Michael O’Keefe, a professor who taught graphic design for more than 40 years, says he was fired for bringing an openly gay speaker to his college class, according to local outlet KRQE. According to a statement from O’Keefe’s lawyer, Kevin Jacobs, the school claimed he was fired for “gross misconduct” contrary to the mission and values of the school. According to the statement, O’Keefe didn’t bring an openly queer speaker to speak to the class full of college seniors to advocate for gay rights, but to prepare them for a world where people are different from you. This choice allegedly resulted in O’Keefe losing his job.
If you’re wondering how this could possibly happen, it’s because O’Keefe was employed by a private university: Oklahoma Christian University. In a statement to local outlet KFOR, legal counsel for the school, Stephen Eck, stood by the school’s decision and said the university will “always put first the wellbeing of our students.” Unsurprisingly, O’Keefe’s firing is getting a lot of (deserved) backlash.
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For context, the speaker was a guest in O’Keefe’s class called “The Business of Branding Yourself.” According to the statement from Jacobs, one aspect of the class was how to overcome obstacles and develop resilience and character. Sounds valuable. Adding insult to injury, though, is the claim that the speaker wasn’t even an entirely random person—they were actually alumni of the university. And they’d worked as an adjunct in the school for close to two decades.
If you’re thinking, “Well, why would any queer people want anything to do with a religious school?” the answer is that there are many possible explanations. Some queer people are religious, first of all, and religion doesn’t have to exist in opposition to queer sexual orientation or gender identity. People often experiment with identity throughout life, too; a student who chooses such a school might do so before they’ve come to terms with who they really are, or before they’re even aware such identities exist.
Sadly, however, according to at least one recent graduate, the university is not a particularly safe space for queer students, either. Emily Thorton, who graduated from the school in 2019, spoke to NBC News in an interview about O’Keefe’s firing. She described his sudden disappearance from the school as leaving students “abandoned,” and said he was known for being invested in students and guiding them from “start to finish.”
In the big picture, Thorton recalled LGBTQ+ students experiencing mental health struggles due to the school’s ultra-conservative policies. Some students, according to Thorton, felt targeted and even threatened with expulsion because of it.
“It was tough watching some of my best friends go through that,” Thornton told the outlet, adding that the school wasn’t “accepting” of students who had same-sex relationships as well as relationships with God.
A number of people have taken to Twitter to share their disappointment and outrage at the university, including some folks who identify themselves as having attended the school themselves. One Twitter user, Jodi Swanson, identifies herself as the sister-in-law of O’Keefe.
In terms of possible legal action against the university, Jacobs told local outlet OKC Fox 25 that they were examining all options.
You can check out brief interviews below, including with Thorton.