Alumni are criticising a small New York Christian university for firing two employees who refused to remove gender pronouns from their email signatures.
In April, Raegan Zelaya and Shua Wilmot, residence hall directors at Houghton University, were fired from their positions, after they put “she/her” and “he/him” on their emails.
In a widely-circulated termination letter to Ms Zelaya, the school wrote that it fired her shortly before the end of the semester “as a result of your refusal to remove pronouns in your email signature” and because she criticised the decision in the student newspaper.
Mr Wilmot said he was also accused of making a “threat” towards the general superintendent of the Wesleyan Church. The university is affiliated with the conservative branch of the Methodist Church.
Mr Wilmot had written what he described as a “constructive letter” to Superintendent Wayne Schmidt about the church’s views on gender identity and expression, saying they were outdated and problematic.
A spokesperson for the university told The New York Times this week that the school “has never terminated an employment relationship based solely on the use of pronouns in staff email signatures”.
“Over the past years, we’ve required anything extraneous be removed from email signatures, including Scripture quotes,” a spokesperson said.
In a video last month explaining the incident, the ex-residence hall directors, neither of whom is transgender, said their decision to put pronouns in emails was meant both as a gesture of inclusivity, and because people often weren’t able to tell their genders from their first names over email.
“It is pretty standard industry practice ... to include your pronouns in your email signature,” Ms Zelaya said, in the video.
They explained that pronouns are often shared during conferences, interviews and other professional events.
“It’s professional courtesy I can offer, and it’s a way I can show care and dignity for others,” she added.
“Calling people by the name they like to be called, using the pronouns that they use, that’s just a way to dignify them and humanize them,” Mr Wilmot continued.
“By normalizing the visiblity of pronouns in an email signture, I can play a small role ... in empowering others to also share their pronouns in an email signature, thus it normalizes a less emotional labourious way for gender-expansive people to out themselves.”
Houghton University is affiliated with the Wesleyan Church, which teaches that “gender confusion and dysphoria are ultimately the biological, psychological, social and spiritual consequences of the human race’s fallen condition” and views “adult gender nonconformity as a violation of the sanctity of human life.”
Mr Wilmot also defended his decision to speak out in a Facebook post last month.
“I would just like to express how profoundly grateful I am to have enough privilege to stand up for truth and justice at the expense of a job,” he wrote.
“If any of you are ever in a position where you believe your employer is asking you to do something unjust or unethical, please reach out to me and others for encouragement and empowerment.”
In April, an open letter with nearly 600 signatures of Houghton University alumni criticised the employees’ firings as part of a seemingly broader turn against multiculturalism at the school. The letter highlighted the recent closure of a multicultural student centre.
“Our overall concern is that these recent changes demonstrate a concerning pattern of failure on the part of the current administration to respect that faithful and active Christians reasonably hold a range of theological and ethical views, and in turn, failure to allow for genuine dialogue about these differing views. In this way, Houghton is not living up to its own ideals,” the alumni wrote.
In a response earlier this month, university president Wayne D Lewis Jr defended closing the student centre for budgetary reasons, and didn’t explicitly mention the firings.
“While we require that all Houghton employees be active Christians, our employees come from a range of Christian traditions,” his letter reads.
“We do, however, require as a condition of employment that all employees be respectful of the positions, doctrine, and beliefs of the university. However, Houghton unapologetically privileges an orthodox Christian worldview, rooted in the Wesleyan theological tradition. At the time of their appointment and again annually, every Houghton employee affirms his or her understanding of and agreement to these commitments.”
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