Armed with megaphones, a group of disgruntled students interrupted the Divinity School State of the School address to give what they called “the real State of the School address.”

The group, which identified themselves as LGBTQIA+ Duke Divinity students and allies, was protesting the treatment of students with marginalized sexual orientations and gender identities in the school. The protesters issued a list of 15 demands at the end of the Wednesday incident and said they would take “further, non-violent, direct action” if the demands were not met.

“No, we are not a letter of the alphabet, we are not a nameless statistic, we are not a picture for your diversity magazine, we are not an exotic experiment in communal learning,” said Margie Quinn, a second-year master’s student in the Divinity School, during the protest.

The demands come after continued student dissatisfaction with the school administration under the leadership of Elaine Heath, dean of the Divinity School and professor of missional and pastoral theology. In the letter outlining the demands, the students said they were “fed up” that their needs remained “deliberately unheard.”

The “real” address and the demands

During the address, protesters—including both students and faculty—spoke out against the misrepresentation of queer and trans students and students of color. One student said that the Divinity School has been quick to publicize its diversity in advertisements, only to minimize their marginalized voices in the school hallways.

Madeline Reyes, a first-year Divinity School student who the protesters authorized to perform press-related duties, wrote in an email that the school’s leadership is not dedicated to making the school a safe and affirming place for LGBTQIA+ students or students of color. She called Heath and the administration “all talk.”

“The administration likes to make us feel like our voices and opinions are being considered, only to reject our pleas last minute using red-tape reasoning,” Reyes wrote.

The protesters pointed to the example of a petition to create a queer theology course, which was ultimately rejected by the school. Reyes also noted that the Divinity School had failed to make any concerted effort to hire new faculty of color after many such faculty left the school in the past year.

The 15 demands were divided into three categories—“immediate,” to be met by the end of the semester; “short-term,” to be met by Fall 2018; and “long-term,” to be met by Spring 2019.

Immediate demands include mandatory gender and sexuality training for staff and faculty and access to LGBTQIA+ resources. The five short-term demands include a class on queer theology and establishing a number of scholarships for queer or trans students. All four long-terms demands involve hiring faculty and staff who are either trans, queer or can provide LGBTQIA+ resources.

The aftermath

Thursday morning, Heath sent an email to members of the Divinity School addressing the previous day’s incident.

“The issues raised by the students point to the need to continue this dialogue to grow as a diverse and hospitable community that generates an environment for deeper and broader theological reflection and formation, amidst a church and culture that is divided and faces further fragmentation,” she wrote.

Heath also asked the community to shift from “mirroring the polarization of society” to achieve “discernment and creativity, together.” She pointed to the Divinity School’s work with Sacred Worth, the school’s LGBTQIA+ student group, including designating a room for the organization and inviting members of the group to give a presentation to the faculty.

However, Reyes said she was “infuriated” by Heath’s response. She noted that some protesters were members of Sacred Worth themselves.

“She is using the language of the ‘white moderate’ Dr. [Martin Luther King Jr.] warned us about in his ‘Letters from a Birmingham Jail,’” Reyes said. “Civil discourse has not worked, nor is it our job to engage in such discourse with those who have done violence to us.”

Reyes said the protesters have already scheduled meetings with “cooperative” staff to discuss how to implement their demands. 

However, the group does not plan to work with Heath as a result of her unproductive track record, Reyes explained. She noted that when a group of black students tried to engage in “civil discourse” with the administration last semester, matters only seemed to get worse.

“We are past the point of succumbing to Dean Heath’s manipulative and entirely for-show practices of holding ‘civil discourse,’” she said. “We will happily sit down with other faculty and staff who are interested in actually working to implement our demands. However, Dean Heath is not one of these.”

Likhitha Butchireddygari contributed reporting.

Read the full letter of demands here: