On Feb. 19, Lance Weldy was in New York City giving a lecture about what it's like being a gay student at the fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Upstate South Carolina. Weldy, who earned a creative writing degree from BJU in 1998, was expelled a year later as a graduate assistant. Someone turned him in for looking at gay websites on a computer off campus.
Now an associate professor of English at Francis Marion University, Weldy is working on a book about LGBT life at the conservative Christian university that cast him out more than a decade ago. Specifically, he says he's compiling a narrative from members of the LGBT community who attended or were affiliated with Bob Jones. For the purposes of his book, titled Fundy Closet: Queer Life at Bob Jones University, queer means "not a hetero-normative life," Weldy says.
The author is currently on the board of BJUnity.org, a site dedicated to members of the BJU LGBT community and their allies. The site encourages current and former students to share their experiences. Weldy wrote a five-part blog series on his own experience there and what it was like living a double life at the fundamentalist school.
This week he's taking his story on the road, speaking at the City University of New York's Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies. In an interview with the City Paper prior to his lecture, Weldy talked about what he planned to discuss.
"If you want to look at the word 'queer' itself, just being at Bob Jones as a straight person, it's a queer university," he says. "They pride themselves on calling themselves the world's most unusual university. Before they sold their radio station it was called WMUU, the World's Most Unusual University. So they self-proclaimed with pride, standing without apology for the old-time Gospel, and so what comes with that is a lot of social regulations." Those regulations, he says, include lights out times and a rising bell. There are no locks on doors at BJU.
"It was a careful and closely scrutinized place to live, always answering to someone higher up," he says. "In one sense, everyone who went there had a queer experience compared to College of Charleston or a public university or maybe even private universities. In that sense, the queerness there is just being different, being [regionally] unaccredited and being proud of not being accredited because the notion was, we were told, that if we wanted to be accredited we would have to give up religious doctrine."
But, of course, there was also queerness in another way. "Being gay was something that you were not allowed to be," he says. "Masturbation is also a big no-no."
Asked if Weldy felt he had to go all the way to New York to give such lectures, rather than do so in the culturally conservative stronghold of South Carolina, he laughed. He said the reason he's in the Big Apple is because he met a CUNY program director at a conference in Mississippi, where they brainstormed about the idea for a talk.
"I haven't really thought about doing anything locally yet, but who knows," he says.