The Flip Side of Fired For Pronouns

It’s one thing to argue against the compelled speech of being forced to put your pronouns on display. But it’s another to fire employees who choose to do so. While Houghton University may have the legal authority to do so, it was the wrong thing to do.

When Raegan Zelaya and Shua Wilmot decided to include their pronouns at the end of their work emails, they thought they were doing a good thing: following what they viewed as an emerging professional standard, and also sending a message of inclusivity at the Christian university where they worked.

One of the reasons, both Zelaya and Wilmot explained, for doing so was that neither had a first name that made their sex and/or pronouns obvious. Were they male or female? Who knows? And they felt it sent a message consistent with their Christian beliefs. Whether you agree with the message or not, it’s hard to argue against employees of a Christian college trying to be Christian? Nonetheless, Houghton did.

Administrators at Houghton, which was founded and is now owned by a conservative denomination that branched off from the Methodist Church, asked Ms. Zelaya and Mr. Wilmot, two residence hall directors, to remove the words “she/her” and “he/him” from their email signatures, saying they violated a new policy. When they refused to do so, both employees were fired, just weeks before the end of the semester.

With the culture war raging, Houghton decided not merely to be “true” to its version of Christianity, but to affirmatively reject any sign that it was tolerant of woke views.

With fewer than 1,000 students, Houghton is smaller and off the beaten track, but it has made other recent moves that put it in line with its conservative Christian peers, and that have alarmed some alumni. Since 2021, it has closed a multicultural student center and an environmental sustainability program and rescinded its recognition of an on-campus L.G.B.T.Q. club after the club declined to promote more conservative views on sex and gender.

“I think it boils down to: They want to be trans-exclusive and they want to communicate that to potential students and the parents of potential students,” Mr. Wilmot said of his firing.

Granted, anyone who raises any question about any aspect of trans dogma is swiftly tarred as transphobic these days, but choosing to send a message of intolerance to merely noting one’s pronouns, particularly when they’re the common pronouns, takes the message a giant step farther. Is the inclusion of pronouns in an email signature a sign that they are promoting trans people or being practical as well as welcoming?

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.

Houghton University has take the position that it is, indeed, trans exclusive.

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.” It views “adult gender nonconformity as a violation of the sanctity of human life.”

The university maintains a public declaration of its beliefs, describing itself as “solidly Biblical” and saying the teachings of the Wesleyan Church are “central everywhere” on campus.

If this is the religious position this private Christian college chooses to take, that’s its right. And it similarly has the authority to require its employees, at least in the performance of their job, to present themselves consistent with the manner in which the university seeks to be presented. In other words, aAs a private religious institution, it can require its employees to not act in a manner it deems inconsistent with its religious beliefs. And it can fire them if they refuse.

“Houghton unapologetically privileges an orthodox Christian worldview, rooted in the Wesleyan theological tradition,” the president wrote. He also noted that university employees were required to reaffirm their “understanding of and agreement to these commitments” at the start of each year.

It may be true that the inclusion of pronouns in an email signature reflect both a political and religious view that “Houghton unapologetically” rejects, although it’s a very cramped view of tolerance, often considered a Christian virtue. But to take it this far, even though Houghton may have the lawful authority to do so, is tantamount to a rejection of free speech. And given that the inclusion of pronouns, for better or worse, has become a fairly ordinary thing on college campuses and, if it sends a message at all, says we’re intolerant even if we disagree, this was a very poor exercise of legal authority and religious judgment.

Had staff been fired for refusing to include pronouns because of the political message it sent, that would be wrong. To fire staff for including pronouns of their own volition is even worse.

7 thoughts on “The Flip Side of Fired For Pronouns

  1. Richard Parker

    If they are resident hall directors at a small Christian college, then their gender is obvious to most who need to correspond with them.

    ‘Mr’ and ‘Ms’ are also available to them.

  2. Anonymous Coward

    There’s definitely a schism, I work with the mainstream United Methodist Church and they all have pronouns in their email signatures.
    This does not make Houghton punishing free speech any less wrong, although they probably can’t be sued for it.

  3. B. McLeod

    This group sees itself as recruiting a “kingdom force” with the aspiration of conforming our overall culture to “the gospels.” They have their work cut out for them, and could really use an omnipotent being that shares their views. Lest we forget, all the cross and fish types generally derived from a mainstream movement that hanged and burned people for non-conformist thoughts and expressions. To some folks, “freedom” will always just mean the right to set up their own hat and pole. These Wesleyans are more tolerant than some in that: 1) they afforded an opportunity to retract the offending pronouns; and, 2) they only fired the heretics instead of seeking to destroy their lives and futures.

    They probably have Steeleye Span’s “You Will Burn” playing on the campus sound system.

  4. Redditlaw

    If a Christian (or Orthodox Jewish) school, university, church, or denomination, excludes the practice of same-sex relations or transgenderism as part of its creed, and nevertheless allows the practice on its campus or within its church(es) or temple(s), it will likely eventually face a lawsuit by a disaffected current or former congregant, faculty-member, or student for the failure to uphold its creed in practice. Whether the lawsuit succeeds or not, the process is the punishment.

    Many of the “cake baking”/photography cases (I am not talking specifically about Masterpiece Bakeshop) arose from a long-time gay or lesbian customer attempting to bring his wedding business to the nice, middle-aged Christian baker/photographer/flower arranger, taking offense when refused, and then suing the baker/photographer/flower arranger into oblivion with the aid of a state agency.

    Likewise, many of the suits against Christian (or Orthodox Jewish) schools, universities, and churches arise from a congregant, student, or teacher coming out of the closet. If the school, college, or church does not act quickly, it faces an increased likelihood a successful lawsuit against it down the road.

    I would submit that Houghton University took the correct, albeit intolerant, action in this case. I would be surprised if it did not act at the behest of legal counsel. Houghton University’s actions here were more influenced by the legal environment (New York state) in which it found itself as opposed to some systemic intolerance or hatred of its (potentially) woke employees.

    1. szr

      Or Houghton University’s leaders could have realized that this was a dumb fight that would make them look petty and vindictive—eager to engage in the management equivalent of a twitter brawl—with a side of “we don’t give a shit about free speech culture” thrown in.

      Put another way, how do you expect to teach children how to handle life as an adult if you throw a temper tantrum when someone puts pronouns in their email signature?

      1. Redditlaw

        Read my comment again. Houghton University’s decision isn’t about teaching children or PR or even free speech.

        It’s about not having employees at the university who could later decide that they are coming out of the closet or transitioning to the other sex after quietly changing their pronouns, and then suing the university. Houghton, being located in the State of New York, would likely have to litigate against a state agency with an unlimited budget as well as the plaintiffs as well as weigh the likelihood that the Supreme Court will ride forth to save Houghton once it exhausts its remedies at the state level.

        Frankly, given their relative locations in red/blue states, I would expect Oral Roberts University to be more tolerant regarding pronouns than Houghton.

  5. Eliot J Clingman

    “All the ills of cancel culture can be cured by more cancel culture”, said Al Smith never.

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