“Marriage is between one man and one woman.”
Anyone raised in or around more conservative Christian circles knows the cultural weight of this statement. Its verbalization echoes through church buildings and town halls, but its true impact goes far, far deeper than public conversation.
My name is Jake Davis. I am a student at Harding University, a conservative-leaning private Christian college based in Searcy, Arkansas. It’s always easy to sum up an organization from the outside. To simplify something down to a caricature of its most predictable characteristics is human nature. As for Harding, some Searcy residents see it as a comforting, loving friend that helps keep the town’s morality in check. To others, however, Harding is seen as a breeding ground for closed-minded and intolerant worldviews. As I said, simplifying is easy. Having grown up in Searcy, I’ve personally seen Harding in many different lights and from multiple perspectives, but one topic seems to almost shadow Harding’s name in public conversation: sexuality.
“They don’t allow gay people there.”
“Gay Harding students are required to go to conversion therapy.”
“Why would a gay student ever go to Harding in the first place?”
Statements like these tend to linger in the air as pollen, constantly causing discomfort and spreading uncontrollably. Outsiders have to wonder, though, if there is truth in them. If there isn’t, why would these rumors have started in the first place? What are Harding’s thoughts on the matter? As a senior Harding student, I probably knew more than the average outsider when this project began, but I was still curious about Harding’s specific, fine print opinion on sexuality. So, like any decent investigative journalist, I went directly to the source of all things Harding policy: the current student handbook.
“Harding University holds to the biblical principle that God instituted marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman. Students are prohibited from being married to or dating a person of the same sex. Neither may students engage in behavior suggesting a romantic relationship with a person of the same sex. The University further holds to the biblical principle that sexual relationships are unacceptable to God outside the context of marriage and immoral. Sexual immorality in any form will result in suspension from the University.”
So, on one hand, the statements contain truth. The handbook prohibits any homosexual relationships, marriages, or behavior that even hints at the possibility of a same-sex relationship. I’ve read nothing about conversion therapy, but I do know the university’s counseling center would openly speak about sexuality if the student desired to discuss it. Notice, though, how sexual orientation is never specifically mentioned. As this is a handbook consisting mainly of rules and regulations, I don’t expect it to give the full story on something as personal as sexual orientation, but from what I’ve read, students will not be directly punished for being attracted to the same sex. Things more easily measured, such as sexual relationships with someone of the same sex, are what can get a student suspended from the university.
To those with beliefs similar to those at the core of Harding’s doctrine, this may seem like a totally understandable policy. Heterosexual acts of the same level of “sexual immorality” will also get a student suspended, after all. It must be understood, though, that people with more liberal beliefs might see these rules as repressive at best and completely homophobic at worst. According to this text, homosexual students cannot even slightly display romantic interest in someone for fear of losing their education. This unavoidable clash of ideologies, of course, brings us to the real crux of our story. What does it mean to be gay? Is sexuality a choice? Could someone even bear to attend Harding if their sexual preference didn’t align with our school’s ideals? As these questions collided with each other in my head, I realized I was a terrible person to ask these questions to.
So I called a friend.
We’ve been friends for a long while now. Through every project we’ve worked together on (and there have been quite a few), I’ve always appreciated his absolute honesty. This project was headed into much more vulnerable territory, though. How does one ask a good friend to speak so openly about something so raw?
The answer? Find a good friend with a lot to say and not a lot to hold back. He was more than willing to talk about the real-world effects of Harding’s handbook on his student experience. In fact, he went a step further by helping me better understand a group of people that I’ll never be able to fully relate to.
Some of it was heartbreaking to hear. We’d had similar conversations before, but giving him an opportunity to really let his thoughts loose opened doors I’d never thought to open. I was after a human element to pair with the rigidity of written law, and I’d definitely found what I was looking for.
In my ignorance, I never would’ve thought about how heavily the abundance of heterosexual relationships could weigh on the mind of a gay man. The “marriage factory” quips about universities like Harding suddenly felt even more unsettling.