A private Christian university punishes employees for mentioning their preferred pronouns. It's the latest cruel, futile attempt to hold back an incoming tide of cultural change.

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[Previous: ‘They’ll know we are Christians by our love’]

If I’ve never mentioned it, my pronouns are he/him.

I didn’t grow up with people stating their preferred pronouns, and it used to strike me as a strange custom. But now that I’ve gotten used to the idea, I’ve come to see the logic of it. It’s not only for the sake of transgender people. It helps us all to be polite.

If your pronouns are obvious, there’s no harm in mentioning them. And if your pronouns aren’t obvious, it saves strangers from committing an embarrassing faux pas. Not everyone conforms to gender stereotypes; some people have an androgynous appearance. Making your pronouns known when you meet someone clears up any potential confusion. It’s no different than using “Mr.” and “Ms.”

However, one Christian college didn’t see it that way:

A New York Christian university terminated two employees for putting pronouns in their respective email signatures, these former workers allege, according to reports.

Raegan Zelaya and Shua Wilmot, who were residence hall directors at Houghton University, said administrators told them to take the words “she/her” and “he/him” off their email signatures.

The university, Zelaya and Wilmot alleged, claimed their inclusion of pronouns violated a new school policy, the New York Times reported. Zelaya and Wilmot refused to remove their pronouns and were fired several weeks before the semester’s conclusion.

New York Christian university fires two staff for including pronouns in emails – reports.” Victoria Bekiempis, The Guardian, 20 May 2023.

Yes, you read that right. A Christian school fired two employees for merely mentioning their pronouns in their e-mail signatures. It’s Christianity against pronouns!

Expanding the spectrum of religious homophobia

In a way, I’m impressed. I would have thought the scale of “excommunicated for not disowning your gay parent” to “expelled for wearing a rainbow sweater” covers the entire spectrum of religious homophobia and cruelty. But Houghton University has found something even more trivial to obsess and persecute people over.

Houghton, located in western New York State, is a small, private Christian college affiliated with the Methodist Church. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, this controversy began with the school taking the tiniest step toward tolerance:

The first came in February 2022 in an email from Houghton’s president, Wayne D. Lewis Jr., to faculty and staff members, which Wilmot shared with The Chronicle. It said that requiring students to share their pronouns would be forbidden in any course, program, or activity. Students, Lewis added, were free to share their pronouns if they chose, but Houghton employees could not require them to do so.

They Put Their Pronouns in Their Email Signatures. Then the University Dismissed Them.” Megan Zahneis, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 April 2023.

However, it didn’t last. Perhaps mindful of the backlash that hit other Christian institutions for being too accepting, in September 2022 the school reverted to a more hardline position. It announced that staff had to use a standardized e-mail signature, without pronouns or any other additional information.

Zelaya and Wilmot, who were residence directors for the men’s and women’s dorms, refused to remove their pronouns from their e-mail accounts. When they wouldn’t give in, the school fired them both with less than two weeks left in the academic year.

To admit that there could even be a question about this strikes at the heart of the Christian belief in a rigid, impermeable gender binary.

To be perfectly clear, neither Zelaya nor Wilmot are transgender or non-binary. However, they both have gender-neutral names. They thought that including their pronouns in their e-mail was both an easy way to reduce confusion and also a gesture of inclusivity.

But the school administrators didn’t see it that way. They saw it as a scary, disturbing step toward a world where Christian dogma about sex and gender roles doesn’t hold sway. Houghton’s president said in an e-mail, “The position of the College on gender identity and gender expression… is unchanged; that gender assignment is a divine prerogative and not separate from one’s biological sex.”

Arguing with nature, not with culture

Houghton University’s gratuitously intolerant reaction smacks of pathetic paranoia. Much like Russia banishing the colors yellow and blue from public life and arresting anyone who wears them, their attempt to outlaw pronouns is a desperate measure in a battle that they know they’re losing.

To admit that there could even be a question about this strikes at the heart of the Christian belief in a rigid, impermeable gender binary. In their worldview, men are on this side of the line, and women are on that side. There are no exceptions, no one is in between, and you can’t straddle the line or step across it—or else!

However, their argument isn’t with transgender people; their argument is with nature itself. Like creationists, flat-earthers, and other fundamentalists who set their faces against reality, these Christians hold a belief that forces them to deny inconvenient facts. Even if you don’t believe that gender is a choice or that it’s culturally determined, there are still gaping holes in that supposedly impenetrable wall separating men and women.

READ: The quiet radicalism of gender equality

For example, some people are intersex, born with ambiguous genitalia. Some people have hormone insensitivities that cause them to be “genetically” one sex, but bodies that appear to be a different sex. In rare cases, people are born with ovotesticular syndrome (previously called hermaphroditism) in which they possess functional tissue of both testicles and ovaries.

What gender are these people, according to Christians? What pronouns should they use?

Religious gender fundamentalists have no answer to these questions. Their only response is to stick their fingers in their ears and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Or worse, they lash out in increasingly ugly and violent acts of oppression. In red states where they have power, they’re banning books, banning drag shows, banning medicine, and generally pretending they can legislate reality into conformance with their desires.

Love and legalism

Our cultural understanding of gender is changing. It’s becoming more flexible, less rigid, less binary, less constricting. Considering how much suffering has been inflicted on people throughout history for deviating from their assigned gender roles, that can only be a good thing.

Trying to make rules to prevent this, as Houghton University is doing, is like giving orders to the tide. They can’t stop it from happening; all they can do is make themselves look cruel, ignorant and out of touch. As with the civil-rights movement for Black Americans, or the push for gay and lesbian equality, Christianity as an institution has placed itself firmly on the wrong side of the moral divide.

READ: Why is God male?

Whatever its other repercussions, Houghton’s decision makes one thing clear. Christianity as it’s practiced today isn’t about love, hospitality, or radical inclusivity. Instead, it’s about creating a list of strict and arbitrary rules touching every aspect of life, from the major to the trivial, and demanding that believers obey them to the letter. They’re more concerned with shows of obedience to the rules than with the way they treat other human beings.

While there may be individual Christians who hold tolerant views, the gatekeepers and the institutions have gone hard in the other direction. They’re legalistic, judgmental, certain of their own righteousness, obsessed with purity, and repulsed by those they view as sinful. You might almost call it… Pharisaical.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...