Westmont College is near Santa Barbara. Thirty-one gay and lesbian alumni… (Rafael Maldonado / Santa…)
When Melissa Durkee was in her senior year at Westmont College, her grades were outstanding, she was fielding offers from top law schools — and she was stricken by fear.
"I was terrified that I'd be found out as someone dating a woman and that I'd be expelled," said Durkee, who went on to Yale Law School and a New York law firm.
Durkee is one of 31 gay and lesbian Westmont alumni who earlier this month roiled the Christian college in Montecito with an open letter in the college newspaper that spoke of the "doubt, loneliness and fear" they felt on a campus where homosexuality is taboo.
More than 100 fellow alumni signed on in support, and last week, 50 of Westmont's 92 faculty members responded to them in a sympathetic letter seeking "forgiveness for ways we might have added to your pain."
Although LGBT — an umbrella term for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender — is a commonplace designation at schools across the United States, many Christian colleges have struggled with just how much to condone homosexuality, which is seen by some of their religious leaders as scripturally prohibited.
At the leafy campus near Santa Barbara, there are no gay-pride events or clubs in which gay students can socialize openly. The small, nondenominational school requires incoming students to sign a campus code that forbids "occult practices, sexual relations outside of marriage, homosexual practice, drunkenness, theft, profanity and dishonesty."
Such restrictions would generate loud protests at mainstream schools, but at Westmont, even now there's barely a raised voice. Instead, parties on all sides are issuing declarations of love and respect, with calls for a campus-wide dialogue.
"We're hoping to do a better job of talking to and loving each other and holding true to our scriptural principles," said Jane Higa, the school's vice president for student life.
But nobody believes that the school's Campus Life Statement will change anytime soon.
"All the students have signed it and they know where the college stands," Higa said.
For Durkee, who graduated in 2000, the ban was chilling.
"It was hard to tell what that meant," she said. "Is 'homosexual practice' holding hands? A stray look or touch? Dating?"
Administrators say the ban is not on being gay but on the "practice" — just as there's a ban on sex between unmarried straight students. In Higa's 22 years at Westmont, she said, the school has not expelled anyone for being gay. A straight, unmarried couple left, she said, after they refused to live apart: "They understood what they had agreed to and they dropped out."
But for all the compassion being expressed now, Nathan Welty, who graduated in 2008, feared that he would be shunned if he even suggested that he was gay.
"My goal was to suppress everything in me that was telling me I was gay — to just completely ignore and suppress it," said Welty, who is pursuing both a doctorate and a medical degree at the University of Minnesota.
Other Christian colleges are grappling with their own "don't ask, don't tell" policies. A recent editorial in Christianity Today magazine criticized collegiate bans on homosexual behavior: "Consistency means not singling out those with same-sex orientation. The same standard should apply to all."
Many religious scholars object to reading the Bible literally.
"No one today would point to the Bible and say we can hold others in bondage," said Bernard Schlager, executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. "Yet the Old and New Testaments clearly support slavery."
At Westmont, administrators and student leaders say they have been quietly talking for some time about how to make the college less isolating for gay students. The subject became much more public last November, when the Horizon, Westmont's student newspaper, published a letter from Artie Van Why, a gay man who wrote of his silent struggles at a Christian school in Kentucky.
Asked about the response to his letter at Westmont, he said, "I'm very surprised. I'm overwhelmed."
Jane Highstreet, president of Westmont's student government, is hopeful.
She said students are starting to feel more able to raise the topic. One of her friends came out on Facebook — first telling administrators and then asking how she might help in any campus-wide programs.
In March, Highstreet said, students will be addressed by a psychologist from a Christian university who has written extensively on gay issues.
"There's a hunger for this conversation to happen," she said.