Kathy Lee is finally free, but she’s also sad.
That’s what the former political science professor and first openly gay professor at Whitworth University said in a New Yorker profile last month. Ahead of her retirement and months after the death of her mother, to whom she never came out, Lee agreed to be profiled by the magazine and share her decades-long experience navigating and accepting her sexuality and sharing her identity with those in her Christian community.
For more than half of her career at Whitworth, Lee was closeted out of fear she could be fired. Even after coming out, that fear remained, lest she be too vocal or public about her sexuality. While individuals at the university were supportive, institutionally there was no recognition or protection for Lee.
Whitworth is a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, a prominent group of evangelical Protestant schools. In recent years, schools have elected to leave the council after announcing they would hire married gay and lesbian faculty.
Last month, students at a fellow council member school, Seattle Pacific University, went viral for handing interim president Pete Menjares mini pride flags during graduation. The display was in opposition of Seattle Pacific’s employee lifestyle expectations policy that states employees are expected to refrain from same-sex sexual activity.
As Lee sees it, it’s appropriate the story came out on her last day at Whitworth before she retired and moved to the East Coast.
In telling her story, Lee said she hopes to bring systemic change to the Christian university, whose position on LGBTQ staff and faculty remains unclear.
Lee’s experience sparked alumni and students to ask the university to codify protections for LGBTQ staff and faculty. On Monday, a letter signed by over 600 alumni urged the university to “come forth and affirm a strong stance on the belonging of our LGBTQ community members and the rights and protections they deserve.”
Margot Spindola, a 2018 Whitworth graduate and author of the letter, made three requests of the university: to clearly state LGBTQ people are welcome at Whitworth, to enact employment protections to ensure faculty and staff won’t face discrimination, and to direct funding toward causes that support LGBTQ community members.
The university acknowledged receipt of the letter in a statement to The Spokesman-Review but did not answer specific questions on the school’s policies or approaches to LGBTQ issues.
“The letter has been shared with the university’s administrative leadership and the board of trustees,” the statement reads. “The issues in question are not new or unique to Whitworth and will receive the serious and careful attention they deserve. Input is always welcome from alumni and others who value the university.”
‘Trying to figure it out’
When a political science job opened up at Whitworth in 2011, Lee asked friends if the university would be welcoming to a gay professor, she told the New Yorker. Friends shared their bad experiences but were also optimistic about Whitworth’s future, so Lee applied for and took the job.
While Whitworth doesn’t make faculty sign a statement of faith, Lee felt the policy was similar to “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” which didn’t sit well with her, in part because without non-discrimination protections she could be fired for her sexuality.
Despite fear of losing her job, Lee sent a sent a letter to then-university president Beck Taylor in 2017.
“For many years, I have not talked about my sexual identity and let people sometimes assume that I am straight,” Lee wrote. “I am not a profile in courage.”
While Taylor was “gracious and kind,” Lee told the New Yorker it was clear it would take longer than she thought for Whitworth to be totally welcoming. After coming out to the administration, Lee shared her story with her classes. She notes she wasn’t fired for doing so.
“If I was at another Christian institution, I would have been shown the door. Whitworth is trying to figure it out,” Lee said. “I just wish it would move quickly.”
For students experiencing the university’s undefined policy, Lee was not only courageous, but a safe haven.
Hannah Sabio-Howell, a 2018 graduate, chose to attend Whitworth for the “relational communities” it promised.
“I was interested in a place that would nurture my faith but not necessarily dictate what that faith had to be,” she said.
She found that ability to challenge, question, and explore her faith among the faculty and students at Whitworth, who were willing to engage with hard questions, which ultimately made her feel comfortable to come out as queer to friends after her junior year.
“I chose wisely and never had any sort of discomfort coming out,” she said. “What I found difficult is that sort of self-policing in having to decide and self-navigate.”
Sabio-Howell worried that sharing her sexual identity with the wrong person could result in the loss of opportunities. It was a huge contrast to how Whitworth supported other parts of her identity, she said. The university made efforts to support Sabio-Howell as a woman of color, and to support members of other under-represented groups, like first-generation or disabled students, she said. When it came to being queer, there was a huge hole, Sabio-Howell said.
“There has just been this notable lack of that type of endeavoring for inclusion and love,” Sabio-Howell said.
After taking classes from Lee, the two connected. Sabio-Howell quickly found Lee to be someone who created space for “courage and contemplation.”
In 2018, as Lee prepared to deliver the commencement address, she came out to Sabio-Howell, who in turn shared her sexual identity.
“It happened at the same time that I was navigating to come out to my parents,” Sabio-Howell said. “Her coming out to me just flooded me with courage.”
For Jeff DeBray, the 2018 Whitworth student body president, the university’s lack of clear stance on LGBTQ issues made him uneasy.
“There was definitely a lot of fear that I had going through a religious institution that I knew wasn’t completely affirming,” DeBray said. “I can’t imagine how much more comfortable it would have been if I knew I was in a place that totally affirmed who I was.”
DeBray wrested with his sexuality for much of college. He came out as queer after graduation.
His freshman year, DeBray took two classes from Lee. Her ability to share her worldview and encourage students to think critically inspired DeBray to learn more about social justice issues. He now works in environmental justice advocacy.
When Lee came out to him toward the end of his college career, DeBray wasn’t ready to do the same, but it made him feel “a little bit safer and a little bit braver.”
After the New Yorker article published, Lee received a number of “very touching” emails.
Then Lee saw the petition, something she said made her feel both honored and encouraged.
“I felt very supported by that,” she said.
Lee hoped by sharing her struggles with Whitworth’s policy, the university would see how important it is to codify protections for LGBTQ staff, she said.
“My focus at Whitworth was that sexual identity and gender identity be included in the non-discrimination hiring policy,” Lee said.
Whitworth did not respond to the New Yorker or to requests for comment from The Spokesman-Review about Lee’s experience.
When asked to clarify the school’s stance, the university acknowledged their hiring policy doesn’t protect or restrict hiring openly LGBTQ people.
“Whitworth’s faculty and staff represent a variety of Christian traditions and hold diverse perspectives. Their experiences shape and inform the university,” a statement from the university reads. “We continue to work out ways, through dialogue, civility, grace and understanding, to improve and to better serve our students, employees and the world.”
Not all students who attend Whitworth are Christian, or even follow a faith tradition, the university acknowledged.
The university said it would “continue to examine this issue going forward.”
“As American religious culture pushes to sometimes shore up and other times expand those definitions and boundaries,” the statement reads, “Whitworth often finds itself in the midst of these important discussions. It is sometimes a difficult position to be in, but we invite these conversations.”
For class of 1989 alumni Trisha Morita-Mullaney and Jeff Mullaney, the statement only clarifies Whitworth’s commitment to staying on the fence.
Morita-Mullaney, who studied intercultural communications and is now a professor at Purdue University, noted that Whitworth has distanced itself from the Presbyterian Church USA, an open and affirming sect of which she is a member.
“They did that strategically because they didn’t want to lose donors,” Morita-Mullaney said.
Sexual orientation doesn’t encompass the full spectrum of LGBTQ identities, the couple said.
“They haven’t done their learning,” Morita-Mullaney added.
The lack of learning flies in the face of what Mullaney said he was taught at Whitworth: to challenge his viewpoints and “listen to others and constantly learn what they have to teach me.”
Mullaney, who is an elder in his church, referenced Revelation 3:14-16, that addresses the flaws of a “lukewarm” church. He feels that Whitworth is being lukewarm in their inability to make a decision.
The couple both think part of the indecision is an effort to keep large, often conservative, donors happy. As donors themselves, the couple said they would be inclined to increase their contributions if the university were open and affirming.
Josh Cleveland, a former employee in the office of alumni and parent relations, said he was saddened by Whitworth’s response. Cleveland graduated from the university in 2001 and worked there for more than a decade until he left in 2020. He has always found the university’s policy toward LGBTQ people “confusing.”
Whitworth uses the phrase “people of integrity can disagree on this issue,” Cleveland said. “And for me people are not an issue, and this really comes down to people’s core identity.”
The don’t ask, don’t tell policy didn’t sit well with Cleveland, but the community he saw on campus was a lot more open. He knows that many leaders at the university are supportive of LGBTQ people.
The university’s statement, Cleveland said was “so sad.”
“It’s just not enough,” he said.
He, like the Mullaneys, believes the university is trying to walk a fine line to keep donors happy but is harming students and faculty in the process. He hopes the board of trustees will add the issue as a standing agenda item this fall and provide transparent communication and conversation with the larger Whitworth community on the topic, to show the university is taking the matter seriously.
‘Disappointed but not surprised’
Alumna like DeLona Campos-Davis said they’re disappointed but not surprised about Lee’s experience and Whitworth’s stance.
A 1992 graduate, Campos-Davis now works in nonprofit management and is a writer. For years, she has attended an open and affirming church in White Salmon, Washington, something she is thankful for as a mother to LGBTQ children.
“I can’t imagine if they were living their life thinking that they weren’t as worthy or that God didn’t love them,” Campos-Davis said.
She has started telling young people they should seriously reconsider attending Whitworth because of the university’s failure to openly protect queer students and staff.
“The Whitworth that I knew taught me that Jesus is always on the side of the most vulnerable, and right now that’s the LGBTQ community,” she said.
Public librarian Mary Bear Shannon said she has been waiting for Whitworth to respond ever since Lee shared her story.
She recalls how common it was for her classmates back in the 1980s to remain closeted, fearing not only rejection from society, but from their faith community.
“I knew so many people who were closeted and really only felt like they could come out after they graduate,” Shannon said.
An environment where students feel the need to hide their sexuality can lead them into despair, depression and suicidal thoughts, she said.
“How is that what Jesus wanted?” Shannon said. “I don’t see it.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Hannah Sabio-Howell’s name and to clarify why she chose to attend Whitworth.
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