Students call on WU to fire ‘proud homophobe’ professor
Editor’s note: This article contains discussion of suicide and self-harm.
A Student Union petition calling for Washington University to investigate Professor Jonathan Katz’s tenure and terminate his employment has reached over 400 signatures following the publication of an op-ed calling for his resignation.
During his decades-long tenure at the University, Katz has continually expressed anti-LGBTQIA* sentiments. In an essay on his personal website, he labels homosexuality an “abomination” and “unnatural,” concluding with the declaration, “I am a homophobe, and proud.” Although the essay is several years old, Katz defended its language in an email to Student Life.
Katz doubled down on his views in a July 14 letter to the editor, published during the same week that the Trevor Project released a study of LGBTQIA* youth in which 40% of respondents reported seriously considering suicide and 48% reported engaging in self-harm during the prior year.
Student Union President Ranen Miao, who co-wrote the op-ed, said that SU was committed to working with University administrators to take action against Katz.
“It is a moral imperative for the University to fire Professor Katz if he’s not willing to stand aside and resign,” Miao said.
Physics Department Chair Mark Alford called Katz’s comments appalling and offensive, writing that the department “remains vigorously committed to creating a welcoming and inclusive climate where everyone can thrive and be academically successful.”
Jennifer Smith, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, acknowledged that Katz had repeatedly expressed views that were damaging to the University community, writing that “we categorically reject those views…and we stand firmly with students of all identities and from all backgrounds.”
However, despite repeated denunciations from both students and colleagues, Katz has thus far been protected by his tenured status.
In an email to Student Life, Katz wrote that the University should place no limitations on speech for either faculty or students.
“Any such limitation sends a clear message: You are afraid of the argument because you are not confident your counter-arguments are valid or persuasive,” he wrote. “In other words, you fear that the objectionable point of view might be right.”
While Miao agreed that preserving freedom of speech was critical, he said that the University does not need to provide a platform for any and all viewpoints, especially those that are shown to have a negative impact on students’ physical, emotional and academic wellbeing.
“[Katz] wants to stand by his ideas, and he has every right to do that,” Miao said. “And the University should have every right to remove him from his position, and we as students have the right to demand his resignation.”
The University’s tenure protocol states that “Students are entitled to an atmosphere conducive to learning.” The assertion is located in the protocol’s list of “Responsibilities of Faculty Members,” serious violations of which are considered adequate cause for termination.
Explicitly homophobic, sexist or racist rhetoric from professors violates the standard of a conducive learning environment, Miao said, as well as the University’s stated mission of creating “an inclusive community that is welcoming, nurturing and intellectually rigorous.”
“There were a lot of things in [Katz’s letter to the editor] that I struggled with, not only as a queer person but as someone that has supported so many of our LGBTQ[IA*] students at Wash. U.,” Center for Diversity and Inclusion Associate Director Travis Tucker said.
In particular, Tucker pointed to Katz’s dismissal of the pain felt by LGBTQIA* students as “hurt feelings” as an oversimplification.
“Queer and trans people know what challenge is—that is something that we deal with when we go to the bus stop, when we are walking across the street holding the hands of our partners and people do a double take, something that we know very clearly,” Tucker said. “So the question is really not about hurt feelings, it’s about that being our lived existence every day.”
In response to Katz’s assertion that confronting new ideas is both necessary and healthy, Dr. Aditi Ahlawat, a psychologist at Habif and facilitator of various LGBTQIA* campus groups, drew a distinction between generally uncomfortable ideas and explicitly homophobic sentiments.
Ahlawat pointed to a study that labeled homophobia a “legitimate health hazard” and emphasized that “being gay or lesbian is not genetically or biologically hazardous, but risk factors are conferred through homophobia.”
In an email to Student Life, Katz wrote that he did not know why LGBTQIA* youth had such high rates of suicide.
“It is not anyone else’s responsibility, or probably capability, to reduce it,” he continued. “Perhaps they were unhappy or suicidal to start with, and their ‘sexual identity’ is only self-medication.”
The Trevor Project’s study found that unsupportive environments are strongly correlated with suicidality. Among LGBTQIA* youth aged 13 to 24 who experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation, 22% reported attempting suicide; this figure dropped to 8% for those who had not experienced discrimination. (Overall, LGBTQIA* youth are five times as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers.)
Ahlawat said that her experience working with students who have experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation was consistent with the Trevor Project’s findings.
Katz’s son publicly came out as gay in a 2010 letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in which he wrote candidly about his own mental health struggles and suicide attempt.
Yet when presented with statistics about LGBTQIA* youth suicide, Katz remained unmoved, saying that the “suicide rate is evidence that homosexual identity is a curse upon those who have it.”
“No one is responsible for others’ self-harm,” he wrote. “No one is obliged to support others’ ‘identities’ (what if his ‘identity’ is as a white nationalist?) or mental health.”
Katz went on to claim that it was extortion to require the support of an individual’s identity for the sake of their mental health.
“Must we give them money? Vote the way they tell us to? Change our lives as they direct?” he wrote. “Giving in to hostage-takers, even when the hostages are themselves, is a losing proposition. Do we give in to suicide bombers or kidnappers? Doing so only makes more.”
LGBTQIA* students have been publicly speaking out against Katz’s writings for several years, such as then-sophomore Matt Adler’s 2005 op-ed arguing that Katz’s open homophobia compromised the academic integrity of his classes as well as the right of students to an education free of discrimination.
Recalling his experiences 15 years later, Adler wrote in an email to Student Life that he was sad to see the University administration’s continued acceptance of homophobic rhetoric and that he hoped they would listen to today’s students.
“I wouldn’t have felt I’d be given equal treatment by Prof. Katz in the classroom, which is what it all comes down to,” Adler wrote. “If he wants to be a bigot in his personal life, nobody is stopping him. I understand freedom of speech and tenure are important values that must be weighed. But when he makes the classroom feel unsafe for students because of his behavior, then he jeopardizes their wellbeing and the educational mission of the institution.”
Katz’s history of disregard for student wellbeing dates back to 1998, when he was threatened with dismissal for refusing to give students extra time on exams after they were granted academic accommodations by Cornerstone.
“Frankly, it is institutionalized cheating,” Katz told Student Life in 2006. “I have no respect for those people; I only have contempt for the people who allow extra time and the people who take advantage of it.”
In addition to criticizing Washington University’s continued decision to give Katz a platform, Miao pointed out that Student Life has chosen to do the same by frequently publishing his op-eds and letters over the past several years.
Katz’s writings include a dismissal of climate change, the suggestion that women might be inherently less talented in physics than men, an assertion that diversity is a “euphamism for discrimination” and a letter calling Title IX procedures an “amateur system” and arguing that the University could prevent rape by banning alcohol.
While he said he respected Student Life’s decision to publish Katz’s writing, Miao expressed concern about giving legitimacy to hateful and misleading information, especially when such content lacked redeeming value in public discourse.
“One side is standing for regressive, unscientific, baseless ideals, and another side wants human rights and basic human dignity,” Miao said. “I think it is dangerous in America to do ‘bothsidesism,’ to always try to frame everything as if there are two equally legitimate sides…these are not moral equivalents, and it is fallacious to try to frame them as if they’re the same argument.”
Miao argued that Katz’s most recent letter to the editor, in which the professor claimed that his essay was about “the death of a generation of hemophiliacs,” was a misrepresentation, making its unqualified publication questionable.
“His essay was titled ‘In Defense of Homophobia,’ not ‘In Defense of Hemophiliacs,’” Miao said. To the extent that the essay did discuss hemophilia, Miao continued, it was an “attempt to weaponize human life in an effort to defend indefensible arguments about homosexuality.”
According to the National Hemophilia Foundation, there have been no transmissions of HIV through factor VIII or IX blood products in the United States since 1987, when viral killing methods were implemented.
Prior to the AIDS epidemic, the hemophilia community had already suffered the consequences of contaminated blood transfusions through accidental exposure to hepatitis B, and pharmaceutical companies, the Food and Drug Administration and patient advocacy groups failed to take necessary steps to address potential viral contamination in the blood supply.
“It is incredibly disingenuous to argue that gay men are killing hemophiliacs with their blood, but it is a proven empirical fact that gay people are committing suicide at dangerously high rates because of mental illness exacerbated by people like Professor Katz who think it is okay to degrade and to attack people on the basis of their sexuality,” Miao said.
Not only has homophobia been found to play a role in LGBTQIA* suicide, it is often cited as a factor in the poor federal response to the AIDS epidemic, which has killed about 700,000 people (including 4,000 people with hemophilia) in the United States. According to Avert, an international education resource on HIV and AIDS, homophobia was and continues to be “a major barrier to ending the global AIDS epidemic.”
In the early years of the epidemic, many shared Katz’s view that the “victims were promiscuous homosexual males.” Prominent political figures promoted the idea that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality and sensationalized headlines labeled AIDS the “gay plague.”
This framing of AIDS as a disease that only affected gay men took hold in the medical world, leading to oversights such as when a doctor’s 1981 report of treating five Black infants with symptoms of severe immune deficiency was broadly ignored. Until 1993, the government’s extremely limited definition of AIDS excluded many of the women and people of color who were suffering from the disease, proving deadly for those who were then refused essential treatment and resources.
As the crisis continued, LGBTQIA* groups were routinely denied federal funding for prevention programs, the Reagan administration cut funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and ignored the agency’s warnings and a 1988 bill prohibited any AIDS education that would “condone homosexual activities”—or in other words, teach about safe gay sex. The government’s delayed response has been largely attributed to prejudices against the LGBTQIA* community, as well as against the racial minorities that AIDS disproportionately impacted.
When asked if he believed LGBTQIA* students currently studying at the University bore moral responsibility for the AIDS epidemic, Katz replied that their support of the “homosexual movement” gave them “some moral responsibility for its consequences.” An addendum to his essay reiterates the claim that all supporters of the LGBTQIA* community bear responsibility for the AIDS epidemic by analogizing them to a hypothetical person who joins the Ku Klux Klan but commits no physical violence.
Junior Sophi Seley, who co-wrote the op-ed with Miao, pointed to seeming hypocrisy in Katz’s rhetoric.
“If Katz truly believes that ‘lives are more important than feelings,’ then maybe he would reconsider his despicable homophobic beliefs, since beliefs like his directly contribute to the epidemic of queer suicide in the U.S. and around the world,” she said.
Miao called Katz’s valuation of human life shallow, emphasizing the devastating impact that homophobia has had on human life throughout history.
“I’m happy to have this conversation with Professor Katz, but I want to point out that it should not be my job to have to educate him on why I’m a human being who deserves to be respected,” Miao said. “I would encourage Professor Katz to open his own mind and engage with opposing beliefs because, after all, college is not a place to be coddled for your ideas, but rather a place to expand your mind and your understanding of the world.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support 24/7. They can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 or online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/.
The Trevor Project, a suicide preventation organization for the LGBTQIA* community, can be reached by calling 1-866-488-7386, texting START to 678-678 or online at thetrevorproject.org/get-help-now/.
The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-656-4673 or online at hotline.rainn.org/online.