NEW YORK – Shua Wilmot and Raegan Zelaya, two former dorm directors at a small Christian university in western New York, acknowledge their names are unconventional, which explains why they attached gender identities to their work email signatures.
Wilmot uses “he/him.” Zelaya goes by “she/her.”
Their former employer, Houghton University, wanted them to drop the identifiers in line with a new policy for email formats implemented in September. Both refused and were fired.
“My name is Shua. It’s an unusual name. And it ends with a vowel, ‘a,’ that is traditionally feminine in many languages,” Wilmot said in a nearly one-hour video he and Zelaya posted on YouTube shortly after they were let go last month. “If you get an email from me and you don’t know who I am, you might not know how to gender me.”
Ongoing culture wars in the U.S. over sexual preferences, gender IDs and transgender rights have engulfed politics, school campuses and many other facets of public and private life. At least 17 Republican-led states have severely restricted gender affirming care. Debates continue to rage in some communities about school curricula mentioning sexual orientation or gender identity. And pickets have sprung up outside public libraries hosting “drag story hours.”
Meanwhile, controversies swirl at campuses with religious affiliations. The recent firings prompted more than 700 Houghton alumni to sign a petition in protest.
In the Northwest, 16 plaintiffs are suing Seattle Pacific University, a Christian liberal arts college, to challenge the school’s employment policy barring people in same-sex relationships from full-time jobs.
In New York City, LGBTQ students are challenging Yeshiva University's decision to bar their student-run club from campus.
Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, a 2-year-old advocacy group for LGBTQ students at publicly funded religious colleges and universities, said actions such as these are cause for despair.
“There's a backlash against the rise of LGBTQ rights,” he said, and not just with "white evangelical Christianity in the South ... but in places like New York and Oregon that we wouldn’t think would be experiencing this backlash.”
Earlier this year, a federal judge in Oregon dismissed a lawsuit that LGBTQ students filed against the U.S. Department of Education claiming it didn't protect them against discrimination at religiously affiliated universities receiving federal money.
Houghton University, an 800-student campus 60 miles (96 kilometers) southeast of Buffalo, says it offers a “Christ-centered education in the liberal arts and sciences.”
In a statement emailed to The Associated Press on Saturday, the university said it could not speak publicly about personnel matters, but it “has never terminated an employment relationship based solely on the use of pronouns in staff email signatures.”
The university said it had previously asked employees to remove “anything extraneous,” including Bible quotes, from email signatures.
The university also shared with the AP an email outlining its new policy sent to staff. The memo cautioned employees against using politically divisive and inflammatory speech in communications bearing the Houghton name. It also directed them to use standardized signature styles and forbade the use of pronouns.
Also attached to the statement was a copy of a letter university President Wayne D. Lewis Jr. sent to students.
“I would never ask you to agree with or support every decision I make,” Lewis wrote. “But I do humbly ask that you resist the temptation to reduce Houghton’s decision making to the simple and convenient political narratives of our time.”
Zelaya said she received an email in the fall from administrators saying the school was mandating changes in colors, fonts and other aspects of email to help the school maintain branding consistency.
She complied, she said, but retained her pronouns on her signature, calling it a “standard industry practice” to do so.
In the dismissal letters hand-delivered to Wilmot and Raegan Zelaya, copies of which they shared on social media, the university wrote that the firings were “a result of your refusal to remove pronouns in your email signatures in violation of institutional policy.”
In a video posted on Facebook, Zelaya said she already has another job lined up. In their joint YouTube video, she and Wilmot urged their supporters to push for change in policies, but constructively and with civility.
“As a result of this whole controversy, as a result of having my pronouns in my email signature,” Wilmot said, “it’s given me the opportunity to educate people on this topic.”