Who defines celibacy?: Why Mennonite Central Committee’s “Lifestyle” policy enables sexual harassment

by Stephanie Krehbiel, Executive Director
featuring letters by Wendi Moore-O’Neal, New Orleans, LA
and Addie Liechty, Oakland, CA

We’re featuring two letters on our blog today. Both are written to the leadership of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), confronting them about the injustice of their “lifestyle” policy. That policy requires sexual celibacy for all MCC employees “outside of a heterosexual marriage relationship.”

We share these letters in light of MCC’s recent initiatives intended for sexualized violence prevention. As much as Into Account’s staff respects the work of some of the individuals at the center of these initiatives, we’re sounding an alarm on MCC and its attitudes towards sexual harassment and abuse. That “sexuality and celibacy” requirement is at the center of the problem, and it undermines the goals of those within the organization who are courageously standing up for an end to sexualized violence.

For those of our readers who grew up in historical peace church traditions, Mennonite Central Committee is likely familiar as a relief and development organization with a reputation for social justice roots. Whether that reputation is earned or not really depends on whom you ask. MCC has a wide reach; it has done wonderful things, and terrible things too.

Likewise, most of us who grew up in church cultures and institutions are familiar with “lifestyle” policies related to sex and sexuality. In addition to shaping the social world of an organization, these policies tend to operate as political signals to constituencies. A policy’s relative strictness tells potential donors whether or not the organization in question aligns with their values.

With that in mind, let’s look at the MCC policy in question:

MCC requires sexual celibacy for personnel outside of a heterosexual marriage relationship during their terms of service with MCC. Persons of homosexual orientation who meet MCC personnel criteria as noted above will be considered for MCC service if they are willing to abide by MCC’s requirement of celibacy for all outside of a heterosexual marriage and if they will not use MCC as a platform from which to advocate for same-sex sexual relationships.

This policy is unacceptable, and the overriding reason why is that it’s immoral and cruel. It is causing active harm.

I’ll start with the grossness of the last sentence. What on earth does “use MCC as a platform from which to advocate for same-sex relationships” even mean, within the context of enforcing a policy? This could be anything, depending on the whims and prejudices of the interpreter. If you participate in LGBTQ justice movements, are you “advocat[ing] for same-sex relationships?” Will MCC management feel empowered to assess and comment on your same-gender friendships? Can you be fired if someone decides that you’re acting too gay for their taste?

This is a situation in which we have to read the historical subtext, which is this: the homosexuals recruit. Watch out for them. Associating queer sexuality with sexual predation is an old, nasty trick, and a staple of homophobic discourse. This isn’t a policy; it’s a dog whistle.

Furthermore, the “sexuality and celibacy” requirements renders MCC’s own anti-harassment policy functionally ridiculous. Now let’s look at that policy:

MCC strives to provide a professional working environment, including management training, inter-cultural training for workers being sent on overseas assignments, and information to all staff that promotes equal employment opportunities and prohibits discriminatory practices, including sexual harassment and harassment based on race, color, gender, national origin, marital status, age, disability or other protected characteristic. MCC will not tolerate harassment on the basis of color, national or ethnic origin, religion, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, age, marital or family statues [sic] or disability. MCC will screen candidates on occupational requirements (such as faith screens), as well as requiring life style [sic] expectations.

Here is something I wish all church organizations could really take in: If you forbid harassment of people from marginalized groups, but at the same time embrace policies and practices that perpetuate the injustices that marginalized those groups in the first place, then all you’re really doing is giving a big “just kidding” wink to people who harass and abuse. You’re letting them know–officially, no less–who is most vulnerable, most expendable, to your organization. You can’t forbid harassment on the basis of sexual orientation at the same time that you’re promoting a policy that renders LGBTQ people subordinate and vulnerable. It doesn’t just make you look like hypocrites. It makes you hypocrites. You know who will exploit that hypocrisy, to the detriment of those vulnerable employees as well as any other LGBTQ people who come into contact with MCC through its relief and development services? Perpetrators. Abusers. Bigots. Jerks. You are taking a population that is already at a higher risk for experiencing harassment and sexual violence, and saddling them with additional vulnerability within your organization.

Furthermore, policies like this are always fraught with ambiguity over what in fact constitutes sexual activity, and what in fact constitutes celibacy, and within that ambiguity is a rich field for victim-blaming. If sex is defined as heterosexual penetrative intercourse (and really, my sympathies to anyone who defines it that narrowly), then everything else is up for interpretation. Is consensual, non-penetrative making out worse if it’s between a man and man than if it’s between a man and woman who aren’t in a marriage relationship? Do they both “count”? Are they both punishable? Does it depend on who you are and how much perceived value you bring to the organization? Does it depend on how many other not-straight-white-male “things” you already are? If an encounter starts out as consensual and one party stops consenting, can the victim be punished within the organization for whatever came before they stopped consenting? Do the genders of the respective parties matter in that situation?

Do trans and non-binary people have a place here? Are they allowed to get married and have sex? Are they allowed to exist? How much gender non-conformity is too much?

The definition of sexual harassment, under U.S. federal civil rights guidelines, includes unwelcome questioning and rumor-spreading about a person’s sexual and social life. If you’re outed as queer without your consent–which is, in fact, a form of sexual harassment–can you then be interrogated and subsequently punished for your queerness? (If MCC’s history of involuntary outings is any indication, then yes, you can.)

These inconsistent, ambiguous, and coded rules are made to be broken. And so really, the question is, who gets away with breaking them, and who doesn’t?

Which brings me to our first letter. Its author, Wendi Moore-O’Neal, is a New Orleans native who came on board with MCC after Hurricane Katrina. Wendi was a social justice activist who was already well-respected within communities that were devastated by Katrina. When Wendi was fired for being, in her words, a “Black, butch, dyke,” she took her case to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Her recent letter to MCC, published below, details how that complaint went.

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to say that Policy #152 is not good policy for MCC as an employer subject to comply with the constitutional rights of its workers.

In October of 2014 I lost my livelihood when I was fired from MCC via email with these words:

“MCC has become aware of actions by you that violate MCC’s Sexuality and Celibacy Policy; specifically, co-habitation with your same-sex partner and subsequent marriage.  MCC views these actions as being in direct violation of MCC’s requirement of sexual celibacy for personnel outside of heterosexual marriage.”

I was fired in spite of recognition of my good work as a Community Organizer with this Peace and justice organization for over 3 years. I was fired without a clearly articulated process, where I was faced with an accusation and not allowed to defend myself before l was terminated. I was fired based on assumptions that I was not celibate even though celibacy was never defined. I was fired after I stated that I am a Black, butch, dyke who was getting married. I was fired after I challenged the white male Executive Director of MCC US and the white Director of Programs on their internalized racial superiority and how it manifest in the organization. I was fired without consideration to the impact that would have on the people and work of MCC’s New Orleans Program.

I have always tried to work out conflicts in a transparent and amicable way that advances justice. Shortly after being fired, MCC left me little choice to address this injustice internally, so I filed an EEOC claim addressing the discrimination I experienced. MCC hired Fisher & Phillips law firm, a national pro-management law firm, with over 350 lawyers, to oppose working this out with the EEOC.

I recently received this in a Right to Sue Letter addressed to me:

The EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that violations of the statute(s) occurred with respect to some or all of the matters alleged in the charge but could not obtain a settlement with the Respondent that would provide relief for you. In addition, the EEOC has decided that it will not bring suit against the Respondent at this time based on this charge and will close its file in this case. This does not mean that the EEOC is certifying that the Respondent is in compliance with the law, or that the EEOC will not sue the Respondent later or intervene later in your lawsuit if you decide to sue on your own behalf.

I would prefer to resolve this outside of court, eliminating Policy #152 could help.

Sincerely,

Wendi Moore-O’Neal,
Fired MCC Community Organizer,
New Orleans Program, Central States

(The EEOC’s decision to close their case against MCC on Wendi’s behalf has to be understood in the context of the Trump Administration’s systemic attack on civil rights. We’ll have more on that to come.)

Our second letter comes from Addie Liechty, a therapist and singer-songwriter living in Oakland, California. Addie’s commitment to MCC’s relief efforts with Syrian and Iraqi refugees led them to collaborate with other musicians on a successful MCC fundraising project, The Midnight Hymn Sing, which brought thousands of dollars to MCC’s relief programs. They write:

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to express my discontent with Policy #152 that requires sexual celibacy for MCC personnel outside of heterosexual marriage. On March 16-17th, your organization affirmed this statute for all those in leadership positions, workers with significant interactions with MCC’s constituency and service workers on international assignments.  You went on to state that some exceptions will be made, though it is incredibly vague around what and who those exceptions will be.

I have been following this story, but felt somewhat disconnected to any feelings around it.  So much so that my partner commented to me, “You don’t even seem upset about this. Your friends are more upset than you are.”  I told her that at this point, I am just used to it. However, this morning I felt something again when I read the letter written to you by Wendi Moore-O’Neal.  MCC fired O’Neal, by email, in 2014, after “becoming aware of actions that violate MCC’s requirement of sexual celibacy for personnel outside of heterosexual marriage.”

This caused me to feel something. O’Neal writes in her letter “I identify as a Black, butch, dyke.” These are desperately missing identities in all places of work, particularly Mennonite institutions.  Because of this, we/you miss out on people who are able to see things that you/I do not see, from our/your positions of privilege and majority. When I think about how many people are placed on MCC assignments, who are from small, mostly white, North American towns, who have only attended Mennonite schools and are deemed ready after some orientations and an assured heterosexual identity, I have to laugh.  Of course, many of these people have done good work and some of them are my friends, but making sexuality the determining factor for ability to serve is negligent for an organization doing cross-cultural work.

The negligence of polices like this one, rise to a deadly level when you consider the ongoing safety risks for LGBTQ people.  We are still the most targeted group for hate crimes. Trans and gender non-conforming people have a 25 percent chance of facing violent assault.  Furthermore, 80% of those victims are people of color. Currently, many LGBTQ people are fleeing terrible violence in other countries. Are these not people whom MCC should be serving?  Might these people benefit from seeing someone like them, in an aid organization, such as MCC? My guess (and hope) is that nobody would contest that rhetoric and discriminatory policies contributed to the genocide of Jewish people, in Nazi Germany.  So why do we pretend that church policies such as 152 do not have the same impact on the violence that so many LGBTQ people continue to face?

As I sit here feeling my anger on behalf of O’Neal, I also become aware of my own feelings.  Indeed the numbness that I initially felt is an ongoing symptom of trauma. I recently said to my therapist, “Sometimes I feel like my symptoms fit those of a sexual abuse survivor.”  To my surprise, she said, “Well, your church sexually abused you.” I do not wish to equate my experience with survivors who have been physically violated, but I immediately understood what my therapist meant.

The ongoing messages about the unholiness of my sexuality, from Church institutions took and continues to take a toll on my psyche.  These tolls include shame, anxiety and bodily triggers to touch. As a child, I would perform mental rituals to quell the anxiety about my sexuality.  In adulthood, this has erupted into full blown OCD during stressful times, requiring medication and therapy.

Despite this, many parts of me are thriving.  I have talents for writing, music and spiritual/theological discourse that I love sharing.  This summer, I decided to share one of these gifts with your institution, by creating (with many other talented musicians) “The Midnight Hymn Sing.”  The proceeds went entirely to MCC aid for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. I believe this project raised thousands of dollars and I do not regret this one bit.  The last thing I want to do is advocate for stopping donations to MCC. Placing my pain over the pain of those fleeing war is absurd, but MCC, you place me in such an odd position.

In an effort to build empathy consider this: What would it be like to sit down with all current employees, particularly those who are white, with those recognizable Mennonite names, and require that they disclose every sexual experience that they have ever had?  Imagine for a moment the impact of a process such as this one…describing all sexual acts that ever occurred outside of heterosexual marriage while someone judges if those acts were holy or unholy; judges if something crossed a line and puts their employment and livelihood at risk.  Aside from how awkward and traumatizing this sounds, you may find that more employees than you would like to know, are or have been out of compliance with your lifestyle guidelines.

Sincerely,

Addie Liechty (They/them)

Big thanks to Wendi and Addie, for letting us share these letters, and for your willingness to speak your truth to power in the face of the dehumanizing dismissals that you’ve both received.

This is not the end of this story.  It’s time to put some more heat on MCC. Next week we will have more information on how to support Wendi, Addie, and the MCC employees who are currently organizing for a safer and more just workplace.