With her pixie cut purple hair and easy mischievous smile, Alyssa Walter looks like the new generation of Bible study leaders. Folded up in an armchair in a dimly lit dorm room in Erickson Hall at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, with a printout of Bible verses resting on her knee, Walter reads from the Book of Esther, using different voices for different characters.
When she is finished, discussion ensues, both related and unrelated to anything in the chapter. Why is Esther mentioned so few times in her own book? What gender is God? What number are you on the Kinsey scale?
Welcome to Queer Bible Study.
The three-member Queer Bible Study is one of eight studies within the UMBC chapter of InterVarsity (IV), a nationwide interdenominational Christian collegiate ministry that is meant to build a faith-based community through reflection and student service. Walter, a member of InterVarsity since 2016, began the LGBTQ/SSA — Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Same-Sex Attracted — Bible study in 2018 because she wanted to help other queer, or non-heterosexual, Christians find the space to be themselves. “My mind is still blown that it even is allowed to exist because InterVarsity as a whole can be confusing to navigate as a queer person,” she said.
Like many Christian denominations and student organizations, InterVarsity officially promotes a “hate the sin, love the sinner” attitude toward homosexuality. In 2016, the organization circulated an internal position paper titled “Theology of Human Sexuality” for InterVarsity staff meant to provide a theological framework for marriage, sex and same-sex relationships. However, in its early stages, the paper only addressed the queer community and same-sex relationships. Some staff members found this particularly stigmatizing, though, and the resulting paper expanded to include IV’s beliefs on all aspects of sexuality.
The revised paper takes three of its 20 pages to discuss same-sex attraction, and while it states IV’s is mission to create a “community of grace toward people with all kinds of attractions,” it ultimately “restricts sexual expression to a committed marriage relationship between a husband and wife.”
When the paper was leaked to the public, the backlash — including a report in Time Magazine that incorrectly stated IV would be firing staff members who disagreed with the statement — led to IV doubling down on their beliefs in a press release which explained that their stance on same-sex relationships had not changed over the 75 years of the organization’s existence. Rather, IV was simply reiterating its position on sexuality so that its staff members would be reminded of what the organization stood for.
Greg Jao, the Senior Assistant to the President and Director of Executive Office Communications & External Relations for InterVarsity, says that the paper was released to staff as a part of a larger conversation surrounding “sexual ethics,” which began in 2012 when several student focus groups called for help addressing queer issues. After the revised position paper was released, IV conducted an internal study, calling on staff members of all backgrounds and sexual identities to engage with and comment on the paper. The organization did ask staff members who disagreed with the revised paper to leave the staff, he says, but no one was forced to resign. Around ten people on the national staff left IV, and only two of them, according to Jao, were queer themselves.
For Jao, the conversation “made everyone more acutely aware of the church’s failures. I’m so aware of the ways that the church — particularly the evangelical church — has been hateful and hurtful to the LGBTQI community,” he says. Nonetheless, he — and the organization he helps lead — are uncompromising in the belief that homosexual activity is morally wrong, reiterating the traditional Christian view that people who are attracted to the same sex are not inherently sinful but should remain celibate.
“Let’s not pretend we don’t believe what we believe,” Jao says. “But let’s also welcome people who disagree,” he continues. “Let’s engage.”
But engagement can create painful conflicts for queer Christian students. When Walter first began the Queer Bible Study group at UMBC two years after the position paper was released, she found it difficult to talk about her personal beliefs without feeling like she was betraying InterVarsity — and at one point, it almost drove her to quit. Her encounters with IV members who agreed with the organization’s official stance left her feeling alienated and confused about the possibility of balancing her membership in the organization with her sexuality.
A conversation with Megan Collins, one of three part-time IV campus staff members, following an off-campus leadership conference, helped her to feel more comfortable with her own leadership position in IV at UMBC. “Megan just said ‘you believe what you believe,’” said Walter. “And I almost started crying.”
Collins, who began working for IV full-time in 2014, has supported the Queer Bible Study group from its inception. An UMBC alum, Collins said that her own understanding of queer Christians evolved as she witnessed LGBTQ friends struggle with their faith during her undergraduate studies. “It was really painful for me to see the ways they felt like they didn’t belong within our fellowship,” she said, eyes watering. “There’s been a need [for a Queer Bible Study] for a really long time.”
Though many queer people may feel that they might not belong within Christianity, Collins believes that there are just not enough spaces to explore the Bible or the Christian faith from the queer lens. “For some people, [the LGBTQ/SSA Bible study] actually helped them to remain in the fellowship,” Collins said. “In a lot of church spaces, there’s not places to talk about being queer.”
Coming Out As a Queer Christian
Walter came out as bisexual over Facebook on Feb. 25, 2018, almost a month after she had founded the Queer Bible Study group at UMBC. Then a sophomore, Walter felt that she could not lead queer Christians without being completely out herself, and her ensuing Facebook post garnered 137 likes and over 25 comments of support and congratulations. “It was one very anxious evening,” Walter said, “but it was only one evening at the end of it.”
Though she first knew she was bisexual when she was 14 years old and a freshman in high school, it took Walter nearly four years to reconcile her bisexuality with her Christian faith. She stopped going to church, even though she still believed in Christianity, and she tried her best to separate her religion and her sexuality, something she continued into her freshman year of college.
“It felt like I was trying to put my life into boxes,” Walter said. “I was so tired.” She came out to another IV member her first semester at UMBC, who helped her realize that her sexuality did not have to exist separately from her religious beliefs.
For Jesse Christian, also a member of the Queer Bible Study group, coming out as a lesbian offered the same catharsis that it gave Walter. Christian was 16 when she first admitted to herself that she liked girls. She prayed over whether to tell her parents and remembers feeling a deep sense of certainty over the choice to come out. It was one of the first moments that she remembers feeling that God was real and that God had a plan for her. “It was very freeing [coming out],” she said. “I didn’t have to be scared to be out of the closet.”
Though UMBC’s Queer Bible Study has given Walter and Christian a space where they feel comfortable talking about being queer on campus, IV’s regional events and conferences may not always overtly address sexuality. Nevertheless, Maryland IV staff have been trying to make space for queer Christians “on the down low,” says Christian, at conferences since 2017. These meetings are often scheduled during program breaks so that IV members who want to attend a queer Christian meetup but who are not out to friends or members of their IV chapter can attend. These meetings have led to queer Bible study groups forming on other college campuses in Maryland and have provided queer Christian students with a network of individuals who are facing the same challenges.
However, Christian views these private meetups at local and national IV conferences as an “afterthought,” since they are not typically advertised on the main agenda and are often held in buildings far from the areas housing regularly scheduled events.
Still, she applauds IV’s recognition of queer Christian students’ need for fellowship. “The end goal is positive spaces [for queer Christians], which is good for now,” she said. “I don’t know where we’re supposed to end up.”
“Pray over him! Pray over him!” students in the seats yell as the night’s speaker moves to the front of the third-floor lecture hall in the Fine Arts building to begin his presentation. The group leader blushes, having forgotten, and places a hand on the speaker’s shoulder. “Dear God,” he begins, “we thank you for this beautiful day and for the opportunity to listen to your word here tonight.”
The call to prayer at IV’s large group sessions on Thursday nights can be jarring for newcomers. However, many IV members say that the prayer is the most enriching part of their involvement in the organization. The ensuing group prayer technique is unstructured, raw and open, and the focus is listening to God’s word and envisioning yourself having a conversation with Jesus.
These large group sessions, which number around 30 people, serve as a means for the entire IV campus community to worship and to learn about different aspects of their faith. After the prayer and presentation, members engage in discussions about their beliefs. The only rules? Be real. Be inviting. Be challenged.
“Being real,” however, can be difficult within an organization that is still navigating how to make space for queer Christians. While IV tends to be progressive in its politics, according to members, it tends to focus on racial issues given its national commitment to a multiethnic ministry. UMBC IV even hosted a four-week speaker series titled “Beyond Colorblind” in Spring 2019 which encouraged students to engage with their religious and racial identities. Space to talk about sexuality, though, is still very limited, even though IV opened the conversation itself with its 2016 position paper.
While Walter and Christian aim to be visible within the organization as queer Christians, Jordan Evans, the third member of Walter’s Bible study, does not. He says he has never been interested in attending any of IV’s events outside of the queer Bible study because of the religious variability of the organization. “I’m not a fan of InterVarsity, because I’m not a fan of groups of Christians who come together without any organized doctrine,” he says. “When you have vague rules, people can get hurt.”
Nevertheless, Evans wants to see more conversation within IV and the greater Christian community about queer identities. He wishes that there were straight people within the Bible study, something that Walter has tried to avoid so that the study does not become an information session. “Like, let’s hash this out,” he says. “I want to be uncomfortable,” he continues. “Religion is that thing that is there for your discomfort.”
Most straight Christians within IV, however, will not even bring up the Queer Bible Study group and embrace the opportunity to be uncomfortable. They remain “respectfully silent” about whether one can be both a Christian and queer, the Queer Bible Study members say. “It limits conversation and it is antithetical to what we’re trying to do with this small group,” Christian says.
Many, perhaps most, IV members have never thought about what it means to be a queer Christian or even met anyone who identifies as queer. This is especially true for those raised in conservative evangelical circles like Susan Muzzey, the IV large group coordinator.
Raised in a conservative Nazarene household, Muzzey originally held her parents’ belief that being gay was sinful. “[Now] my beliefs are very different from my parents, mostly because of my support of Alyssa [Walter],” she says.
Still, Muzzey hasn’t completely rejected the belief system in which she was raised. While she believes that sexual relationships should be limited to married heterosexual couples, she also acknowledges that since she is not queer herself, she does not feel like she has the right to “define the lines of a relationship.” “If I was to take a hard stance on [queer relationships], then I feel like it would cause a lot of people to stumble [in their faith], and that’s wrong,” she says.
Much of Walter’s ministry as a queer Christian has been through personal conversations with IV members like Muzzey, she says. But this too comes with its own challenges. Some straight Christians may not even want to address the subject of the queer community. On the other hand, a lot of queer Christians may be afraid to attend the Bible study. Ultimately, Walter understands this hesitation. “As a queer Christian I understand that Christianity has hurt a lot of people,” she says. “[But] this isn’t a theology talk,” she continues. “We’re not here to debate if you’re allowed to be gay.”
Walter would like to initiate the same kinds of public discussions the organization sponsored around race and ethnicity in “Beyond Colorblind” but centered on the queer experience. The best place to begin, she believes, is with speaking about queer Christians as “our brothers and sisters” and helping straight Christians understand that it is possible to be both queer and religious. Most of all, however, she wants to help make IV an environment where no one has to agonize over their identity, like she did, before feeling comfortable within the organization.
“The reason I’m aggressively gay is because I want there to be space for other people to be queer without having to be the queer person, with capital letters,” Walter says. “I don’t want someone else to have to bear that burden.”
Photo of Alyssa Walter by Julia Arbutus.