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A Christian school fired two staffers for including their pronouns in emails
The pronouns were "in violation of institutional policy" said Houghton University officials
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Houghton University, a small school with about 1,000 students in upstate New York, fired two beloved residence hall directors because they included their pronouns in their work emails. Now the school is refusing to admit that’s the reason Raegan Zelaya and Shua Wilmot were fired… even though we have smoking gun proof that’s the main reason they were dismissed.
Houghton is affiliated with the Wesleyan Church, a conservative Methodist denomination, and it’s been taking steps to make the school less welcoming to the types of students they don’t want to see on campus:
Since 2021, it has closed a multicultural student center and an environmental sustainability program and rescinded its recognition of an on-campus L.G.B.T.Q. club after the club declined to more promote conservative views on sex and gender.
When the Mosaic Multicultural Center closed in March, after allegations that it was “exclusive and unwelcoming,” the school’s newspaper asked Zelaya, the Women’s Area Coordinator, for her thoughts. She didn’t hold back:
“If anything,” Zelaya writes, “it feels like it just further demonstrates that the university is only interested in the kinds of diversity that are convenient for marketing purposes. It is outrageous to have diversity as a pillar in our strategic plan when we are actively cutting the programs and spaces that help empower diverse students to succeed.”
That’s what’s known as sharing your opinion. She makes a good point in saying that if the school doesn’t embrace different kinds of diversity, they shouldn’t pretend otherwise. It’s a risky thing to say about your employer, but if it’s fair, it’s fair.
Zelaya also announced that she would be resigning from the school. But days after that article in the Houghton Star went public, the school’s Associate Director of Human Resources, Nancy Stanley, sent Zelaya a letter explaining why she was being fired instead. Stanley claimed her comments to the Star were “false and defamatory” (they were neither) and, more importantly, Jesus hated pronouns.
You previously tendered your resignation advising that you did not intend to return next year. However, as a result of your refusal to remove pronouns in your email signature in violation of institutional policy, and false and defamatory statements attributed to you in the recent Star article, please be advised of the following…
That suggests that the pronouns alone weren’t a dealbreaker, but Wilmot was fired for the same reason and he didn’t make any negative statements to a reporter as far as I can tell.
Ms. Zelaya and Mr. Wilmot, neither of whom is transgender, said they had professional and pastoral reasons for including their pronouns, but also a practical one: They both have uncommon, gender-neutral names, and said they have often been misgendered in email correspondence.
“There’s the professional piece to it, and the practical piece, and there’s also an inclusive piece, and I think that’s the piece this institution doesn’t want,” Mr. Wilmot, 29, said.
They were literally including pronouns in their emails so people knew how to address them. Unfortunately, they committed a cardinal sin of modern conservative Christianity: They showed respect to trans people by implicitly acknowledging their identities. That’s what the Christian school couldn’t handle.
The school’s response to all this? Stop saying this is about pronouns!
Michael Blankenship, a university spokesman, said in a statement that Houghton “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,” he said.
It’s not “extraneous” to let people know how to address you. If you put “Dr.” in front of your name because you’re a professor with a Ph.D., is that going too far as well?
And that excuse flies in the face of the letter Zelaya received that pointed to her pronoun inclusion as the reason she was getting fired. Maybe it wasn’t the only reason, but it was the only reason that mattered. Everything else was just a pile-on. There’s no reason to believe the other supposed infractions would have led to her firing had she not written “she/her” in her email signature.
An open letter defending Wilmot and Zelaya, with over 700 alumni signatures, was already sent to administrators. (A response from the school’s president didn’t address the pronoun issue directly but reiterated that “every Houghton employee affirms his or her understanding of and agreement to these [faith-based] commitments.”)
Wilmot and Zelaya offered lengthier explanations of their decisions in the video below. Interestingly enough, Zelaya says she also had a link in her email signature so students could sign up for meetings with her; that technically violated the email policy, too, but the school didn’t seem to care about that.
The bottom line is that these two are the sorts of people who make college feel like home. They’re trusted adults looking out for students who might otherwise feel marginalized. They’re the people you fondly remember after graduation.
The school’s decision, whether they’re just trying to appeal to anti-LGBTQ conservative donors or merely hell-bent on firing anyone who dares to defy email signature policy, sends a clear message that they’ll take tuition dollars from non-traditional students but they sure as hell won’t go out of their way to make those students feel accepted.
If that’s the kind of Christianity administrators want to pursue—the kind defined by what they’re against instead of what they’re for—they should just admit it instead of resorting to these under-handed tactics to rid themselves of Christian staffers looking out for students who may feel excluded.
Graduates should remember, too, and then steer their donations to organizations that actually care. Houghton clearly doesn’t want to be that place.
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