A New York university fired two employees after they included their pronouns in work emails, report says

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  • Houghton University dismissed two employees after they included their pronouns in emails.

  • Raegan Zelaya and Shua Wilmot said their gender-neutral names are the reason they included pronouns.

  • A spokesperson told The New York Times the school's never "solely" terminated anyone over pronouns.

Two staffers at a private Christian liberal-arts college in upstate New York were fired from their positions after including their pronouns in work emails, The New York Times reported.

After administrators at Houghton University asked Raegan Zelaya and Shua Wilmot, two residence-hall directors, to remove the "she/her" and "he/him" pronouns from their emails, respectively, they both declined to do so. This 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, the report said, which comes as GOP lawmakers across the country have rallied against the use of preferred pronouns, especially in schools and workplaces, as transgender Americans have struggled to get others to use the pronouns that correspond with their gender identities.

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 them. Both Zelaya and Wilmot are cisgender.

"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 club chose not to endorse more conservative stances regarding sex and gender, The Times reported.

But in a statement to The Times, Michael Blankenship, a spokesperson for Houghton University, 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."

Wayne D. Lewis Jr., the president of Houghton, in his reply to alumni earlier this month, addressed the institution's decision to close its Center for Sustainability and 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 university's choice to "toe the party line" in seeking to align themselves ideologically with evangelical Christians drove the terminations.

"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-affirming healthcare, and at least 21 other states are considering bills this year that would enact similar bans.

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