Small Christian colleges like Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee were once isolated from LGBTQ challenges. Faith statements and student codes of conduct based on traditional Biblical sexual ethics were expected and respected. Not so much today. So when the tiny Welch College suspended an identifying transgender student after they underwent breast reduction surgery, the story made national news.
Buzzfeed News was the first outlet to tell the story of Yanna Awtrey, who was born the daughter of Baptist missionaries but has now embraced a male identity. Awtrey told Buzzfeed that when the time came to attend college, her only option was Welch College, a Free Will Baptist school with about 400 students enrolled annually.*
Awtrey began to transition to male in January 2019 by taking hormone pills as part of “hormone replacement therapy.” Then came the steps for gender reassignment. On August 2, just before the start of her junior year, Awtrey underwent breast reduction surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
“Since I was 11 years old, I’ve been suicidal, but since I started hormone replacement therapy. … I’ve been suicidal-free for eight months for the first time in a literal decade,” Awtrey told The Tennessean during an interview. “I felt that everything would be OK as long as the surgery was kept a secret from the college.”
Welch College did learn of the surgery. On the same day as Awtrey’s “top surgery,” (as Buzzfeed referred to breast reduction surgery) she received an email from Welch College’s Vice President for Student Services Jon Forlines revoking her right to continue living in campus housing. The simple reason given was that Awtrey’s gender transition was incompatible with Welch’s religious beliefs and “expectations for members of its community.”
Welch College released an official statement explaining the school believes that “attempting to alter one’s bodily identity constitutes a rejection of God’s design for humanity” and “such attempts all too rarely deliver on their promises to alleviate psychological and emotional suffering.”
The Buzzfeed article and several other outlets that followed portray Welch as a heartless bully, even though the school provided Awtrey with a hotel room and funds for food postsurgery. Buzzfeed alleges that “Awtrey was suddenly homeless and couldn’t stay in the hotel by himself postsurgery. Thankfully, an acquaintance from a local support group was able to take him in for a few days.”
According to Welch College’s official statement, this claim is inaccurate. Welch offered to pay for a hotel room and funds for food and to also provide Awtrey with in-home healthcare service postsurgery to “which the student declined, stating she did not need it.”
It’s unlikely that any amount of assistance offered by the Christian college would be deemed good enough. Not until the student’s gender reassignment is fully supported anyway. But Welch has made it clear the school will not compromise its Christian witness. That’s why this otherwise unexceptional story of a student suspended from a small private school is making national headlines.
On August 7, Awtrey went before Welch College’s disciplinary committee. The student challenged the school’s dismissal because her newly-embraced gender identity was not sexual or an act of sexual immorality, as outlined in the student handbook.
“Gender and sexuality are intrinsically linked, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same,” Awtrey explained to The Tennessean. “I don’t think they had anything in the handbook for being transgender, and I do think it was a really long stretch for them to label me in that category, but they did.”
However, Welch’s student handbook does bar any acts of “sexual perversion,” which seemed to be the appropriate grounds for Awtrey’s two-term suspension. Awtrey will be able to reapply and appear before another committee after that time.
“I feel personally just … a lack of dignity and respect has been brought to me and I feel the need to shout out in anger because I feel like an injustice has been brought upon me,” Awtrey told The Tennessean. “I want people to see that there are consequences and horrible things happen to people that you don’t support or show kindness or empathy to.”
It’s not compassion that Welch College denied Awtrey. One could argue that the school was under no obligation to provide a hotel room, funding for food, and home-health services. But in doing so, Welch administrator’s were doing their best to extend kindness and compassion amid a complicated situation.
“Our desire is to show individuals experiencing gender confusion the love and compassion of Christ while bearing witness to God’s design as revealed in Holy Scripture for his human creatures as male and female,” reads Welch’s official statement. And, I for one, think they’ve done their best to balance compassion and their Christian convictions.
Below is Welch College’s official statement in full:
Welch College believes that all persons are created in God’s image and thus have inherent dignity and should be treated with respect, compassion, and love. The College holds that God created humanity in two distinct and complementary sexes: male and female. The College acknowledges that the Fall of humanity into sin has introduced brokenness into God’s good creation, including in the realm of human sexuality. For example, some individuals experience a distressing confusion about their gender identity, perceiving a conflict between their biological reality and their psychological self-understanding.
Welch College believes that individuals experiencing such confusion—and the distress that usually accompanies it—should be treated with love and compassion. The College also believes that attempting to alter one’s bodily identity constitutes a rejection of God’s design for humanity. The College is also aware that such attempts all too rarely deliver on their promises to alleviate psychological and emotional suffering. The College thus invites all transgender individuals to trust fully in Christ and experience renewal in the gospel.
On Friday, August 2, Welch College learned that one of its students had undergone surgery in an effort to conform her body to her belief that she is male. Given the incompatibility of such an action with the College’s beliefs and expectations for members of its community, the College informed the student that while she could not continue living in a dormitory, the College would provide hotel accommodations and funds for food during her recovery period. The College later offered to provide in-home health care for the student, which the student declined, stating she did not need it. Reports that the College responded inappropriately or unlovingly to the student’s situation are inaccurate.
Welch College President Matt Pinson said, “Welch’s community standards hold that students are to obey God’s revealed will in Holy Scripture and avoid behaviors that constitute a rejection of the divine design for human sexuality. Our desire is to show individuals experiencing gender confusion the love and compassion of Christ while bearing witness to God’s design as revealed in Holy Scripture for his human creatures as male and female. We believe that a commitment to historic Christian teaching on human gender and sexuality must ever be melded with love, compassion, and sensitivity to people who are made in the image of God. Welch informs all members of its community of these beliefs, on which its decisions regarding admissions, hiring, housing, etc., are based. We will continue to pray for all people experiencing gender confusion while also honoring the values of this institution and its sponsoring denomination, which are shared by the Christian tradition over two millennia.”
Pinson continued, “Throughout Yanna’s time at Welch, we have treated her with love, respect, compassion, sensitivity, and privacy, though we always clearly communicated our community standards regarding gender identity. We at Welch love Yanna and have shown her that love in a way that accords with our deeply held religious beliefs.”
*A brief note regarding the use of pronouns in this article. It is not my intention to antagonize Awtrey with the use of female pronouns when she now identifies as male. However, for me to use male pronouns in this situation would deny God’s design and go against my religious convictions.