Mab Segrest Letter to Duke Provost
September 2, 2014
Provost Sally Kornbluth
Duke University, Durham, NC
Dear Provost Kornbluth:
I am writing to express my dismay over Duke Divinity School Dean Richard B. Hays’ recent comments at the Divinity School’s Diversity and Inclusion orientation panel for new students last week. I received an MA from Duke in English in 1972 and a PhD in 1979, and I taught courses in the English Department as a PhD student in the 1970s and in Women’s Studies, English and the Freshman Focus Program at Duke in the 1990s. In the 1980s I worked on combatting hate violence in North Carolina, including active Klan and neo-Nazi organizations that targeted people of color and homosexuals. In the 1990s I worked with the Urban-Rural Mission of the World Council of Churches, the Protestant ecumenical organization based in Geneva and representing millions of Christians worldwide. I am also a lesbian raised in the not-so-United Methodist Church (its segregated form in Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s).
On all of these registers I object to Divinity School Dean Richard B. Hays’ choice to read the United Methodist Church’s exclusionary condemnation of homosexuality as stated in its Book of Discipline as “incompatible with Christian teachings” at an event welcoming new students and orienting them to programs for diversity and inclusion. His action clearly ran athwart of the event’s stated purpose and the University’s admirable and substantial policies of nondiscrimination (not in place in my years as a student) that have been widely quoted. Professor Hays has the right to his personal and published opinions about homosexuality and Christianity. But when Dean Hays chooses to insert the Book of Discipline’s condemnation into an event intended as welcome, he owes these students, the Divinity School and the Duke University much more of an apology than he has been able to muster. More importantly, Duke University owes its Divinity School and all its students and employees a clear message that its nondiscrimination policies are neither optional nor negotiable.
These controversies over sexuality and gender within Methodism, other Christian denominations, and other faith traditions have huge stakes. The persecution of women and gender and sexual minorities has rested on pillars of law, medicine, and religion. With hard and brave work much of this is changing. On the medical front, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual was revised in the early 1970s to remove “homosexuality” as a disorder. Twenty-first century Supreme Court decisions, Garner vs Texas (striking down sodomy laws) and the recent decisions on “gay marriage,” are changing the legal terrain. Many Christian denominations have battled the theological and political issues out to less lethal stands. The UMC is in the midst of this process but has clearly not arrived. Having been raised in a segregated United Methodist Church in Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s I have no illusions about the ability of the denomination and its representatives to take reprehensible stands in the name of the Christian gospel, or what it means when they realign. As a “homosexual” whose relations with family members over decades were profoundly distorted by such institutionally backed interpretations, I know personally the pain that such judgments within families bring (although I was graced with Methodist parents who modeled how to bring interpretative power to Bible texts). In the 1980s as I worked against homophobic violence in North Carolina I saw my experiences echoed in young gay men and lesbians whose condemnation by parents or siblings was aligned with and arose from their convictions about the nature of God. In cultures such as North Carolina where Christianity can over-ride secular spaces and constitutional guarantees of rights, actions by scholars acting as administrators at Duke’s Divinity School carry a special weight in places where no more weight is needed or, at times, can be borne.
However the UMC works these vital questions out, it behooves Duke University to stay on the right side of history. While I have hopes that my former denomination will ultimately align itself to the radical inclusiveness of the gospel rather than a fundamentalist interpretation of a handful of scriptures embedded in centuries of patriarchal hierarchy, I expect Duke University to continue to align itself with its own policies about inclusion and protection for students, staff and faculty from the vagaries of theological disputes. In my adult lifetime, Duke has positioned itself as a university with global reach. Now, Dean Hays is in danger of aligning himself and the institution with the kind of regressive fundamentalism that is roiling communities, countries and entire regions all over the world, as every morning’s newspapers attest.
I urge you to respond with the utmost seriousness to the implications of the past two weeks. Thank you very much for your consideration of this request.
Fuller-Maathai Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies (retired)
Duke University English Department, 1972 MA 1979 PhD