For some, spring is no match for a chill that has settled over Oklahoma Christian University (OC), a private university near Oklahoma City affiliated with the Churches of Christ congregations. In March, news broke that graphic arts professor Michael O’Keefe, who worked at the school for 41 years, had been fired as a result of comments made by a guest speaker. O’Keefe had invited the speaker, Scott Hale, in the hopes that Hale’s stories about persevering as a young gay man would inspire the students in his class “The Business of Branding Yourself.” By one account, that of the school’s chief legal counsel Stephen Eck, those stories included “inappropriate and graphic language of a sexual nature,” as Eck alleged in a letter sent to faculty and staff, along with details of Hale’s “history of exposing his genitals to others and leading others to participate in a game he called ‘truth or dick.’” Six days after Hale spoke to his class, O’Keefe was fired. He was shocked.
Eck was not in the classroom during Hale’s speech, and his recap clashes with the accounts of several people who were, including O’Keefe, Hale, OC’s theological librarian, and student Sean Peterson. In an interview with Jezebel, Peterson explained, “His whole speech about being gay… what he said I thought was nothing out of the ordinary, really.” Hale’s supposed “history of exposing his genitals” was in actuality a story about peer pressure among 10-year-old boys, Peterson recalled: “Scott wanted to try to be like the rest of the cool kids,” so he agreed to do one “dare,” and “one of his classmates asked him to show his genitals.” Hale also used the word “dick,” which Peterson found “kind of shocking.” He told Jezebel he is “not a huge supporter of LGBT,” but nonetheless “didn’t really think too much about” the presentation.
“In our twenties, I feel like everyone should have a mature mind towards the human body,” said Peterson, who maintains a relationship with O’Keefe, performing garden duties at the former professor’s residence. “I mean, we’re in the art department. Seeing the human anatomy, from female to male, should be nothing new at all.”
The university’s termination notice to O’Keefe, signed by Eck, cited “gross misconduct, conduct contrary to the mission and values of Oklahoma Christian University, and disregard of the policies and values of the university.” In a statement to NonDoc, Eck claimed that O’Keefe was fired for these offenses after a “thorough review process,” though neither O’Keefe nor Hale say they were interviewed before O’Keefe was fired. In an ethics complaint letter that voiced solidarity with O’Keefe, which Jezebel obtained, the other faculty member in the room that day, theological librarian Chris Rosser, wrote that he, too, had not been interviewed prior to O’Keefe’s firing. O’Keefe said that on March 7, he was told to get off campus and never come back. “I went back to my office and it was already locked,” he said.
After the story broke, suspicion that O’Keefe had been fired because he brought in a gay speaker was palpable on campus and in the media. As if to push back against speculation that the university’s decision had been motivated by homophobia, a letter Eck wrote to students and faculty, which was published in full by Oklahoma City’s News 9, included this line: “The unchallenged language used and content shared with students is unacceptable in any class at OC no matter who says it or the speaker’s orientation.”
Over the course of our multiple conversations, O’Keefe spoke passionately about what he sees as the disservice performed on Hale and the students: OC’s action reduced human experience. O’Keefe’s goal via his curriculum, including his choice of guest speakers, had been to cultivate nuance. The fired professor did not express bitterness about losing his job, but did emphasize the unfairness of the situation as he sees it: “My life, my commitment, my sacrifices for the school for 41 years are reduced down to three minutes. Are they kidding me?” In his view, the university’s response didn’t merely distort the details of Hale’s presentation—O’Keefe told Jezebel by phone that it “objectified him and stereotyped him.” “It was very homophobic,” said the fired professor. “It reduces an individual and takes away their humanity by tagging them because of their sexuality.”
If O’Keefe’s allegations of homophobia are true (the university has not responded to multiple requests for interview), this case can be considered part of a wave of anti-LGBTQ animosity in the U.S., where we have seen the passage of so-called “don’t say gay” bills, legislative attempts to block gender-affirming care for trans kids, a seemingly still-climbing trans murder rate, and a Republican-led effort to revive the harmful, false, and decades-old stereotype that gay adults and their supporters are out to groom and molest children. That particular lie was key to the rhetoric of the likes of Anita Bryant in the ‘70s, which echoes in OC’s suggestion that Hale was describing predatory behavior. The idea that a speaker merely testifying his gay life should cause the firing of the tenured professor who invited him to do so seems straight out of that decade as well. But, according to several sources who spoke to Jezebel, it happened in Oklahoma last month.
O’Keefe invited speakers to his classroom to share their stories of resilience—the roster also included a former mafia wife who survived domestic abuse, and a Vietnam vet who recounted stabbing an enemy soldier to save his own life, according to Peterson—and Hale was no exception. “So he happens to be gay,” explained O’Keefe. “His story is about self-love, reconciliation with his parents, and finally coming to accept himself for who he is. He did not in any way propagate his belief system or his choice of a partner. He was telling his story, and hopefully the students realized life’s not easy and there are no normal people and there are no ordinary days.”
Hale said that his 45-minute presentation was a modified version of a one-man show he had originally performed at a conference on gender and sexuality at the University of Central Oklahoma. (Hale is currently that school’s director of marketing and communications.) The show is titled Confessions of a Hooker Horny Toad, in dual reference to Hale’s hometown of Hooker, Oklahoma, and to its American Legion baseball team, the Horny Toads. “It’s meant to be cute, funny,” he said.
Hale said that he prefaced his March 1 presentation by telling the students that it would include references they may not understand (to ‘70s teen star Kristy McNichol, for example), as well as language the students may find objectionable. These included the words “bitch,” “dick,” and “fag.” “I said, ‘If any of the stuff that I’ve just mentioned is going to make you uncomfortable, you’re welcome to leave right now, and at any point during the performance you are welcome to get up if you find yourself getting upset or uncomfortable,’” recalled Hale. O’Keefe and Peterson also recalled this disclaimer. No students left before or during the performance.
To Jezebel, Hale explained the context in which he used the supposedly “inappropriate and graphic” language. “Bitch” came up when describing the athletic uniforms of the local women’s team he saw growing up, the Lady Dogs. The line went something like: “You know, the Hooker Bitches were a very formidable team.” He said it got a laugh. Hale said he used “dick” in the context of the “truth or dick” anecdote, which he told to explain the stigma he felt when he was perceived as gay at such a young age: He felt pressure to show his body to the other young boys as he was dared to, which was at odds with the comfort he witnessed among a grown men’s nude swimming group. “I remembered when [the kids] were saying, ‘Chicken chicken,’ I was like, ‘Well, those adult men were not chicken,’” he recalled. Hale also recounted how, the day after he was dared to show himself, one of the other boys asked him in front of a large group, “What are you, a fag?” People laughed, he remembered.
“That’s the reason those stories are even in there,” Hale said of his presentation. “First of all, they’re kind of funny, if you listen to it with an open mind and in the context of how I’m doing it. It also was talking about gender roles… I mentioned over and over and over again the expectations that are placed upon us as men and women. That’s why I even touch upon those kinds of topics.”
That his presentation was offensive, let alone a fireable offense, “never crossed my mind.” In fact, he considered his language “tame.” Hale graduated from OC in 1993, and soon after accepted a position in its fine arts program. He was an adjunct professor at the school from 1997 to 2017 and taught a brief summer course in 2021. Throughout his time at OC, both as a student and employee, he was close with O’Keefe. This is to say he was well acquainted with the culture of the school.
Oklahoma Christian’s religious affiliation is spelled right out in its name, but the degree to which it affects the campus climate cannot be overstated. This is the kind of institution that has counted Hobby Lobby as a donor—in 2017, OC honored the Hobby Lobby family the Greens at its annual Associates Gala for donors, and a Green family member attends the school. Students at OC are required to attend chapel. “Oklahoma Christian views a Democrat as a liberal,” is how O’Keefe’s lawyer Kevin Jacobs put it. (Jacobs was OC’s president from 1996 to 2001.) And as The Christian Chronicle reported, the university attaches a covenant to faculty contracts, with explicit expectation that staff “abide by the tenets articulated therein.” These tenets include “honoring God’s plan that sexual relations be a part of a marriage between a man and a woman.”
Despite its institutional piety, it’s not uncommon to hear people use curse words on campus or even in class, according to former student Lauren Burk. “I have had professors drop the F-bomb before in class and be like, ‘Oh, excuse my language,’ you know, like as a joke,” said Burk, who now works with Hale at the University of Central Oklahoma (she was also a student of Hale’s in the summer class he taught last year). “‘Bitch’ has been dropped a lot. ‘Damn,’ ‘shit.’ You know, we’re all adults.” O’Keefe was a mentor and professor to Burk, and she remains in close contact with him.
In an email, current OC student Michael Fitch, who is set to graduate this year, told Jezebel he had “definitely” heard speakers and professors swear “with no problems.” Via Zoom, he said, “I can honestly understand if [people] had some problems with [Hale’s] language. They could bring that up, that would be fair. But I think the level of reaction that [O’Keefe] was fired in less than a week without even giving his side of the story, that’s proof to me that they did this because he brought in a gay speaker.”
Hale felt he had connected with the class, save “one male student who sat with his arms crossed and his head down [who] probably made eye contact with me three or four times.” O’Keefe said he understood the talk to be a success. During a post mortem following the class in which Hale guested, O’Keefe said one of his students, who is trans, took exception to Hale’s talk, saying it caught her off guard and made her feel unsafe. O’Keefe said that in response he referenced Hale’s pre-show disclaimer and reminded her that students who didn’t feel comfortable had been invited to leave the class at any point. “Her response was, ‘Well, good point,’” said O’Keefe. “I later discovered that his story was not unlike hers, and it was very painful.”
In contrast, Eck’s letter to the university that the local news published alleged that “in the aftermath of the class in question, it appeared that O’Keefe attempted to squelch students’ reporting or complaining about the content by intimidating a student and dismissing rather than addressing student concerns.” O’Keefe denies this characterization. Though someone (or someones) from the class seemingly reported the presentation to OC administration soon afterwards, prompting the firing—Eck claimed in his letter there were “multiple complaints from eyewitnesses”—Jacobs said that he and his client have not learned of the contents of the complaints, which the lawyer says is a violation of due process.
After the presentation, a different student approached Hale and his husband, who had also attended the talk, in the parking lot.
“She looks at me and she said, ‘You talked about how you hated yourself. And you had your own internalized homophobia… How did you start to love yourself?’” Hale recalled. “And I mean, my gosh. Tears are running down her face, and she’s kind of shaking.” She told him she did not have a queer-affirming support system, and he and his husband volunteered to provide a foundation of one for her.
For most of the time Hale served OC as an adjunct professor, he did so as an openly gay man. Well, maybe that’s overstating things slightly—he did so without being closeted is probably a more accurate picture. “I was open in that when it mattered or when someone asked, I would not deny it. I would tell them, ‘Sure, I am,’” he said. “But I wasn’t walking around proclaiming it or anything like that.” He estimated that he first talked about it with students in the early 2000s, after one told a gay joke in class. Hale pointed out that it referred to him. He thought that would be the end of his gig, but it went on for years after. He also figured that after his in-class admission, faculty soon knew, because OC is a small school and a “gossip factory.” After that reveal, he started to receive emails from students—ones that weren’t in the class—thanking him and asking him for advice on coming out.
This only confuses things, though. If indeed homophobia was behind the decision to fire O’Keefe, what changed between Hale’s gig as an out adjunct professor and his guest speaking stint?
For one thing, Hale married his partner last November—between his summer class and his presentation in March. Additionally, he said that he suspected his sexuality may have had something to do with why he was never promoted beyond adjunct in his 20 years teaching at OC. By the end of that two decades, his salary had been whittled down to $5,000 a year, he said. “I wasn’t asked to leave. I wasn’t fired, but I was squeezed out,” he claimed. “No one ever said, ‘We’re getting rid of you because you’re gay,’ but there were opportunities that just weren’t there anymore.” Hale also referenced the unpleasant feeling he’d get when administrators wouldn’t look at him when he walked by them on the sidewalk. He can’t say his sexuality was “absolutely the reason” for the lessening opportunities at OC, but “something was changing in the atmosphere for sure.”
That changing atmosphere is unmistakable, according to several students. In a March 31 op-ed in the OC student newspaper The Talon, student Ann Magner wrote: “If the recent decisions to deny Safe at Home Chapel a space on campus and fire a tenured professor who brought in a gay speaker are reflections of Oklahoma Christian’s values, I question what our values are. Are we a people guided by God’s love?” The Safe at Home Chapel refers to a LGBTQ affirming chapel that operated for six years until it, as well as other small chapels (including one for Black students), were shuttered by the university in December, a decision that confused many and received criticism from students for the lack of transparency. (To handle questions regarding the decision, OC launched a chapel task force in January.) Earlier this year, an OC librarian claimed she had been denied tenure and placed on probation after she posted her support of LGBTQ students on social media. She resigned. And earlier this month, a trans OC student named Jace Dulohery told ABC News that he had been forced to move from male housing to a private living space on account of his gender identity after he came out. Dulohery filed a Title IX complaint, and a panel agreed that he had been moved as a result of his gender identity, but the university reportedly cited its religious exemption to Title IX. According to the report, OC offered to pay for therapy for Dulohery.
OC student Fitch, who is set to graduate this year, said, “Most aspects of this campus culture are pretty toxic.” He said he thought of the closure of Safe at Home as a way the university was eradicating its own progress. “I think just the fact that [the chapel shuttering and O’Keefe’s firing] have happened so close just shows their stance on the situation,” he said. “I guess it’s just the hill that they’re going to die on.”
Peterson, for his part, said that he noticed “tensions” between the university’s LGBTQ population, faculty, and administration. At one point, he witnessed a professor in a Bible class openly grapple with the appropriateness of attempts the school had made to be inclusive of its LGBTQ populations. On a broader scale, some Christian universities find themselves under “immense pressure exerted by hardline conservative donors” and other interested parties as they weigh initiatives supportive of LGBTQ students, Political Research Advocates reported in 2019. According to the report, “Influential school donors expect Christian colleges to continue incubating the next generation of right-wing culture warriors.” This leaves the more than 100,000 LGBTQ students who attend religious schools, and faculty who support them, ever more vulnerable in this particularly anti-gay era.
To Burk, the saga signaled that she should cut ties with OC. Burk told Jezebel she had been approached by O’Keefe to guest speak in the class as well, and after his firing, Amy Beauchamp, program chair for O’Keefe’s former department, reached out to see if she was still interested. This occurred March 23, and Burk’s response, which she shared via screenshot, was:
With respect (and this is not a reflection of you, I love you Amy), I don’t believe it is in my best interest, as a bisexual woman, to associate with Oklahoma Christian as an institution anymore. I wouldn’t want you to lose your job for allowing me to speak to a class. Thank you for reaching out.
Beauchamp responded to Burk that OC’s students are “treasured, loved, and safe,” and that students (past and present) are “image bearers of God, therefore you will be loved by us in the department.” She added that there is more to the story, and “not entirely what has been portrayed in the media.” Beauchamp declined Jezebel’s request to elucidate what the media has gotten wrong thus far. “As a writer, you know there are always more perspectives to something that happens, and this is no exception,” she wrote in an email.
O’Keefe’s class post-firing, according to Peterson, has been “very chaotic,” with Beauchamp and another professor acting as substitutes. “It’s a lot of mixed feelings,” he said of the vibe among O’Keefe’s now-former students. “I would say the majority of people were confused and a lot of them were upset.”
For years, we’ve seen reports of clashes between the so-called strongly held beliefs underpinning religious institutions, and students who don’t feel they should have to choose between their faith and their sexuality. As Fitch pointed out: “It’s a school, not a church.” Nonetheless, students at Christian colleges have described pressure to undergo conversation therapy, and class conversations about whether gay people deserve to get AIDS. Administrations at Christian colleges, in turn, must contend with how much of their doctrine they can let go slack before their belief system is unrecognizable. Professors, meanwhile, can be stuck between the two forces, beholden to their employers but saddled with a responsibility to suit the diverse needs of their students. This week saw a report of a professor at the Christian college Calvin University, who may lose his job after officiating a same-sex wedding.
But the story of O’Keefe’s firing is not about student conduct, dorm cohabitation, or weddings. It is about exposing students to information the school deemed offensive, but that Hale and O’Keefe believed jibed with campus culture—as it is practiced by students, that is, and not as it is idealized in dogma. If the claims of the sources in this article are correct, O’Keefe was fired over his ideas, chiefly that a gay man might be able to teach adult students by sharing part of his life with them, something Hale did implicitly for 20 years.
“If he had been heterosexual, this wouldn’t been an issue, right?” said O’Keefe.
O’Keefe’s lawyer Jacobs said that his client is considering filing a lawsuit against the university, as neither believes O’Keefe violated any kind of contract by bringing Hale in to speak. “There are contractual issues there,” said Jacobs. “There’s a wrongful termination. There’s public policy issues regarding discrimination. There’s due process issues regarding the way he has not been able to even know who or what his accusers said. There’s multiple levels of this.” Jacobs is also representing Hale and said they are considering a defamation lawsuit in response to Eck’s letter.
The implications of this situation have left Hale feeling unsettled.
“My real fear is not necessarily what this is going to do to me—it’s what happened to that woman in the parking lot,” he said, his voice cracking. “What’s happening to the young person who’s got tears running down their face, and the countless others?” Hale mused on how hard it would be for closeted students surveying the current climate on OC’s campus, where he himself had spent over two decades learning, teaching, and finally, guest speaking. “The students are scared.”