Belmont University students, athletes and graduates weathered frigid elements Sunday afternoon to protest the departure of women’s soccer coach Lisa Howe, who recently disclosed to her team that her same-sex partner was pregnant.
Belmont said in a statement Friday “there was a mutual agreement that it would be in the best interests of both Coach Howe and the university for her to conclude her employment as coach.” This, however, came a day after the university said in a statement she resigned and athletics director Mike Strickland said “this was a decision Coach Howe made.”
Members of the team said she didn’t resign nor was it mutual but that Howe was fired because she revealed her sexual orientation. Belmont soccer players Erica Carter, Laura Harris and Kailee Hawkins attended the protest, which was organized by Guy Farmer.
Farmer, a Belmont alum, spread the word about the protest within 24 hours, creating a Facebook group to spark interest. Farmer said he has several gay friends and the fact that they might feel “unwanted” at Belmont upset him.
“You’re a freshman coming from a school in Indiana and you are stuck in the closet your whole life ... you come to a higher learning institution and the first thing you find out is the soccer coach is fired because she is a lesbian. That is not what higher learning is about and that is not what love and compassion is about,” Farmer, 28, said. “The lack of compassion and love they showed to Coach Howe, I’m embarrassed to be a part of Belmont right now. I’m out here to clear the name [of Belmont] and to show the people we are here to go make some good changes.”
Nearly 50 protestors stood on the corner of Belmont Boulevard and Bernard Street on the edge of campus. As snow flurries trickled down, signs were raised that read “We Heart and Support Coach Howe,” “Discrimination is Not Love,” “Jesus Loves Coach Howe,” “Belmont is Dirty” and “Equality.”
Carter, a senior who graduates in two weeks, held a sign that read “NOH8" [no hate].
“I feel like it is a bigger issue than just what has happened at Belmont,” Carter said. “I feel like it needs to be addressed on a larger scale and it is just unacceptable to discriminate against anyone for any reason. I am a little nervous [about being at the protest], but I had to think about it a lot and I don’t think nerves or being scared should affect the way I feel about something that is absolutely right.”
Harris said she didn’t hesitate to come out and support her coach.
She, however, has a little bit more to lose by speaking her mind than Carter maybe does. Harris, just a sophomore, still has two years left at Belmont but she said she wasn’t going to let anything prevent her from “standing up for what I know is right.”
“I love Belmont and really love the school. I thought it stood for everything I believed in. Based on the student population and the student body, it does stand for the things I believe in,” Harris said. “But the decision made by people in charge just completely went against everything that I thought that Belmont had. It churned in my stomach — it still is churning in my stomach. It is embarrassing.
“People are furious outside of Belmont, but I don’t want them looking at Belmont thinking this is what we stand for because it is not. It is a decision made by a couple people.”
Howe’s departure comes just a couple months after the university denied a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender group’s request to be recognized as a student organization. Members of the LGBT group, Bridge Builders, were on hand and passed around a petition for students to sign.
Layne Walton is a sophomore at Belmont and a member of Bridge Builders. He said he came to the protest to show his support for Howe, her players and gay students who are at Belmont or are thinking about attending the school in the future.
“I think that if it is any indication of the level of backwards thinking at the school’s administrative level, then the wrong person was forced to resign. Give Lisa Mike Strickland’s job,” Walton said. “President Bob Fisher has presided over the meteoric rise of the school’s reputation over the past several years, but I think he has also presided over its tarnishing within about month. ... To future students who might happen to be gay, I hope this doesn’t deter you from coming to Belmont. I think it is important to remember that presidents and board members will come and go but there will always be gays — students, faculty and staff at Belmont University.”
With Howe’s exit, Belmont senior Taylor Blackwell is concerned about what this could mean for other Belmont employees.
“I am worried about the jobs of our other gay and lesbian professors,” Blackwell said. “This is the first time Belmont has gone beyond a neutral position in recent history. They are either going to have to go in one direction and be a church school or continue our climb to being a nationally respected university.”
While the protest drew in Belmont students and supporters of the cause, it also attracted those walking and driving by.
Melvin G. Talbert, a retired bishop in the United Methodist Church, heard about the protest and drove by to send a message to the protestors that they aren’t alone with their feelings. Talbert said the United Methodist Church has “on our books a law that says some terrible things about gay and lesbian people. But even though the politics prevail, I don’t have to agree with that decision."
“I am here to simply say to these young people that I think their cause is right,” he said. “I wanted to give them encouragement and hope that justice will prevail, even though we live in a society where institutions have constructed laws to exclude people. Within my heart, and I think in the hearts of these young people, we know that such laws are unjust. I believe that those of us who are on the side of justice, we need to band together and work for justice by removing such discriminating laws.”