Wheaton's (Unofficial) Homecoming for Gay Evangelicals

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OneWheaton members gather at Illinois' Wheaton College, where students can get kicked out for being openly and unrepentantly gay

When José Vilanova graduated from Wheaton College in 1989, he assumed he wouldn't be going back to visit his alma mater — known as the Harvard of Evangelical schools — either by himself or, God forbid, with his gay partner. Like most Evangelical colleges, Wheaton maintains that homosexuality is not God's design for humanity. That's why Vilanova felt like he couldn't come out at the suburban-Chicago college. The need for secrecy, plus the fact that he was a low-income minority student at an expensive, mostly white school, contributed to his feeling of not belonging on campus. "Being Latino, poor and gay was this spectacular triple threat of wrongness," says Vilanova, who teaches religion and media courses at Miami's Florida International University. And so, after all of his friends at Wheaton had graduated, he says, "I had zero reason to go back."

Fast-forward 22 years and Vilanova is not only returning to campus — he's organizing a group outing. Literally. On Oct. 7, he and his partner of four years will meet up with 50 or so lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) alumni, along with their spouses, partners and children, for Wheaton's annual homecoming weekend. And during the group's inaugural gathering, its members won't be looking to blend in with the crowd. At the football game against Elmhurst College on Oct. 8, Wheaton's LGBT alums and their supporters will be wearing matching T-shirts emblazoned with the group's name, OneWheaton, and a rainbow.

OneWheaton's highly visible presence on campus puts the college in a difficult position. On the one hand, Wheaton students can still get kicked out for being openly and unrepentantly gay — administrators declined to tell TIME how many students had been asked to leave because of their sexual orientation — and reparative counseling is a common option before dismissal. But at the same time, the college recognizes gay and lesbian alumni as part of the Wheaton family and has a history of embracing those society has marginalized. Wheaton was the first college in Illinois to graduate African-American students and has enrolled women since its founding in 1860. "Welcoming but not affirming is probably a good way of describing our attitude," Wheaton College president Philip Ryken says of OneWheaton or any other alumni group that doesn't agree with the school's Community Covenant, which spells out its position on a variety of issues.

Like many Evangelicals, Wheaton takes its theological position on homosexuality from a literal reading of the Bible. "Although the Bible does not condemn same-sex attraction, it does specify that sexual relations only honor God when they take place between a man and a woman who are united in marriage," says Ryken.

OneWheaton got its start in April when Vilanova and a handful of fellow alumni considered making an "It Gets Better" video for YouTube and tailoring their message to current Wheaton students. Relations between the alumni group and the school have been tense since last spring, when OneWheaton members distributed letters on campus — without administrators' permission — telling students that there are options for Evangelical gays beyond celibacy or repentance. OneWheaton's private Facebook page now has some 350 members who post adoption photos and prayer requests and correspond with questioning students to help them work through theological and other issues. "You're a Christian kid. You're having attractions to the same sex. This is very, very scary, partly because for you to even consider that it might not be sinful, you feel like you have to throw the entire Bible out the window," says OneWheaton member Lora Wiens, a clinical psychologist who got her psychology doctorate from Wheaton in 2007. "That's at least as scary as being gay, probably even scarier, because that is a huge part of what you are building your life around."

OneWheaton's views prevent it from being officially recognized as an alumni group, and therefore it cannot host any homecoming events on campus. Instead, OneWheaton will have its panel discussion at an Episcopal church nearby and has also organized a free concert by Jennifer Knapp, a Christian pop singer who a few years ago was rejected by many Evangelical fans when she came out as a lesbian.

Although Ryken says he will not attend either of these OneWheaton events, he does plan to mingle with its members at the football game. Some student groups have already reached out to OneWheaton members. Resident-hall assistants had a meeting last week and invited Wiens to share her perspective and offer advice on how to talk to students about OneWheaton's presence on campus during homecoming weekend. In late September, the student newspaper ran a feature story titled "Homosexuality at Wheaton" that included a lesbian alumna's reflections. A handful of current faculty members and administrators have privately expressed a more affirming view of homosexuality, but declined to be named in this article since their beliefs would put their jobs on the line. Perhaps most poignantly, when a gay student posted last week on Wheaton's student message board that OneWheaton helped save him when he was depressed and suicidal, there were supportive comments, including one "bravo."

There are also signs at other Evangelical schools that students and faculty are paying closer attention to LGBT students. In February, students at Seattle Pacific University fought to get a meeting space where they could discuss being gay; after an outpouring of student support and a faculty letter backing the group, the administration approved the request even though it would not grant the club official status. Last winter 30 Westmont College alumni wrote an open letter to the California school's newspaper describing the trauma of being gay in a straight environment. More than half of the college's faculty signed a response asking for forgiveness. And in August students at Eastern University, a Christian school near Philadelphia, formed a group similar to Vilanova's, called OneEastern.

OneWheaton says its goal is not to change the school's policy but to offer support to students. Most alumni members will be meeting one another — and the students they want to help — face-to-face for the first time during homecoming weekend. As the kickoff approaches, Kristin Winn, OneWheaton's 27-year-old spokeswoman, says she has a strange pit in her stomach. "Why am I going back to Wheaton?" the union organizer in Los Angeles says she keeps asking herself. "But that's the point. If we leave and we never go back, students never hear a different message about homosexuality."

Dias is a reporter at TIME and a 2008 graduate of Wheaton College. Find her on Twitter @elizabethjdias. You can also continue the discussion on TIME's Facebook page and on Twitter @TIME.