by T. H. M. Gellar-Goad and Christopher B. Polt
In this post, Profs. Gellar-Goad and Polt clarify their position in the debate over holding the annual CAMWS meeting at BYU for the 2023 annual meeting and why they view BYU as an unsafe conference site for LGTBQ+ classicists.
On Saturday, April 20, the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) rescinded its earlier decision to hold part of its annual meeting on the campus of Brigham Young University (BYU) during its 2023 conference in Provo, Utah.
CAMWS leadership had selected Brigham Young University (BYU) to host its 2023 annual meeting — despite the fact that serious concerns about the safety and inclusion of its LGBTQ+ members at such a conference site were voiced before and after that decision was made — and dismissed repeated requests for compromise that would safeguard LGBTQ+ colleagues. Over the last 18 months we tried to work with, and within the structure of, CAMWS to address this issue quietly and amicably. We did so in an attempt to save everyone a great deal of anguish and to avoid unnecessary negative attention for the Classicists at BYU. Ultimately, however, we felt compelled to call on CAMWS publicly to change course, and CAMWS leadership did so only in the face of significant public pressure by Classicists across the world.
There is still confusion and misperception over what the objections were, how we got to this point, and why this decision was made. In this post we will offer background on our advocacy efforts and CAMWS’ decision process, an explanation of why BYU is unfit for a conference location, and our thoughts on where CAMWS and our profession’s other learned societies should consider going from here.
CAMWS holds its meeting every spring, regularly dividing its time between the official conference hotel and the campus of the college or university that has been chosen to host. In November 2017, CAMWS posted announcements on its Facebook page that it was performing a site visit as it considered BYU’s bid to host the 2023 meeting. That day and the next, we relayed to then-President Laura McClure the concerns and supporting evidence that BYU was an untenable site for the meeting that we also outline here. We asked that BYU’s upper administration provide an “absolute, unequivocal, and public guarantee that all CAMWS's members — including LGBTQ people — will be welcome on the same terms they have been at prior meetings (i.e., with no expectations of change in deeds or words) and that all presentations and discussions at the meeting will have the complete protection of unfettered academic freedom.”
President McClure promptly conveyed our objections and request anonymously both to the Classicists at BYU and to the Executive Committee, which discussed them at their November 2017 meeting but ultimately dismissed them and decided to accept BYU as host. The Executive Committee did not believe it could secure such a statement from BYU’s administration and so did not even try to seek it. Likewise, it waved away concerns about LGBTQ+ safety, promising only to respond retroactively if BYU tried to limit free expression and offering to allow us to run a panel to be held on BYU’s campus about censorship and/or LGBTQ+ issues in the profession.
Although we appreciated that the Executive Committee discussed these issues before going forward with selecting BYU as its host site, its response did not take these concerns seriously enough, address the essential problems, or encourage further dialogue. So we brought this issue to the attention of the SCS’s Committee on Gender and Sexuality in the Profession (COGSIP), which discussed it at the 2018 meeting of the SCS in Boston. Over the course of the next year, particularly at the 2019 meeting of the SCS in San Diego, this issue was discussed extensively with the largest groups representing LGBTQ+ classicists, whose memberships include many members of CAMWS — the Lambda Classical Caucus (LCC), the Women’s Classical Caucus (WCC), COGSIP, and the Classics and Social Justice group (CSJ). The chairs of these four groups worked together to craft their own collective letter of concern asking the CAMWS Executive Committee to reconsider.
The Executive Committee’s response was prompt but dismissive. The same organizations sent a second letter to the President in February, underscoring their concerns and proposing a compromise along the lines of the Society for Political Methodology (SPM)’s solution: hold all conference events at the hotel in Provo, none on BYU campus. The CAMWS Executive Committee met at the CAMWS conference in Lincoln on the first weekend in April. We hoped the Executive Committee would change course, but in their second response they determined to make no change to the conference site. They conveyed a statement from the Dean of the College of Humanities at BYU that “in the context of on-campus academic meetings, it is [BYU’s] institutional policy both to respect and honor the academic freedom of all participants.” We do not know what else the Dean said to the Committee, since it did not publish his letter, but that assertion insufficiently addressed the concerns that were brought. It is not part of any publicly available policy nor does it indicate that any of the institutional policies that we found objectionable are actually revised or paused for the duration of the conference. In short, this vague reassurance did not actually suggest that the restrictions on LGBTQ+ classicists wouldn’t have been in full effect during the portion of CAMWS’ meeting held on BYU’s campus. Finally, the promise in that letter to create a “committee on diversity and inclusivity” was, in our eyes, meaningless, because the Executive Committee had already dismissed the requests and recommendations of four such groups that already exist (LCC, WCC, COGSIP, and CSJ).
All of this is to say: we did the legwork and we tried our best to resolve these concerns behind the scenes through all the proper channels we could imagine without causing a commotion or bringing unnecessary negative attention to the Classicists of BYU. But after 18 months of work and our gradual realization that CAMWS was not going to do the right thing on its own, we both came to the unhappy conclusions that the organization no longer represented our values and that its leadership would be dead-set on its current course of action unless we brought this to the public. So we each resigned from our CAMWS posts as Vice President for North Carolina (Gellar-Goad; resignation letter here) and member of the Committee on Undergraduate Awards (Polt; letter).
It is principally for LGBTQ+ junior classicists that we tried to work with CAMWS’ leadership and decided to take this public stand. Attendance at CAMWS conferences is not really optional for graduate students and junior scholars seeking careers in the discipline. The CAMWS meeting has traditionally been seen as a vital entry point into the profession, a large but still warm and collegial venue to join the Classics community. CAMWS meetings have increasingly become the location of the so-called “secondary job market,” where interviews are held for VAPs and other entry-level positions that are critical both for advancement into the tenure track, not to mention simply staving off unemployment. By hosting at BYU, CAMWS would have forced vulnerable LGBTQ+ scholars at the beginning of their careers to decide between sacrificing professional opportunities and becoming less competitive than their peers, or knowingly placing themselves in an environment that is openly hostile to them.
In response to our resignations and to the advocacy efforts of LCC, WCC, COGSIP, and CSJ, many members of our discipline wrote to CAMWS calling for the proposed compromise. More than 300 people signed two different petitions circulated by those organizations and some CAMWS members followed us in resigning from the organization. Several departments began discussions about canceling their institutional memberships, and at least two that we know of made such decisions. The CAMWS Executive Committee changed its mind before those cancellations were made public and before more departments came to a decision.
Why BYU is an unsafe conference site for LGBTQ+ classicists
Many colleges and universities are unwelcoming to queer individuals, and some states have passed laws constraining their public universities with unwelcoming policies. But BYU has a long and extraordinary track record of open and dangerous hostility to LGBTQ+ people on its campus that has been documented by current and former students and staff.
The BYU Honor Code states, “Homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”
BYU regularly punishes students who disclose that they have been victims of sexual assault, and LGBTQ+ students are particularly vulnerable to this policy. Self-harm and suicide occur at higher rates among LGBTQ+ people everywhere, but the situation is egregious in Provo. Conversion therapy to “cure” homosexuality were regularly encouraged and required by BYU administrative officials until a few years ago.
In fact, until 2011, BYU’s Honor Code prohibited not only “homosexual behavior,” but even “advocacy,” including “promoting homosexual relations as being morally acceptable.” It was for this reason that in 2006 BYU fired an adjunct professor who wrote a mild and respectful op-ed supporting same-sex marriage, and in 2011 it fired another for, at least in part, his sexuality. Even mild feminist statements and non-compliance with Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) rules have regularly been severely punished. BYU has been under censure by the American Association of University Professors since 1998 for a spate of firings that have undermined academic freedom. As the report in that link shows, BYU’s policies are not merely discriminatory when it comes to sexuality, but also with regards to sex and gender identity. Moreover, its Honor Code tightly regulates what BYU perceives as acceptable appearance for men and women, and BYU has threatened to expel transgender students for presenting in ways that deviate from the LDS Church’s gender norms.
The BYU Honor Code may apply only to members of the University community, but the message it sends to potential conference attendees is clear and chilling. Such policies cannot but create a campus climate that is hostile to LGBTQ+ students, faculty, staff, and visitors.
At this point, we need to pause and make something perfectly clear. We are not protesting the LDS Church, which owns and operates BYU, nor are we seeking that either the LDS Church or BYU alter its policies. While we disagree vehemently with their stances on sexuality and gender identity and are appalled by their continuing mistreatment of LGBTQ+ people, we also respect that the LDS Church and BYU are within their legal rights to determine their community standards and to dictate the terms by which visitors to their property are expected to abide. And we do not believe the BYU Classics faculty or the University’s broader community is necessarily homophobic or transphobic. To the contrary, it is well-documented that the University’s administration and policies have caused dreadful harm to its own LGBTQ+ members and that many people of good will within the BYU community have been working to gain recognition and effect positive change. We lay out the above issues — as we previously did in our communications with CAMWS’ Executive Committee — merely to illustrate why BYU represents an egregiously unwelcome environment for LGBTQ+ people, insiders and outsiders alike.
We also do not object to CAMWS’ partnership with BYU’s Classics faculty to host its annual meeting. We recognize that organizing a conference demands enormous commitments of time and energy, and indeed members of the local committee are to be commended for volunteering to host. Our objections centered squarely on CAMWS’ initial decision to hold part of its meeting on the grounds of BYU, thereby requiring attendees to enter space where their behavior and speech would be scrutinized and subject to restriction according to those same community standards. The CAMWS Executive Committee had asserted that no one attending the meeting would be required to conform to the restrictions of BYU’s policies. But CAMWS’ own new and much-touted Code of Conduct at Meetings (adopted by the Executive Committee more than a year after its decision to hold the meeting at BYU) asserts that “[p]articipants must respect the rules, policies, and laws of the meeting venue and location.” Vague and privately-conveyed reassurances from BYU’s Dean notwithstanding, this statement implicitly suggests that attendees would have had to comport themselves in accordance with BYU’s standards.
Where is the line of comportment with BYU’s policies, then? BYU’s Honor Code only explicitly applies to members of the University community, and so perhaps people from outside BYU should feel free to dress, act, and speak as they normally do. But does CAMWS’ dictum to “respect” BYU’s rules imply that LGBTQ+ classicists should “tone it down” or avoid “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings”? Even with exemption from the letter of these policies, it is hard to imagine — considering the homophobia and transphobia that has been documented on BYU’s campus — that visiting LGBTQ+ classicists would not feel the need to cover and self-censor to avoid unwanted attention in such an hostile environment.
The situation is more clear-cut when it comes to speech, as BYU’s Speakers Policy and Public Expression Policy apply “to all university personnel, students, guests, and visitors,” conference attendees included. And these two documents convey disturbing messages: “The general purposes and past activities of the non-university-affiliated individual or organization may not be antagonistic to or oppose or deride the principles, doctrine, and/or general leadership of the Church.” We are both non-celibate, legally married gay men whose service, teaching, and research have included advocacy for LGBTQ+ people and causes, in opposition to LDS teachings; would we therefore have been disqualified because of our “general purposes” and “past activities”?
These policies also forbid expression that “contradicts or opposes, rather than analyzes or discusses, fundamental Church doctrine or policy.” Would talks that examine homoerotic desire and sex in the ancient world as a normative and positive part of human experience have been excluded from sessions held on BYU’s campus? Moreover, BYU has a rather severe explicit statement about the enforcement of these policies: “The university may monitor and record all public expression for compliance with university policy. Violations of university policy may result in termination of the event, discipline of an individual and/or an organization including and up to expulsion and being banned from campus, and other appropriate action.” How many early-career LGBTQ+ scholars would have been comfortable attending under these circumstances or submitting a talk on Sappho or Pompeiian frescoes — topics that would be utterly mundane in most other academic contexts but could have been considered so risqué as to merit surveillance and expulsion?
Of course, BYU has a special carve-out for conferences: “A speaker’s presentation that is inconsistent with the Church’s position on public policy issues may be included as part of an academic conference sponsored by a university college, school, or department, as long as the presentation is respectful and is balanced by other presentations at that academic conference.” But there is no indication of what precisely constitutes “respect” and “balance,” and it would perhaps have fallen to the CAMWS Program Committee to ensure such respectful balance.
These policies and their chilling implications both for LGBTQ+ visitors and for academic freedom more broadly are not new. So we extended to CAMWS a plausible solution that would allow BYU to continue to host the meeting while avoiding this quagmire altogether: simply hold the entire meeting at the conference hotel, an international chain whose non-discrimination policies are robust and could be reconfirmed by CAMWS. This is the very same decision that SPM reached last year when similar concerns were raised about hosting its annual meeting on BYU’s campus. We shared with CAMWS’ Executive Committee SPM’s statements and its solution as a possible model to alleviate concerns satisfactorily but quietly. But — until we went public — this clear precedent and easy roadmap to an amicable solution were not even acknowledged. In the end, the CAMWS Executive Committee, in the face of widespread calls for change, adopted our recommendation.
We are grateful that CAMWS has rescinded its decision in response to substantial public pressure. But we also need to make clear that the conversation isn’t over. The advocacy campaign required not only our resignation and unnumbered hours of labor by dozens of LGBTQ+ and allied Classicists but also the exposure and reliving of trauma, discrimination, anxiety, and fear for many among us.
SPM’s statement from last year provides a good blueprint for what CAMWS should do next:
Issue a public apology. Here’s how SPM put it: “SPM apologizes for the way its host selection negatively affected professional opportunities for LGBTQ scholars. This was never intended and SPM promises to be more attuned to diversity and inclusion in the future. While all of us acknowledge that the controversy has been detrimental, we have worked in good faith to improve SPM’s organizational governance and attention to diversity and inclusion.” And as one of our colleagues pointed out to us, LGBTQ+ people are in general disproportionately affected by trauma in connection with their identities, issues that run the gamut from homelessness to assault. CAMWS should acknowledge how unwelcoming and exclusive it was to ask members of our profession who have experienced such traumas and discrimination to come to a conference when the conference site could very well have reenacted or triggered those experiences.
Be serious about the planned “Committee on Diversity and Inclusivity.” Ensure that its charter is robust, that its charge includes exploring what structural changes are necessary to make CAMWS a more just and welcoming professional society, and that its recommendations are fully adopted and implemented.
Hold a plenary roundtable at 2023 in Provo to discuss how to make CAMWS more diverse and inclusive, with discussion specifically about LGBTQ+ issues. The labor for this roundtable should not be foisted only onto LGBTQ+ Classicists or Classicists from other traditionally marginalized groups, but should center their voices and perspectives.
The CAMWS Executive Committee also should revise its site-selection process to be more consultative. For future sites, CAMWS should not consider any university that lacks a nondiscrimination policy inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Furthermore, CAMWS should ensure that the upper administration of any host university will sign a commitment ensuring nondiscrimination for all participants on the basis of the categories pointed to in the CAMWS Code of Conduct at Meetings: gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, race, religion, national origin, disability, and physical appearance. Having a clear, upfront public policy on site selection would be fair to CAMWS membership and to religiously affiliated institutions, in order to avoid a repeat of this situation.
We and our partners in the LCC, WCC, COGSIP, and CSJ, as well as allies across the profession, will continue to lobby CAMWS to ensure that we meet with justice on all these points.
Header Image: Achilles tending to Patroclus' wound by an arrow, identified by inscriptions on the upper part of the vase. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BC. From Vulci (Altes Museum, Berlin, Image via Wikimedia).