Major Donor Pressures Catholic College to Reverse Anti-Gay Policies

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday December 8, 2010

A major donor to Belmont University is pressuring the Catholic institution of higher learning to re-hire a lesbian coach who was allegedly fired for revealing her sexual orientation to students. What's more, the donor, Michael Curb, is a Republican politician, country music artist, producer, and record company executive, and NASCAR owner.

Curb, who founded and heads Curb Records, contributed $10 million to Belmont University for an event center that is named in his honor, reported local newspaper The Tennessean on Dec. 8. Now Curb is pressing for the school's officials to "act like Christians" and welcome back a women's soccer coach who was reportedly fired after coming out, despite having ushered the team to championship victory.

The student newspaper for Belmont University, Belmont Vision, reported on Dec. 2 that the women's soccer coach, Lisa Howe, would be leaving her post. Only a few days before, Post had disclosed that she and her female partner had decided to become parents. Howe had been with the university since 2005. She led the Belmont women's soccer team to the Atlantic Sun Conference championship last year.

The student paper initially referred to Howe's departure as a "firing," but an update reported that, according to a statement from the school's athletic director, Mike Strickland, Howe had made her own decision to leave. "Women's soccer coach Lisa Howe has informed the university of her intent to conclude her employment with Belmont," the statement read. "This was a decision Coach Howe made."

The statement also included a message from Howe. "I appreciate Belmont University giving me the opportunity to lead the women's soccer program for the last six season," Howe said. "I want to thank all the student-athletes who worked so hard for and dedicated themselves to me and the program. I am at a point in my life where I am satisfied to move on, and I wish the Belmont women's soccer team continued success."

But a Dec. 3 article in the Tennessean reported that, according to members of the women's soccer team, Howe said her resignation was the result of having been "pressured" by the administration.

According to team member Erica Carter, Howe "said she went to the administration to get permission to talk to us" regarding the plan Howe and her partner had to become parents. Howe wished to obtain permission to speak about that aspect of her private like in order to "bring us to light on her becoming a mother," the student added. "She didn't want us to hear it from other sources. She has never talked about her personal life before. We always hear rumors, speculation and things. She wanted this to come directly from her."

Carter said that Howe disclosed that she had been offered a choice: resign or be fired. Carter's roommate and fellow teammate Ashley Hudak said that the reason for the administration's response was that Howe had outed herself as a lesbian by making the announcement, which itself was not made with the official permission of the administration.

"She said she had tried to clear telling us she was having a baby through the athletic department and they weren't allowing her to," said Hudak.

"[Strickland] basically said we have the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy and when she told us about the pregnancy, it violated that," the team's captain, Sari Lin, told the newspaper. "She was telling us what her sexual preference is. He said you can hide your sexuality, but you can't hide a baby. He pretty much told me that once the baby was born she was going to get fired anyway, so it's better to do it sooner than later."

The article said that the university's president, Robert Fisher, directed media inquiries to Strickland who, in turn, failed to return phone calls. Moreover, Strickland was said to be out the office due to illness when a reporter ventured to the athletics department in person.

Both the student newspaper and the Tennessean noted that the state of Tennessee does not extend anti-discrimination protections to LGBT employees.

But that was not the issue for Curb, who spoke not of the legality of the situation, but its ethics--and its practicalities. Curb, a trustee emeritus of the university, said, "It's time for Belmont to change and to recognize that we have gay students, faculty and staff." Added Curb, "I want to see this board and the school leadership act like Christians." Curb also indicated he wanted recognition of the world's realities: "We are trying to pretend that something doesn't exist when it does," he stated.

Curb added that an appearance that the university has anti-gay policies would impact its stature. "Belmont has to decide whether they want to be a national recognized university--particularly with their school of music business--or they want to be a church," Curb stated. The Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business, like the event center, is named after the businessman and political leader, reported Queerty on Dec. 8.

Curb went to Fisher with his concerns, the Tennessean reported. Fisher told the newspaper that he had no comment. But the school's Faculty Senate did: the body voted unanimously to support the university's GLBT students and staff.

Curb was elected to the post of Lieutenant Governor of California, where he served form 1979-1983 under then-Gov. Jerry Brown, according to a Wikipedia article. Along with Ronald Reagan and other high-profile politicians, Curb opposed an attempt to outlaw gay and gay-supportive teachers.

Jerry Brown went on to become the state's Attorney General, before winning the gubernatorial election last month. Brown will resume the governorship of California next month. Brown and current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger both refused to defend the state's anti-gay ballot initiative, Proposition 8, which was narrowly approved by voters in 2008 after a bitterly divisive campaign. The ballot initiative rescinded the previously existing right of gay and lesbian families to marry. Proposition 8 was later found to be unconstitutional in a federal court case. That case is now under appeal.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.