Lesbian Coach Departs Christian College Amidst Questions

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday December 3, 2010

A lesbian soccer coach has departed a Christian college in Nashville, Tenn., following an announcement to the team that she and her same-sex life partner were planning to become parents.

The student newspaper for Belmont University, Belmont Vision, reported on Dec. 2 that the women's soccer coach, Lisa Howe, would be leaving her post. Only a few days before, Post had disclosed that she and her female partner had decided to become parents. Howe had been with the university since 2005. She led the Belmont women's soccer team to the Atlantic Sun Conference championship last year.

The student paper initially referred to Howe's departure as a "firing," but an update reported that, according to a statement from the school's athletic director, Mike Strickland, Howe had made her own decision to leave. "Women's soccer coach Lisa Howe has informed the university of her intent to conclude her employment with Belmont," the statement read. "This was a decision Coach Howe made."

The statement also included a message from Howe. "I appreciate Belmont University giving me the opportunity to lead the women's soccer program for the last six season," Howe said. "I want to thank all the student-athletes who worked so hard for and dedicated themselves to me and the program. I am at a point in my life where I am satisfied to move on, and I wish the Belmont women's soccer team continued success."

But a Dec. 3 article in local newspaper the Tennessean reported that, according to members of the women's soccer team, Howe said her resignation was the result of having been "pressured" by the administration.

According to team member Erica Carter, Howe "said she went to the administration to get permission to talk to us" regarding the plan Howe and her partner had to become parents. Howe wished to obtain permission to speak about that aspect of her private like in order to "bring us to light on her becoming a mother," the student added. "She didn't want us to hear it from other sources. She has never talked about her personal life before. We always hear rumors, speculation and things. She wanted this to come directly from her."

Carter said that Howe disclosed that she had been offered a choice: resign or be fired. Carter's roommate and fellow teammate Ashley Hudak said that the reason for the administration's response was that Howe had outed herself as a lesbian by making the announcement, which itself was not made with the official permission of the administration.

"She said she had tried to clear telling us she was having a baby through the athletic department and they weren't allowing her to," said Hudak.

"[Strickland] basically said we have the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy and when she told us about the pregnancy, it violated that," the team's captain, Sari Lin, told the newspaper. "She was telling us what her sexual preference is. He said you can hide your sexuality, but you can't hide a baby. He pretty much told me that once the baby was born she was going to get fired anyway, so it's better to do it sooner than later."

Added Lin, "My question for them is why should she have to hide her baby?" Lin said. "Why should she have to hide anything about her sexuality? I hope we get some answers."

The article said that the university's president, Robert Fisher, directed media inquiries to Strickland who, in turn, failed to return phone calls. Moreover, Strickland was said to be out the office due to illness when a reporter ventured to the athletics department in person.

Carter described the team's feelings to the student publication, saying that

the response among the players was "like a wildfire spread of fury and anger. We were all talking in groups and upset and outraged that they would take our coach away after all that she has done for the program and for us individually." Added Carter, "We all just felt that this was unfair, and it wasn't done in the right way."

Both the student newspaper and the Tennessean noted that the state of Tennessee does not extend anti-discrimination protections to LGBT employees.

No Gay Coaches, No Gay Groups?

The student newspaper also noted that in September the school's administration rejected a proposal to recognize an LGBT student group, Bridge Builders, as an official university organization. The administration had also rejected the group last year.

Instead of allowing a student-led LGBT group to form, the university opted to sponsor twice-monthly meetings to provide a forum for discussion, reported Syracuse student newspaper the Daily Orange in a Dec. 1 article.

Bridge Builders was the brainchild of gay student Robbie Maris, who started the group as a Facebook page before attempting to get it recognized by the administration. "Before the Facebook group, I knew no one who was gay, lesbian or bisexual on campus, ironically enough," Maris recounted. "Facebook has become a way of organizing for our generation." The Daily Orange reported that Maris founded Bridge Builders out of a feeling of being "marginalized."

"The administration shot Bridge Builders down because of its views and beliefs that homosexuality is immoral," Maris added.

The administration didn't quite deny that. "While we didn't want to charter an organization or to have a campus-wide conversation on that run by just a student organization, we did recognize that the conversation was important, and we wanted to give that a place to occur," a statement from the school's associate dean and provost of students, Andrew Johnston, read. The Daily Orange was not successful in reaching Johnston for comment, the article noted.

Maris registered discontent with the university-sponsored discussions, saying that although the "group is good because it shows the university that gay people exist at this campus... it hurts us because only GLBT students and allies show up, and we have one-sided conversations. We talk about things that we already know, and the opposition isn't there. And it's only twice a month for an hour." Maris added that a third attempt to gain recognition for the group was underway.

The situation is reminiscent of a Canadian schoolteacher's firing earlier this year after she took time off when her same-sex partner gave birth to a son. Lisa Reimer had taken a job at Little Flower Academy, an all-girls Catholic school, during a yearlong leave of absence from her position with the Vancouver School Board, reported the Nova Scotia newspaper the Truro Daily News on April 29. When Reimer returned from her time away, she claimed, she was relieved of her teaching duties and "sent home" for the remainder of her contract because, she was told, parents had complained.

GLBT equality advocate group Pride Education Network claimed in an April 28 press release that the principal of the Little Flower Academy had informed Reimer that parents of some of the students were worried "the girls might follow Ms. Reimer's lead." One member of the group, Steve LeBel, used to be a teacher; he said that the school's pupils were being given the message that, "our principal thinks it's fine to let someone go because they're a lesbian."

The article noted that instructors at Catholic schools often must agree to "Catholicity clauses" in their contracts stipulating that they will adhere to church teaching even in their personal lives. But a spokesperson for The Catholic Independent Schools of the Vancouver Archdiocese says that such contractual obligations still do not justify discriminatory hiring and firing practices.

"We're also bound by Catholic teachings, which say that all persons are to be treated with dignity. You have to respect their human rights," Paul Schratz told the media. "So if a school were to fire somebody just because it found out they are lesbian or gay, the school would in fact be going against the teachings of our church."

Universities and colleges increasingly must deal with the changes wrought in society by electronic resources such as Facebook and the Common Application, a resource that started 35 years ago to enable students to apply to multiple institutions of higher education all at once. Common Application now has an online version, and as the times have changed, so has the service: Common Application is now debating whether to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the information students may provide, according to a Scripps Howard News Service article from Nov. 26.

Bemont University is one of the 415 schools that uses Common Application. The Scripps Howard story said that close to two million applications were submitted online using the service.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.