Transgender Student Faces Unclear Future at Southern Adventist University

Transgender Student Faces Unclear Future at Southern Adventist University

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Published:
February 17, 2022

After Ariadna Bates came out publicly as transgender on February 2, all was quiet at first. The third-year student at Southern Adventist University had already come out as nonbinary in September 2021, an announcement that largely came and went without drama or repercussions. Yet now, she told her followers on Instagram and friends on Facebook, there was another chapter in her life. “Non-binary was safe,” Bates wrote. “But 6-year old me knew better. 12-year old me knew there was more to it. 18-year old me was terrified of intimacy with my partner because of what I had to come face to face with. 20-year old me knew, deep down, it wasn’t over with that coming-out post last semester.” Bates told her followers that from now on, she would use she/they pronouns and identify as female.

“Honestly, it was pretty quiet after that,” Bates told me in an interview this week. “Some friends reached out, offering their support and their love. They said that they were behind me. And so I was like, whew, it went over. It’s all good.”

But the calm and sense that she might move on with her life wouldn’t last.

***

Bates came to the university right after high school. “I kind of bounced around departments a little bit,” she said of beginning her studies. After a year and a half as a theology major, she decided instead to pursue interests in filmmaking, switching to a religious studies major to keep her completed credits and adding a minor in film production.

But beyond academics, a big part of Bates’s life on campus was always the job she began as a freshman. Engage Ministries is a traveling praise and worship program run by the Enrollment Services Department. Created as a way to reach potential students not attending schools in the Adventist system, the program has grown over the past decade to employ over two dozen students who—at least before COVID-19—would go on 30–40 trips per year, performing music at churches and youth events, creating recruiting opportunities for the school along the way. In 2019, Bates was hired as one of the two student directors of the program. She continued on to become the main student director of Engage Ministries, and in that role helped manage student employees and plan the program’s logistics.

On February 7, the Monday after she had come out as transgender on social media, Bates said that she went into work as usual but received an email from Alan Parker, a professor of religion and director of the R. H. Pierson Institute of Evangelism and World Missions who also leads the university’s Committee for Sexual Integrity. According to Bates, Parker said that he wanted to “hear [her] perspective.” Before Bates could respond to the email, Ryan Herman, the director of admissions and therefore her department supervisor, called Bates into a meeting. According to Bates, Herman said that he had been instructed by higher administration to talk to Bates about the new Sexual Integrity Policy the university was working to implement, one that would require students to dress according to the gender they were assigned at birth.

“I was asked if I would be comfortable complying with that policy once it’s implemented,” Bates said. “I was told that if I’m not comfortable doing that, then I would be asked to resign from my position as the Engage director.” When contacted, Herman confirmed the meeting took place but declined to comment about it on the record.

Bates left the meeting with her supervisor scared for her future at the university, and she set up a meeting with Alan Parker for Wednesday. Later that Monday, Bates took to her personal TikTok and in a video that has now been viewed more than 230,000 times, she told her followers what had happened. She identified herself as attending a Christian university in eastern Tennessee but did not name the institution specifically. “I have a meeting with the chair of the sexual integrity committee on Wednesday,” she said. “Until then, I’m going to keep looking for full-time employment outside the school so that I can have something to fall back on in case I do get kicked out.”

Bates shared what she had been told about upcoming university policies with followers on TikTok on February 7 [screenshot / Spectrum]


Schools affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church find themselves on uncertain ground when it comes to restrictive policies against LGBTQ+ students. Title IX, part of a United States law instituted in 1972, bars schools that benefit from federal funding—including through any federal grants or student loans—from discriminating on the basis of sex. Without complying with Title IX, it would likely be impossible for Adventist colleges and universities to keep their doors open.

In 2010, the Obama administration issued guidance that LGBTQ people were to be included under Title IX’s protections, a directive that was rescinded by the Trump administration before being reinstated by the Biden administration in 2021.

Yet religious schools can claim exemptions from Title IX, which are recorded publicly by the US Department of Education and have to be specific—not just claiming exemption from the entirety of the law. In the 1970s and 1980s, Adventist colleges in the United States filed requests to be allowed to discriminate against students who had children outside of marriage. The requests were granted.

“In the nearly 50 years since the enactment of Title IX, the Office for Civil Rights has never denied a claim to religious exemption,” writes Kif Augustine-Adams, professor of law at Brigham Young University. But many of the bounds for exemptions have not been tested in court, and there are no records of any Adventist colleges or universities filing new exemption requests in recent decades.

In 2021, 33 LGBTQ students filed a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Education in federal court, saying they experienced discrimination while attending Christian colleges and universities. The plaintiffs include a student from La Sierra University. The case is ongoing.

According to Southern Adventist University’s current academic handbook, the university is an equal opportunity employer that “does not discriminate” on the basis of sex in its employment practices.

***

Bates described the meeting with Alan Parker on Wednesday, February 9, as being “extremely vague” as to what the upcoming policies about transgender students would mean for her future. “He expressed care for me as a person, which I appreciated,” Bates told me. “Then he expressed that the policy, because it’s not official, cannot be shared as far as its contents go, and that he couldn't really disclose how it would affect me as a student.” Bates said that Parker implied the policy would cover student clothing, along with students only being allowed to use bathrooms aligning with their gender at birth, details she said were confirmed to her by another administrator.

In a January 19 interview with the Southern Accent, the university’s student newspaper, Parker said that the new Sexual Integrity Policy was being reviewed by a lawyer prior to implementation. The paper also reported Parker as saying that if transgender students were not comfortable living in housing according to their gender assigned at birth, the university would work to find accommodations outside of the dormitories.

When asked about the proposed policy for this story, Parker declined to give an interview. Initially, Parker asked to respond to questions in writing, but then later declined to comment when presented with a few specific questions.

After the meeting, Bates again shared her experiences on TikTok. This time, she revealed that she was studying at Southern Adventist University and asked those watching to tag the American Civil Liberties Union in order to bring her situation to that organization’s attention.

Bates again gave updates on February 9, and other TikTok users wished her luck [screenshot / Spectrum]


On Thursday, February 10, the situation would escalate for Bates once more. The director of admissions, this time accompanied by Jason Merryman, vice president for Enrollment Management, called Bates into another meeting. They brought copies of some of Bates’s social media posts, including one in which Bates had used profanity when responding to a comment in frustration. Bates acknowledges using profanity online but perceives the meeting as having been about more than just that. “The concern with that comment was not profanity,” Bates said. “The concern with that comment was that my posts were in direct conflict with the mission of the Enrollment Department and that I was directly hindering recruitment of students.” Bates says that the administrators told her she was being put on indefinite administrative leave from her job.

That day, Bates would go on to speak with a Title IX officer at the university. The Tennessee chapter of the ACLU also got in touch, having seen Bates’s story on social media, and Bates says that she talked with a lawyer from that organization.

ACLU-TN declined to comment directly about Bates’s case. As the policies regarding transgender students have not yet gone into effect, Bates acknowledges that even if she wishes to pursue legal action, she likely would not have a case at this time. The university’s current student handbook does not specifically address transgender students at all.

***

Bates’s story also takes place amid the backdrop of the wider struggle over transgender rights happening now in Tennessee. According to Henry Seaton, transgender justice advocate for the ACLU-TN, the current situation for transgender people in the state is particularly difficult.

“[Tennessee] is proposing some of the most vicious specifically anti-trans bills,” Seaton told me. “Our governor right now, Bill Lee, has shown time and again that he’s very hostile towards the trans community. And this is only his first term as governor. Given that he could run for and win a second term, I don’t think it will look pretty for the trans community.”

The Tennessee legislature has passed or introduced multiple bills that transgender rights advocates decry as discriminatory, an effort that the Human Rights Campaign dubbed the 2021 “Slate of Hate.” Seaton says that the ACLU is fighting a law passed in 2021 that requires businesses to post a government-prescribed sign if they allow transgender customers to use restrooms matching their gender identity. “We are litigating on behalf of one business and one nonprofit in Tennessee to stop that signage bill,” Seaton said. Last summer, a federal judge granted an injunction temporarily blocking the law in response to the ACLU’s lawsuit, with the judge calling it a “brazen” violation of the First Amendment.

Despite some legal victories, transgender advocates face an uphill battle. “I think it’s going to be pretty messy,” Seaton said in regards to what the near future will bring. “I do know the Tennessee trans community is very resilient,” he added.

***

For most of Bates’s time at Southern, Ryan Becker was her supervisor within Engage Ministries. A graduate of the university, Becker had once worked as the student director of Engage himself. After spending several years as an Adventist pastor, he came back to the university in 2018 in a joint role as an admissions counselor and ministry coordinator for the enrollment office. In that position, he hired Bates in 2019, and she worked for him until Becker left the university for an outside job opportunity in November 2021.

“She did earn the respect of everyone on Engage, to the point that when I left my position last year, she was the only person in that entire Admissions Department that knew how Engage operates and could actually run it,” Becker told me in an interview this week. “When I left, the Admissions Department there leaned fully on her.”

 Working closely with Bates for several years, Becker was impressed with her work as she navigated the sometimes tricky waters of being a supervisor to other students. When the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions hit, Becker had to scramble in order to figure out what to do with a program that had mainly existed to travel around the region. The students who work for Engage receive scholarships from the university, and Becker wanted to ensure that assistance stayed intact.

“She was instrumental in helping me figure out a plan to save everyone’s scholarships for that school year, while also doing something meaningful when we couldn’t travel and do what we normally do,” Becker said. They pivoted to recording videos of the worship teams that could be sent to churches or youth rallies to use on their own, and Engage released music through online platforms like Spotify.

Becker was also there in 2021 when Bates came out as nonbinary. “The news was just as much a surprise to me as it was to anyone,” Becker said, but afterward he tried to talk with other staff members in the department. “I said I had no reason to remove her from her position, and if anyone has a problem with that, I would be happy to sit down and give them a Bible study on the matter.” No one objected.

Now, watching from outside the department, Becker also feels sympathy for the staff members trying to follow proposed policies and instructions from above. “I know most of them are going to be caught in the crossfire of all this,” he said. “I don’t think they’re acting out of hatred … I think they’re caught between the realities of corporate Adventism and where that fails the individual.”

As someone who was responsible for overseeing 27 students working as the public face of the university, Becker is familiar with the challenges of addressing social media conduct. “I always warned my students on Engage that your behavior on social media matters because you represent the school,” he said. “I’m someone who was pretty serious and strict about that rule.” Still, Bates’s situation feels different.

“For that decision [to put Bates on administrative leave] to come right after she was told that she was likely going to be put on leave for the way she was dressing at some point—to me, that communicates they were likely looking into her and going through social media,” Becker said.

He also thinks that it would be easy for someone in Bates’s position to interpret a conversation about profanity on social media as instead being about gender identity. “I’m not going to blame a freaked out, panicked college student who’s worried about her future, worried about how she’ll live and how she’ll finish her degree, [who] basically has to restart if she leaves Southern—I’m not going to blame that college student for mishearing the conversation,” he said.

***

For Ariadna Bates, much of her future at Southern Adventist University depends on a policy that she has not yet seen, one whose development remains in large part a mystery to the LGBTQ students it will impact. The university declined all requests for comment for this story, and would not share any details from the proposed policy.

In the meantime, Bates is looking into options in case she has to leave the university before graduating and hopes to find work in the film industry. Still, she feels affection for many of the people on campus and wishes for a way to safely continue.

“I’m fully aware that the vast majority of individuals on staff at Southern care for me, support me, and love me,” she said. “But it is the corporation of Southern and the Southern Union that is placing unreasonable expectations and requests on the school, on me, on administrative staff, [and] is requiring them to act in a form of harassment.”

She added: “Transgender students need to have the same accessibility and rights as cisgender students on campus.”

On February 16, after a week of tumult that saw her name and face spread across the internet, during which strangers made thousands of comments—both positive and negative—Bates shared another post on Instagram.

“The past nine days have been absolute hell,” she wrote. “But if change continues as it’s started, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 

Additional reporting by Alexander Carpenter

 


Alex Aamodt is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org and the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum. You can contact him here.

Title photo courtesy of Ariadna Bates

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