Stephen Lovegrove had been working as an openly gay resident adviser at Charleston Southern University while studying to become a pastor after a long journey through his faith and sexuality.
He said he felt accepted and supported at the private Christian college. But this summer, when he posted a series of personal stories on social media sites about being gay and Christian, he said he was fired from his campus job.
The 20-year-old transferred to Winthrop University at the start of this school year.
Now, another CSU student has created an online petition to get the college to add a policy that bans students from being fired from campus jobs because of their sexual orientation.
If the petition reaches 500 signatures, the student who launched it may present it to the CSU Board of Trustees. As of Friday it had about 460.
School officials contend that Lovegrove wasn’t fired but rather temporarily reassigned — and then left CSU without responding to their efforts to move him to another position.
Their actions came because he was serving in a leadership role while publicly promoting sexuality that is contrary to the Christian school’s beliefs, CSU officials said.
“We expect our leaders to support our biblical core values,” said Rick Brewer, vice president of student affairs.
Lovegrove said he just he wants to ensure equal treatment of current and future gay students. He also wants to share his story publicly to help others grappling with faith and sexuality.
Lovegrove’s life began at Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian school in Greenville. He was born in the campus hospital.
Although raised in a conservative Christian home and church, by sixth grade he noticed that other boys were talking about girls in ways he didn’t understand.
At 12 he realized he was gay. He calls it “the most terrifying moment of my life.” He had grown up hearing that God hates gays and that homosexuality is a sin. So he prayed for Jesus to change him. He prayed and prayed.
But by the end of middle school, he would scream at God, furious that he wasn’t straight yet. By junior year he had grown depressed and suicidal.
Then, one cold January night when he was 17, he went to a new church. There, he felt Jesus embracing him as he was, not as he wanted to be. Jesus, he realized, was not going to “fix” him.
“I didn’t need a genie,” Lovegrove said. “I needed a savior.”
That night he felt free. He felt loved. He felt part of God’s story in the world.
And he felt God wanted him to share his role in that story.
As Lovegrove opened up to friends and family, he felt God call him to become a pastor.
He enrolled at CSU for an education in Christian ministry. The North Charleston school is affiliated with the South Carolina Baptist Convention and has been named one of America’s best Christian colleges.
Lovegrove worked in Residence Life as a resident adviser, supervising students and helping with dorm activities during the last school year. He became active in Campus Ministries and befriended the campus pastor. This summer, he supervised dorms during summer camp sessions.
“As soon as I got to CSU, I was very open about my faith and very open about my sexuality,” he said. “For a long time, the school supported me.”
So he didn’t ask when he decided to set his story free on social media.
He wrote on his blog and recorded a series of videos in his dorm room that chronicle his journey through his faith and sexuality. He posted them on YouTube and Tumblr and linked them to his other social media.
“Yes, I’m gay. And I love Jesus. Both of those statements are true,” he wrote on his blog.
The first post appeared on July 17. For five days he posted videos about his sexuality and desire to help others.
“I did my best to share my faith, to share my sexuality and to share my story,” he said.
On July 22 his supervisors called him to a meeting. He said he didn’t know why.
“You being gay isn’t news at the school,” he recalled thinking. “So that can’t be an issue.”
And he didn’t think he had done anything wrong. The 2012-13 student handbook forbid premarital and extramarital sex, but did not forbid discussing sexual orientation, he said.
Lovegrove met with Tyler Davis, director of Residence Life, and the Rev. Jon Davis, campus pastor. (They are not related.)
They told Lovegrove he was being released from his Residence Life duties, Lovegrove said.
“They told me that now it was an issue because it was public and online, and it was a liability for the school,” Lovegrove said.
CSU officials deny that Lovegrove was fired.
“He was told he was going to be temporarily reassigned so we could have some further dialogue,” Tyler Davis said.
Jon Davis said he told Lovegrove he wanted him to work with him at Campus Ministries and would pursue the option through campus employment channels.
“I was really excited about that because we felt like that was a great place — with his ability to connect and strong leadership, he would fit in well,” Jon Davis said.
Lovegrove said he would pray about it and get back to him, but then never responded, Jon Davis said.
“They definitely expressed love to me,” Lovegrove said. “But I was not offered a job and not transferred to another position.”
Lovegrove was under a work-study contract with CSU that ended Aug. 4. He worked to the contract’s end, Tyler Davis said.
School officials said they welcome a chance to talk with Lovegrove.
“I would personally love the opportunity,” Jon Davis said.
Petition for change
Last month, Lovegrove transferred to Winthrop University where he’s a junior studying philosophy and religion.
He recently heard from April Singletary, a friend and current CSU student who identifies as bisexual and Christian. She launched the online petition addressed to CSU President Jairy C. Hunter Jr.
“We are petitioning CSU to add a new policy that protects students of all sexual orientations — a policy stating that as long as students follow the rules outlined in the student handbook and in their employment contracts, no student may be removed from any position due to their sexual orientation,” the petition states.
However, partly in response to the matter with Lovegrove, CSU’s 2013-14 student handbook includes a new section under Disciplinary Offenses that says: “The promotion, advocacy, defense or ongoing practice of a homosexual lifestyle (including same-sex dating behaviors) is also contrary to our community values.”
The school wanted to codify what until then was common knowledge, Brewer said, and CSU stands by its biblical beliefs.
“It’s clearly consistent with Scripture and 2,000 years worth of Christianity,” said Clark Carter, CSU dean of students. “But just because you are doing something we don’t agree with doesn’t mean we don’t love you.”
Lovegrove worries about the new handbook and wants to ensure that future gay and lesbian students at CSU are treated fairly, even if they publicly discuss their sexuality.
“I loved every minute of my experience at CSU up until that meeting,” Lovegrove said. “But now a conversation has been started that is long overdue.”
Singletary said she has received mixed responses from students on campus.
“We know CSU isn’t anti-gay because of the plethora of gay students here,” Singletary said. “But this does put a lot of fear in those students. We just want people to talk about it and understand where we’re coming from.”
However, Jon Davis added that the student handbook already says: “We believe that all people should be treated with dignity, grace and holy love whatever their sexual beliefs.”
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.