Transgender waiver for Tabor hints at larger issues
Mennonite branches work to define responses to LGBT community issues
When new guidance extending transgendered individuals protection against discrimination was issued by the U.S. Department of Education last year, Tabor College had a dilemma thrust upon it.
How could the college accommodate, for example, a male who changed his gender identity to female who wanted to live in a women’s dormitory, participate on women’s sports teams, and use women’s restrooms, and still stay true to the Mennonite Brethren confession of faith it upholds?
They couldn’t, it was decided, and so president Jules Glanzer petitioned the department for an exemption based on religious grounds, an exemption allowed under Title IX, which governs sex-related discrimination.
The exemption was granted in January.
“With the exemption, we simply don’t have to accommodate those requests,” Glanzer said. “We get to set the accommodations, not the federal government. At the core, it helps us live with our integrity of who we are and what our confession of faith says we believe.”
If a transgender student did choose to attend Tabor, the college would adapt, Glanzer said.
“In actuality, if that would happen, we would figure out a way,” he said. “We have houses that if we had multiple students like this we could find a way to make that happen. We don’t have that need right now.”
However, that wasn’t the end of the story, as Tabor was caught up this past week in an online controversy suggesting it was among dozens of Christian colleges that sought waivers to “ban LGBT students.”
The Column, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered issues, used an online article to admonish 36 Christian colleges that have applied for or received waivers for discrimination protections. The story spread quickly on social media, and to other outlets, such as MTV.
Tabor maintains it isn’t seeking to turn away transgender students, only to retain the freedom to carry out its Christian mission.
“Any student can come here, any student can enroll here if they meet the academic criteria and if they meet the other admissions criteria that are there,” Glanzer said.
It’s the second time in about a month Tabor has been highlighted online for LGBT issues.
A Mennonite World Review article detailed a situation in which a dissatisfied openly gay Tabor student decided to transfer from the Mennonite Brethren-affiliated school to Bethel College, a Mennonite Church USA institution with a long history of being receptive to LGBT individuals.
In October, Bethel was the site for a MCUSA Western District meeting where the group made a decision that ran counter to confessions of faith for both MCUSA and Mennonite Brethren branches.
“Western District just passed the Rainbow resolution saying that a pastor could marry a gay couple provided they have a congregation’s blessing to do so,” Leann Toews of Goessel said.
Toews has been an advocate for full inclusion of LGBT people in church life since the mid-1980s, when a friend’s son was dismissed as a Mennonite pastor after coming out as gay.
“Our friends were just devastated,” she said. “We just kind of went to bat for them. We knew their son, and when he came out as a gay person, it didn’t change our love and respect for him. From that point, I took every opportunity I could to be a spokesman for LGBT persons.”
That included serving on the executive board of Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests for six years. While no longer a board member, Toews was in Kansas City this summer when for the first time in the organization’s 40-year history, they were given a booth at the MCUSA convention.
“I said I would come sit at the booth every day all day long and that’s what I did,” she said. “They put us on the back wall where the traffic didn’t have to go by. I would say most of the people who came were very excited we were there.”
MCUSA passed two resolutions dealing with LGBT issues. One encouraged forbearance for congregations and districts as they work on discerning how to incorporate LGBT people. The other affirmed standing rules that deny them official membership.
“I think a lot of people in my group felt the purpose of that was to satisfy everybody,” Toews said.
While discussions have been open, they’ve also been controversial, Toews said.
“It’s just unraveling now,” she said. “I think now most people are saying we don’t want some group somewhere deciding for us.”
Toews attends Tabor Mennonite Church near Goessel. She said all members don’t agree with her position, but she remains an advocate.
“If you believe that God created people in whatever form of sexuality, they are made in the image of God,” she said. “Who are we to say this is a person that is good or not?”
Covenant and dialogue
While both Mennonite Brethren and MCUSA affirm in their confessions that marriage is between a man and a woman, and is the only proper context for sexual relations, the former is more literal and firm in its application of those principles.
The community life covenant undergraduate students at Tabor agree to abide by affirms that, and Glanzer said it was an example of how the Bible places restrictions on sexuality for all believers, not just LGBT ones.
“There are some things scripture lays out that when it comes to my sexual practice I’m supposed to do, I’m supposed to live by, and we would say the same is true for all people.”
The covenant sets forth responsibilities around faith, knowledge, character, and truth of scripture, and it is within those, Glanzer said, that the college tries to deal with all students, including LGBT ones, with compassion and respect.
“Do we always succeed at that? Not like we’d like to, I’ll admit that,” Glanzer said. “But at the same time it is a standard that we shoot toward, work toward, teach toward, so we can live together in a healthy environment that encourages learning. We work very hard through whatever disciplinary actions we take that they are meted out with the same kind of consistency regardless of the student’s sexual orientation. That’s what I think people don’t understand.”
About 100 Tabor students and alumni signed a petition this fall that in part called for the college to engage in further dialogue around the covenant and LGBT issues. Glanzer said that while a task force is looking at the covenant, any significant changes in the college’s approach to LGBT issues must start elsewhere.
“Is it a need to have a greater dialogue? In terms of the confession of faith, the dialogue need to happen in the Mennonite Brethren Church, not here,” he said. “We are bound by the confession of faith. If anything is going to change, that conversation has to happen out there.”
Glanzer said he has been in contact with many alumni about LGBT issues.
“I would say the minority is a loud voice, by and large,” he said.
In the eight years he has been president, Glanzer said, there have been perhaps two occasions when students have been gathered to talk about LGBT issues, and there are no plans at this time for any public forums.
Nonetheless, he maintained the college continued to be responsive to the needs of LGBT students.
“We want to be very sensitive to students that are struggling with this issue, and that’s the part that isn’t being out in the press,” Glanzer said. “If you’ve grown up with a religious conviction, and if you really want the scripture to be the authority of your life and you have a personal relationship with Christ you want to live out, there’s a lot of inner conflict that happens at that point for a student.
“We work very hard in a compassionate, loving way to help that student walk through that.”
Three decades ago, Toews was a part-time teacher at Tabor, but left, she said, because there wasn’t a good fit between the college and her beliefs.
Still, she holds out hope that ongoing dialogue and prayerful discernment may one day bring Mennonites and others together around LGBT issues.
“I don’t see any of it as being mutually exclusive,” she said. “That would be the ideal dream of the church, that we can be Mennonites, Christians, gay, straight, we can just be a community of believers. I don’t know if it’s ever going to happen, but it would be great if we got there.”