LGBT students at Biola University have launched a social media campaign in response to a screening of an ex-gay testimony #TellOurStoriesToo is in protest of the university’s decision to allow the documentary Sing Over Me. The event was held by the film department of the university last Thursday evening.
The documentary tells the story of Dennis Jernigan -- a man who claims he had a change of sexual orientation.
Although the film is about Jernigan supposedly changing his sexuality from gay to straight; both the director of the film, Jacob Kindberg, and a representative of the university told me it does not promote conversion therapy.
"The documentary gives voice to one man's story — Dennis Jernigan's story. Jernigan did not go through conversion therapy nor does he advocate for conversion therapy,” Kindberg told me.
The trailer’s language is consistent with that of conversion therapy. Jernigan claims he was “set free” of homosexuality by God. The trailer continues with an unidentified person saying the film is a message that with “God nothing is impossible. God has the ability to change and transform” all in reference to Jernigan's sexuality.
What the trailer conveniently leaves out is that Jernigan is the former vice president of Exodus International, formerly the largest conversion therapy organization. He resigned in 2012, before the organization shut down in 2013, over allegedly supporting anti-sodomy laws in Jamaica which conflicted with the official statement of Exodus International.
If Jernigan’s story isn’t about conversion therapy, why was he the Vice President of the largest conversion therapy organization just three years ago?
Despite hosting a former leader of Exodus International, Biola University defended the screening as part of their goal to host conversations:
“As a liberal arts university dedicated to fostering open, robust dialogue on a wide range of issues, Biola University desires to be a place where multiple perspectives can be shared on complex issues, and where disagreement can happen cordially and in the love of Christ,” Jenna Loumagne, Media Relations Specialist at Biola University told me in an email. “This has been the university’s goal in recent years in hosting forums, events and dialogue on campus related to the sensitive and yet important issues of human sexuality.”
The robust conversations Loumagne refers to have primarily centered on theology over same-sex relationships, LGBT students on campus told me. Notably, Biola University hosted a debate between Wesley Hill, author of Spiritual Friendship, and Justin Lee, author of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs.Christians Debate.
Of course, the student’s appreciated that event. But what they really want is their voices to be included in these conversations. Especially ones that involve, even if parenthetically, conversion therapy.
Thankfully, Biola University told me, they do “not advocate reparative or conversion therapy as a response to individuals with same-sex attraction.”
Still, there are little to no positive LGBT stories on conservative Christian campuses like Biola University. Stories like Jernigan’s have historically been used to shame LGBT persons into conversion therapy.
Christians have spent decades hearing stories like Jernigan’s. LGBT students are attending presentations at Biola without ever getting to share their stories.
In addition to the social media campaign, Biola Underground, the unofficial gay-straight alliance of Biola University, is asking their university to host a panel of conversion therapy survivors.
“It is irresponsible for Biola to host ex-gay documentaries/materials on campus when there are currently no on-campus resources for LGBT students,” the statement says on Biola Underground’s website.
“Students have the right to hear the stories of people who have tried to change their sexual orientation but found it impossible. LGBT students who attended the documentary or have listened to Sy Rogers’ chapel message are vulnerable to despair and self-hated.”
The reference to Sy Rogers’ is of a chapel message given at Biola University in which, the students claim, promoted conversion therapy.
The university told me they are denying the student’s request for a panel this year which ends in 4 weeks, but are actively planning for more discussions around faith and sexuality in the coming school year.
I intimately understand the politics on Christian campuses having been vocal about sexuality and faith while attending a Christian university. From my experience, Christian universities have a lot to worry about when planning a conversation on sexuality and faith. They have to worry about funders who would pull their support if the conversations seem to “liberal.” Or students who would protest if the conversations seem too “conservative”.
There is never a more visible generational divide on the conversation of faith and sexuality than on our Christian campuses.
Students on Christian campuses want to engage on the LGBT conversation more than ever. They’ve heard the same regurgitated debate over theology on same-sex relationships. They’ve heard the conversion therapy “success” stories.
They want more.
They want conversations that include their LGBT peers and reflect the LGBT experiences around them.
They want their administrators to prioritize the students over alumni/funder politics and tell their stories, too.