Ronald Lawson, PhD
Link to the full version of this paper in Spectrum magazine: https://spectrummagazine.org/news/2022/loma-linda-university-and-its-lgbtq-students-and-faculty
In the years after 2008, and especially since 2014, Loma Linda University [LLU] made dramatic changes in its attitudes towards LGBT students, faculty, and staff and its rules concerning them. When I was asked to update a presentation I had made in 2017 to the Asheville (NC) Adventist Forum on the Adventist Church and its LGBT children and members for Spectrum, this was one change that clearly needed to be documented. Since I now live in Loma Linda, I interviewed 30-plus key administrators, faculty, and past and present students over a 6-month period beginning in December 2019. I also checked out relevant changes in policies and handbooks over time. As usual with my research interviews, interviewees were promised anonymity and confidentiality: I do not cite the names of those interviewed or who gave me each piece of information, nor do I tell others verbally what any particular person has told me.
Published at Spectrum, January 2022
LLU has long had a reputation of being especially inhospitable to gay and lesbian students and faculty. As a General Conference [GC]-owned institution, it adhered to the Church guidelines and philosophy more closely than some other colleges, its leaders held well-worn Adventist negative attitudes, its policies and language reflected the traditional positions of society and Church, and these were slow to change even as attitudes within society shifted. The original LLU statement on sexual standards, which was written by faculty from Marriage and Family Counseling, Psychiatry, and Religion, appeared in the Faculty Handbook in 1988, and was then added to the Student Handbook. It consisted mainly of a list of behaviors that were not permitted, extending from beastiality and pederasty to homosexual and promiscuous heterosexual activity. In its Student Handbook for 1998, its statement on its Nondiscrimination Policy and Title IX did not list either sexual orientation or gender identity among the protected categories, and it explained this by stating that it claimed exemptions from the Title IX provisions where they conflicted “with church teachings practices of morality…” Similarly, in the section that covered Principles of Conduct concerning the relationships students develop with their patients, the clause that proscribed “refusal to treat any patient for reason of …” also omitted those categories. The only clause that mentioned homosexuals was the Sexual Standards Policy, which forbade any sexual expression among them: “All forms of sexual expression and conduct between heterosexuals outside of marriage, or between homosexuals, are contrary to the ideals of the University and will result in disciplinary action.” Since the Handbook’s description of discrimination policy did not mention sexual orientation, there was no recourse for LGBT students experiencing discrimination. If a gay student applying for admission revealed his/her orientation in application or interviews, he could be refused; if a same-sex couple lived together while part of the University, they could be expelled or fired. LGBT students, staff, and faculty members had reason for fear.
In September 2000, President Behrens told a local newspaper during an interview that faculty were fired and students expelled if caught or suspected of breaking the university rules banning homosexual conduct. Student records were marked that the dismissal was because of immorality, and they were not given supporting letters or help in finding other schools to accept them. When this came to the attention of the ACLU, it warned the LLU administration that such policies could violate a new state anti-discrimination law that went into effect in January 2001. When its letter of warning was ignored, the ACLU decided to focus attention on the university. It submitted a follow-up article to the newspaper in February 2001 which caused a furor on campus because it was timed to appear just before the visit of a Medical School accreditation team. The administration felt vulnerable because LLU had earlier experienced problems with accreditation. When it discovered that the ACLU had placed a notice on its website inviting persons who had experienced discrimination and harassment at LLU to approach them, and that more than twenty had already come forward and were willing to bring charges and testify, the administration agreed to protect homosexual faculty and students who did not practice homosexuality, and to help others, when found, to relocate to other schools.
Nevertheless, in an August 2002 article in the Adventist Review, the LLU vice president for diversity, Leslie Pollard, reported being asked about the university’s position on sexual orientation after making a presentation on health care and diversity at a national conference. His answer was “Loma Linda has one standard applicable to both hetero- and homosexual persons: celibacy before marriage; monogamy within marriage.” The discriminatory intent of the standard was clear, for same-sex marriage was not legal anywhere in the US at that time. In response to another question, he added that Loma Linda did not knowingly hire practicing homosexuals or extend benefits to their partners. Under President Behrens, LLU had endorsed diversity “as ordained by God”—a phrase chosen in order to exclude LGBT people. Since LLU did not grill would-be students or faculty about their sexuality, some LGBT people were inevitably part of its community. However, in those decades it made no attempt to protect them from discrimination or abuse, and actively discriminated against them itself.
As US public attitudes towards LGBT people changed and these were reflected in turn in court decisions and new laws, LLU administrators gradually realized that the University’s discriminatory policies were likely to cause problems. These concerns led to intermittent changes in the LLU policies and Handbooks. The first such change appeared in 1994, in a special section of the Student Handbook concerning the Graduate School. While sexual orientation and gender identity were again not listed under the categories protected from discrimination, it did state explicitly that “Enrolment of students in Graduate School programs is not conditioned on their political or sexual orientation; in these areas the School’s policy is directed towards conduct or disruptive behavior, not orientation.” This statement was added at that time because its absence had become an issue during a reaccreditation visit for the psychology program; the publication of the Handbook was delayed in order to allow the change to be included. It introduced a new principle: the protection of the category when it came to admission (at that point just to the Graduate school), but continuing discipline for any sexual expression by homosexuals. This principle was later extended to the whole university.
By 2003, key administrators in the School of Medicine had become sympathetic to LGBT students, so that their opinions differed from the official LLU stance. In 2007, when President Behrens was informed that a medical student was undergoing transgender management by LLU faculty and staff, she insisted that he/she not be permitted to complete the transition while at LLU. Behrens saw herself as representing Church views as President, and was careful not to move ahead of it in such matters: it had not at that time addressed the transgender issue. She was praised by the Chair of the Board, a GC appointee, for embracing the position she had. However, LLU faculty members had been involved with patients undergoing change of gender preparation and procedures as early as 1975.
In 2008, with the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of same-sex marriage and then the campaign over Proposition 8, which was designed to reverse that decision, it became obvious that LLU would soon need to address its treatment of LGBT students, faculty and staff. The University Counsel, Kent Hansen, asked the new President, Richard Hart, to appoint a committee to consider how to assess such issues, for he considered it problematical that University lawyers were often forced to make complex decisions by default. Consequently, Hart appointed an ad hoc committee, chaired by Hansen, to work on LGBT-related issues. The committee coalesced around a “three-point standard”: three principles that would all be taken into account to solve LGBT-related issues. These were the teachings of the Adventist Church, what the laws required, and the compassion that Jesus taught. Henceforth the University would take into account all three principles when addressing any LGBT-related issues. When the committee’s recommendation was taken to the University’s Board, it was persuaded to accept the principles. They are still in effect.
In embracing the three-point standard, LLU was responding to the difficult situation in which it found itself: on one hand, the Church had been adopting increasingly conservative stances concerning LBGT matters; on the other hand, the state of California had become increasingly supportive of LGBT rights and protections, and some of the key LLU administrators were becoming personally sympathetic towards that approach. Moreover, since the purpose of LLUMC was to serve the community, it could not refuse to serve any category there, for it was committed to emulate the healing ministry of Christ. In endorsing three equal principles, the University increased its flexibility: it no longer bound itself to follow the official Church position.
Meanwhile, the School of Medicine was preparing for an accreditation visit in 2008, and Dean Roger Hadley was aware that the LLU stance towards LGBT students and staff/faculty, and the implications of that for their treatment of LGBT patients, could be raised. At a meeting, he gained the support of key figures for his view that change was essential, for he felt that he had to be able to state that the School did not discriminate. To his surprise and relief, the accreditation team did not ask direct questions on the topic. However, the experience led him to recognize that it was better for the School of Medicine to focus on caring for its LGBT patients and students, even if that meant being at odds with the Church, than to risk its accreditation. In 2010 Jonathan Heldt, the leader of PUC’s LGBT support-group, published an article, “Being Gay at PUC,” in Spectrum. In it he noted that he had been admitted to the LLU Medical School and planned to attend there later that year. The Medical School braced for a flood of protesting letters, but none were received. This was interpreted as a straw in the wind.
During these years the LLU Student Handbook made gradual changes in policy clauses relevant to LGBT students. Treatment stigmatizing or degrading a student because of sexual orientation was forbidden in the Student Mistreatment section by 2011. In 2013 the Medical School moved ahead of the University in a document included in the orientation material issued to incoming medical students titled Principles Regarding Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity: “Any form of discrimination or harassment based on personal characteristics of race, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity will not be tolerated.” This was the first mention of gender identity in any LLU policy. Recognizing that issues of sexual orientation and gender identity can present unique challenges to students, it announced that support resources were available, and reassured the students that “We do not promote ‘conversion’ or ‘reparative therapies’ for sexual orientation.” The statement was issued each year 2013-2016.
In 2013 the Supreme Court ruled that where states had endorsed same-sex marriage, this would be the law. These states included California. In a 2015 decision, the Court created marriage equality throughout the nation. These decisions ushered in 5 years of dramatic changes in this area at LLU, beginning in 2014-15. During this period, LLU moved to open endorsement of differences with the Church leadership. It adopted a much more engaged stance than it had with other social issues such as women’s ordination because it viewed homosexuality as a medical rather than a theological issue. Another reason for LLU’s greater responsiveness is that it meets the world far more than other Adventist centers: it sees 1.5 million patients per year, and gives much more credence to scientific evidence than the GC.
Since LLU is a medical and health-related university, some of the research and teaching done there was immediately relevant to LGBT issues. For example, the research of Dr. Kerby Oberg on fetal development allowed him to speak with authority in a course about human development which discussed the developmental basis of intersexed persons, who have both male and female sexual organs, and also about the way sexual organs and brains develop and can get out of sync, a situation that can result in setting out to change gender. Oberg showed that these variations could be biological, rather than theological, and therefore not a choice.
Earlier GC administrations had typically left it to LLU to solve issues impacting it; however, Presidents Robert Folkenberg and then especially Ted Wilson engaged more directly. When a letter of complaint alerted Wilson to the fact that LLU was the second-largest provider of in vitro fertilization services to LGBT people, he asked Hart to stop doing this. Hart replied that in medical judgment this is a legitimate and wholesome activity, so LLU does it. It was explained to me that LLU wants to honor the Church, but it has to be true to its mission and ethics. The Church leadership has only limited leverage, since it greatly reduced its financial contribution to the University and fewer than one-third of its Board members are now officers of the General Conference, North American Division, and American Unions.
The concerns of Title IX were broadened to include discrimination against LGBT persons after 2010. Consequently, Cari Dominguez, LLU’s Title IX Officer, chose to rewrite the LLU Title IX policy. The 2014-15 Student Handbook Title IX Section noted that “Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (‘Title IX’) prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs and activities at institutions receiving federal financial assistance.” It then declared that “Any form of sex discrimination or sexual misconduct—including harassment, coercion, intimidation, or sexual violence—is reprehensible; runs counter to LLU’s teachings and guiding beliefs; and will not be tolerated. In keeping with this commitment, Loma Linda University maintains a strict policy prohibiting discrimination and harassment based on personal characteristics of…sexual orientation, gender identity, …” Since upgrading policy handbooks occurs periodically, it took two more years before this change was reflected in the separate statement of its Nondiscrimination Policy, which continued until then to claim exemption from Title IX rules that conflicted with Church teachings (2015:70). Hansen advised the Board that because LLU did not ask applicants about their sexual orientation and therefore inevitably had LGBT students, faculty, and staff, these should be protected from harassment and humiliation. However, the policies prohibiting same-sex sexual contact remained in force.
The question of how to respond to transgender students became more prominent in Adventist universities about this time. Some administrators became especially concerned about their dormitories, which were all single-sex, and bathrooms. However, when they asked LLU about this, LLU pointed out that bathrooms were designed to protect privacy. LLU administrators realized that certain controversial issues such as sexuality are rarely talked about in any depth in Adventist churches: for example, thoughtful sermons addressing these issues are very rare. This creates confusion about these topics, and makes it difficult to resolve them.
LLU’s insurance policy, provided by Adventist Risk Management, had long covered the health of domestic partners. As laws changed, this covered same-sex domestic partners also. Once the law recognized same-sex marriage, LLU changed its policies in order to include them too, and adjusted the language of its policies accordingly. While some Adventists might regard this as extraordinary, they do not realize that, for example, because several of the conferences within the Pacific Union choose to buy commercial health insurance instead of the more costly plans available through the Church, this decision obliges them to offer coverage to same-sex couples.
The 2015-16 Student Handbook, published shortly after the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the nation was announced, removed the reference to homosexual sexual relations as being contrary to the ideals of the University and subject to disciplinary action. It continued to state that heterosexual marriage was God’s ideal, and focused on premarital and extramarital sex as subject to discipline. It was explained to me that the statement’s silence concerning same-sex marriage indicated that the Court’s decision had rendered it legal on campus, even though LLU continued to regard it as not the ideal. Its discussions recognized that when the Church conceded its former position on divorce and allowed a less than ideal alternative, any argument from scripture flew out the door. Loma Linda’s policies of aligning itself with the law and emulating the compassion of Christ became the main reasons for the changes at this time.
During the 2014 and 2016 elections several faith-based colleges in California campaigned against Democrat office-holders in their primaries, in an endeavor to pressure them to stop adopting pro-LGBT legislation. However, both the LLU and La Sierra University councils, prompted by Kent Hansen, the lawyer who represented both of them, concluded that such a stance was not what Adventists are about: since Adventists are themselves a minority, they should treat other minorities as Adventists desire to be treated. Hansen also argued that this would ultimately be the wisest course for Adventists to follow.
The dominant stance towards LGBT people on campus in these years was “don’t ask/don’t tell.” Many faculty and students were personally sympathetic, but it was difficult for students to know who these were because of the silence. Those in administrative positions, such as deans and sub-deans, were ahead in becoming supportive. They had become increasingly aware of the LGBT students, faculty, and staff around them, and knowing and appreciating them had changed their attitudes. The students who were the first on campus to be open about their sexual orientations had begun the medical course in 2012 and 2014. Both reported that they had found many students, especially non-Adventist Christians, very supportive; the student body thus reflected the changing attitudes in society.
Beginning in these years, Henry Lamberton, the Associate Dean for Student Affairs in the Medical School, made it his practice, in his first address to the entering students each year, to tell them a story that warmed the hearts of all LGBT students. In the context of assuring them they could be safe there, he told them the story of an LGBT student whose grades had been wrecked by deep depression when the pressure to continue hiding his identity became unbearable. Lamberton had encouraged him to come out to his family. The student’s mother later told Lamberton that his support had probably saved her son’s life.
Similarly, when LGBT students attended the medical embryology class on fetal development mentioned above, they found that in tracing the development of the fetus, the course addressed human diversity, including intersexuality, as a biological variation. Also, in the ethics classes taken in the School of Religion, professors declared there was a place for LGBT people in Christianity. Consequently, they felt supported by science and encouraged by Christians.
During 2015-2016, the School of Medicine had been preparing for another reaccreditation visit. The changing societal climate towards LGBTs had raised the profile of their issues and the likelihood that they would be raised by accreditors. With this in mind, Dean Hadley set out to prepare the way for them to state firmly that they did not discriminate. Unlike 2008, when he had sought the support of a few key figures, now he looked for broad agreement. When he showed the suggested policy to all the deans and assistant deans in the School of Medicine, and then held a secret ballot, all 14 endorsed it.
During the years 2016-17, the process of changing attitudes towards LGBT people at LLU sped up as President Hart pursued a plan to make LLU truly welcoming to LGBT people. This was made more relevant by the introduction of state legislation that would have made schools that discriminate against LGTB students ineligible for Cal Grants, which were an important source of scholarships for students. Although some on campus and beyond declared that they would rather the university close than compromise on this “principle”, President Hart and other administrators pursued a different course.
In May 2016, Hart asked Dr. Jana Boyd, the newly hired director of the Employee and Student Assistance Program, to be involved with an ad hoc committee working towards making LLU a safe and affirming environment for LGBT students and faculty/staff. She created a resource site for LGBT information and materials, which involved meeting with LGBT persons on campus in order to get their input about what resources were needed. They asked that there be more education on campus concerning cultural competency, that healthcare providers be trained to provide competent care to LGBT persons, and that educational resources be made available on-line; they also asked for a list of physical and mental healthcare providers who were safe for them to approach, and for a list of allies whom they could safely ask for help if they had concerns or were struggling.
Until 2016 LLU had had a Vice President for Diversity, who focused especially on black and Hispanic students. However, when that person left in 2016, President Hart chose to replace the post with a Diversity Council, which Hart chaired himself. This concerned itself with a much greater range of diversity than heretofore, where LGBT people were included.
President Hart invited a current transgender student, a former gay student, and a faculty member who was the mother of two gay children to present their stories at meetings of the University Leadership Council, whose membership included most of the primary administrators and leaders on Campus. He also arranged for a close friend since high school and college, who had transitioned from male to female in the 1990s, to share her story. In September 2016 he made understanding LGBT people the theme of a Leadership Retreat at Lake Arrowhead, where Provost Carter gave an impassioned keynote speech about accepting diversity, and Christopher Blake, a professor at Union College, conducted “A Sanctuary of Conversation” workshop, which focused on making the campus a sanctuary for LGBT students. These events helped change the climate among the university leadership.
In December 2016 the University agreed to sponsor a Humanities Sabbath afternoon panel discussion on “Religion and the LGBT Community.” This was at the initiative of Dr. Jim Walters, a professor in the School of Religion, and a closeted gay student, and was approved by both President Hart and Jon Paulien, the Dean of the School of Religion, who participated in the panel. After the meeting ended, some LGBT students and others gathered near the front, meeting and conversing with one another. This led to the formation of an unofficial LGBT group on campus. However, an internet video of the session drew opposition from the General Conference and other Adventist sources.
All these efforts and events opened and then broadened the discussion about LGBT people on campus, and it became clear that many had already become aware and sympathetic towards them as a result of the societal conversations. The profile of the LGBT issue had been raised considerably on campus, especially among administrators, during 2016.
In December 2016, President Hart was invited to a symposium at Santa Barbara that was organized by the North American Division [NAD]. Its goal was to try to understand transgender issues. One of the speakers there was LLU professor, Kerby Oberg, who spoke on “The Biologic Basis of Reproductive Development.” Hart then arranged for him to make the same presentation twice on campus during the next month, to the University Leadership Council and to a committee of the University’s Board of Trustees. In these presentations, Oberg provided evidence that gender identity could have a biological basis and as such would not be a choice, making it a medical rather than a theological issue. Hart also arranged for a transgender student to tell her story to the LLU Diversity Council, and for Oberg to speak after her, explaining the biological basis of reproduction. This had the effect of placing her story in scientific context.
The issue of Notes from the President, President Hart’s regular email letter to the campus, distributed on February 2, 2017, was a bold statement focused on relating to LGBT people. Written with the support of the Diversity Council and vetted for scientific accuracy by Oberg, it was designed to broaden the discussion across campus, especially beyond the leadership. It was an important step in the process, which had progressed over several years. In essence, it made public what had already become the stance of LLU. Coming coincidently a week after the inauguration of President Trump, who had pledged to remove transgender persons from the military, LLU instead pledged to continue progress.
The release of Hart’s statement caused a dramatic change in the situation on campus: students and faculty discussed it, and the LGBT students saw it as a miracle, which encouraged them to open up. Hart received far more responses to that letter than to others; the vast majority of these were supportive, although a few were irate. Hart continued to feature LGBT persons and their families in meetings of the Leadership Council in order to humanize the issue. His purpose has been to speak at the emotional level.
At a meeting of the LLU Faculty Council on Feb. 8, 2017, less than a week after Hart’s letter had been distributed, he talked of the need to embrace LGBT people, and said he believed the Board supported him. The Dean of the School of Religion responded, “I want to let you know that if the Church Leadership rebukes you on this topic, the School of Religion is 100% behind you.”
At a Board meeting two weeks later, GC President Ted Wilson showed antipathy to the decision. After Hansen’s presentation, which Wilson had mistakenly assumed would mention attitudes to LGBT persons, he nevertheless said what he had prepared: he stated that “LLU will love the LGBTs”—that is, he acknowledged that he could not reverse the decision—”but they will never be accepted as church members.” There was no discussion of Wilson’s comment: someone asked a different question, and the topic shifted. It is believed by many at LLU that there is a real difference between the GC and the NAD in this area: while Wilson is clearly opposed to making LGBT people welcome, many NAD officers and union leaders have privately given LLU encouragement.
Jana Boyd had worked on LGBT issues since May 2016. She had gotten to know many of the LGBT people on campus while working on making relevant resources available online. The Cultural Competency Training she used focused on making healthcare providers aware of the reality of health disparities that LGBT individuals face either because of poor treatment by providers or fear of mistreatment. The training also focused on questions concerning gender and sexual orientation, and on the use of pronouns–on not making assumptions concerning how patients wish to be addressed. She also began to work with the LGBT people towards creating an officially-sponsored LGBT group on campus. The support group had its first meeting in July 2017, and has met twice monthly since then; it was the first officially sanctioned such group on any Adventist campus. Once it was launched, it had considerable freedom, for it was charged simply with providing support to the LGBT persons on campus. It drew not only LGBT students, but also staff and faculty members, and student allies. Its meetings have provided opportunities for the members to discuss personal and campus-wide problems. The organization is well known on campus, for it publicizes itself among entering students on the opening day of each academic year and its announcements are shown, along with those of other groups, on monitors throughout the campus. The university portal now allows anyone wishing to utilize different pronouns to make this known.
The LGBT students have also wanted their unofficial club to have official status. A recognized club could be more proactive than the support group. They describe the support group as where they come for mutual support and therapy; it is not where they organize events or do outreach. There was some discomfort expressed within administrative circles with moving forward when official recognition for their club was first suggested in 2017—Hart feared it could become demanding and raise tensions. But in February 2020 the LGBT students made a formal proposal, and an official LGBT club was then approved. It had its first official meeting in May 2020. It is student-led, and plans to organize seminars, outreach, and Pride parade outings, and press for better training for medical students concerning the needs of their LGBT patients.
The LGBT students intend to press the university to improve how students are taught about the LGBT community, for they see the curriculum as problematic. Examples given to me were that in a behavioral science class for first year medical students the only mention of LGBT patients was they had greater risk of suicide and mental illnesses. When families were addressed, there was no education concerning what a gay family could look like, or how LGBT parents have contributed to the health of children. There was little mention of social stigma as a source of psychiatric statistics, nor that rejection by families and society are significant causes of problems. The class did not talk about transgender people at all. In a second year behavioral science class, the professor interviewed a 12 year-old girl as a case study. She had been told she had the right to decline to answer any question, and she shared only her name, school, her struggle with depression, and details concerning her relationship with her dysfunctional family. However, after she left the class, the professor disclosed that she was a lesbian and her love relationship had broken: that is, he shared information that she had chosen not to disclose. He also commented that a 12 year-old thinking she was lesbian was obviously confused. A professor in another class talked about how physicians should approach transgender people, describing them as wrong and sinful.
How has the more welcoming attitude affected the hiring of faculty and staff? In 2017, when a clinical department was in the process of hiring a key specialist, it arranged for the top candidate to make a second visit, and she then stated that she would bring her wife with her. After the visit the chair of the department was all for hiring her, and the deans and vice deans were all supportive of the decision. When the Dean of Medicine decided to take a poll of all department chairs in order to check on their thoughts, a strong majority supported the choice.
The number of LGB and Trans students who are open on campus has increased since 2017, as both more have enrolled and more have become visible. However, I was told that “there still exists concern among LGBT students and employees about how their orientation or gender identity may affect them academically and professionally”, and that such fears are fed by the fact that clinical performance evaluations are inevitably subjective. The students fear that their efforts to get good residencies could be torpedoed by the evaluations of persons who disapprove of LGBT people. These fears are real—antagonistic chairs are not the norm, but bias does exist, and can impact opportunities. Since evaluations are really powerful in shaping their futures, medical students are cautious about making waves. The LGBT support group currently has about 12 members; many others still choose to remain closeted.
I am aware of 3 LGBT couples who live together. There are 3 transgender people active in the support group, another two students who are fairly active on campus, also a couple of LLU employees. I am aware of 5 gay and lesbian faculty and staff. It is highly likely that there are more in each category. I am also aware of two transgender people who have transitioned, and another who is now in process. A Mormon intersexed student who had changed his/her gender identity back and forth spoke to the Diversity Council as an example of personal struggle. However, no-one with a same-sex partner has yet been chosen for a high-level post on campus. If that were not possible, it would indicate that discrimination continues to exist. However, since this has already occurred at other Adventist colleges, this suggests that it will also occur in time at LLU.
LLU has made dramatic changes towards making the campus a safe and welcoming place, but it still has a distance to go. The University is continuing to work on improving the situation. For example, curriculum committees, with LGBT students involved, are updating the Medical School curriculum. In 2019, the long-present statement that the heterosexual married couple is God’s ideal for sexual expression was finally removed from the Sexual Standards section of the Student Handbook.
There is concern on the LLU campus that the General Conference could try to replace Hart, when he retires, with a president who would attempt to reverse the changes. However, most of those asked about this thought that it would be well-nigh impossible to achieve this because of the broad support for the changes on campus and the fact that only one-third of the Board members are officers of the Church: another one-third are drawn from the campus, and the remaining one-third from laypersons. The new approach is now well established. There would be a lot of push-back if the General Conference leadership attempted to make a power-play, and a serious chance that programs would lose their accreditation if it were successful.
Some administrators point to the fact that in American history the separations that have occurred between medical institutions and the denominations that founded them have almost always been at the initiative of the churches, and wonder if that could happen to LLU. At this point, while some conservative members are frustrated with Loma Linda as a so-called bastion of liberalism, there is a great deal of evidence that the church leaders are proud of the university and its medical center, and recognize that it is inevitably different from other church-connected institutions.
It seems strange that while LLU has become welcoming to LGBT people, the University Church, which is situated on its campus, makes no such statement: unlike La Sierra University Church, it has lagged behind the university. This is so even though its Senior Pastor, Randy Roberts, is also a Vice-President of the umbrella organization, Loma Linda University Health, and in that capacity he must be well aware of the changes made by the University. Most of the administrators interviewed surprised me by not being aware of the disparity between the University and its Church until I asked them the reasons for it.
What were the key factors that helped to produce the changes that have been discussed? I see six factors interacting together:
- American attitudes towards LGBT people have changed dramatically in the past 20 years, and LLU was much more exposed to these than other Adventist centers because of is focus on medicine and science and its medical role in the community.
- These changes in societal attitudes in turn impacted court decisions and laws. These could impact the availability of state funds to the university and students, and the concerns of visiting accrediting bodies. The programs were inevitably concerned about the questions that accreditors might raise: the most difficult ones were raised by the psychologists, but the Medical School, which had previously experienced problems with reaccreditation, was also very concerned. Title IX requirements and court decisions legalizing same-sex marriage placed new pressures on the University because of its concern that its policies be in tune with the Law.
- LLU became increasingly concerned about treating all patients, including LGBT patients, effectively and equally, and with training students to do that.
- LLU was proud because both its faculty and students were drawn from many countries and were racially and culturally diverse. Its commitment to diversity broadened over time to include sexual orientation and gender identity also.
- Scientific research, especially Dr Kerby Oberg’s persistence in providing current and accurate medical evidence on reproductive development, helped both administrators and students to understand the complexity of sexual differentiation, and the biological basis of sexual diversity. Oberg used scientific information to show that nature is not always binary, and thus to validate the existence of transgender and intersexed people. Administrators became convinced that gender identity and sexual orientation are medical, not theological, matters.
- The personal commitment of several key administrators evolved over time, becoming very different from that of earlier administrations. Knowledge of the angst of particular LGBT friends, family members, and students, their certainty that these too were children of God, and their personal commitment to emulate Christ’s love for all without distinction, led such administrators to become strongly committed to making LLU a truly welcoming campus. For example, there is no doubt that President Hart’s transgender long-term friend, who he remains close to, helped make him sensitive to the plight of LGBT faculty and students at LLU and convinced him that creating a truly welcoming campus was the right thing for a Christian university to do. Without his commitment and zeal, the changes may not have been made at this time.
The staff who provide help to students in the other Adventist colleges and universities in the NAD are aware of the dramatic developments towards LGBT acceptance on the Loma Linda campus. Some have told me that they see Loma Linda as better positioned to move in directions that the General Conference has not considered; they hope that it can create a wake that will also propel other campuses in a similar direction. Since they recognize that state-sponsored regulations helped push Loma Linda towards dramatic changes, they realize that the time may come when similar regulations will also pressure their colleges to be more caring towards their gay students. They see an irony in that pattern, where actions by government or courts prod Adventist institutions to be more Christian in their actions.