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A group of alumni are speaking out against changes in Lee University’s student handbook.

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A group of alumni from Lee University, a Christian institution in Tennessee, is speaking out against a change to the university’s student handbook that excludes the words “gender” and “gender identity” from its antidiscrimination policy. The revised handbook says “the institution has adopted the policy that no person in whatever relation with Lee University shall be subject to discrimination because of race, color, national origin, age, sex, disability or other basis protected by law.”

The Affirming Alum Collective, a group created in early 2021 to connect current Lee University students with alumni who are LGBTQIA+ or straight allies, said removing the terms “gender” and “gender identity” from the 2021-22 student handbook eliminates protection from harassment and discrimination based on gender identity. Additionally, the university “falls short in recognizing and affirming the dignity and worth of LGBTQIA+ students,” the group said.

“We are disappointed in the administration’s decision to continue causing harm to this student group rather than acting as a safe harbor for them,” the group said in a press release.

The group also criticized the student handbook for continuing to ban “cross-dressing,” as well as insisting that “all public expressions of opinion must comply with the university’s policies and procedures.” Everything students post online must be “consistent with the university’s expectations” -- which means a student could be punished for promoting on their personal Instagram LGBTQIA+ support or another post “deemed inappropriate by the university,” Affirming Alum Collective wrote.

In a statement to WRCB TV, Lee University responded to Affirming Alum Collective’s concerns, saying, “It is our commitment as an institution to create a safe, welcoming environment for all students, and we strive to do so through the programs and services, academic and non-academic, our staff and faculty provide. The Lee University Student Handbook sets out the behavioral expectations that all students agree to adhere to as a part of our Christian community.”

The changes in the handbook come after an openly transgender student was suspended for alleged profanity and bullying via TikTok, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported. The student, Joie St. Hubert, filmed a TikTok of himself in August drinking an iced coffee, with the caption, “currently watching homophobic sorority girls on campus pass me by.”

According to the Times Free Press, 12 days after the TikTok was posted, St. Hubert was suspended. “The evangelical Christian school did not cite what specifically violated its code of conduct,” the paper reported. “The code says that ‘any use of the internet deemed inappropriate by the university will result in disciplinary measures’ and ‘the university will reserve the right to deem what is inappropriate and explicit.’”

The suspension allowed St. Hubert the option to re-enroll for the spring 2022 semester, but he told the Times Free Press he plans to transfer.

“I guess I can say I got my degree from somewhere else, and I don’t have to worry about hanging my degree on my wall because it’s not going to be from Lee,” he told the paper.

In March, Lee University president Mark Walker reaffirmed the university’s long-held stance, articulated in the university's “community covenant,” that same-sex sexual relationships are prohibited by Scripture. The ”community covenant” also prohibits “same-sex sexual behavior.”

Affirming Alum Collective was formed to support current Lee University students in the wake of Walker’s comments. In a petition signed by 818 people, the group said Walker’s comments “were and are harmful to queer students: their mental and emotional health; their physical safety; their relationship with the college, the church, and their peers; and their academic success.”

“As alumni, we will not be silent. We will continue to advocate for and provide resources to LGBTQIA+ students at Lee University and will be an unwavering voice for equality for ALL by holding the university accountable for their actions,” the group’s press release said.

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