As the US grapples with a global pandemic that has stretched hospitals to the limit, a Christian university in Tennessee has rescinded an incoming student's graduate school offer of acceptance after learning he is gay.
Former students of Union University told BuzzFeed News they were not surprised by the move and that the school has a long history of anti-LGBTQ actions, including one former student who said he underwent so-called conversion therapy.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Alex Duron shared the email he received revoking his acceptance to the Southern Baptist–affiliated school located in Jackson. "It turns out that a faith-informed education from Union University is not God’s plan for me, because Union University is not ‘informed’ enough to not recognized [sic] that bigotry masked as religion is not Christian at all," Duron, 38, wrote.
Duron, an ICU nurse treating COVID-19 patients in San Antonio's University Health System, had intended to pursue a graduate degree in nurse anesthesia. He told BuzzFeed News that Union's small class sizes, which were a fraction of the size he was seeing at Texas schools, made the university a top choice.
When Duron interviewed at Union last August, he said faculty told him he'd be a great fit and that they had called a few days later to say that Duron's interview had "blown them away" and offered him admission. At no point, Duron said, did Union indicate that being gay — or even not a Christian — was an issue.
"When I interviewed, they said, 'We accept all types of different religious people. You don’t have to be Christian to come here,'" Duron said. "To tell me, 'You’re a good fit for this school,' and not tell me all this other stuff — that should’ve been laid out in front of me."
Duron's story was first reported by the Jackson Sun.
As part of his acceptance paperwork, Duron signed Union's community values statement but said he figured that just meant he couldn't be open about his sexuality on campus.
Union's community values prohibit students from drinking alcohol or engaging in premarital sexual activity, and condemn being LGBTQ for both faculty and students, stating that "the promotion, advocacy, defense or ongoing practice of a homosexual lifestyle (including same-sex dating behaviors) is also contrary to our community values."
Union's email revoking Duron's admission stated that he had not upheld the "values and expectations" he agreed to in signing the community values statement required of all incoming students.
"Your request for graduate housing and your social media profile, including your intent to live with your partner, indicates your unwillingness to abide by the commitment you made in signing this statement," the email read.
But Duron said he never told the school that he intended to live on campus with his fiancé. When he was arranging for graduate housing last week, he said a Union employee pressed him on the matter, asking if he was engaged or planned to be married, thereby qualifying him for the university's family housing. But Duron said he never mentioned his fiancé or his sexuality, adding that he is very private on social media about his personal life.
Duron said he doesn't know how the university even found his fiancé, but that after the phone call with Union about housing, his partner mentioned that a private profile affiliated with Union University had viewed his LinkedIn.
In a statement sent to BuzzFeed News, Union University staff said the school has "standards of behavior for its faculty, staff, and students that are consistent with biblical teaching and historic, orthodox Christian practice."
"All students who apply to Union University sign a statement saying they will comply with the university’s values," the staff added. "Those students who fail to abide by those values – or who show no intention of attempting to do so – are subject to disciplinary measures that can include dismissal from the university."
Due to the threat of expulsion, former students told BuzzFeed News that LGBTQ students at Union University live in constant fear of being outed, which could mean they lose their education, face being ostracized from their family and community, or both.
"I still have bad dreams about my degree being stripped from me because I was gay," said Anna Avery, who graduated from Union in 2012 and did not come out until she was no longer a student. "I feared that someone would find my journals."
When former student Scott McSwain chose to attend Union University, he had already come out to his parents as gay when he was a teenager, which resulted in his first experience with so-called conversion therapy. McSwain had earned a full-ride scholarship to an out-of-state university, but, he said, his mother and his father, who was a minister, thought they were doing what was best for their son by sending him to a Christian college in his hometown.
While attending Union between 2006–10, McSwain said he dated a girl, but came out to her after realizing it wouldn't be fair to continue the relationship. Soon after, rumors about McSwain's sexuality spread through Union's campus and his fraternity, until he said he was called into a meeting with the school's administration and told that he would have to attend therapy or leave the university. He said he was subsequently groped by one of his counselors.
McSwain said his experience at Union University left him "dehumanized" and living in constant fear, uncertain whether he could trust friends, or trust teachers to grade him fairly, and drove him to contemplate suicide.
"I know of a lot of people that used my experience as a reason not to tell the administration about their sexuality ever," McSwain said. "It's horrible to have to choose between your safety and your identity."
Union University’s director of counseling services, Tamarin Huelin, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that she was “grieved” to hear McSwain’s allegations of groping and added that she hoped any student would report such behavior to law enforcement and the licensing board for counselors.
But Huelin also insisted that neither she, nor her predecessor, have performed so-called conversion therapy with Union students, instead characterizing her work as “care for students and their mental and spiritual needs.”
“I have served as the Director for Counseling Services since August of 2015, and no one on my staff has attempted conversion therapy with any student during that time,” Huelin said.
"Conversion therapy" is a scientifically discredited practice that has been widely condemned by healthcare professionals as detrimental to LGBTQ individuals. Despite this, just 20 states have banned the practice. Tennessee has no state law or policy against so-called conversion therapy, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
McSwain met his now-husband, Alex, at Union University, but said during their time there they couldn’t even text each other for fear that their conversations would be monitored by the school. Today, they’re both teachers in Washington state, and McSwain recently made a video publicly detailing his experience at Union.
Like McSwain, alumnus Nathan Grimm ended up at Union because of his strict Christian upbringing and his parents' wishes — despite their knowing he is gay.
"My parents more or less told me that they weren’t going to help support my education if I didn’t attend Union," Grimm said. "I wasn't excited to attend, but was not an out and proud gay man at the time ... I think it's honestly a way for parents to send their children to a place where 'God can cure you.'"
Grimm said he'd heard about the "sessions" during his time as a student and about Union manipulating students to try to out one another. He said he felt fortunate to have graduated from Union without being outed or expelled, but knows other students weren't as lucky.
As for Duron, the nurse whose admission was revoked, he said he feels like he "dodged a bullet" by not attending Union, and said since going public with his story he's been contacted by nursing schools around the country trying to find a way to grant him admission for the fall.
"My initial plan was to warn away people in the nursing community from Union if they’re gay or transgender," Duron said. "But it has totally changed now, people are taking it to the next level ... There's a light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know where I'm going to end up, but I've gotten so much support."
Correction: Tamarin Huelin's name was misspelled in a previous version of this post.