Last Wednesday, the dean of the Duke Divinity School gave her State of the School address, an annual affair that rarely generates headlines.
This year was different.
A group of LGBTQ students and faculty and their allies interrupted Elaine Heath’s address in an effort to call attention to what they say is the “real” state of the divinity school—that is, that it’s less than welcoming to gay and trans students. What’s more, the protesters say, the school has declined to address their demands, which include the implementation of a nondiscrimination policy and clearly marked gender non-specific bathrooms.
The protesters say that professors are unequipped or unwilling to deal with queer theology and that LGBTQ students who want to engage with those issues aren’t given the resources to do so. In addition, they object to the lack of LGBTQ faculty and what student Nicole Williams describes as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that pervades the school.
All the while, the students complain, the school advertises racial diversity and highlights its gay and queer students.
On their list of demands is a queer theology course, which students want the school to offer starting this fall. But theology professor Mary Fulkerson, the faculty adviser to the campus group Sacred Worth, which seeks to increase awareness of LGBTQ issues in the church, says they already have one—and she teaches it.
“Maybe we need to change the title so it’s more obvious,” she says.
The class, Sexuality: Bible, Church, and Controversy, explores sexuality, gender, and how to think about those concepts while reading religious texts.
Williams says the course doesn’t cut it.
“Although Duke Divinity School has certain courses that include quote-unquote queerness, there’s not a specific course geared around queer theology,” she says.
Duke Divinity was founded ninety-two years ago and is still supported by the United Methodist Church, which is perhaps why the school has not more explicitly embraced LGBTQ students, Fulkerson says. She also thinks the affiliation is part of the reason her course is titled opaquely—for fear of offending Methodist students. Gays and lesbians cannot be ordained in the Methodist church, unlike in the Presbyterian church, says Fulkerson, a Presbyterian minister.
This isn’t the case at Wake Forest School of Divinity, which openly and unequivocally supports LGBTQ students despite its historical ties to the Baptist church.
Wake Divinity is an outlier among seminaries in the South: according to the Institute for Welcoming Resources, it’s one of only seventeen seminaries in the nation and three in the South that are welcoming to LGBTQ students.
“Overall, Wake Divinity is a very welcoming and affirming environment,” says Erica Saunders, president of Wake Divinity’s pro-LGBTQ campus group, Kaleidoscope. “Most students explicitly affirm the dignity and unique contributions of LGBTQ people to theological education and to Christian life in general. A few individual students do not fully affirm LGBTQ in their theologies, but [Wake Divinity] creates an institutional culture of respect.”
At Duke Divinity, however, it’s a different story, Williams says. There’s a “general hushing” of LGBTQ people. Last year, Williams says, students rallied to gather signatures for a petition for a queer theology course, but the second the petition was handed over to faculty, it disappeared.
This isn’t representative of the university as a whole, Williams says. “It’s more of a Duke Divinity School in-house thing that is systemic to the place,” she says. “At times, Duke Divinity School can seem like this isolated place from the greater university.”
The students have focused their ire on Heath, the school’s first female dean, who says the student protests amount to “disrespect shown to my leadership.” Beyond that, Heath hasn’t addressed the tensions, save for a statement to The Herald-Sun that “all students, including LGBTQ students, are an integral part of the Duke Divinity School community.”
Fulkerson says she sympathizes with both sides.
“I feel for the students who feel they are being marginalized,” she says. “But I also feel for Dean Heath. I believe she is doing as much as she can.”