William Jessup University in Rocklin expels gay student

Meanwhile, public universities and churches in Sacramento and beyond trend oppositely and embrace LGBT community

Anthony Villarreal recently wrote an essay accusing Rocklin-based William Jessup University of kicking him out because he was gay.

Anthony Villarreal recently wrote an essay accusing Rocklin-based William Jessup University of kicking him out because he was gay.

photo by steven chea

Last year, William Jessup University discovered two things about one of its students: First, that he was living with his boyfriend, and second, that he was arrested after they had a dispute.

It’s unclear which of those drove the Christian university in Rocklin to expel Anthony Villarreal. But last month, Villarreal published an article on the website Outsports accusing the school of kicking him out for being gay.

“After struggling for years with my sexual identity, wrongfully being arrested and nearly killing myself, I had finally reached a place of self-acceptance and found a loving and supporting boyfriend who nurtured me,” Villarreal wrote. “Then the school took away everything that I had worked so hard for.”

The university declined to explain Villarreal’s dismissal, except to issue a statement: “While University policy prohibits us from discussing private student matters, we do not discriminate against students based on their sexual orientation.”

University president John Jackson also sent the statement through a universitywide email, in which he asked students and faculty to keep William Jessup “in prayer regarding these matters.”

While the school says it does not discriminate against students because of their sexuality, it does have an anti-gay policy. The school’s handbook includes a nonbinding code of conduct that states, “Students who engage in unmarried heterosexual cohabitation or any homosexual/bisexual activity will be subject to judicial action.”

In an interview, Villarreal said he knows straight students who were disciplined for cohabitation but remained enrolled. The school would not say whether it has dismissed straight couples for living together.

Jackson wrote in his email, “Participation at William Jessup University is a privilege and as such comes with specific responsibilities which all of us voluntarily accept.” This poses the question: Why would a gay man voluntarily matriculate at a conservative Christian university?

Villarreal says that he was confused as a freshman. “I prayed to God to please make me straight,” he says. “At that time, I was so strong in my faith that I guess you could say I thought my faith could overcome my sexuality.”

He eventually realized that praying wasn’t working and accepted that he was gay. Now, when people tell him the Bible bans homosexuality, Villarreal makes the common argument that the same passages, from the Book of Leviticus, also ban shellfish and mixing cotton with other fibers.

Villarreal, an accomplished distance runner from outside Fresno, was raised in a Catholic Mexican-American household and continues to identify as Christian. He was involved in a youth ministry and taught catechism. That upbringing, along with his tough-cop dad, shaped Villarreal’s views about homosexuality.

“I don’t want to say he hated gays, but he was always so negative about them, and that instilled a fear in me,” he said.

After he came out, his mother said the words a child hopes never to hear from his parents. Villarreal quotes her in his article: “I hate you Anthony, you make me hate you. You’re going to hell.”

Over time, she became more accepting, and Villarreal now has a healthy relationship with both parents. But the turning point didn’t happen until he published the article. He said it showed her what he was going through during the low point in their relationship—and gave her the courage to apologize.

His essay brought a wave of support from many others as well. Besides teachers he hadn’t seen since elementary school and strangers emailing to say they liked what he wrote, Villarreal, who’d lost all his college friends after the expulsion, also heard from William Jessup students. Although he said students had been instructed not to speak with him, some gay alumni told him they too felt unwelcome. They’d seen homophobic speech tagged on their car on campus, risked losing scholarships, or stepped down from leadership positions because they weren’t considered good role models.

If Villarreal’s homosexuality was a factor in his dismissal, it would put the university at odds with a growing climate of tolerance from the church (Pope Francis famously said he is not one to judge gays), as well as from other universities.

By coincidence, not long after news broke that William Jessup had expelled a gay student, public universities in California announced policies that moved them in the opposite trend.

On June 3, the University of California said in a press release it was creating an advisory group to make recommendations “on how best to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment for LGBT students, faculty and staff across the UC system.”

The same day, California State University updated its Systemwide Policy Prohibiting Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation Against Students, including on the basis of sexual orientation.

That’s a good sign for Villarreal, who is looking into state schools where he can complete his bachelor’s degree. He left William Jessup just eight classes short of a degree.

Several schools reached out to him to discuss transferring. Some in the religious community also have expressed sympathy for Villarreal’s situation.

Taliyah Allen, a lead trainer in the peer-support ministry at A Church for All in Sacramento, said there need not be a distance between gays and God.

“He’s a god of love, a god of acceptance, and he made no mistakes when he created us,” she said in a phone interview, adding that her church helps LGBT people through programs like Ripple Effect, which offers mental-health services.

Allen also criticized William Jessup for its anti-gay policy.

“My orientation shouldn’t relate to the degree I’m trying to attain,” she said. “That should not be something that should be discussed or is privy for that school. It had nothing to do with [Villarreal’s] education.”

Although the experience has left Villarreal feeling “neglected” by his religion, he said, “I still have faith in God and know he loves me as much as I love him.”