College workers fired for including their pronouns in emails

Houghton University (Google Street View)
Houghton University (Google Street View)

Alumni are criticising a small New York Christian university for firing two employees who refused to remove gender pronouns from their email signatures.

In April, Raegan Zelaya and Shua Wilmot, residence hall directors at Houghton University, were fired from their positions, after they put “she/her” and “he/him” in their signatures

In a widely circulated termination letter for Ms Zelaya, the school wrote it fired her shortly before the end of the semester “as a result of your refusal to remove pronouns in your email signature” and because she criticised the decision in the student newspaper.

A spokesperson for the university, which is affiliated with the conservative branch of the Methodist Church, told The New York Times on Friday the school “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,” the spokesperson said.

The former residence hall directors, neither of whom is transgender, have said their decision to put the pronouns in their bios was meant both as a gesture of inclusivity, and because people often weren’t able to tell their genders from their first names over email.

Mr Wilmot defended his decision in a Facebook post last month.

“I would just like to express how profoundly grateful I am to have enough privilege to stand up for truth and justice at the expense of a job,” he wrote. “If any of you are ever in a position where you believe your employer is asking you to do something unjust or unethical, please reach out to me and others for encouragement and empowerment.”

An April open letter from Houghton University alumni, with nearly 600 signatures, criticised the firings as part of what they saw as a broader turn at the school against multiculturalism, highlighting the recent closer of a multicultural student centre.

“Our overall concern is that these recent changes demonstrate a concerning pattern of failure on the part of the current administration to respect that faithful and active Christians reasonably hold a range of theological and ethical views, and in turn, failure to allow for genuine dialogue about these differing views. In this way, Houghton is not living up to its own ideals,” the alumni wrote.

In a response earlier this month from university president Wayne D. Lewis, Jr, the official defended closing the student centre for budgetary reasons, and didn’t explicitly mention the firings.

“While we require that all Houghton employees be active Christians, our employees come from a range of Christian  traditions,” the letter reads. “We do, however, require as a condition of employment that all employees be respectful of the  positions, doctrine, and beliefs of the university. However, Houghton unapologetically privileges an orthodox Christian worldview, rooted in the Wesleyan theological tradition. At the time of their appointment and again  annually, every Houghton employee affirms his or her understanding of and agreement to these commitments.”