NY University Fires 2 Staffers Over Use of Pronouns in Emails: Report

  • Houghton University has dismissed 2 employees over the usage of pronouns in emails, per The New York Times.
  • Raegan Zelaya and Shua Wilmot pointed to their gender-neutral names in explaining their use of pronouns.
  • A university spokesperson told The Times said the institution has never “solely” terminated anyone over pronoun usage.

Two staffers at a private Christian liberal arts college in upstate New York were fired from their positions for using pronouns in their work emails, according to The New York Times.

After Raegan Zelaya and Shua Wilmot, two residence hall directors, were asked by administrators at Houghton University to remove the “she/her” and “he/him” pronouns from their emails, respectively, they both declined to do so — which led to the Wesleyan Church-affiliated institution dismissing them last month.

Roughly 600 Houghton alumni have written to the university in protest of the move, per the report, which comes as GOP lawmakers across the country have railed against the use of pronouns, especially in schools and workplaces, as some transgender and non-transgender Americans have sought to use pronouns that correspond with their gender identity.

Zelaya and Wilmot told The Times they had a reason for choosing to utilize pronouns in their emails, pointing to their gender-neutral names that sometimes cause people to misgender. Neither Zelaya nor Wilmot are transgender.

“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,” Wilmot told The Times.

“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,” he added.

In 2021, Houghton shut down a multicultural student center and chose not to recognize an on-campus LGBTQ club after the organization chose not to endorse more conservative stances regarding sex and gender, per The Times.

But in a statement to The Times, Houghton University spokesman Michael Blankenship said that the institution “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 told The Times.

Zelaya shared her termination letter from Houghton online, which stated that her employment at the university was ending “as a result of your refusal to remove pronouns in your email signature in violation of institutional policy,” in addition to criticism that she made over a decision made by the university regarding the student newspaper.

On its website, the Wesleyan Church takes a conservative stance on gender identity, remarking that “gender confusion and dysphoria are ultimately the biological, psychological, social and spiritual consequences of the human race’s fallen condition.”

The alumni who spoke out in support of Zelaya and Wilmot in an open letter said that the ability to hold and debate opposing views was a vital part of their experience at Houghton.

“We request that the institution acknowledge that there is a range of views reasonably held by faithful and active Christians on topics of gender, sexuality, and race,” the signatories said. “In practice, this would mean a broadened understanding of the views that are acceptable for staff, faculty, and chapel speakers to hold and express.”

University president Wayne D. Lewis Jr., in his reply to alumni earlier this month, addressed the institution’s decision to close its Center for Sustainability and also reiterated the university’s Christian principles — but did not specifically address Zelaya and Wilmot’s terminations despite issuing a message about employment at Houghton.

“Houghton unapologetically privileges an orthodox Christian worldview, rooted in the Wesleyan theological tradition,” he wrote. “At the time of their appointment and again annually, every Houghton employee affirms his or her understanding of and agreement to these commitments. This is not a new position for the university.”

Zelaya told The Times that she felt that the terminations were driven by the university’s choice to “toe the party line” in seeking to align themselves ideologically with evangelical Christians.

“We live in a very divided world right now where everything is this or that, right or left, conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat,” she said. “As Christians, I think we’ve gotten so caught up in these ideas of, ‘This is what I should be advocating for or upset about,’ that we forget to actually care for people.”

The firings at Houghton University are the latest flashpoint amid an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ legislation and movements across the country. Utah passed a bill this week that bans minors from receiving gender-transition healthcare, and at least 21 other states are considering bills this year that would enact similar bans.

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