In response to a recent spike in suicides among gay teenagers, YouTube and other social media have been ablaze with video messages from those who survived their excruciating teenage years. Alternately sharing stories of abuse, bullying and discrimination, each narrator resolves his/her own heartbreaking tale with a single message: "It gets better."
Gay teenagers are told this will likely happen in college, when they have finally escaped small towns and ignorant families. Or it will most definitely happen when they get that big break and have the opportunity to do what they love. To the target audience, though, it must seem as if Belmont University's leadership is trying single-handedly to prove the naiveté of that optimistic catchphrase.
Earlier this year, university officials rebuffed a student coalition asking to form a group called Bridge Builders, which ironically enough sought to promote understanding between gay and straight students. That in itself caused controversy — but it was nothing compared to the storm that erupted last week, when Belmont's women's soccer coach, Lisa Howe, resigned unexpectedly after six years at the helm of an increasingly successful program.
Belmont proceeded to spin her decision as voluntary — inviting immediate skepticism that Howe had left a stable, fulfilling job for no reason right before Christmas with a baby on the way. Hours later, the university was forced to revise its statement after Howe's players rallied to her defense. They alleged in The City Paper and The Tennessean that Belmont gave the coach a choice between resigning and getting fired.
Why? According to seniors on the team, Howe decided to disclose news of her same-sex partner's pregnancy to her players, rather than leave it to gossip or rumor.
There is little dispute that legally, Belmont has the right to force Howe out. First Amendment specialists contacted by the Scene say gay employees have no workplace protection specified under Tennessee state law. Even if there were such a statute — like the one instituted last year for Metro employees — Belmont, as a religious institution, would likely be exempt from it.
But the university's treatment of Howe — and the ensuing outcry from students, faculty, alumni and a growing chorus of national media, from SportsIllustrated.com to The Advocate — has raised a larger question: Even if Belmont has legal the right to discriminate against LGBT employees, is it right to do so?
Not according to one of Belmont's biggest benefactors, music-biz heavyweight Mike Curb. In a forceful letter to the faculty senate, which unanimously voted its support for Howe, Curb cited the "incredible contributions" made by gays in the entertainment industry. He vowed to use his influence to get the Belmont board of trustees to reconsider Howe's ouster and avoid "this type of injustice."
The debate grows as other Belmont faculty members and former job candidates suggest that Howe's treatment was not an isolated incident. Rebecca Chapman, a published Shakespeare scholar, entered the job market last spring after finishing her doctoral work at Vanderbilt. She immediately felt a kinship with Belmont's like-minded English department, who were soon championing Chapman's candidacy for a vacant tenure-track position.
According to Chapman, she was candid very early in the interview process about having a same-sex partner and inquired about health benefits for their family. She says the department even suggested that she become an adviser to a new GLBT student group — the ill-fated Bridge Builders, in one apparent example of the disconnect between faculty and administration over the issue.
After a second and third interview, with other job offers pending, Chapman asked that Belmont make a decision. They returned with an offer of a tenure-track position that she happily accepted, after seeing it in writing. Belmont signed off, and all seemed well — that is, until a month later, when she received an email asking that she meet with Dean Bryce Sullivan the next day. The email explained that Belmont President Robert Fisher had been away, and all contracts were subject to his approval.
The purpose of the meeting, Chapman discovered, was to inform her that her contract was being changed from tenure-track to a one-year contract ending in inevitable termination at the school year's end. In a prepared statement to the Scene, Sullivan said Belmont's provost, "a tenured English department faculty member with a scholarly emphasis in Shakespeare," had decided to "step down from her administrative position and return full-time to the classroom following a year-long sabbatical leave."
Sullivan says that "at Belmont, as in most of academia, pre-tenure contracts are provisional in nature. I also offered my assistance in finding Dr. Chapman another position once her year-long employment with Belmont ended." But with classes starting the next week, Chapman says the choice as she understood it was not unlike the one Howe's players allege: Either finish out a bogus contract under the scrutiny of an obviously unsupportive administration, or resign.
Chapman resigned one week later, knowing that she had passed on her other job opportunities and that she and her partner would barely be able to make rent, let alone keep the house they were in the process of buying. Chapman has kept quiet until now for fear of further personal and professional turmoil. In light of recent events, she says, silence is no longer an option.
Howe's and Chapman's stories indicate there's a widening gulf between Belmont's dual roles — as a college with ambitions of luring top athletic, legal and artistic talent, and a religious school shackled to fundamentalist stricture.
As president, Fisher has presided over Belmont's separation from the Tennessee Baptist Convention and the hiring of increasingly progressive faculty, not to mention the admittance of a left-trending student body. Yet he is still beholden to this subjective code — and more importantly, to the trustees who require its enforcement.
That includes Marty Dickens, chairman of Belmont's board of trustees, who told The Tennessean that his (and Jesus') interpretation of moral behavior excludes same-sex relationships. Judging from the fury that erupted afterward from Belmont alums on local message boards, he might as well have been representing the hypocritical blue-hairs in the Harper Valley PTA. According to Chapman and others, the overall quality of a Belmont education, which is undeniably high, is undermined by invisible authority figures resistant to change.
"It's very dangerous when an institution's ideologies turn its policies into oxymorons," she says.
After years of protest from student activists, Belmont recently revised its student honor code, removing "homosexual activity" from the list of punishable offenses. Despite this step forward, Bridge Builders' student founders have twice been denied official recognition. Founder Robbie Maris says that Fisher and other administrators have always been encouraging during meetings, but ultimately the thought of a gay organization "makes them uncomfortable. They want us to go away and be quiet."
If the incident isn't quieting down, Belmont has in part its own increased visibility to blame. Much like Nashville, the growing university and its PR machine have been making strides toward becoming a player on the national stage. Belmont founded a law school, continues to lead in music-business education, and even hosted a presidential debate — although one prominent Nashville attorney wonders if the school has just killed its chances of ever landing another.
Meanwhile, students, faculty and staff continue to express their dissatisfaction with the administration's actions regarding GLBT policy. Neither Fisher nor Belmont athletics director Mike Strickland returned the Scene's calls for comment. The best we got was a prepared statement on a tangentially related matter from Interim Provost Pat Raines, with cautiously worded assurances about Belmont's "culture of inclusion and mutual respect."
If that might come as news to Lisa Howe, she nonetheless took the high road in a statement released Monday by her lawyer Abby Rubenfeld. "I am proud of who I am and my family and our future," she stated. "If my situation leads to one person beginning to feel acceptance now ... and if people can talk openly and honestly about topics they never broached before, then this unfortunate situation will have served a positive purpose."
Indeed, Howe's "resignation" has once again lit the fire of activism at Belmont as well-attended protests and sit-ins were held Sunday and Monday on campus. Gay students and faculty, reeling from what must have felt like a punch in the gut, have discovered unlikely allies in their peers — and in an uncharacteristically fired-up Nashville.
As for Belmont administrators, they may regard gay students with ambivalence, but they did provide a valuable lesson: Before it gets better, kids, sometimes it has to get much, much worse.
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