Donny Leveston, an English teacher at Houston Community College, is under fire for allegedly referring to transgender people as “freaks” and “weirdos.” The comments were made during an in-class student discussion of a paper written by the instructor entitled “Taboo: Incest and Homoeroticism.” According to a transgender student in the class, Leveston closed the discussion by saying, “I don’t care what those people do, as long as they keep it away from me.”
The student emailed Leveston and explained that his comments made her feel unwelcome in his class. Leveston responded that “everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion” and that the student should respect his right to feel uncomfortable with transgender people “Everyone has the right to his or her own preference,” wrote Leveston, “just do not go trying to push your views on me. Case closed.”
Leveston didn’t return calls seeking comment for this story.
Daniel Arguijo, chief communications officer for HCC, said the college is aware of the situation, and has reached out to both the student and Leveston to begin the process of addressing the allegations.
Lesa Spivey, director of public relations and media at HCC, said the school values diversity.
“We want all of our students and staff to feel comfortable in class,” she said.
HCC’s non-discrimination policy includes sexual orientation, but not gender identity and expression, but Spivey maintained that the inclusion of “sex” and “gender” in the policy covers the trans community.
“I can tell you for a fact that our policy includes transgender people,” Spivey said. “When we say sex and gender, for us, that’s all-inclusive.”
Lakia Spadey, the former president of the Out Students and Allies group at HCC, said student activists have been working for two years to encourage the administration to include gender identity and expression in their nondiscrimination policy.
“As of now, the policy does nothing to protect students from discrimination or, like in this case, harassment, based on their gender identity or expression,” Spadey said. “This is unacceptable. It wouldn’t be OK if the professor said something like, ‘I don’t care what black or Hispanics do, they just need to stay away from me.’
“Last year we got a resolution passed by the united student council (the student organization that presides over the entire HCC system), making it the opinion of the entire student body of HCC that we should add gender identity and expression to the statement, but the administration has yet to act on that resolution,” Spadey added.
Spadey rejected Spivey’s interpretation of HCC’s nondiscrimination policy as including transgender people.
“In this particular situation, Leveston’s statement wasn’t directed at one gender or the other, it was directed at those who don’t fall into the binary,” Spadey said. “If a student who is perceived as male comes to school wearing a skirt and heals, and is harassed, it’s not because of the student’s gender, it’s because of the student’s gender expression. It’s not just about ‘including transgender people,’ it’s about making it safe for all students to feel comfortable and able to express themselves as the person they are. That includes GLBT individuals, intersexed people, people who don’t have a gender identity, and straight people as well.”
The safety of transgender students at HCC’s central campus previously came into question in 2010 when trans man Lance Reyna was attacked in one of the college’s restrooms by an armed assailant who yelled anti-gay slurs. According to Cristan Williams, the executive director of the Transgender Foundation of America, HCC security admonished Reyna to not file a police report and allow them to handle it.
“The police were not involved until the TFA took Reyna to file an official report,” Williams said. “It was only after the report was filed that HPD began searching for the attacker. In attempting to keep the attack quiet HCC almost allowed a violent transphobe to continue to walk the streets.”
Arguijo, HCC’s communications chief, said that following the attack against Reyna, HCC began a process of meetings about better serving the trans community and that the administration is considering the resolution passed by the united student council calling for the inclusion of gender identity and expression in the school’s nondiscrimination policy.
According to the HCC website, five of seven classes Leveston teaches are entry-level English classes that are prerequisites for most other classes at HCC, meaning the bulk of his students are new students. Spivey said HCC is a “welcoming school,” but it is hard to imagine how new transgender students are expected to be feel welcome if this is the kind of introduction to campus life they receive.