Katie Sowers’ name has recently been circulating national news, as she is the first woman and openly gay person to coach in the NFL Super Bowl. She is also an alumnus of Goshen College; therefore, her name has made it onto Goshen College’s website. Most of these congratulatory posts come with an unspoken truth. Katie graduated in 2009 and was looking to start her career as a coach, when she asked to be a volunteer assistant coach for the Goshen College Women’s Basketball team.Katie was denied this position because she is gay.
In a national news interview, she told NBC that her coach hugged her and said, “it’s nothing personal”. At that time, Goshen College did not include sexual identity in their non-discrimination hiring policies, which meant that legally (in the state of Indiana at the time), Katie had no grounds to fight for an equal opportunity at employment. So, in fact, it is personal.
In 2015, Goshen College added gender and sexual identity to its non-discrimination hiring policies. President Stoltzfus apologized to Katie on behalf of the institution, saying, “Sadly, in 2009, our policies and the laws of Indiana allowed for hiring decisions to consider sexual orientation.”
The fact that Indiana laws allowed for this to happen does not change the fact that the individual making the hiring decision, the individual Goshen College employed, still had a choice in the matter.
I have talked to multiple people, including professors, who were teaching at the time when Sowers was denied the volunteer assistant coaching position. To my understanding, this situation flew under the radar. There was no official application for the job, and most teaching faculty were unaware of the situation as it was unfolding.
Homophobic behaviors, such as this one, are not uncommon on Goshen College’s campus and in Mennonite communities more broadly. I truly believe there has always been room to accept and embrace the LGBTQ community, even in 2009. However, with the fear of displeasing conservative donors, the institution allowed money and personal bias to influence its decisions. Ultimately, funding was more important than providing all human beings with equal respect and opportunity.
It would be ignorant to think that this was an isolated event. All microaggressions create a domino effect, leaving room for more blatant incidents to occur. In this academic year alone, there have been more accounts of homophobia, transphobia and racism than I have previously witnessed or experienced in my three years at Goshen College.
Beyond this, I’ve watched Goshen College struggle and fail to appropriately apologize to the last seven years worth of women’s soccer players that have endured both misconduct and abuse by Goshen College employees. Similarly to Katie Sowers’s situation, the administration did not take action to protect the basic rights of these individuals, nor did it stand up for those who have been taken advantage of by Goshen College employees in power. Instead, the administration did its best to quickly sweep allegations under the rug and clean up any bad press that might have been distributed out to the public.
One argument that keeps coming up is that other institutions make similar decisions frequently when they are receiving “bad press”. Although this is true, we must not compare Goshen College to other unjust institutions. We must hold this institution accountable for its actions and demand it do better.
The past cannot be changed, but it also will not be forgotten. Sowers has spoken publicly about how being turned away for a volunteer assistant coaching position hurt her. She told NBC, “for a long time I felt lost”. Too often institutions fail LGBTQ people, and we have no choice but to be resilient. I cannot speak for Katie Sowers, but I empathize with her as an openly queer person who has been turned away because of her identity. One public apology does not remove the ever-present burden LGBTQ people face for being rejected for their very existence.
It is unfair for Goshen College to celebrate Sowers now for the exact reason she was turned away in 2009. An apology may be a step in the right direction, but Goshen College has lost the right to use Katie as an institutional token. If Goshen truly wants to represent itself as an inclusive community and display transformative justice in all that is done, then I challenge the college to be more accountable for its actions and to openly celebrate queer people unconditionally, not just when it benefits them.