and moral convictions itself is and ought to be an expression of grace," said Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton, explaining the college's stance on sexual behavior in response to OneWheaton's emergence. "Those theological principles and moral guidelines are an expression of God's character and the best way to live."