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Using ‘he/him’, ‘she/her’ in emails got 2 dormitory directors fired at a small Christian college in New York


NEW YORK (AP) — Shua Wilmot and Raegan Zelaya, two former dormitory directors at a small Christian college in western New York, admit their names are unconventional, which explains why they linked gender identities to their corporate email signatures.

Wilmot uses ‘he/him’. Zelaya speaks of ‘she/her’.

Their former employer, Houghton University, wanted them to drop the identifiers in line with a new email format policy introduced in September. Both refused and were fired.

“My name is Shua. It’s an unusual name. And it ends with a vowel, ‘a’, which is traditionally feminine in many languages,” Wilmot said in a nearly hour-long video he and Zelaya posted to YouTube shortly after they were fired last month. “If you get an email from me and you don’t know who I am, you may not know how to sex me.”

Ongoing culture wars in the US 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 about school curricula that mention sexual orientation or gender identity are still raging in some communities. And pickets have sprung up outside public libraries hosting “drag story hours.”

Meanwhile, controversies swirl on religious affiliations campuses. The recent layoffs 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 policies that bar people in same-sex relationships from full-time employment.

In New York City, LGBTQ students are challenging Yeshiva University’s decision to ban their student-led club from campus.

Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, a 2-year advocacy group for LGBTQ students at publicly funded religious colleges and universities, said actions like this are cause for desperation.

“There is 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 don’t think would experience this backlash .”

Earlier this year, a federal judge in Oregon dismissed a lawsuit brought by LGBTQ students against the U.S. Department of Education, alleging it failed to protect them from discrimination at religiously affiliated universities that received federal funding.

Houghton University, an 800-student campus 60 miles southeast of Buffalo, says it offers a “Christ-centered liberal arts and sciences education.”

In a statement emailed to The Associated Press on Saturday, the university said it was unable to 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 strange,” including Bible quotes, from email signatures.

The university also shared with the AP an email detailing the new policy that was sent to staff. The memo warned employees against using politically divisive and inflammatory language in communications using Houghton’s name. It also directed them to use standardized signature styles and banned the use of pronouns.

Also included with the statement was a copy of a letter sent by President Wayne D. Lewis Jr. from the university to students.

“I would never ask you to agree with or support any decision I make,” Lewis wrote. “But I humbly ask you to resist the temptation to reduce Houghton’s decision-making to the simple and easy political narratives of our time.”

Zelaya said she received an email from administrators in the fall saying the school was mandating changes to colors, fonts and other aspects of email to help the school maintain brand consistency.

She complied, she said, but kept her pronouns on her signature, calling it “standard industry practice” to do so.

In the resignation letters personally delivered to Wilmot and Raegan Zelaya, copies of which they shared on social media, the university wrote that the resignations “were a result of your refusal to remove pronouns from your email signatures, in violation of institution policy. “

In a video posted to Facebook, Zelaya said she already has another job coming up. In their joint YouTube video, she and Wilmot urged their supporters to push for policy change in a constructive and polite manner.

“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.”

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.