NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Students within the LGBTQ community, as well as allies and professors, gathered Monday to raise awareness, ask for more visibility, equity and for their voices to be heard.
They say they are hurt and offended by Scholar-in-Residence Sophia Nelson's comments, and many are asking for the university to part ways with her
"How does it make you feel? Is it enough to evoke change?" said one student from a megaphone.
"We will keep fighting for our rights. Our rights are human rights," yelled another student on the campus's Great Lawn.
"Reading her tweet, we felt uncomfortable and scared in a place we are supposed to call our home," said sophomore Abigail Honeycutt.
On October 11, Nelson, also an author and journalist, tweeted her viewpoints on bisexuality regarding a DC comic book character. She wrote, "I don't get why this is necessary. I don't! What if Christian parents of children reading comic books don't want their kids exposed to bi-sexual characters? This is being pushed on kids."
Her viewpoint on bisexuality is one of many tweets students shared with News 3.
"I felt outraged because representation is such a huge thing," said junior Fern Stockton. "I thought it was huge for one of the characters to be bisexual."
Three days later, Nelson took the tweet down and apologized, saying, "She is a university professor scholar now and mindful of the diversity, and her intent wasn't to hurt."
But those in the LGBTQ community are still reeling.
"I was sad and angry, and I would want the university to public denounce her actions. It's not what we stand for. It's not a community of excellence," said Honeycutt.
Many signed a petition asking for Nelson's removal from the university. Last week, the university responded, noting the tweet caused, "real damage here, causing pain, and anger."
President Paul Trible went on to say they will, "help heal, and do the work to promote diversity, equity and inclusion."
"'Why is she teaching students if she is not open to accepting them for who they are?' is what I would ask her," said Stockton.
The university said Monday they are working with Nelson to set up a date for her to come to campus for an "open dialogue." Nelson has said she welcomes the conversation.
Students say they would welcome that.
"She needs to come here and listen to the hurt she has caused. [Our] life experiences... they are nothing like hers," said Honeycutt.
We reached out to Nelson in response to the tweet, her thoughts about the protest and coming back to campus to hold an open dialogue but have not heard back.
Here is President Trible's full response to the tweet:
"Dear Christopher Newport Campus Community:
Last week, Sophia Nelson tweeted a question, and previously tweeted other comments, that have caused great pain and outrage for many members of our Christopher Newport family. When one of us hurts, we all hurt.
I am sending this message this morning, rather than over the weekend, after a full and productive conversation with the Faculty Senate late Friday afternoon. Each semester, the Provost, Chief of Staff and I meet with the full Faculty Senate at least once. It was fortuitous that meeting was scheduled for Friday. I am especially grateful for their wise and impassioned comments, and I value their thoughtful counsel. It was that counsel that persuaded me to wait and send this message now, instead of over the weekend, so we would all be fully engaged and attentive to campus communications.
This University is a place where compassion and respect should be lived and modeled. It may not be the way the rest of the world works, but it is how the world should work – and it is how we will live and work and learn here on this campus. All of us. It is who we are.
Sophia Nelson is an author and journalist, legal and political analyst, and opinion writer who recently joined the College of Arts and Humanities as a Scholar in Residence, having formerly served as an adjunct faculty member. You can read about her professional credentials and her appointment to her current role here [cnu.edu]. As a Scholar in Residence, she is offering special seminars, speaking at events, and working on a new initiative focused on women in leadership with Dean Lori Underwood. In her primary professional life, Ms. Nelson regularly engages in public discourse through a variety of communication platforms, and it was in this context that she sent the tweet. However, she is no longer working exclusively in the media, and her words reflect on us. Last week, her words on social media did real damage here, causing pain and anger.
We will do two things in response.
First - we will help our family heal. I am grateful for those groups and individuals that began personal outreach immediately. Support and compassion are being offered in many ways - friend to friend, colleague to colleague, mentor to student. SDEC and the Student Government - thank you for hosting the student conversation session Friday evening. Thanks also to the Student Affairs team and to our DEI and Title IX directors, and to Dr. Geoffrey Klein. Emails, calls and meetings are a first step toward understanding and addressing the anger and the pain.
Second – we will do the work. Christopher Newport intentionally creates and values our community of diversity, equity and inclusion. We have a powerful University statement about that. It is at the heart of who we are. We also value and protect freedom of speech, and have a powerful statement about that as well. Upholding that freedom is most important when it is hard – when ideas conflict and opinions differ fiercely. In this moment it is important that we live into both of these university commitments.
Dean Underwood is working with Ms. Nelson to bring her to campus for an open dialogue. She is eager to engage in this give and take, and offered it before we asked. We will schedule opportunities for her to have discussions with students, faculty and staff. She welcomes the conversation. She will have an opportunity to share who she is, her views and opinions, and her heart. She will talk about why she tweeted what she did. We will listen. And we will share our views, opinions and hearts – the pain, the anger, and the questions. She will listen. She will learn what it means to be a part of this community. Everyone may never agree, but we will support our LGBTQ+ students and colleagues, listen, and talk, and learn how to be different, together.
We look forward to the hard, complex conversations through which we will learn, model, and embrace true, honorable discourse as a lifetime commitment.
I have not walked a mile in the shoes of our LGBTQ+ students or colleagues. I do not know what your lives and experiences and challenges have been and continue to be. But I do know that we value you, we will support you, care for you, and honor who you are. We will do better and love more. All of us.