In a video posted mid-August, Joie St. Hubert sat sipping from a Dunkin' iced coffee beside a nondescript brick building. The caption, placed just above his black beanie, said, "currently watching homophobic sorority girls on campus pass me by."
St. Hubert turned to the camera and winked.
Twelve days later, the college senior was suspended and sent home.
Lee University, where St. Hubert had just begun his senior year, said the 21-year-old repeatedly violated the school's policies on language, internet and inappropriate use of technological devices.
In its letter announcing the suspension, the evangelical Christian school did not cite what specifically violated its code of conduct.
The code says that "any use of the internet deemed inappropriate by the university will result in disciplinary measures" and "the university will reserve the right to deem what is inappropriate and explicit."
Lee University declined to answer specific questions from the Times Free Press but said in a statement that the school is committed to "create a safe, welcoming environment for all students, and we strive to do so through the programs and services, academic and non-academic, our staff and faculty provide."
St. Hubert, a transgender man, is frustrated by what he believes is the university's uneven enforcement of its student code. He feels targeted for being a vocal LGBTQ advocate and now faces a life upended — having to move hundreds of miles away, put a degree on hold and say goodbye to friends and beloved professors at a moment's notice.
"I'm literally figuring my life out all over again," St. Hubert said. "They really knew what they were doing. They really did."
This week, the Affirming Alum Collective, a group of Lee alumni advocating for greater support of LGBTQ students, accused the school of changing its policies in a campaign to silence students like St. Hubert.
The university said its policies do not single out any group of students.
LIFE AT LEE
St. Hubert had never heard of the Church of God before he moved to Lee University in 2018. The New York City native, a Catholic, came to Cleveland, Tennessee, because of the school's music program.
Living at Lee was tough — being told he would go to hell for who he is, being called a homophobic slur. Near the end of his first winter break, St. Hubert purposely missed his return flight to Tennessee.
But St. Hubert found a small and supportive community of friends at Lee, partly in the school's choir and partly among other LGBTQ students. As the semesters passed, he became more vocal about LGBTQ rights and Black Lives Matter, he said, even as he faced increasing criticism from fellow students.
In December 2020, after months away from campus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Hubert came out as transgender.
"I had spent such a long period of time trying to navigate it and figure it out, and it was kind of exhausting at a point when I got to Lee especially because being at Lee made it harder to figure out," he said. "I was just so tired of faking it, and it was really just mentally exhausting for me."
In March, the university's president, Mark Walker, faced backlash from some students and alumni after he publicly corrected a campus speaker who had discussed showing compassion and love to people experiencing gender dysphoria, the feeling of distress when a person's gender identity differs from their sex at birth.
Full Statement from Lee University
The following statement was provided by Brian Conn, Lee University director of communications, to the Times Free Press:
“Lee University is home to many different students. It is our commitment as an institution to create a safe, welcoming environment for all students, and we strive to do so through the programs and services, academic and non-academic, our staff and faculty provide.
“The allegation that any student has been suspended from Lee University for being transgender is unequivocally false. Likewise, assertions that the university targets LGBTQIA+ students or that it is engaged in a ‘campaign to silence these students’ are false. While we’d be happy to discuss our Title IX policies in general, we aren’t able to discuss specific student matters because of FERPA.
“The Lee University Student Handbook sets out the behavioral expectations that all students agree to adhere to as a part of our Christian community. This handbook is reviewed annually, and adjustments are regularly made. One such recent change, highlighted by the Affirming Alumni Collective (AAC), was made to more clearly point to the laws that provide protection for students. The changes highlighted by the AAC neither remove protections afforded under Title IX, nor do they single out any one group of students.
“As for the Affirming Alumni Collective, we extended an invitation to discuss their concerns, and discussion was initiated, but since that time they have not contacted us. Our invitation is a standing one, and our door is always open.”
Walker told his students the message was ambiguous since it did not address whether people need to repent their sin. The Church of God does not support same-sex marriage or same-sex relations, just as it does not support premarital or extramarital sexual relations.
According to its doctrine, the church believes those who practice homosexuality or are in a same-sex marriage have been misled by Satan and, if they do not repent and become celibate, they "forfeit their salvation and relinquish their eternal inheritance."
St. Hubert, then a junior, spoke publicly to disagree with Walker, but in April, as a member of the school's choir, had to perform for Walker's inauguration as university president.
St. Hubert's TikTok, posted Aug. 18, does not identify or name Lee University. The video's music overlay, a clip from the TV show "Rick and Morty," contains four uses of the F-word.
Nine days later, St. Hubert posted another TikTok to his nearly 43,000 followers announcing he received 40 accountability hours from his school after being "reported to my school for telling the truth and nothing but the truth."
Lee University is not named in that video either.
On Aug. 30, St. Hubert received the letter from Lee's Office of Student Development announcing the suspension.
"I want you to know that I wish only the best for you and your future," Mike Hayes, vice president for student development, wrote in the letter. "I trust that these next few months will prove to be successful for you in whatever you choose to do and that you will allow God to minister to you."
Among the information detailing the suspension, the school acknowledged that such events can cause "emotional difficulties" for students and advised them to seek "appropriate mental health resources," including Tennova Hospital, the National Suicide Hotline or calling 911.
It bothers St. Hubert that he was penalized for speaking out about the kinds of anti-LGBTQ biases he faced as a student.
"It's true. It's literally the truth," he said. "I should be allowed to say that on my social media. It's ridiculous. I will never understand Lee."
Lee's student policies, according to the university handbook, allow for the freedom of speech but only "so long as these freedoms are neither inconsistent with nor in violation of the purposes and objectives for which the university exists."
St. Hubert questions whether the school is enforcing its internet policy evenly for all students. The policies cited in his suspension could be applied to over half of Lee's student body if the school wanted to enforce it, he said.
This week, the Affirming Alum Collective said the university removed "gender identity" as a protected class from its harassment and discrimination policy.
The policy, contained in the 2021-2022 handbook, says that no person should face discrimination because of "race, color, national origin, age, sex, disability or other basis protected by law." Lee University's policy also allows it to reserve "the right to uphold policies based upon biblical standards in all areas."
The group of Lee alumni said the handbook "falls short in recognizing and affirming the dignity and worth of LGBTQIA+ students, a population that disproportionately faces harassment and discrimination at Lee University. We are disappointed in the administration's decision to continue causing harm to this student group rather than acting as a safe harbor for them," the group wrote.
Brian Conn, director of communications at Lee University, said in a statement on behalf of the university that the handbook is reviewed and updated annually.
"One such recent change, highlighted by the Affirming Alumni Collective (AAC), was made to more clearly point to the laws that provide protection for students. The changes highlighted by the AAC neither remove protections ... nor do they single out any one group of students," Conn said in a statement.
Historically, many faith-based schools receive a form of federal funding but can be exempt from certain legal protections if there is a conflict with the organization's religious tenets.
In March, former students of American evangelical schools filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education that argued the exemption was unconstitutional and should be removed.
Lee University was not among the schools named in the lawsuit.
Lee University gave St. Hubert about a day to leave campus, to move his possessions back to New York, to say goodbye to friends.
There was not enough time to process the situation, pack and say goodbye, St. Hubert said. He could not see everyone he wanted to before his flight back to New York City. Before heading to the Chattanooga airport, he said goodbye to two of his closest friends.
"That was heartbreaking," he said. "We knew that I was leaving, and we don't know when we're going to see each other again. It was so hard. And I didn't get to say goodbye to everyone that I wanted to. I felt like they were taking everything away from me on purpose — my education, my friends — literally everything."
Lee University, in its letter, gave St. Hubert the option to re-enroll for the spring 2022 semester. This will not happen, he said, despite the trouble it will take to transfer to another school and audition for that music program, a rigorous process he was hoping not to repeat.
So much is uncertain now, St. Hubert said. He lives at home in New York City. There is no college degree on the immediate horizon. His group of friends is hundreds of miles away in Cleveland.
His faith is less certain these days. Being at Lee, with its mandated chapel services and rigid theology, pushed him away from God, he said. St. Hubert still believes things happen for a reason, even if the reason for the turmoil of the past few months remains unclear.
"I guess I can say I got my degree from somewhere else, and I don't have to worry about hanging my degree on my wall because it's not going to be from Lee," he said.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.