Editor’s Note: The reporter for this story has graduated from Pepperdine in April 2023. All reporting in this story was conducted prior to July 2023.
Editor’s note: *Name has been changed to J. Doe to protect the individual’s privacy.
Pepperdine upholds Church of Christ Christian values and strives to lead students toward a life of purpose, service and leadership, according to Pepperdine’s Mission, Vision and Affirmation page. Queer professors and staff members said they face unique issues and fears when deciding to share their identity due to Pepperdine’s Christian views on LGBTQ+ acceptance.
Faculty said Queer concerns involving faculty and staff at Pepperdine revolve around a larger cultural and religious history of not affirming Queer identities within the institution.
Pepperdine University states sexual relationships are only meant to be expressed between a man and a woman in marriage, according to Seaver College’s Sexual Relationship Policy for students.
For faculty and staff, the policy is much less clear, creating a culture of what some faculty said they describe as fear.
“I found being queer at Pepperdine to be extremely lonely and isolating,” wrote Cory Aitchison, former Pepperdine faculty member (2015-2021), in a May 21 email to the Graphic. “What I experienced could be described more as an empty space, a telling through omission. Any discussion of queerness, especially among faculty and staff, seemed to live in a vacuum.”
This infographic showcases the attributed voices in this story. Alongside their faces is a quote that reflects their thoughts and feelings about Queer faculty and staff in the church and/or at Pepperdine.
The Law and Queer Employees
A university, even a religious private one, cannot discriminate against or terminate an employee based on a protected class — including sexual orientation — according to the American Bar Association.
The U.S. Supreme Court case Bostock v. Clayton County and a district court ruling in the case of Billard v. Charlotte Catholic High School affirms a precedent of protection for LGBTQ+ individuals, according American Bar Association.
These cases establish that LGBTQ+ individuals are a protected class. Specifically, Billard v. Charlotte states religious exemptions do not overrule protection of a protected class, because religion could be used to discriminate against any protected class, according to the American Bar Association.
“If an instructor is in charge of religious education, the institution may treat him/her/them as a ‘minister’ and claim the exemption from anti-discrimination law for ministers,” Fisk said.
Pepperdine Religion Division’s Hiring Practices and Policies
George Pepperdine, life-long Church of Christ member, founded Pepperdine in 1937 to be a collegiate institution that encourages Church of Christ values, according to the Seaver College “About Us” webpage.
However, Dan Rodriguez, divisional dean of Religion and Philosophy said while the Church of Christ mission does guide the University, it is not a monolith of how the school operates.
“Churches don’t run Pepperdine,” Rodriguez said. “George Pepperdine didn’t want the Church of Christ to dominate the school.”
Rodriguez said the Religion Division does not and cannot discriminate against hiring an individual solely because they are Queer, however, that doesn’t mean a Queer individual would find it easy to join the department.
The Religion Division requires tenure-track professors to show active participation in the Churches of Christ in their interview, Rodriguez said, which could be harder for Queer individuals.
“We’re talking about a denomination that’s still struggling with this topic,” Rodriguez said. “I would imagine that most [LGBTQ+ individuals] end up having to move away from Churches of Christ even though they love the tradition and they’ve grown up in it.”
Sally Gary, executive director of CenterPeace, said many Queer people participate in the Church of Christ.
“I know literally thousands of people who are actively involved in their churches who identify as LGBTQ+,” Gary said.
CenterPeace is an organization that helps individuals inside and outside the church leaders, better understand issues impacting LGBTQ+ people and open conversations about faith and sexuality, according to the CenterPeace Mission page.
Psychology Professor Steve Rouse said he is also an active member of the Church of Christ while openly identifying as Bisexual. He serves on the Pastoral Council —traditionally known as the elder board — for the University Church of Christ Malibu.
University Church does not have an official statement on LGBTQ+ individuals, Rouse said, however, he said this lack of statement reflects more the tradition surrounding the Church of Christ, rather than the University Church’s feelings on Queer individuals.
The Church of Christ bases its belief system on the Bible — regardless of the topic at hand, Rouse wrote in an April 3 follow-up email to the Graphic. While this can sometimes create a challenge when two people interpret Scripture differently, he wrote a valuable part of the Church of Christ’s tradition is that no one’s personal Biblical understanding is prioritized over anyone else’s.
Rodriguez said finding someone who is Queer and active in the Churches of Christ community would mean they are celibate which would be “quite rare” in a hiring pool.
“That’s a double unicorn,” Rodriguez said. “So a same-sex attracted person who’s celibate and actively involved in the Church of Christ [in the hiring pool], I could see that, but I don’t imagine that’s going to be for a while.”
History of Queer Progress at Pepperdine
Queer issues for faculty came to light in 2003 with the addition of a Sexual Relationship Policy in their 2002-2003 Faculty Handbook.
At the time, the policy mirrored the sexual relationship policy in the student handbook; however, administrators added it without forewarning the faculty, according to previous graphic reporting. Furthermore, the phrasing of the policy opened concerns regarding whether the faculty could face punishment — especially if they lived on campus in a purchased faculty condo.
In response, faculty said this was unfair because the administration did not give Seaver Faculty Association a chance to give feedback or alternatives according to the article.
While the policy mentioned heterosexual marriage, the policy did target same-sex relationships through theology, Michael Ditmore, former Seaver Faculty Association president, wrote in a June 12 email to the Graphic.
“While it is obvious that the policy in some way targeted same-sex conduct, it did so not by singling out same-sex (or Queer) orientations but by emphasizing (on biblical/theological grounds) monogamy within husband-wife marriage,” Ditmore wrote.
Moreover, Ditmore wrote faculty were also concerned about the punitive nature of the policy and raised questions on why administrators would take interest in what consenting adults do that isn’t illegal.
Chris Doran, Religion professor, founder of the Sustainability program and 2022-23 president of the SFA, said at the time of his arrival as a faculty member in 2007, there were faculty who were “semi-out.” Today, however, Doran said there are less faculty who openly identify as LGBTQ+, though he does not know the reasons behind their departure.
In 2009, some faculty called for Pepperdine to have more political balance after Kenneth Starr, former dean of Pepperdine Caruso School of Law, joined the legal counsel to protect Proposition 8 — a state ballot initiative that stated “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” according to previous Graphic reporting.
Some faculty disapproved of how Starr’s participation in defending Prop 8 labeled Pepperdine as a “far-right institution damaging the University’s credibility as a place of scholarship,” according to previous Graphic reporting.
In response, Kris Knaplund, faculty adviser of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) branch of Pepperdine and Professor of Law organized an event in 2009 to speak on how faith and homosexuality intersect alongside ACLU President Kerry Docherty.
Two years later, in 2011, Seaver College hired Adjunct Professor Bryan C. Keene in the Humanities and Teacher Education department, and in 2015 Keene was the first known and recorded openly gay-identifying Professor at Pepperdine. However, student harassment led to Keene coming out, which they did in an effort to be more transparent about how they taught their courses.
“I had not actually declared anything openly,” Keene said. “It was only later after students were making assumptions about my sexuality, assumption-based slurs, and hate messages that I then more actively started to name my husband as husband, and not simply partner.”
Keene said their peers and faculty colleagues were their main support system in contrast to harmful student assumptions and messages.
Rouse said he feels faculty and staff are more limited than students, as LGBTQ+ employees at Pepperdine may worry about their job security if they openly identified as Queer on campus, according to a 2022 article in the Graphic.
The Reality for Queer Faculty and Staff
Faculty and staff who identify as Queer said they do have their own worries about whether or not to be open at Pepperdine which they believe students don’t share.
“If you’re coming out as a faculty member then you’re entering a workplace and representing ‘the brand,’” said J. Doe,* a professor at Pepperdine University.
Doe said if the brand Pepperdine represents is aligned with conservative religious tradition it leads to unspoken pressure and worries for LGBTQ+ faculty to face when deciding to step into the Pepperdine sphere.
One of these worries is job security. While it’s true the University cannot fire a faculty or staff member for their sexual orientation, Doran said that does not necessarily mean workers at Pepperdine feel their job would be secure if they came out.
“I’ve talked to a good number of gay folks and staff over my 16 years and I can’t think of a single one that’s out, and the reason they were not out on campus was because they were worried about their employment status,” Doran said.
Rouse explains that for staff this can mean the fear of being terminated over other mistakes and for the faculty — adjunct, visiting faculty and tenure-track — it’s fear of not having a contract renewal or it could be not being promoted or denied tenure.
“I have had staff members who can pinpoint in specific situations in the past where shortly after a person’s sexual identity became known they got fired and even if it wasn’t because of their sexual orientation it kind of seemed like in some cases it was,” Rouse said.
Human Resources supports all faculty and staff, Sean Michael Phillips, associate vice president of Human Resources and Business Services, wrote in an April 12 email to the Graphic. Phillips also wrote that Pepperdine strives “to be a healing agent” for a “wounded and polarized world” and commits to civil discourse, to “enhance understanding.”
“Just as scripture shows the need for multiple perspectives — from two creation stories to four gospels — we affirm iron sharpens iron, and the need for many perspectives and positions is crucial to the very integrity of our being,” Phillips wrote.
For faculty specifically, Rouse said they worry that coming out as Queer may influence students’ perception of them.
“Some faculty and staff have wondered if they would lose credibility in the eyes of the students,” Rouse said.
There is an assumption that one’s sexual orientation is only about sexual behavior and Rouse said this leads to some faculty feeling afraid students will make assumptions about their sex lives and relationships.
On the other hand, Doe said other faculty have no problem sharing their orientation with students and other faculty but have no real outlet to make it known.
“The bigger question for gay faculty and gay staff is ‘how do you disclose [your sexuality] in the absence of a forum, or a presentation, or a convocation, or a rally or a march in your day-to-day life at a university,'” Doe said.
Doe said while they are not closeted they do not believe in having to come out to everyone about their sexual identity — like any other professor, their identity and coming out journey is for themselves to express.
Faculty said while each person’s preference in sharing their sexuality is unique, Pepperdine’s perceived attitude toward LGBTQ+ individuals has made it difficult for faculty and staff to have conversations about their identity — or made them afraid to disclose it.
“So when you ask the question, ‘How do Queer faculty and staff feel?’ I would say they have often had to suffer in silence,” said Nate Ethell, former senior director of Communications and Brand Development for Pepperdine.
Ethell left the university in fall 2022.
Administration and Queer Faculty
While some Queer faculty and staff have these worries every day in their direct departments there is also confusion on if and how administrators support them Ethell said. In some cases, it’s deemed to be absent.
“When working with administration and leadership at the University I would say Queer faculty and staff are not given permission to exist as Queer people in the Pepperdine workplace,” Ethell said.
Pepperdine’s HR Department is meant to act as an outlet for professors and faculty to communicate their complaints and concerns and offer support when needed, Phillips wrote in an April 12 email to the Graphic.
Outside of HR, Doe said faculty and staff look toward Senior Administration to set the tone for Queer acceptance at Pepperdine, but many realize that outside influences may impede their ability of wanting to do so.
“The perception of the administration is that their primary job is to make sure that Pepperdine is strong fiscally,” Doe said. “You’re not concerned every day about offending a wealthy conservative donor, you’re not concerned about offending a conservative member of the Board of Regents because you don’t interact with those people on a day-to-day basis.”
Doe said the administration can have a very messy job trying to balance so many diverse viewpoints from faculty, staff and students while also appeasing donors with more traditional values on Christianity.
However, some said they disagreed.
“A big barrier in every instance, when we think about systemic change, is following the money,” Keene said. “Until an administration is willing to be brave and bold and still hold tight to their Christian foundation by looking at other sources for funding, then I think we’ll continue to have a barrier.”
Doran said even outside the realm of money, the administration also doesn’t seem to always support faculty and staff who voice concerns about LGBTQ+ treatment.
“People who do speak truth are not doing it for degrading or derogatory reasons,” Doran said. “They’re doing it because they want to make the place the best it could be. I’m not sure our current administration and prior administration have always appreciated the way that I think many of the truth tellers in our faculty have intended it to come across.”
While faculty and staff do advocate and use their influence to change sentiments like this at Pepperdine, Ethell said many of the decisions they would want to make are out of their reach.
“It should be that faculty and staff do have power,” Ethell said. “But the reality is that power is often either highly localized so that there’s only specific people that have the authority to make changes or it’s controlled at the highest levels of leadership.”
Ultimately, Ethell said administration guides the discussion on Queer individuals on campus and real long-lasting change is through them.
“If President Gash intends to see a complete vision of community belonging, the one that he has promoted and articulated and declared, he has a responsibility to do more for the Pepperdine Queer community and to instruct his steering team to do the same,” Ethell said.
President Jim Gash created the Office for Community and Belonging but it is unclear whether this office has any plans for the Queer community. J. Goosby Smith, vice president for Office for Community and Belonging and chief diversity officer, wrote she had no comment in an April 19 email to the Graphic.
Gash declined to comment and deferred to the Human Resources department, who also provided no response specifically regarding the Senior Administration’s thoughts on working to create an affirming environment for LGBTQ+ faculty or questions about balancing between donor approval and campus concerns. However, Human Resources did emphasize Pepperdine’s support for all faculty members.
Doran said what administrators chose to talk or not talk about shows what the university sees as a priority and sets that tone among faculty and staff.
“What is left unsaid is often louder than any blatant homophobia,” Aitchison said.
Importance of Queer Faculty to Students
While faculty and staff have concerns about student assumptions of their sexualities, students — specifically Queer students — said they believe having open identifying faculty and staff is important to them.
“Having at least support or actively knowing that you have representation in this space is really important,” senior Maurissa Dawson said.
Students said having Queer faculty and staff generally helps to reaffirm their own identities especially if they come from backgrounds where that isn’t always the case.
“It’s so comforting for me to see older Queer people because you see that there are people that made it,” Tony Lin, first year at Graziadio Business School, said. “It’s just one of those things where it’s just like you. You want to see that representation. You want to see that there’s a future for you.”
Students said the administration needs to take a greater stance on what side they are on — whether it supports Queer individuals on campus or if they affirm traditional values.
Students such as Lin and Dawson said they agree having Queer faculty is necessary for having diversity at Pepperdine.
Faculty members Doran, Doe, and Rouse, and staff member Ethell said it takes collaboration between administrators and Pepperdine workers to create a genuine atmosphere of affirmation toward Queer faculty and staff.
“We’ve moved down the road [to inclusion] quite a bit,” Rouse said. “I don’t feel as though we have moved down the road enough for there to be a sufficient feeling of safety and security for Queer faculty and staff.”
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