Photo: Yanna Awtrey
A transgender student has been suspended from his Christian college in Tennessee after getting top surgery to treat his gender dysphoria.
Yanna Awtrey, 21, a student at Welch College, a private Free Will Baptist school in Gallatin, Tenn., had grown up in a conservative home as the child of missionaries. So when it was time to attend college, he basically had no say in the matter, with his parents demanding that he attend a Christian institution.
But after arriving at Welch, Awtrey, who had been experiencing severe gender dysphoria since puberty, came out as transgender. Earlier this year, he began hormone replacement therapy to aid in his transition, and began making plans to have gender confirmation surgery on Aug. 2, reports BuzzFeed News.
Awtrey — who goes by a male name but asked BuzzFeed to refer to him by his birth name for purposes of sharing this story — made plans for the surgery, asking to stay with a couple who knew his parents after the surgery. He wrote the couple a note telling them he was getting an unspecified surgery, trying to keep the truth secret for as long as possible.
But while he was in the operating room, the couple he was staying with figured out what was going on and contacted his parents and Welch College. Hours later, Welch’s vice president for student services, Jon Forlines, emailed Awtrey to tell him he wouldn’t be allowed back on campus.
“Please be aware that because of the choices you have made we will not be able to allow you to come back to the dorm,” the email read, according to BuzzFeed. “We’re praying for you that the love of Christ will speak to your every need in the coming days.”
Welch College reportedly offered Awtrey temporary housing and money for food, but said he’d need permission to come back to campus to pick up his belongings.
Awtrey then took to Facebook to explain what had happened. The college then contacted him, ordering him to edit the post or the school would take back its offer to pay for a hotel.
“I have nowhere to permanently stay, and I can’t work for money for at least two months because of the recovery process,” Awtrey told BuzzFeed. “It’s the best and worst day of my life.”
The school also urged Awtrey to voluntarily withdraw his enrollment, which he declined, forcing his case to go before the school’s disciplinary committee.
During an Aug. 7 hearing, the disciplinary committee looked into the issue and ultimately decided to suspend Awtrey for two semesters.
The committee agreed with statements made by Forlines during the hearings in which he cited provisions in the student handbook that bar “any kind of sexual immortality, impurity, including the use of pornography” and “engaging in acts of sex immorality, including premarital and extramarital relations, sexual advances and sexual perversion in any form.”
Awtrey argued that he hadn’t done “anything sexual of a nature that disobeys the college handbook and the Bible,” but the committee disagreed, with one member saying that the “sexual perversion” rule was the “trigger phrase” that necessitated the hearing.
In a statement to media outlets, Welch College said that it could not comment on an individual student’s case, but reiterated that its stance on transgenderism is clear.
“The College holds that God created humanity in two distinct and complementary sexes: male and female,” the statement said. “The College acknowledges that the Fall of humanity into sin has introduced brokenness into God’s good creation, including in the realm of human sexuality.”
Coffman Hall, on the Welch College campus – Photo: Facebook.
In a written statement, Welch College President Matt Pinson later told The Hill that “individuals experiencing such confusion — and the distress that usually accompanies it — should be treated with love and compassion.”
“The College also believes that attempting to alter one’s bodily identity constitutes a rejection of God’s design for humanity,” Pinson added. “We will continue to pray for all people experiencing gender confusion while also honoring the values of this institution and its sponsoring denomination, which are shared by the Christian tradition over two millennia.”
Under Title IX, schools in the United States are forbidden from discriminating against students based on sex. But private and religiously-affiliated schools are allowed to apply for an exemption that allows them to discriminate against those that do not conform to their religious beliefs.
In an update to his original Facebook post, Awtrey noted that he would not be accepting online donations from anyone “due to the fact that I never want anybody to accuse me of doing something like this for personal gain.” He also addressed those who questioned why he did not wait until after graduation to undergo surgery.
“My decision was not done through a lack of foresight,” he wrote on his Facebook page, “it was done out of desperation. I gambled — high risk, high reward. I did the surgery at the time that I did as an act of self-preservation and self-love.”
He added: “You see, my gender dysphoria would put me in undesirable and even potentially harmful situations such as social avoidance almost to the point of agoraphobia — I had even, on multiple occasions, taken a dull knife to my chest at the height of my gender dysphoria. I did the surgery at the time that I did because I was sick of living a harmful life, a life half-lived, even if it was only for 2 years.
“Since I was 11 years old, I’ve been suicidal, but after I started hormone replacement therapy in January of 2019, I’ve been suicidal-free for 8 months for the first time in a literal decade,” he continued. “That spark of hope and happiness made me crave more it, and that is why I did the surgery on that day, in that year.”
Even though Awtrey has only been suspended for two semesters, he doubts he’ll be welcomed back to Welch. In the meantime, he’s staying with friends in North Carolina while he recovers from surgery. He has talked with his parents, but it’s unclear whether they’ll provide him with financial support, so his living situation post-recovery remains uncertain.
“I just feel really powerless right now, and I just want people to know that these things happen,” Awtrey said. “There’s just a lot of people that say everything’s all right now for transgender people and LGBT people, and my situation very much says that that is not the case.”
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