From the Caves to the Common Room

For the first few hundred years of the common era, Christianity existed as a network of underground communities evading persecution from the Roman Empire. Houses and religious spaces that were marked as “safe” characterized the early Church and hardly resemble the faith that has become nearly synonymous with Western identity. One proxy for Christianity that early believers used to safely navigate the classical world was the fish symbol, stemming from the Greek acronym for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Our Savior — the Greek word for fish, Ichthys. Two thousand years later, a group of LGBTQ+ Christian Yale students, Ichthys, has borrowed the icon for their own secret gathering space, substituting the ancient tavern for a dorm room.

As Christianity evolved into the various denominations that comprise it today, not every branch of the Church grew to affirm the identities of its congregants. Some Christian spaces have replaced the mark of safety with ostracism for the LGBTQ+ community. Queer teenagers who grow up feeling unwelcome in the church often feel pressure to abandon their faith background to secure acceptance in the lives they craft for themselves. A lot of queer students look to college as a space where they can sever oppressive ties and feel safe.

Timothy White, SM ’20, a “Gay, Progressive, Christian” — as he describes himself in his Twitter bio — characterized his first year as “a whirlwind-like explosion of new experiences” in a blog post on the website Church Clarity. The site crowdsources data about congregations across the US and screens them for how clearly they communicate their doctrine on equality. White wrote about his experiences with a now-defunct campus Christian organization in his post. The group did not issue a clear policy on LGBTQ+ inclusion. When White sought a leadership role in the group, he was told that if he were to pursue a relationship with a boy, he would have to give up his position. White comes from a strong religious background, like many Yalies, and says he did not want to choose between his faith and his queer identity upon coming to college. This led him to Ichthys, a more-or-less underground community of queer Christians who gather once a week to discuss the balance of queer identity and church membership in their lives.

The experience of setting foot on a college campus for the first time lends itself to all the clichés associated with reinventing oneself at the age of eighteen. First-years are encouraged to join an improv group, dabble in rock climbing, or seek out forms of expression unavailable to them wherever they came from. Amid these new opportunities, first-years — and all college students — have to negotiate the weight of previous experiences with the necessity to cope with the pressure of campus life. For some, coping entails joining groups that remind them of home, whether that means interests from high school or their cultural background. For students who come from what is perceived as a conflicting set of identities, those spaces can be harder to come by.

Founded in 2016, Ichthys takes its name from the fish icon that early Christians used to designate safe gathering spaces. Their weekly meetings are covertly advertised to protect attendees who are still closeted. In a structured community of safety and support, queer Christians of all denominations are able to share and bond over the experience of naviating their identities.

Kelsey Evans, BK ’21, this year’s President, said the group affirms that queerness and Christianity are compatible — their goal is to figure out how to talk about it. The meetings begin with Bible passages or discussions derived from texts relating to queerness and faith. Recently, the group discussed Margaret Farley’s Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. For the members of Ichthys, finding a framework for understanding queerness and Christian sexual ethics is a highly individual journey.

Evans grew up in the Christian Science tradition. Since moving to New Haven, she has attended Christian Science services in addition to Methodist church services from time to time. Methodism, according to Evans, is a fairly “apolitical” doctrine, and she often debates whether she should attend an affirming congregation or be the voice of queer youth in Christian Science. Whether or not she finds herself representing queer voices in Christian Science, as fate would have it, she has been thrust into the role of a religious leader in her own right.

Evans discovered Ichthys as a first-year through her peer liaison from the office of LGBTQ resources. “A lot of people kind of cycled in and out since then,” she said. As she was the only junior, the group asked her whether she wanted to run the organization. Much like anyone nominated to become the head of a congregation, Evans had some questions for herself: “Am I qualified to be a religious leader?”

Evans told me that she expected to stop attending church upon coming to Yale. Though she anticipated a culture of resistance toward people’s religious pasts borne of Yale’s liberal leanings, she was surprised to meet a number of people who were still interested in exploring their faith in college. Of course, she encountered both of those realties. The Christian communities that she found, however, were most appealing to her because they used their newfound freedom to explore faith on their own terms. “I thought I could give that a try,” she concluded. After a search for fulfilling religious spaces, she found a group she describes as “looking for the intersection of queerness and Christianity and going beyond accepting that the two can coexist.” She and the group introduce theological discussions that approach depth and rigor of belief.

“I don’t like arguing about the verse in Leviticus,” she said, referring to a line in the Bible — Leviticus 18:22 — that is said to villify homosexual relationships. “I think the Bible was a historical document that was written at a time where some laws continue to apply and some don’t.”

As for theological justifications for queerness, she finds that, in the New Testament, “it is very clear that we are to love our neighbor no matter what.” Despite some of the language in the Old Testament, which has harsher words for queer folks, Evans still finds inspiriation in its passages.

“In the Old Testament, the prophets could see a world that did not yet exist and that’s a good justification for Christian based activism,” she told me. To Evans, it’s about manifesting a new, better world.

Discussions of same-sex weddings or name changing ceremonies for transgender parishoners who are undergoing transition come as new possibilities to some members of the group. White recalls group members saying, “I didn’t even realize that this was a possibility.” Names change constantly in the Bible — Saul to Paul, Jacob to Israel, to name a few. Christian figures’ transitions from one persona to another, punctuated by one’s rebirth in God, construct critical elements of the theological tradition. Queerness in Christianity presents the challenge of seeking representation in the text. Perhaps queer Christians can identify with Abraham, whose transition from Abram to Abraham represents conversion to a new life in God for many in the faith.

Hot tea, cozy chairs, a list of discussion topics, and Bible verses await the Ichthytes in Evans’ dorm room in Berkeley. White told me that the meetings often stretch beyond the allotted 90 minutes. He recalls people sharing stories “positive and negative in the church, which music they found most powerful in their life to connect with God, forgetting about work they had to do and just talking for hours, finally feeling like they’d found a community that understood an identity that is so rarely encountered.”

These dorm room conversations echo what early Christian meetings may have felt like, people unraveling what the broader community of believers might look like while finding refuge in community.

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