I’ve read the story of Felix Ngole with interest since it first emerged on social work-themed blogs back in 2017. He’s the Christian who was famously kicked out of his social work graduate program at Sheffield University for what’s been described as a belief that marriage should only be between one man and one woman.
I’ve long felt conflicted by Ngole’s situation.
I am an American social worker with over 25 years of social work and direct care experience. I’ve worked with a wide variety of clients, co-workers, and colleagues.
I’m also an openly gay married man, who foster parented with my now husband for years. We eventually became adoptive parents through that same system.
I’m keenly aware of how biased beliefs can slow down the licensing process for prospective foster parents who are LGBTQ, or even completely derail the process. Fortunately, my husband and I experienced few of those bias-related speed bumps.
That said, I cringed when I read about Felix’s removal from his master’s degree program and following his initial appeals court loss. It’s too easy to see this story as a fight between martyred Christian professionals and tyrannical liberal establishments backed up by thought-policing gays.
Ngole was removed from the program after being investigated for what appears to have been a series of Facebook posts where he objected to Kim Davis’ arrest for refusing to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples. He reportedly called homosexuality “a sin, no matter how you want to dress it up” during the course of the debate.
This discussion was reported to his program officials, who initiated a fitness to practice process, which triggered his expulsion. He appealed the university’s decision to a judicial review and the judge sided with Sheffield University.
There are aspects to British society, law, and regulations that I don’t fully get as an American. So I understand that everyone in the UK might not understand the nuances within the Kim Davis story.
Heck, there are Americans who don’t understand the nuances within the Kim Davis story!
And I was initially willing to assume that Ngole was one of those who didn’t get it. It’s easy to look at her story and see some poor woman getting tossed into jail simply for asserting her religious beliefs.
So here is some context: Kim Davis ran for office to become the county clerk for Rowan County, Kentucky, in 2014. She narrowly won the campaign by 23 votes and was sworn into office in early 2015. As county clerk, part of Davis’ job was to process marriage licenses for the people of her county.
On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the long-awaited “Obergefell v Hodges” case that essentially legalized marriage equality through the USA. It should not have been a surprise to Kim Davis that Rowan County could be touched by same-sex marriage, as it was certainly an issue affecting many parts of the country prior to, and during, her campaign.
Almost immediately, same-sex couples applied for marriage licenses in Rowan County. These were local residents going to their own county clerk’s office which they had paid for through their tax dollars.
Kim Davis repeatedly refused to issue marriage licenses to these constituents, citing her personal religious objection to same-sex marriage. But she also refused to allow any of her deputy clerks to issue marriage licenses in her place.
Six same-sex couples eventually sued Kim Davis in her official capacity as county clerk in federal district court. Davis repeatedly reiterated her objection to issuing marriage licenses to any same-sex couples, citing her religious beliefs.
She refused to resign from her position and she continued to refuse to delegate this task to any of her deputies. Davis eventually lost her defense in federal court, where she was essentially told to do her job and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She continued to refuse, which ultimately resulted in a contempt of court verdict and subsequent jailing.
She was eventually freed from jail after her deputy clerks finally began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Kim Davis was not jailed simply for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It was much more complicated than that. She refused to do the job that her constituents elected her to do and she refused to delegate the job to deputies who would have gladly completed the task in her place.
Her job as a county clerk (she lost her re-election bid in November 2018) was not to approve of every couple getting married. It never was. She just needed to receive the documents, make sure that everything was done correctly, and then issue the license. But she made these marriages and her bias against same-sex couple synonymous with Kim Davis. Which called into question her ability to serve the public and to maintain her job.
Which brings us back to Felix Ngole. How ironic is it that Ngole’s blanket support for Kim Davis might have made himself an international image of anti-gay bias within the social work profession?
Personally, I worry about someone who supports public officials turning away LGBTQ customers and constituents. How does it look from a social justice perspective when one believes that taxpayers should travel to other counties in order to access the same resources that other taxpayers easily receive near home? Economics alone, some people just don’t have the resources to spend on needless trips elsewhere. But that is what Ngole advocated when he supported Kim Davis.
From reading news articles on this subject and watching interviews with Ngole himself, his arguments have shifted to a concern that his social media presence should not be held against him professionally. If Ngole’s social media presence was largely limited to an online debate about Kim Davis, I would be more agreeable to giving him a chance to expand professionally within the social work graduate program.
But it’s not limited to Kim Davis. Felix Ngole and his wife have published a book about his legal case and his public stand against same-sex families- Felix Ngole: Behind the Scenes: The Story of One Social Worker’s Battle with His University.
He has a public Facebook page named after his book which primarily posts critical posts about gay families and trans people, along with other posts about Christian identity and abortion.
Both his face and his name have appeared in countless international interviews, where he has reinforced his opposition to homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
There is no sign of any willingness to learn, reflect and grow on Felix’s behalf. Instead, his strategy over the past three years has been to double-down on the views that saw him expelled from university in the first place.
Ultimately, I don’t know much about Felix Ngole. But, like Kim Davis, I do worry that his name has become synonymous with bias against LGBTQ people and same-sex marriage.
Social workers encounter LGBTQ people in all corners of our profession, be they colleagues or clients. Given the high profile defense of his views, people Felix interacts with will be well-aware of his feelings on same sex marriage and homosexuality. Should he be allowed to return to university and complete his social work training, his public profile places himself and his employer in a difficult position should he ever be assigned to work on cases involving LGBTQ clients or colleagues.]
After all, which gay young person would be happy to have an allocated social worker who believes that homosexuality is an abomination?
How could prospective same sex adopters hope for a fair assessment from a social worker who believed they were living in sin?
These are questions that Felix Ngole really needs to consider as he awaits the outcome of his latest appeal and, with it, the decision about whether he can move forward with his dream of becoming a professional social worker.
Because, if he can’t even muster the empathy to see how those in my position feel, then I don’t see how he can ever be deemed ‘fit to practice’.
Jon Trouten is an American social worker, writer, comic book lover and poodle fan. He tweets at @catfishjoefan