Homophobia has long been an issue at Duke Divinity School

Brett Webb-Mitchell
Brett Webb-Mitchell

As an openly gay Presbyterian pastor who served on the faculty of Duke Divinity School as Assistant Professor of Christian Nurture (1993-2003), I was not surprised at all by the recent events at Duke Divinity, “LGBT Protest Erupts During Duke Divinity School Dean’s Speech,” in which students sought better treatment of LGBTQ students (March 5, 2018).

Homophobia is one of the institutional “sins” of Duke Divinity School that has neither been confessed to, resolved, or found reconciliation. For over 30 years, Duke Divinity School—an officially sanctioned United Methodist Church seminary—and the majority of its faculty and administration have worked hard to not be inclusive of LGBTQ students, administrators, and faculty, even though the rest of Duke University has made great strides in being a national leader among universities in being open and affirming of LGBTQ students, administrators, and faculty.

This is not the first time students have stood up and raised a voice against homophobia at Duke Divinity School. Their story of homophobia begins with John Blevins’ experience as an openly gay Baptist student at the Div. School in 1989. When John discussed his sexuality in a personal essay for one of preaching professor Dr. Bill Turner's classes, the professor told him in no uncertain terms that he should drop out of school because he was gay. Likewise, retired Christian social ethics professor Harmon Smith told Blevins that he should leave the Divinity School because he would never be ordained (Keith Hartman, Congregations in Conflict: The Battle Over Homosexuality, Rutgers Press, 1996).

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In 2000, when then-President Keohane made changes regarding who could hold a wedding or union ceremony at Duke Chapel, opening the door to same sex “commitment ceremonies”, the Divinity School’s Dean, L. Gregory Jones, wrote a letter to the wider campus and United Methodists, making it clear that the Chapel was not a part of the United Methodist Church, and that the Divinity School was not affirming President Keohane’s position. This position was re-affirmed by then-Bishop Marion Edwards of the “North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church who said…that the chapel has never been bound by church policies. But he said the decision conflicts with the church’s official stance on homosexuality” (ABC News, Dec. 6, 2000).

Then there was the time that anti-LGBTQ graffiti lingered for months in one of the bathrooms of the Divinity School in 1998-1999. Then student-David Wright, president of the student LGBTQ group, Sacred Worth, asked former-Dean Greg Jones to have the graffiti removed from the bathroom, which he did not follow-up on until there was a small protest building up against his inaction by Sacred Worth. In 2003, the Divinity School proposed a Conduct Covenant which embraced only heterosexual marriage as the norm, “faithful to the covenants we enter: personal, marital, familial, communal,” with no language whatsoever about same sex unions or partnered relationships which were prevalent at the time, but exhorting people to practice chastity if they were not in one of the covenantal relationships mentioned above.

Finally, in the opening orientation days of the Fall Semester, 2014, during a panel discussion on diversity with students and faculty, Lizzie McManus-Dail, then a first-year student at Duke, raised an issue of how to combat heteronormativity at the Divinity School. Then-Dean Richard Hays responded to the question she had asked with a recitation from the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline, in which it makes clear that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. “Following this, students planned a ‘protest’ at which they gathered and handed out rainbow ribbons before participating in the school’s convocation, and Richard Hays released a letter defending his comments” (Kevin Carnahan, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Sept. 1, 2014).

In Luke 19:40, after Pharisees asked Jesus to stop his disciples from celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus responded, “I tell you if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (NRSV). Even though students come and go from Duke Divinity School, and the Div. School has not changed in over 30 years in not being a welcoming place for LGBTQ students, staff, or faculty, nonetheless, every once in a while, out of nowhere, there is a new group of people who come and talk and try to make justice happen within the stone walls of Duke Divinity Schools. As the United Methodist Church is discerning the way forward in being more welcoming of LGBTQ people throughout the denomination’s churches, perhaps that same spirit is now moving within the confines of the Divinity School’s stone walls that once kept progress and justice out.

The Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is organizing pastor of The Community of Pilgrims Presbyterian Fellowship in Portland, Oregon.