Being true to yourself

Alums reflect on sexuality in college life, coping and finding a niche

Belmont Abbey may not hold the label for the most accepting LGBTQ school in higher education, but students who attended the Catholic college through the years say their experiences ranged from feeling accepted to feeling hopeless.

As a frequent member of the Charlotte-based Campus Pride’s Worst list, the school holds a Title IX exemption after applying for it in 2015. This means the school can discriminate against students on the basis of gender identity while still receiving federal funds. The college’s religious identity sticks to the concept that it will recognize students and employees by the biological gender at birth, rather than the gender that the person identifies with. This trickles down to college decisions regarding housing, admission, employment, hiring and other issues. 

There are 197 Catholic colleges nationwide, according to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Belmont Abbey is one of 67 Catholic colleges that are not LGBTQ friendly, according to a study by New Ways Ministry, a group that advocates and educates lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Catholics. The organization identifies more than 130 colleges and universities that students are accepting to LGBTQ students.

So then, why would a gay student attend Belmont Abbey College? 

Three men, two of them Abbey graduates, share their experiences from their time walking up and down Abbey road.

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Charlie Heeley

Heeley’s Abbey experience was tough one. Heeley, who came out as a gay man during his time in Belmont, says he would not have come to the Catholic college if he had known he was gay.  He studied at the Abbey from 2009-2012 before transferring to another school. He struggled with his sexuality during his high school and early college years. The North Carolina native’s spiritual journey started as a Episcopalian before converting to Catholicism.

“I came to Belmont Abbey because I wanted to explore and deepen my Catholic faith; originally I came to study theology and later declared a major in history,” Heeley said.

Heeley said the experience with the college’s counseling services did not help him adjust to life. He even attempted to take his own life.

“There were no resources available to me, and other gay students I knew who approached BAC for help with their sexuality had basically been counseled to join a religious apostolate like Courage and become celibate,” he said. “No mental healthcare resources were offered. It made me scared to seek help elsewhere.” 

Courage International is a Catholic program that ministers to men and women who experience same-sex attractions. The program uses a 12-step program and Courage seeks to help LGBTQ people remain chaste.

Post-Abbey, Heeley has become Episcopalian, married and is attending Yale Divinity School.

Jeremy Whitner

Whitner transferred from Gaston College and got his Abbey degree in 2011. Belmont was his hometown and he aspired to attend the Abbey at an early age.

“I looked into several schools after Gaston College,” he said. “I figured that schools of my Baptist heritage would be even less welcoming and affirming. I took the term liberal arts for granted in some ways. I loved my time at Belmont Abbey in a lot of ways though.”

Whitner’s spiritual journey has taken him from Southern Baptist through many denominations to Disciple of Christ. He is currently working on his Masters degree in Divinity.

Coming out at the Abbey wasn’t for him. He said he did not struggle with his sexuality and that he felt he had “come out” in his classes, but not “campus-wide.” 

Would school counseling or having gay friends on campus have helped? 

“I think maybe I had heard of a few students who were LGBT.” Whitner said. “I was active with PFLAG (Parents, Friends, Allies of Lesbians and Gays) of Gaston and so forth. I think that there should be more groups on campus to embrace diversity. To help with the work of the school’s working toward Social Justice. There is a need for clubs such as a Gay-Straight Alliance, or maybe a college-age offshoot of the LGBT Catholic Ministry.”

According to American Magazine, 31 percent of millennials described their sexual orientation as other than fully heterosexual, and many college applicants will be more curious about the level of LGBT acceptance, especially at Catholic schools that they may presume are not welcoming to LGBT individuals, according to a 2016 poll. 

Whitner agrees.

“Yes, most people are coming out of the closet at younger and younger ages, in all facets of LGBT. As those same people grow older and look for colleges, they will definitely seek out open and affirming institutions, churches and colleges,” Whitner said.

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CJ Fox

For CJ Fox, Belmont Abbey met his needs -- a place to play basketball, get a good education and make friends.

“I am satisfied with my education. I have my degree which helped me get a great job, and I have met some of the best people (including my wife) at BAC so I have no complaints. I do think some classes were unnecessary but they fit the motto of the school so I get it. I actually liked theology and learned a lot. It still didn’t make me want to be religious but it helped me understand more about the Catholic religion. It helped educate me more in an area I did not focus on growing up. Even though the school doesn’t agree with me and I don’t agree with the school 100 percent, I still felt like I learned a lot and those classes were never so much pushy as much as informative.”

Fox, who came to the Abbey in 2010 on a basketball scholarship, graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics in 2014. He also said he didn’t need any counseling support while attending. He began his transition from in the fall of 2014.

“As far as I know there are no LGBT resources at BAC and I did not want or need to seek out help outside of campus,” Fox said. “I had a normal experience at BAC with relationships, friends, family, etc., so I guess I am lucky but I’ve never needed that kind of outlet.”

He relates his perspective on the Abbey’s college community, one he found by looking past the school’s hard facade. 

“Of course, BAC is very traditional Catholic, in my opinion, and that is fine,” Fox said. “They promote who they are and what they believe and I still chose to go there. It helped me learn and grow, and I always felt welcomed and a part of the BAC family.”

“I don’t think they should have to change who they are. If the LGBT community does not want to experience Catholic traditions, then there are plenty of other schools. From my experience, BAC has been open and friendly to students of all kinds.”

With the growing population, more LGBT students will seek out colleges like the Abbey. Fox knows there will be more prospective LGBT students who choose to attend the school for things like its sports teams and academic reputation. 

“I definitely think there will be more and more students in the LGBT community or who are not just labeling themselves as one thing. People are starting to be themselves, whatever that is, and that is how it should be. When I went to BAC you already were starting to see this, and I feel like the school was holding on to the traditional roots but also changing just based on the student environment. So I don’t think there will be much struggle because the majority of the school, in my opinion, just accepted people and got to know a person rather than a lifestyle. Yes, there are some who hold tight to those Catholic views and may not accept the LGBT community but that is not just at BAC. That is the world.”

Fox found diversity both within the athletic program and the student population, though he said that diversity doesn’t come from college officials specifically seeking it out.   

“I feel like BAC is diverse. I met so many kinds of people while I was there and the school is only growing. So yeah, they are diverse but I don’t think they can claim they naturally promote diversity. It just sort of happens since one of BAC’s biggest acceptance groups every year is athletes. I think the school motto and how the school is ran is very conservative, but the people that end up there, for whatever reason, make it diverse and make it grow for the better.”

Note: Story edited at 6 p.m., Jan. 27 to reflect CampusPride.org’s Worst List status.

— CABAC Voice Newsletter staff