Students Speak Up After Question about Biblical Homosexuality Prohibition Included on SCW Sociology Midterm

By: Molly Meisels and YU Observer Staff  |  November 19, 2019

By Molly Meisels and YU Observer Staff

Some students in Professor Ronald Glassman’s Introduction to Sociology class on the Beren Campus have begun to speak up about LGBTQ+ rhetoric that they have found disturbing in the coursework and lectures. 

On November 14th, when a take-home midterm was distributed, the following question prompted student frustration: “Since male homosexuality is forbidden in the Bible, but gays are ‘out of the closet,’ how should the modern orthodox Jewish community deal with it?” Sarah Liberow, a student in Professor Glassman’s class and Vice President of the YU College Democrats, told the YU Observer, “When I first read the question on the midterm, I was…appalled by his lack of sensitivity…how he just put up a group of real people, some of [whom] are in class, learning alongside us, and I’m sure have struggled reconciling their sexuality with their religion… I was wondering why our institution doesn’t see fit to condemn this homophobic and transphobic rhetoric.” 

Professor Silke Aisenbrey, Professor of Sociology at Yeshiva College and Chair of the department, in response to the situation, said, “…I am shocked to hear that an instructor who is in a position of authority in a sociology class (at Stern or elsewhere) would offer the statement ‘male homosexuality is forbidden in the Bible’ as a baseline for an exam question. Furthermore, it is appalling to hear that a teacher thinks it is appropriate or even relevant in a Sociology class to discuss the question of how the orthodox community ‘should’ deal with gays being ‘out of the closet’ — (an ambiguous phrase that is beyond the disciplinary discourse).” 

Students say they recall their Sociology lecture on September 11th, when they were encouraged by their professor to partake in classroom discussions on whether the Orthodox community should accept LGBTQ+ individuals. Some students present, including LGBTQ+ students, believed this professor-facilitated conversation to be inappropriate. According to many, the conversation between students included homophobic commentary on the existence of LGBTQ+ Jews in Orthodox society. A closeted LGBTQ+ student shared her thoughts about that day: “When Professor Glassman opened up the floor, I sat there, sick to my stomach, with my anxiety levels running high, and my hands shaking. I had the support of some fellow classmates, but unfortunately that didn’t override the feeling of ostracism and demonization I felt as a Queer student myself.” 

“As I always say to my students: political and personal opinions should stay out of the classroom […] I can only imagine how confusing and upsetting this must be for students in the class who want to learn more about how to analyze social issues theoretically and empirically, as well as for those who are likely to feel marginalized and at risk if they do not agree with the instructor’s presumed position, given the way the question was raised and framed. This is not to say that there isn’t a place in a sociology class to have a theoretically informed discussion on how social change happens and what mechanisms and patterns can be identified across different groups,” said Professor Aisenbrey. 

Other students who don’t identify as LGBTQ+ and who do not fault Professor Glassman, have been vocal about the discussion as well. “In general, Professor Glassman brings up topics concerning LGBTQ issues in an incredibly shallow and unrefined way,” said one anonymous student. “However, I would not consider his rhetoric homophobic…I found the conversation to be respectful on both sides of the topic, but since I don’t struggle with this issue I cannot speak for others. I do […] find it distasteful that the question came up again on the midterm after the same discussion in class made some people uncomfortable. Regardless, I don’t believe Professor Glassman deserves the vilification.” 

In a statement made to the YU Commentator in response to LGBTQ+ students rallying for representation on campus in September, President Ari Berman said, “Yeshiva University strives to be a nurturing and inclusive environment for all our students, ensuring that every individual is treated with respect and dignity.” The Undergraduate Student Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, states that “students have the right to be treated fairly with respect and dignity at all times. Every member of the community; faculty, administration and student alike, has the right to courteous and professional conduct in interactions with all other members of the community.” Some students say that their Sociology classroom is not an inclusive environment and that Professor Glassman told students that as long as they use a form of sociological grace in answering the midterm questions, they could respond in whichever way they wish. For one student, this was “a way to hide homophobia behind diplomacy.”

Another LGBTQ+ student who wishes to remain anonymous due to their closeted status, shared their reaction to the classroom rhetoric with the YU Observer: “I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry…But then as the conversation went on and Dr. Glassman revealed his feelings, saying that [he has a problem with] transgender people, I felt like the wind was sucked out of me. I walked out of class feeling completely empty and drained and I don’t think any student deserves to feel that way when they have a part of them attacked in class and they can’t even stand up for themselves.” Professor Glassman has not responded to YU Observer requests for comment at the time of publication. 

Liberow spoke about the costs of what she considers to be anti-LGBTQ+ classroom commentary. “This was put up as a question worth maybe five points on an exam, but worth a lot more to students who have to see that in class; to know that the teacher is giving everyone the permission to…be homophobic and transphobic…,” she said. 

“This problem stems directly from the fact that SCW does not have a tenured faculty member in Sociology leading the department and making hiring decisions,” Professor Aisenbrey explained. “Instances like this demonstrate the need for this supervision and expertise. Our female students deserve nothing less.”