JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Molly Dycus is glad that when she crosses the stage to graduate from Milligan University Saturday, she won’t be far from a billboard sponsored by a group advocating for the Christian university to change its approach to LGBTQ issues.

“I love this billboard,” Dycus told News Channel 11 about the sign sponsored by the two-year-old nonprofit “Milligan for All,” whose board she serves on. “I love that all the things that it goes through of who is holy.”

Dycus, who came out as LGBTQ while a Milligan student, said Milligan for All’s fifth billboard continues its course of showing support for LGBTQ people while the group pushes for dialogue with Milligan’s administration.

Up since Monday about a quarter mile from the Christian university’s campus (and for another month), the billboard is dominated by the word “Holy” in huge type, with four precursors to the word: “Trans is (Holy),” “Drag Is,” “Queer Is,” and “You Are.”

It also includes a graphic of what is called the “Progress Pride Flag,” and reference to two scripture verses, Genesis 1:31 and Acts 10:15.

A vehicle passes the Milligan for All-sponsored billboard not far from Milligan University Wednesday. (WJHL photo)

The university’s official Statement on Human Sexuality includes clear language that Milligan believes sexual activity is exclusively designed for a married relationship between a man and a woman.

Alumni and other people related to the Milligan community started Milligan for All in 2021, less than a year after News Channel 11’s investigative story about the forced resignation of an LGBTQ professor. Group leaders called for constructive dialogue with Milligan’s administration regarding the climate on campus, tolerance for an LGBTQ support group for students and other issues they hoped to see change.

Dycus and Milligan alumnus Rev. Dr. Wes Jamison, the group’s president, both said not much seems to have changed since April 2021.

“We continue to reach out to the administration and hold an open hand to them inviting them to work with us,” Jamison said. “They have not really shown any significant interest in doing so and that significantly disappoints us. We are particularly concerned because the student support group there, Sanctuary is no longer meeting on campus due to pressures and changes that were affected by the administration last spring.”

Dycus, who said she “gained an excellent education,” said she believes Milligan sees the group as little more than an inconvenience.

“If they could get away with not having any relationship with Milligan for All I think they would do that, and I think they don’t do it because they’re afraid of it becoming a press scandal,” Dycus said.

“There was initial motivation … to have those conversations when everything first exploded, to show you know, their ability to communicate and willingness to work towards change. But really, there’s not a whole lot of change that’s really actually happened, I don’t think.”

Asked for a statement on the continued deployment of billboards and on any ongoing relationship with Milligan for All’s leadership, Milligan Director of Public Relations and Marketing Jonathan Burns sent this statement attributable to the university:

Milligan University continues to believe that all persons are created in the image of God. We seek to be a loving community showing Christ-like compassion, mutual respect, humility, forgiveness, and grace where all students are welcome to learn in a safe and supportive environment. Embracing the Bible as our sole authority, Milligan also continues to believe that God designed sex to be enjoyed within a marriage covenant between one man and one woman that is characterized by the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ.

What Dycus and Jamison would like to see

While she “absolutely” would like to see Milligan change its Statement on Human Sexuality, Dycus said there are a couple of steps Milligan could take that would give her hope. The first involves faculty, the second the status of a university-sanctioned group for queer students.

“I’m a lot of times more concerned about faculty members,” she said. “There’s just no way that a queer faculty member can work at Milligan, or if someone who already works at Milligan is queer it is not safe for them to come out.”

Molly Dycus, who identifies as queer, will graduate with a social work degree Saturday after four years at Milligan University. (WJHL photo)

She said as an LGBTQ student, she and her peers were safer in some ways because they were paying to attend. Employees sign a statement of faith, and Dycus said she’d like that to include some clause that if they choose to be in a same-sex relationship, “even though that goes against Milligan’s human sexuality statement that they can still work there safely.”

Dycus said she’s not holding her breath in that regard because she thinks the university looks at faculty as replaceable. “I think Milligan wants to hire people they feel like they can control,” she said.

On the student front, Jamison said people affiliated with Sanctuary says the group’s faculty sponsor was removed after students, not the sponsor, planned a “lavender graduation” last year.

The advisor “paid a very severe price for that,” Jamison said, and the group has been relegated to a status that doesn’t allow open on-campus presence — something Dycus confirmed.

“Sanctuary, it is constricted,” Dycus said. “They are not allowed to advocate for anything it’s solely a support group. They’re not allowed to have any social media.”

Jamison said Milligan for All leaders’ communications with university leadership continue the group “inviting them to work with us on creating policies and practices that are more affirming as well as fostering an environment on campus that is more affirming of LGBTQIA students.”

But Jamison said after a promise to do that during meetings in the summer of 2021, the results have been disappointing.

Dycus said she thinks Milligan leaders are “afraid of students advocating and being loud and being inconvenient and that getting out to the community and hurting the reputation of Milligan.”

She said she’d like to see “a more prominent group for queer students … where they can use their voice and feel like there’s a home and it’s not just like this secretive support group where we feel sad because we’re queer at a Christian oppressive university.”

Change ahead?

Jamison and Dycus both said Milligan for All leaders wanted to show support for LGBTQ people outside the Milligan community with this billboard in the wake of several pieces of 2023 Tennessee legislation they say are harmful to the LGBTQ community. The primary two are a ban on certain drag shows and another on gender-affirming surgeries for minors regardless of parental consent.

“Our hope was to first of all, speak to those who feel frightened and who feel threatened as a result of recent policies,” Jamison said.

“We wanted to say to them, first of all, that you are holy and good and wonderful just the way you are, just the way God made you, and we also wanted to encourage those who are struggling to understand diversity of gender and sexuality to rethink those positions,” Jamison said.

A screenshot from the “Our Mission” page on Milligan for All’s website. (Milligan for All)

Dycus said she remains somewhat hopeful that Milligan’s policies and climate around the issue will change someday. She said she’s studied the Bible passages that refer to same-sex activities and is convinced their context allows for a theological interpretation that affirms same-sex relationships.

“What Paul addresses in the New Testament I think it is a huge cultural difference,” Dycus said. “I think Paul typically was talking about harmful situations in which an older man maybe was abusing a younger boy, a servant, and that not being okay.

“That’s not a loving, consensual, mutual giving relationship, and I don’t think there were same-sex mutual giving consensual partnerships. That wasn’t even being addressed. That wasn’t happening.”

When she crosses the stage, whether or not she’s sporting a rainbow-colored cord that Milligan for All is providing students who request one, Dycus said she’ll leave an institution that’s provided her with a positive experience.

“I have had wonderful experiences with my professors. I feel like I have gained an excellent education. I love my friends, my roommates and I’ve made great connections.”

She said she’s thought about whether she’d attend Milligan if she had it to do all over, and that she would.

“But I have to kind of tease out some of the negative oppressive parts of this institution and say, like, ‘you know what, that’s not going to define my experience at Milligan. My friends, my professors, my education, they’re going to define my experience, not three administrators and a board of trustees who don’t care about my life, who I’ve barely talked to.'”

Dycus estimates about 60% of Milligan students have a theology that’s affirming of LGBTQ people, and that most of the 40% who don’t, “I don’t think they’re supportive of not giving equal opportunity to all people.”

“I think that probably those who pay attention and who care about it would disagree with what Milligan does even though they’re not affirming.”

She doesn’t think Milligan for All is going anywhere and she plans to remain an active supporter of the group.

“I believe that as the current board of trustees step down, and there’s a new generation of board of trustees, I could see there being real change, but I think it’s going to have to be incremental,” Dycus said.

“People do not take change well when it’s one big leap or even one big step.”

Milligan’s 2023 spring commencements are set for 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday in Seeger Chapel.