They come together, even though they are so far apart.
An advocate from a lesbian rights group. A leader in a Christian sports ministry. The chief diversity officer from the largest university in the country. An athletics director from an evangelical Christian college. A transgender swimmer. And nearly 45 others.
Their paths converge, if only for a couple of days, on the campus of Houghton College, a small Christian school located in the rolling countryside of western New York. It is an unlikely setting for an unlikely undertaking.
“I believe this conversation is one of the most important conversations going on in our country today,” Houghton President Shirley Mullen says, welcoming the group to the third iteration of an NCAA program called Common Ground. “That is a big claim, I know. But let me explain.”
The participants listen from their seats at round tables, clustered inside a field house on a corner of the campus. Freshly penned name tags display their school or organization and preferred gender pronouns.
We are in a culture, Mullen tells the group, that knows how to launch inflammatory tweets into cyberspace, but not how to stay at the table and engage with each other. Her hope: that this conversation can be a model for other conversations in society.
“I’m not just talking about the topic of Common Ground,” Mullen adds. “I’m talking about any conversation that is sustained, that is civil and that tries to address difficult things that matter.”
Mullen is right — this work will be difficult. The Common Ground participants are stepping into the murky intersection of LGBTQ issues and Christian ideals, territory so rife with conflict and misunderstanding that Americans nationwide struggle with the dialogue. But they have one important thing on their side, a conversation on-ramp found in an unusual corner: college sports, something they knew they all believed in.
At the core of the discussions over the next two days are the questions Common Ground tries to answer: Is it possible to protect and respect the rights of private, faith-based schools to set policy in accordance with their faith tenets while ensuring lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students on campus are treated with respect, compassion and fairness? And is it possible to protect and respect the beliefs and rights of people of faith in public schools while protecting the rights of LGBTQ students and staff on these campuses?
The follow-up question proves even thornier. If yes, how?
As a light drizzle falls on the Division III Highlanders’ soccer field and track outside the field house, the participants reveal their hopes for the coming 36 hours.
“Courage,” one person says.
“Transformation,” states another.
And their fears? They have many. Soul-baring to mere acquaintances rarely comes without angst.
Pat Griffin, known by many as the “godmother” of LGBTQ advocacy work in athletics, offers hers.
“One is that we will leave and be exactly the same people as we were when we walked in,” she tells the group.
“My other fear is that we have a really intense, amazing experience, and we go back home, but we don’t do anything about it.”
Unlike the athletics competitions these people are accustomed to, Common Ground isn’t about determining a winner and a loser. Their game plan relies on honest face-to-face interactions and gradual relationship-building. Any progress requires patience.
If it were easy, it wouldn’t be so rare.
In the evolution of Common Ground, tough conversations beget more, tougher conversations. Long before the NCAA hosted the first think tank at its Indianapolis office in 2014, a series of challenging discussions planted the seeds.
One of the first occurred 10 years ago. Griffin, a former college swim coach turned professor turned full-time LGBTQ advocate, spent her athletics and coaching career in the closet and now works so other student-athletes and coaches don’t have to. For years, she manned a booth for an advocacy project at the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Convention. Each year, booths for two Christian sport ministries, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action, were stationed nearby.
Griffin bristled at any mention of Christianity. In 1998, she had published a book about lesbians and homophobia in sports, “Strong Women, Deep Closets,” and had included a chapter on the “destructive influence of evangelical Christianity” on LGBTQ athletes. Throughout her life, she had felt attacked by Christians and labeled as a sinner. So in those days, she kept her distance — except at the WBCA Convention, where she would venture across the aisle to covertly scan their materials for anti-gay sentiments, fanning her flames.
But at the WBCA Convention of 2007, Griffin was struck by a whim she could not shake. I should go talk to them.
She walked over and introduced herself. “I know we have a lot of really fundamental differences,” Griffin told the two women who greeted her. “But I’m wondering if we have anything in common.”
The women were open to talking, too. So they stepped outside to the concession area, pulled up three chairs and began.
The conversation lasted two hours. Griffin and the women discovered they shared a commitment to advancing women’s sports and a belief that all people deserved respect. Those commonalities were enough to build on. The next year for the same convention, the women organized a joint program on religion and LGBTQ issues in sports.
Griffin wondered if the program would incite a firestorm between conservative Christian and lesbian coaches. Or, worse, perhaps nobody would come.
Instead, when around 40 coaches showed up and engaged, Griffin knew: “We were ready to have this conversation.”
Four members of the Common Ground leadership team sit side by side at the front of the room in the Houghton field house, facing their audience for an intimate panel discussion. To understand where the collective group wants to go with Common Ground III, the newcomers need to understand where the veterans have been — and how far they’ve come already.
Gary Pine, the athletics director at Azusa Pacific — a private Christian school in Division II — swings his arm around Griffin, seated to his right, and rests his hand on her far shoulder. “I am an evangelical Christian,” Pine announces. “And this is one of my dearest friends.”
Griffin smiles knowingly. She’s heard this before. By now, all 12 members of the Common Ground leadership team know these stories like their favorite books. There’s little room for unfamiliarity when you have biweekly calls over the span of a year, as the Common Ground leadership team did while planning this event and other programs.
The Common Ground leaders are proud of the close bonds they have forged through their differences. They aim to model these relationships for others.
“If you would have told me five years ago that I would be flanked by two lesbians talking about God, I would have told you that’s impossible,” Pine continues. Gregarious and energetic, he smiles as he speaks. There’s no doubt he’s comfortable now in this role, leading these conversations. But it wasn’t always this way.
Pine explains that he grew up going to church twice every Sunday, once every Wednesday. His father was a pastor and taught a set of values the family held tight. They didn’t drink, didn’t smoke and valued sexual purity. The Bible was — and, for Pine, remains — the text of authority.
For most of his life, Pine didn’t know anyone who was openly gay.
But college sports have a tendency to bring diverse groups of people together in a way few other arenas can match. And whether you’re playing, coaching or leading an athletics department, you’re bound to come face-to-face with someone whose life experiences and outlook on the world alter your perspective.
“I told Pat, ‘Nobody has done more to deepen my faith in Jesus Christ than you,’” Pine relays to the group. “And she, being a recognized atheist, said, ‘Well, Gary, that certainly wasn’t my intention.’”
The room erupts with laughter.
Two other members of the leadership team share their accounts: Nevin Caple, co-founder of the LGBT SportSafe Inclusion Program, and Liz Darger, a senior associate athletics director at Brigham Young. Then the Common Ground facilitator, Tanya Williams, directs participants to reflect on the stories.
What questions do they have?
A hand shoots up in the front of the room. “I want to know whether Gary thinks Pat is going to hell,” one woman asks. “And whether that matters.”
For a moment, the room is silent. But Williams, a consultant who has facilitated hundreds of diversity and inclusion workshops, doesn’t flinch. She can never predict what drastic turn a dialogue might take. She does, however, clarify: She never said the panelists were going to answer these queries.
Williams pivots to write the question on the board, substituting “Gary” and “Pat” with “evangelical folks” and “LGBTQ folks.”
She also scribbles, “Is that even an important question?”
Then she turns back to the group, her eyes scanning the room for the next raised hand.
Administrators at Azusa Pacific had some uncomfortable questions when they began the process of joining the NCAA in 2011.
In his research, Pine came across an inclusion statement on the NCAA website that listed five areas of focus: race and ethnicity, women, people with disabilities, international student-athletes and LGBTQ people.
On Azusa Pacific’s website, four identity statements display the core beliefs of the university. One, titled “human sexuality,” declares the university’s view that “the full behavioral expression of sexuality is to take place within the context of a marriage covenant between a man and a woman, and that individuals remain celibate outside of the bond of marriage.” It also states that any “deviation from a biblical standard of sexual behavior is sin.”
Pine knew these religious beliefs evoked strong judgments and emotions among others in society. He wondered, would the school’s faith tenets mesh with the NCAA? If the university were accepted into the Association, would it later be pressured to deny its beliefs?
Pine attended an NCAA event and met former NCAA staff member Karen Morrison, Amy Wilson’s predecessor as director of inclusion. Pine asked Morrison: Had the NCAA ever brought faith-based schools together to discuss LGBTQ issues?
No, Morrison replied, it never had. But the question triggered an idea. Maybe there was a way to step up to that conversation.
About six months later at the 2014 NCAA Convention, Morrison organized a session called “LGBT and Religion: Finding Common Ground.” Griffin sat on the panel, and Pine listened from the audience. When the floor opened for comments, Pine’s heart pounded as he rose from his seat and walked toward the microphone.
“We’re all here under the umbrella of the NCAA,” he began. Under that umbrella, and even under the umbrella of the Christian church, he explained, are many different views on this subject matter. Pine was blunt: This issue was complex and couldn’t come close to being resolved in a 90-minute convention session. “We’ve got to keep talking,” he said.
And keep talking, they did. About five months later, Pine received an invitation for the first Common Ground think tank in Indianapolis. Reluctant at first, Pine silenced his qualms and agreed to be one of a handful of evangelical Christians to join the largely LBGTQ group.
When he entered the meeting space in 2014, Griffin was among the first to introduce herself. And over the hours that followed, she and others helped Pine better understand the struggles of the LGBTQ community, the lack of acceptance, fear and bigotry that some student-athletes were facing for their sexuality. LGBTQ students at Christian schools may wrestle with even greater challenges as they attempt to reconcile their core identities, they explained. The same strong faith that brought the students to their school also may make them feel at odds with their own sexuality, an internal battle that grows more dangerous when they have no one on campus to turn to. At schools with policies forbidding same-sex dating relationships, LGBTQ students could feel forced to hide their true identity or risk expulsion or other backlash.
Both sides spoke without accusing. Listened without defending. Asked questions of their peers — and also of themselves. The more Griffin spoke with Pine, the more her perceptions of evangelical Christians began to crack. She would never agree with his theological explanations, but she wasn’t expecting to change those beliefs anyway. She saw that he was a normal man trying to live up to a set of ideals, and the two weren’t as different as they seemed.
No matter their faith tenets, the Common Ground participants could all agree: Everyone should be treated with respect.
That night, Pine flew back to California through a clear, moon-filled sky. As his plane soared west over the snow-capped Rockies, he peered out the window. Tears began to fall.
God, he prayed, what are you doing to me?
Inside the field house, the participants form a circle as wide as the room. Williams, the facilitator, instructs them not to speak to one another. Just listen, and step forward when it feels right.
At first, the statements are easy.
“Join me on common ground if you are the oldest in your family,” Williams says. A dozen or so people take a step into the circle. They linger, look around, then fall back into place.
“Join me on common ground if you are the youngest in your family.” Williams continues at a steady cadence. If you are an only child. A first-generation U.S. citizen. A first-generation college student.
The circle has become more like an amoeba, fluctuating constantly with each new statement.
“Join me on common ground if you identify as a person of color.” A dozen step in.
White. The majority move.
Mixed race or biracial. A handful.
Each round of statements burrows a little deeper. Before long, everyone in the group knows who among them identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. They know who consider themselves Christians and who don’t believe in a god. They see that no other major religions outside Christianity are represented in the group.
When she’s made it through her list, Williams invites others to chime in.
“Join me on common ground if you at one point felt ashamed of your sexual orientation or gender identity,” one person says.
Several enter the circle.
“Join me on common ground if you’ve ever tried to support a very distressed student coming to terms with their sexual orientation,” adds another.
A low murmur. Most participants step forward.
Deeper and deeper they go. Williams, who has run this activity hundreds of times, says it never fails to “crack open people’s hearts” and make them willing to be vulnerable. But this group takes it to a level she rarely sees.
“Join me on common ground if you’ve ever contemplated or attempted suicide,” one woman says. The words hang in the air, thick with emotion.
The room is silent, save for the rustling of movement. Seven people step forward.
Liz Darger will never forget the first time she stepped into the circle.
It was one year ago, during Common Ground II in Indianapolis. Darger had just completed her first year as a senior athletics administrator at Brigham Young and knew no one at the think tank. Many people there believed in the same God as she, yet Darger feared she wouldn’t find common ground with any of them. While Mormons consider themselves Christians, other branches of Christianity disagree.
The 2016 participants gathered for the circle activity, designed to illustrate their unexpected similarities. Williams ran through her usual statements. But one caught Darger by surprise: “Join me on Common Ground if you are Mormon.”
Without time to think, Darger moved into the middle. Her heart raced as she stood there, alone. She looked around. Did anyone really understand her here?
Later, a thought occurred: This must be how LGBTQ students feel at my school.
Darger’s path to Common Ground began in one of her weekly meetings with Brigham Young’s director of athletics, Tom Holmoe. Someone in the university administration had heard about an NCAA initiative bringing together religious schools and the LGBTQ community. Holmoe turned to Darger: “Liz, will you look into this?”
Brigham Young has faced public criticism for its honor code, which includes a section on “homosexual behavior.” The code explicitly distinguishes “behavior” from “feelings or attraction,” stating that same-gender attraction “is not an Honor Code issue” as long as a commitment to the “law of chastity” is kept.
Like Pine, Darger aims to stay true to the teachings of her church while also working to ensure all students and student-athletes at Brigham Young, regardless of their sexual orientation, have the best college experience possible.
In October 2016, Darger attended a session on LGBT inclusion at the convention for the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators, now known as Women Leaders in College Sports. She recognized the presenters’ names from a Common Ground report she found when she was researching the program. She wanted to know more. After the session, she asked the presenters: How could Brigham Young get an invitation to the next Common Ground?
The next day, it came. Common Ground II was just three weeks away, but the organizers would make room for Darger if she would come. At her athletics director’s urging, she hopped on a plane and flew to Indianapolis.
Her unsettling moment in the circle was just the first in a day full of them. At one point, when the conversation grew tense and left Darger feeling defensive of her school and, once again, alone, Wilson, the NCAA director of inclusion who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community and a Christian, spoke up. Wilson told the group that Brigham Young wasn’t initially invited to Common Ground, but had sought out the invitation. “I think that says a lot about their intentions,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s comments diffused the tension — and taught Darger something more. Everyone needs an ally. And in that room, Wilson was hers.
When Common Ground II ended, the work for Darger was just beginning. Back at Brigham Young, she shared her experience with campus leaders and presented ideas for LGBTQ-related initiatives the university might consider. School President Kevin Worthen formed a working group to look at LGBTQ issues and asked Darger to serve on it. One year later, the group continues to meet weekly with LGBTQ students at Brigham Young to learn more about their experience and explore ways to support their needs.
The connection between Darger and Wilson also grew, and in February, the university invited the NCAA director to campus to further their dialogue. Wilson frequently travels to campuses to lead programming and share her inclusion expertise with NCAA student-athletes and administrators, but this visit was different. Wilson had never been more nervous about anything in her life. The invitation from Brigham Young was unprecedented, and if the LGBTQ discussions didn’t go well, she feared she would hinder progress.
The night before her scheduled meetings at Brigham Young, Wilson settled into her guest room on campus and attempted to calm her nerves. In search of a distraction, she picked up a book from a side table. It was a collection of devotionals written by various Brigham Young professors and staff. Wilson opened the book to a random page, then nearly dropped it when her eyes settled on unexpected words.
“God commanded the Israelites to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord,’” she read. “There are no caveats here — no ‘love thy neighbor unless he is X, Y, or Z’ — but a command for total inclusion.”
A chill overcame Wilson as her eyes studied the page. Then, a sense of calm. I can do this, she thought.
The next day, she met with Brigham Young coaches, athletics staff and student-athletes. She spoke with an array of groups outside athletics, too: the student association, dean’s office staff, on-campus housing leadership. Then, after a marathon of meetings, Brigham Young administrators asked if she would squeeze in one more.
Wilson left Provo and drove north to Salt Lake City. Leaders from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wanted to talk.
Giant, yellow sheets of paper line the walls at the Houghton field house, a word scrawled atop each one.
Morality. Queer. Gender-fluid. Faith. Transgender.
Under each word, Common Ground III participants have written more words they associate with the term.
Williams splits the group in two. She tells one half to stand by a word they can explain well and asks the other half to select a word they want to learn more about.
Griffin meets Donna Noonan, a representative from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, at a sheet displaying a string of LGBT identifiers: “lesbian/gay/same-gender loving/ bisexual/asexual/pansexual.”
Noonan clutches a paper cup of tea as she studies the sheet. Griffin, taking on the role of teacher, stands ready for questions.
“How do you keep up with it all?” Noonan asks.
“Well, it’s a challenge,” Griffin admits. Terms have evolved with the younger generations, and even Griffin, at 71, continues to learn.
“You just don’t want people to get offended,” Noonan responds.
Griffin offers assurance. “Most people understand an honest question.”
Griffin doesn’t want the fear of misspeaking to keep people from trying. But she continues to hear such concerns from her non-LGBTQ peers throughout the day. Language is powerful — and they should use it carefully — but silence is worse, she tells them.
That evening, she discusses the importance of inclusive language with a group of administrators from Christian schools.
“If there are closeted LGBT people on your team, they are listening very attentively,” Griffin says. “And if they hear you using inclusive language, they may think, ‘Maybe my coach is somebody I can approach.’ You’re sending messages with your language.”
One athletics director from a Wesleyan university, after sitting quietly through much of the conversation, reflects on former student-athletes who, since graduating, have come out as gay. Maybe, he says, he’ll give them a call after this event.
His eyes start to redden. “I don’t know that I marginalized them,” he says, voice catching. “But I may have.”
Across from him, Griffin is leaning forward on the table, as if physically pulled by his words. Her eyes are pooling, but she doesn’t break her stare. “Thank you for sharing that,” she tells him.
A self-described introvert, Skip Lord calls Common Ground “emotional heavy lifting.” Hours of deeply personal discussions leave him eager to collapse into his recliner at home. Yet the Houghton athletics director and evangelical Christian is as invested in this work as any of his peers on the leadership team.
The plan to host Common Ground III at his school began to take shape soon after Lord attended Common Ground II.
When he debriefed Houghton’s president on the experience, Lord mentioned the leadership team’s dream: Someday, they hoped to hold a Common Ground at a Christian college.
Mullen interrupted him. “Why don’t we offer to have it here?” she asked.
Mullen was impressed with the Common Ground model, the way in which one commonality — college sports — enabled two sides to broach a difficult topic. It was just the kind of conversation she felt needed to occur more in the country, particularly on religious college campuses.
“I think faith-based institutions have a special responsibility to promote these kinds of conversations precisely because I think they are often misunderstood as places that are narrow,” Mullen says. “I feel we need to be countering that narrative and providing spaces that don’t fit that stereotype.”
Lord, a former longtime coach, believes in the role athletics can play in making inroads on this global issue. The spotlight placed on athletes and their teams yields opportunities for influence. But Lord is pragmatic in his approach. “It isn’t intended to be a mushy, kumbaya, everybody compromise and come together in the middle,” he says. “There’s some pretty intense differences of position on this.”
Lord likens the conversation to an onion, with its many layers of nuance. As much as human nature propagates stereotyping and categorizing, real people and their core identities don’t render on a monochrome scale. And when you bring people together, face to face, those colorful complexities come into focus.
Mullen and Lord realize that conversations are just a start, but an important one. “Conversations complicate things,” Mullen says. “And if we don’t complicate things first, we’re never going to come to solutions.”
The hardest conversation of all surfaces halfway through Day Two.
The Common Ground III participants divide into four groups: people of faith, LGBTQ people, LGBTQ people of faith, and people who identify with neither. After lengthy discussions with their like-minded peers, the groups reconvene to take turns sitting in the middle of the room and conversing while the other groups sit on the outskirts and listen. They call the activity the “fishbowl.”
Eleven people from the LGBTQ group enter the circle and lean in tight. Griffin’s eyes already are flooded with tears. Someone grabs a box of tissues and passes it around.
“Part of the reason this was so emotional for us is it retriggered, for many of us, our own experiences as young people,” Griffin begins.
She tells those listening that they focused their conversation on LGBTQ youth in faith-based schools. And she warns the larger group that they are going to share some challenging information. “We don’t share it in a sense of blaming,” she says. “We share it in a sense of information that we want to work on together to try to make life better for those young people.”
One woman cites suicide statistics. “We know that young people who are LGBTQ are three to five times more likely to end their life than non-LGBTQ people,” she says softly. She looks down at her hands, which fumble with her dark-rimmed glasses and a wadded tissue. “We’re talking about a life-and-death situation here, which is why I’m crying.”
The woman continues, talking about the support young people need at this vulnerable time in their lives. Support from one caring adult on campus is not enough, she says.
The woman’s voice breaks, and the student-athlete seated next to her pulls her head to his shoulder. She clenches her eyes, choking back sobs. “I don’t just need your love,” another woman implores. “I need you to act. Our student-athletes and our coaches need you to act.”
One after the other, they share their pains and their pleas. For 12 long, heart-wrenching minutes.
When their time is up, Williams tells the group to take a deep breath. Male, female, Christian, non-Christian — everyone in the room is visibly shaken.
Griffin settles back in her seat at a round table. She crosses her legs, then folds her hands.
As the next group in the fishbowl starts to speak, Griffin stares straight ahead at them and listens. Silently, her chest heaves.
Many questions will remain unanswered. But Pine needs to address just one.
He steps forward into the circle they again have formed, the last one before they part ways.
“I love that lady,” Pine says, pointing to Griffin across the room. “I’ve told her that privately.”
Williams gently reminds Pine that others still need to speak. They are taking turns sharing their final thoughts before they say goodbye, and the clock is ticking closer to their scheduled end time.
Pine talks faster. He doesn’t want to leave this hanging.
“It’s not my call to determine who goes to heaven,” he says. “Not my call.”
It’s the best answer Pine feels he can give.
At the front of the room, a reminder is displayed on the big screen: “A little progress each day adds up to big results.”
The reflections continue around the circle, until the last person to speak is Lord. The Houghton athletics director thanks Mullen and his staff for helping to make the event possible. Then, he turns to the LGBTQ woman who, hours earlier in the fishbowl, had pleaded with her peers to take action. Lord mentions how he has known the woman on a professional level for years, and she always has made him feel warm and welcomed.
“When you sat in the middle of the room and said, ‘It’s nice to love me, but that’s not enough,’” Lord begins. He pauses as emotion overcomes him, and he struggles to get out his next words. “I want to make that up to you.”
The woman leaves her place in the circle, walks over to Lord and wraps her arms around him.
Outside this circle, their differences are far from resolved. But within this room, they at least have common ground.
They linger in the embrace for one long moment.