Debate Over Transgender Student Reveals Division In Quaker Church

OPB | July 17, 2014 4:41 p.m. | Updated: July 18, 2014 11:19 a.m. | Portland

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Tower at George Fox University

Tower at George Fox University

George Fox / Wikimedia

A recent debate over where a transgender student should live at George Fox University has revealed a division in the Quaker church.

That division is likely to come up as members of more than 60 Quaker churches from across the Northwest gather at the campus next week for their annual meeting.

Quakers in the Northwest were quietly deliberating questions about human sexuality and gender when a high profile transgender housing case came up at George Fox University.

Jayce is a transgender student at George Fox University, a college founded by Quakers. In April, he filed a discrimination complaint with the Department of Education after the university denied his request to live with male friends on campus. George Fox asked for, and received, a religious exemption from Title IX, the federal law that bars gender discrimination at schools. We talked with Jayce at Augustana Lutheran, his church in Portland.

The transgender student at the center of that case is only using his first name, Jayce, because he says he fears harassment. Jayce was born female but has legally and medically transitioned to be male. He’s a junior at George Fox.

“I feel like God wants people to be true to who they are. So, me being female is not who I am,” he said.

Jayce says the students and faculty at George Fox University have supported him. But this spring, the university turned down his request to live in the male dorm on campus, instead offering him a single apartment.

George Fox asked for, and received, a religious exemption from Title IX, the federal law that bars gender discrimination at schools. The college cited a belief that human beings are created male and female by God, and said “we cannot in good conscience support or encourage an individual to live in conflict with biblical principals.”

The position that George Fox has taken doesn’t sit well with some Quakers, like Pastor Wes Daniels.

Jayce is a junior at George Fox University.

Jayce is a junior at George Fox University.

John Rosman / OPB

“Paul says that there’s neither Jew nor Greek, nor male nor female. All are one in Christ Jesus,” Daniels said. “At the core of the Quaker tradition is this equality of all humans.”

Daniels is the pastor of Camas Friends church. His church is part of the Quaker group, called the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, that owns George Fox University. The school was founded by evangelical Quakers in the 1880s.

Daniels says the Quakers split into three denominations about 150 years ago. The liberal branch worships in silence without a pastor and has publicly welcomed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The evangelical Quakers mix silent worship with singing and sermons, and have taken some more conservative positions, including the position that homosexuality is a sin. On the specific issue of transgender people, Daniels says evangelical Quaker doctrine is open to interpretation.

“We don’t have a statement on transgender folks,” he said.

George Fox University

George Fox University

George Fox / Wikimedia

But Daniels says some evangelical Quaker churches in Oregon are ready to welcome gay and transgender people.

“Our yearly meeting has been doing a lot of work and discernment around human sexuality, and we have people from all different perspectives trying to stay together at the table,” Daniels said.

And members of the Quaker community say George Fox’s decision to refuse on-campus housing to Jayce is going to spark debate at next week’s meeting.

“That issue will arise,” said Ralph Bebee, an alumni of George Fox, and a former history teacher there.

Bebee is 82 and says, like a lot of evangelical Quakers, he has a fairly traditional Christian views on marriage and sexuality. But after some thought, he’s decided he believes transgender and gay people are born that way.

“I think they should be accepted, loved, cared for, treated just as much like everybody else as possible,” he explained.

Jacye’s attorney plans to appeal the religious exemption George Fox received, by arguing Quaker theology doesn’t take a position on trangender people.

The leadership of the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends declined to comment for this story. George Fox’s spokesman, Rob Felton, said he did not want to be interviewed.

In a written statement, he said the school worked hard to provide a supportive environment for transgendered students like Jayce. But Felton added, the school also wanted to manage its housing in a way that was consistent with its religious beliefs.

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