(RNS) — Over her four years at Fuller Theological Seminary’s campus in Houston, Joanna Maxon had come out to most of her teachers and classmates, and many knew that she was married to a woman.
But after Maxon turned over a copy of her tax return, filed jointly with her wife, as part of her annual financial aid application earlier this year, a complaint about her marriage was brought to the dean. In October 2018, less than a year before she expected to graduate, she was suddenly dismissed.
Months went by before Maxon could stand to make the situation public.
“It took me a while to get to the point where I could talk about it,” Maxon said. “It feels like trauma.”
But once she was ready to share her story in June, Maxon’s wife and friend got into contact with Brave Commons.
Brave Commons is an advocacy organization that helps queer students like Joanna who experience discrimination, often at conservative evangelical schools. Students at these campuses are often processing their sexuality after growing up in conservative homes. Besides dealing with adversarial school bureaucracies, they are frequently dealing with their own questions about their sexuality and how to be a LGBTQ person of faith.
Brave Commons offers sanctuary to those students, giving them space to ask questions about sexuality and faith and advocating for them when their colleges discriminate against them.
“Institutions have more resources and money, but we have people that care,” said Lauren Ileana Sotolongo, co-executive director of Brave Commons. “We can't put that in a bank, but that is so much more valuable.”
Sotolongo, Michael Vazquez and Erin Green, who all share the title of executive director, have had their own personal experiences with exclusion at Christian universities.
While attending seminary in Michigan in 2017, Vazquez was asked by other queer students at two nearby evangelical colleges to help organize protests against homophobic speakers who had been invited to give lectures on those campuses, as well as homophobic statements made by chaplains at one of the schools. After the events, Vazquez was expelled from his seminary for his involvement.
“Brave Commons was not birthed without cost,” Vazquez said of his dismissal.
As increasing numbers of queer students at surrounding colleges began to reach out to him, he helped lead inclusive Bible studies and more actions.
As it became clear that a number of students needed both advocacy and spiritual care, Vazquez needed more help to make the work sustainable. A friend connected him with Green and Sotolongo, who joined him as co-directors in the summer of 2018. Both were involved with underground groups for LGBTQ students at Christian colleges, and with Green on the West Coast and Sotolongo on the East, they complemented Vazquez, who was living in the Midwest at the time.
Taking from mujerista theology, which focuses on the experiences and liberation of Latinx women — Vazquez emphasizes that all of their work, from their decisions as co-directors to their protection of students, is done conjunto — together.
The three directors have turned Brave Commons into a national organization that advocates for LGBTQ students, especially students of color, in hopes of changing homophobic policies. They also offer support in the absence of helpful ministry from Christian institutions themselves.
Brave Commons makes it clear that they provide help, not the goal. When students ask them to step in to intervene with an institution, they come to the school but will only help the students pursue their own desired outcomes.
The organization will have a conversation with students to find out what they need and then pursue it with them, whether it’s a social media call to action or a protest on campus.
Students may want to call attention to discrimination while maintaining their own anonymity. In these cases, Brave Commons steps in to protect the students by “diverting the attention from the students onto (themselves),” Green said. Students will often want to remain anonymous because they are financially vulnerable and could lose scholarships or support from their parents if outed.
In addition to helping students organize, Brave Commons is concerned about the students’ spiritual and emotional health, which often suffers when Christian colleges push them into the shadows.
“At most of the colleges and universities that we've worked at, students are not allowed to openly gather as a group of queer students,” Vazquez said.
To reach students who are isolated, both socially and geographically, Brave Commons often uses social media. “There really is a growing network,” said Vazquez.
“It’s a tradition, you could say, in the queer and trans community,” Sotolongo said of the community bond built on social media. “There's this network of people that you know you can trust. You have your own kind of congregation that is saying that they have your back.”
“So many of us have experienced the betrayal of our Christian communities,” said Matthias Roberts, host of the podcast Queerology, who says he often connects students who reach out to him to Brave Commons. “We know in our bones that no one else has our back. It's us or no one,” he says, which speaks of a deep sense of trust in the LGBTQ Christian community.
Many students reach out to Brave Commons simply for advice about how to be a LGBTQ person of faith. Students often can’t ask such questions publicly, and very few Christian campuses have resources for LGBTQ students.
Brave Commons has developed a number of ways for students to “gather and process their gender identity through the lens of their spirituality,” Vazquez said. One is the online “Oratio” series, sermons by the co-directors that affirm all gender identities.
The irony for students such as Maxon, who is now working full-time and has no current plans to finish her master's degree, is that their search for community is often what made them turn to Christian colleges in the first place. “One of the classes that I was withdrawn from was a class called Practices of Community … It’s really challenging for me for a school to teach that and then not practice community,” Maxon said.
“Fuller has a nondiscrimination policy on their website. … They talk about diversity and inclusion, but they are not including LGBTQ persons in that diversity. I think they need to be clearer,” Maxon said.
Brave Commons is currently standing with Maxon in bringing attention to what Fuller has done and pressuring Fuller to be clear that they are not an inclusive space.
“Will Fuller continue to pander to an idea of social justice or will it actually live for its claimed commitments to a kingdom of God that welcomes all people?” Vazquez asked.
Fuller Seminary declined to comment.