Goshen College's GLBTQ hiring practices questioned by students

The college administration's stance of not hiring people in GLBTQ relationships has inspired much discussion on campus, and two student-led groups have different perspectives on the subject.

Posted on April 3, 2014 at 1:20 p.m.

Goshen College does not hire people in GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning) relationships, but some students are working to change that.

Students in the Goshen College Open Letter group wear t-shirts that proclaim "Where's my GLBTQ prof?" and regularly meet with administration, hoping the school will change the long-standing hiring practice that stems from its affiliation with the Mennonite church.

That practice, according to Jodi Beyeler, interim director of communications and marketing for the college, is to require prospective employees to agree to a "commitment to community standards."

The standards say, in part, that sex should only happen between a man and a woman in a marriage relationship. Goshen College would hire GLBTQ staff, Beyeler said, but would expect them to remain celibate.

The Open Letter group has been actively trying to change this practice since 2011, but this year another group of students stepped forward saying they think the college's hiring practice is just fine.

These students wear yellow shirts that say,"Peacefully, I support the GC hiring practices."

Ryan Smith, the freshman behind the yellow shirts, said he wanted to give a voice to students who didn't agree with the Open Letter group, but were afraid to speak up.

"I made these shirts not to divide the community, but to bring it together," he said. 

And though some students have said they feel threatened by the yellow shirts, Smith said that wasn't his intention.

"People, when they first saw the t-shirts, they thought ‘Westboro Baptist Church,’" he said, referring to an extremist group known for toting signs that say "God Hates Fags."

Smith has talked with GLBTQ students and the leaders of the Open Letter group since he printed the yellow shirts about a month ago. Those conversations have been mostly positive, he said, and he encourages anyone with questions to talk with him.

"Eventually, there will be a middle ground where no one feels threatened," he said.

There's still a ways to go before that's true though, because Smith admitted he had never actually worn the yellow shirt before an April 1 interview with The Elkhart Truth -- there's too much tension on campus over the subject for him to feel comfortable wearing his beliefs, he said.

Abby Deaton and Stefan Baumgartner, both juniors, co-lead the Open Letter group, a movement that's grown to include about 250 current students and about 1,500 alumni, staff and faculty.

Just like the shirt says, members of the Open Letter group want Goshen College to adopt a hiring practice that allows staff to be in GLBTQ relationships.

To them, this isn't an issue and it isn't a debate. The school's hiring practice hurts people, and it should change, Deaton and Baumgartner said.

"One thing that I constantly hear from GLBTQ people on campus is that we don’t have that mentorship," Baumgartner explained. "Many of the GLBTQ students on campus identify in a faith tradition and we want to see that in a GLBTQ professor."

Baumgartner, who grew up in Goshen, said he wanted to attend Goshen College partly because he felt it was a safe place.

The college has a statement that says it welcomes all students, regardless of sexual orientation. There are several groups on campus specifically for GLBTQ students.

Baumgartner only recently told his friends and family that he is gay, and he accepted his sexual orientation only after much soul-searching and in light of his Mennonite Christian faith.

"That acceptance was a direct result of my faith and experiencing God’s everlasting love," he said. "Now, I am more able to use my voice to spread the love of God.”

Deaton said she attended a Mennonite church where sexual orientation was "a non-issue." Because of that background, she was shocked when she arrived at Goshen College and heard of the school's hiring practice.

She immediately became involved with the Open Letter group, and founding student Patrick Ressler asked her and Baumgartner to lead the group after he left Goshen.

They've done a lot this year, including selling shirts to alumni at homecoming weekend and leading a campus discussion for anyone with questions about the movement.

They feel that they are making progress.

"Administration has been very, very open to talking to us," Deaton said. "It's not the students versus the administration. We want to work together and be in good communication."

Beyeler, communications director for the college, echoed Deaton, saying that administration and students regularly discuss the school's hiring practices.

The board met in February and talked about the subject extensively, Beyeler said, but made no decision.

Board members need more time, she said, especially in light of similar conversations happening in the Mennonite church as a whole and at Goshen's "sister school" Eastern Mennonite University, which is also considering a change in its hiring practices.

EMU says on its website that board members started a six-month "listening process" in January and could make a decision on the school policy about hiring people in same-sex relationships in June.

"It’s a time in the church where there is a lot changing, and I don’t know what that means," Beyeler said. "I think we are all watching for how the spirit is moving."

Students' voices on the subject have had an impact and they are being listened to, she said, "but they are not the only voices at the table.'

Deaton and Baumgartner, encouraged by a potential change at Eastern Mennonite University, think a similar change for Goshen could come soon.

"I hope that there are students on campus now that will not need to wear their shirts by the time they graduate," Deaton said, adding, "But it won’t be us."

Follow reporter Lydia Sheaks on Twitter at @LydiaSheaks


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