University firing transgender prof
Sunday, February 04, 2007
By Steven Hepker
Professor John Nemecek picked tough ground to make a stand in his journey to
Christian-based Spring Arbor University is firing the transgender professor,
effective June 1, choosing not to tolerate Nemecek's transformation from John to
After a half-century of internal conflict, Nemecek, an associate dean of adult
studies, began to appear as a woman on campus in late 2005.
The small, private college, likewise, was pushed into a most uncomfortable
"We expect our faculty to model Christian character as an example for our
students," read a university statement issued by a public-relations firm.
Faculty who "persist with activities that are inconsistent with the Christian
faith" are subject to firing.
University officials and their attorney declined to discuss the matter with the
Citizen Patriot, referring it to Grand Rapids-based Lambert & Associates.
For his part, Nemecek has chosen not to suppress his femininity, slink quietly
from a job he loves -- or seek a position in a secular university where fewer
people might bat an eye at his wig and dress.
The ordained Baptist minister is fighting the dismissal, starting with a
discrimination claim he filed recently with the federal Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission in Detroit.
In response, college officials said the Christian mandate is critical to the
university and is protected by state and federal civil-rights laws.
Both sides have tentatively agreed to mediation.
"I have worked hard for this university, have been praised for my performance,
and I have done nothing immoral or sinful," said Nemecek, a university employee
for 16 years.
Coming out at SAU
After a lifetime of denying the woman within, Nemecek, 55, said he was diagnosed
in 2004 as being transgender, or transsexual. By late 2005, estrogen therapy and
subtle changes such as manicured nails and eye shadow led him to play his cards.
He explained his transformation to his supervisor, Dean Natalie Gianetti. Within
a few days, President Gayle Beebe summoned him. Joanne, Nemecek's wife of 35
years, accompanied him for support.
"A committed marriage relationship is very important to my employer," he said.
Nemecek was not en femme, as the transgender community refers to it, but
"presented as male with modest changes," he said.
The meeting seemed to go well. But soon his job responsibilities changed. He was
banned from appearing as a woman on campus or in town. He could not teach in
classrooms, interview prospective employees or attend graduation ceremonies. His
administrative duties were cut.
College officials ordered him not to discuss his circumstances with any SAU
staff, which includes a son, a brother and sister-in-law.
"They cut my pay 20 percent and restricted me from appearing on campus," he
It was an attempt to both accommodate a staff member and protect the image of
the college, which is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church. For more than a
year, Nemecek has worked out of his home, mostly directing online classes.
Spring Arbor University has a squeaky-clean reputation. Divorce, drunkenness,
lewd behavior -- anything considered sinful by Free Methodists -- is taboo.
Employees sign a code of conduct and can be fired for straying.
It is a college of 1,400 students in a small town. Tongues wagged. Some
colleagues support him -- he says about three dozen -- and some do not.
"Some people don't understand and are embarrassed and afraid," said Patricia
Bailey, a friend and head of the social work department. "It is very hard for
most people to get their minds around this -- it is very confusing."
Nemecek has been watched closely by staff, on and off campus.
"Someone reported that I attended a Western High School golf outing wearing
earrings, and someone said they saw me wearing a Spring Arbor University T-shirt
at Hutch's Market," he said.
His bosses issued an updated contract in April 2006 meant to subdue his feminine
side in public. He tried to follow it to the point of extreme anxiety, he said.
But by late October he was informed he had violated his contract and faced
In a letter to Nemecek, Randy Rossman, director of human resources at SAU, cited
the golf outing, the trip to the grocery store, a summer appearance in makeup at
a learning fair on campus, and wearing makeup and earrings in the business
"People question our letting you be very public with what is for the University
and many of our constituents a violation of Christian behavior and at the same
time continue to hold strict positions on other issues," Rossman wrote Oct. 26.
A letter in late December notified Nemecek his contract would not be renewed at
the end of May.
"Man should live like a man. That is essentially their complaint about me,"
Ironically, Joanne Nemecek last year completed a master's-level advanced
human-sexuality course at SAU's Dearborn campus, which focused partly on the
plight of transgender individuals.
On its Academic Affairs Web site, the university pledges: "We will seek ways to
invite and welcome diversity into our community."
"The university teaches tolerance for transgender individuals in the classroom.
It just doesn't practice it," John Nemecek said.
He noted the Free Methodist Book of Discipline lists gender-identity issues,
organ transplantation and genetic engineering under the heading "Other Ethical
The legal situation
In response to the EEOC complaint, the university cites its Bona Fied
Occupational Qualification (BFOC) that legally allows hiring only Christian
Nemecek's attorney, Randi Barnabee, said she can prove otherwise in court, if it
comes to that.
Barnabee informed the EEOC on Jan. 19 she will amend the complaint to include
three counts of discrimination based on sex stereotyping and three counts of
retaliation. Barnabee won a sex-stereotyping case involving an Ohio firefighter,
before the U.S. 6th Circuit Court in Cincinnati.
Barnabee argues Spring Arbor's main focus is education. It admits students of
any faith, not all of its faculty is Christian, and it is a recipient of state
and federal funds that prevent discrimination based on gender.
"You cannot discriminate under the guise of religious freedom," Barnabee said.
Spring Arbor University deemed Nemecek's conduct is "not in keeping with
Biblical principles." Barnabee said officials never identified the principles
Absent his 16 years at Spring Arbor and a genuine love for the man on campus,
Nemecek realizes he would have been booted a year ago.
"I appreciate that they did not just fire me (then)," he said.
©2007 Jackson Citizen Patriot