A Letter to the Josh Joseph Committee
An extensive historical analysis of the discussions that surrounded the creation of gay student clubs in the YU graduate schools has been published in this issue. It chronicles the controversy involving the gay clubs that were formed at Cardozo Law School, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and other YU graduate schools in the 1990s. The discussions had during that controversy maintain relevance to the current deliberations of the committee led by Vice President Josh Joseph examining the state of LGBTQ inclusion on campus. After a student protest demanding the creation of a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) and equal funding for LGBTQ-themed events, the YU community and the committee led by Senior Vice President Josh Joseph should take a moment to consider the lessons that history has taught us.
In the ‘90s, then-President Norman Lamm elected to allow gay clubs in the graduate schools to continue, claiming that YU’s non-denominational status required him to forgo his personal religious convictions. He was referring to the secularization of YU that occurred in 1970, in which YU separated from RIETS and became a non-sectarian institution in order to qualify for government funding. While YU continues to be rooted in Jewish values, its graduate and undergraduate divisions remain legally secular. President Lamm and the YU administration, therefore, could not discriminate against gay students who sought equal access to university facilities and student activity funds.
In the modern day, Yeshiva College, Stern College for Women, and the Sy Syms School of Business are all, as YU’s undergraduate institutions, part of the same non-sectarian charter that governs the graduate schools. Thus, the question must be asked of the committee led by Joseph: what has changed since President Lamm allowed the formation of gay clubs in the graduate schools in the ‘90s? If the legal protections preventing discrimination against gay students have not changed since, then why does the administration allow LGBTQ clubs at the graduate level but forbid them to undergraduates?
I am not the first to make the connection between YU’s non-sectarian undergraduate and graduate schools. At the time of the graduate school controversy, Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller wrote to President Lamm in The Jewish Observer, “To borrow a phrase from your book, Torah Umadda, the problem ‘will not sneak away like a thief in the night.’ Are your undergraduate colleges, Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women, not under the same nondenominational charter? Sooner or later you will have to face the problem of gay students in these schools. How will you avoid the problem there? Whatever means you are presently using will soon become obsolete, if you are true to your duty as the head of a non-denominational institution to ‘conform to the secular law.’”
I must agree with Rabbi Keller. If President Berman is to be true to his duty as the head of this non-sectarian university, he cannot continue to discriminate against undergraduate students based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. Many opinion pieces have been written in the YU newspapers that discuss the interplay of halakha and LGBTQ issues, and their conclusions have been constructive and thought-provoking. But those discussions should be theoretical, not practical, in nature. As a non-denominational institution, our duty lies in accepting the multiplicity of narratives that exist in our colleges, one of those being that of the LGBTQ community and its allies.
YU’s secular nature does not undermine the Jewish roots of our school, and the school may require religious classes or offer Jewish holidays off, given that such provisions are offered equally to all. The Jewish roots of our school do not, however, permit discrimination towards specific groups of students.
More legal defenses of LGBTQ students have evolved since the ‘90s controversy surrounding the graduate schools. Title IX, a prohibition against discrimination based on sex at institutes that receive federal funding, “protects students, employees, applicants for admission or employment, and other persons from all forms of sex discrimination, including discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.” YU is subject to Title IX as a recipient of federal funding, yet the administration consistently hampers student activists’ attempts to arrange events and clubs surrounding gender identity, among other categories of LGBTQ.
Some universities have applied for and received religious exemptions from Title IX, but it remains unclear if YU would be able to secure such an exemption as a non-sectarian institution. When asked for comment on YU’s Title IX status, Senior Vice President Josh Joseph noted, ”YU has not to date applied for a Title IX exemption. We work diligently to ensure compliance with all laws and regulations while maintaining the environment and culture that are core to our mission. Our policies prohibit any form of harassment or discrimination against students on the basis of protected classifications.”
But both New York state and city law have provisions banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. New York State’s human rights law explicitly prohibits colleges from “deny[ing] the use of its facilities to any person otherwise qualified, or to permit the harassment of any student or applicant, by reason of … sexual orientation.” If YU is working to “ensure compliance with all laws and regulations,” as Joseph claims, then why have LGBTQ-themed clubs and events been suppressed by the administration?
In the ‘90s, YU made clear in a press release fact-sheet that student leaders, not the administration, are in charge of club approval and allocation of funds for student activities. This could be argued to be a defense of the university’s practices; if it is the students who reject funding for LGBTQ clubs and events, then the administration is not acting in a discriminatory fashion.
Efforts by student leaders, however, have shown otherwise. The student council presidents of the Yeshiva Student Union (YSU), the Yeshiva College Student’s Association (YCSA) and Stern College for Women Student Council (SCWSC) worked throughout the past academic year with President Berman and other administrators to secure a GSA on campus but it was not approved. They recounted that a club application for a GSA was submitted in the Spring 2019 semester, but members of the Office of Student Life contacted them to inform them such a club could not be allowed on the undergraduate campus. Clearly, it is the administration, not student leaders, who are discriminating against LGBTQ students.
Erin Harrist, Senior Staff Attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, commented on the current state of affairs at YU, “The university — including the undergraduate schools — is not incorporated as a religious entity, so it should need to comply with the New York City Human Rights Law, in which case, it would be discrimination for the university to not permit a gay club ... I would say with fair confidence that they need to let the club exist.”
Thus, I request that the committee led by Josh Joseph reflect on the history of LGBTQ inclusion in this university and consider the hypocrisy that is inherent in this university’s current attitude towards undergraduate LGBTQ clubs and events.
In the ‘90s press release, YU drew a distinction between itself and Notre Dame, a school that had banned LGBTQ clubs at the time, claiming that Notre Dame was able to discriminate based on sexual orientation due to its location in a different state. I ask that the Joseph committee look at the Notre Dame website in 2019, which proudly states that upon prompting by their President, the Division of Student Affairs reviewed the services provided to LGBTQ students at the university. They then released a pastoral plan which “allows for the creation of a recognized Student Organization designed to provide peer‐to‐peer support, direct service opportunities, and friendship for GLBTQ students and their heterosexual allies.”
I hope that we do the same.