The University of Dallas, a Catholic school, is standing by one of its professors after he wrote a post online that criticized President Joe Biden’s decision to appoint a trans woman, Dr. Rachel Levine, as assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human services.
Levine could make history as the first openly trans federal official to be confirmed by the Senate. That didn’t sit well with UD’s chair of its political philosophy department, David Upham.
In a now-deleted Facebook post, Upham identified Levine by her former name, Richard, repeatedly referred to her as male and described as her being “surgically mutilated” in her transition to becoming a trans woman.
“Dissenters will have to say ‘SHE’ and ‘WOMAN’ or ‘HE’ and ‘MAN’ even when they know it’s false,” Upham wrote. “Dissenters will have to pay for and provide hormonal treatments that will materially harm men and women’s capacity to fulfill the command of almighty God to be fruitful and multiply by the mutual clinging of male and female.”
A trans graduate of the university, who met their wife of over 33 years there and whose three children attended the college, took offense to the post and penned an open letter asking UD to get rid of Upham.
Bethany A. Beeler, an author and UD alumna, said she belongs to a private social media group of LGBTQ graduates of the university. After one of the members shared Upham's statement, Beeler told them she would be happy to write an open letter the rest might sign.
“I no longer argue such points of view that persons like Prof. Upham here espouses,” Beeler wrote. “He obviously believes, with religious conviction, in what he is saying. I write to ask the Trustees, the Faculty Senate, the President, and Provost to consider the judgement, character, and fitness of Prof. Upham in his publicly posting these remarks which he has since rubbed from his Facebook page.”
The university and Upham did not respond to requests for comment.
Upham teaches classes on constitutional law and civil rights and advises prelaw students. One of Beeler's children had Upham as a professor. Beeler said given the recent riot at the Capitol, scrutinizing people’s remarks and their potential to incite hatred and violence is crucial.
Beeler said Upham has the right to say, more or less, whatever he wants. But, Beeler is worried about the students Upham teaches. “If he feels so free in the currently violent political atmosphere to publicly post such statements, we can barely imagine what he feels free to say in the classroom or to advisees,” she wrote.
UD in the '80s, when Beeler attended, had a very "don't ask, don't tell" environment, she said. Despite this, Beeler spoke fondly about the university. She called it one of the few places left that honestly seeks the truth without apology.
"It makes us as graduates who and what we are, regardless of what we learned thereafter," Beeler said. "I merely ask the university that if you claim to be pursuing the truth, shouldn’t that pursuit of truth be made accessable and safe to all the members of our communities?"
Continuing acts of violence against trans people here and elsewhere make his comments more worrying, Beeler said.
“... his inflammatory descriptions of trans persons only promotes prejudice against, misconceptions about, and violence upon us,” Beeler wrote. “Reassure our faith in the Western intellectual and theological tradition by providing no haven or pulpit for those espousing hate out of fear of difference. Be a beacon of Truth, Beauty, and, most of all, Love.
The university came to the defense of Upham, and other members of the faculty, alumni and students sent a joint letter supporting him.
“We are called to write this letter for two reasons,” it read. “First, we seek to defend an honest educator, a charitable mentor, and a good Catholic man. Second, we seek to defend the University of Dallas from those who claim to love her yet strive to change her.”
His supporters praised Upham as hard-working and said his position was appropriate for a staff member at a Catholic school. “We must first point out that Dr. Upham’s post was wholly consistent with the Church’s teaching that God created human beings in His image, that He created them male and female, that He created each person as an embodied soul (i.e. as a union of body and soul),” the letter said.
"... Anyone who accepts transgenderism cannot have an overly steadfast faith in the Western intellectual and theological tradition, for gender ideology seeks to undermine and eventually rewrite the Western intellectual and theological tradition.”
The unidentified authors wrote that the Biden administration poses a threat to religious liberty, and Upham’s post was intended to warn of such a threat, not incite violence. “A reasonable person may disagree with Dr. Upham’s assessment, but only an unreasonable and intolerant person would see Dr. Upham’s assessment as grounds for dismissal and ostracism.”
The letter was followed by a joint statement from the college’s outgoing President Thomas S. Hibbs, as well as provost and incoming President Jonathan J. Sanford. “If anyone is wondering whether we uphold Catholic teaching, we do,” they wrote. “Our Catholic identity and fidelity to its teachings is at the core of our mission. The university embraces unreservedly the Church’s articulation of the moral law, including its articulation of those truths that deal with the embodied nature of the human person and human sexuality.”
They also said they will protect the civil rights of all the members of the college’s community.
Beeler, who holds a master's degree in theology and pastoral care and administration, said nothing in Catholic teaching addresses trans identity. “This is not a settled matter in Catholic teaching by any stretch of the imagination such that a university politics professor would be able to gleefully weigh in on it as if it’s a done deal,” she said.
The American Conservative and christianmilitant.com marked the university’s solidarity with Upham as a win for free speech and religious freedom. The American Conservative first reported on the controversy.
Not everyone saw it this way.
“Transphobia has another word: hate speech,” said Margaret Mary, a UD graduate and a signatory of Beeler's letter. “He can say what he wants, but he isn’t exempt from consequences.”
Upham’s words were an attack against the Biden nominee, Mary said. “It was a nasty post mocking a real person and inventing fake dystopian nightmares in which he himself is forced to participate in transgender surgeries, a complete fallacy.
“Truly it devalues my degree and everyone’s degrees in an increasingly progressive world to have our alma mater sanction hate speech,” Mary said.
The university and Upham have found themselves enmeshed in controversy over social issues before. In early December, students who wanted to form a racial justice club met opposition from other students and some professors who said the club would be too divisive. Upham was one of those professors, according to Inside Higher Ed, an online newspaper that focuses on higher education.
"It will be difficult for students to have the informality, relaxation, familiarity and easy equality that is essential to their making friends and otherwise participating in this wonderful community, without regard to race," Upham wrote at the time in a letter to the college.
Beeler said she didn't think much will change as a result of her letter. “The policy that will be birthed by a letter like this won’t be seen for another 10 or 20 years, and I fully expected that,” she said.
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