Nicholas Sparks Apologizes for Anti-Gay Comments in 2013 Emails
The writer Nicholas Sparks, whose string of best-selling novels-turned-films includes “The Notebook,” apologized Monday for comments he made in 2013 that appeared to express hostility toward homosexuality and to oppose the creation of a club for gay students at a prep school he founded in North Carolina.
The comments were in emails published last week by The Daily Beast and released into the public record as part of a lawsuit filed by Saul Hillel Benjamin, the former headmaster of the Epiphany School of Global Studies in New Bern, N.C., which Mr. Sparks founded in 2006.
Mr. Sparks, his foundation and other school officials were named in the lawsuit, which was filed in 2014 but burst into public view last week with the publication of the emails. The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in August in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
The suit alleges breach of contract and disability discrimination by the school and the foundation, and defamation on the part of Mr. Sparks over claims that he falsely told people that Mr. Benjamin had Alzheimer’s disease. Mr. Sparks’s most famous novel, “The Notebook,” is about the triumph of love over the pain of Alzheimer’s.
Mr. Benjamin was hired as headmaster of the school, which describes itself as “anchored in the Judeo-Christian commandment to Love God and Your Neighbor as Yourself,” in February 2013. He left that November.
Mr. Benjamin, who court documents describe as a Quaker of Jewish heritage, claims his career at the school was cut short because its board of trustees, of which Mr. Sparks is chairman, opposed his efforts to spotlight its lack of racial diversity and to support gay and transgender students.
The emails published last week appear to illustrate those tensions. Mr. Sparks, who has written 11 best-selling romance novels that have been adapted into Hollywood films, chastised Mr. Benjamin in one email for “what some perceive as an agenda that strives to make homosexuality open and accepted.”
Mr. Sparks also accused him of spending too much time talking about “tolerance, diversity, nondiscrimination and LGBT” instead of academics. He said the word “nondiscrimination” was something to “eliminate from your vocabulary at the present time.”
The day after Mr. Benjamin resigned from the school, which he claims in the suit happened under duress, Mr. Sparks emailed Mr. Benjamin’s wife, Jennifer Dueck. He wrote, “I do believe that Saul is suffering from a mental illness of some sort.”
“My guess would be Alzheimer’s,” he said. Later he added, “I honestly believe he’s incapable of working another job, but that’s just my opinion.”
A doctor has never told Mr. Benjamin that he has Alzheimer’s disease, his lawyer said.
Mr. Sparks apologized for the anti-gay content of his emails in a statement on Twitter on Monday. He said the emails did not accurately portray his views on the L.G.B.T. community and were sent during a heated argument “under stressful and tumultuous conditions.”
“I believe in and unreservedly support the principle that all individuals should be free to love, marry and have children with the person they choose, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation,” he wrote. “This is and has always been a core value of mine.”
“I am an unequivocal supporter of gay marriage, gay adoption and equal employment rights and would never want to discourage any young person or adult from embracing who they are,” he added.
The emails’ content portrayed a school grappling with other questions of diversity.
In one email, Mr. Sparks defended the school’s “lack of diversity” by saying its mostly white racial makeup had “NOTHING to do with the school or anyone at the school” and “nothing to do with racism or vestiges of Jim Crow.”
Instead, he attributed the low levels of minority enrollment to “1) Money and 2) Culture.”
But the possibility of a club for gay students appeared to be a particular problem for the school’s board. Mr. Sparks said in one email that board members and other school staff members had come to believe Mr. Benjamin was elitist and condescending, and did not respect their hard work or religious views.
“My opinion is you should have waited at least a year for these kinds of things,” Mr. Sparks wrote. “As for the ‘club,’ there obviously can’t be one now, though you might open your doors at your home if you feel qualified to talk to them about it in small group settings.”
He also laid the blame for the controversy over a proposed gay student club at Mr. Benjamin’s feet and criticized him for insisting the school add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy. Mr. Sparks said that denying gay students a club would not amount to discrimination and added that he hoped to change the nondiscrimination policy “back to what it was before.”
“Remember, we’ve had gay students before, many of them,” Mr. Sparks wrote. Referring to Mr. Benjamin’s predecessor, Tom McLaughlin, he said: “Tom handled it quietly and wonderfully and the students considered themselves fortunate. I expect you to do the same.”
Mr. Sparks said Monday that his comments about gay students had been misconstrued. He said that he did not intend to advise Mr. Benjamin to keep his support for them quiet and that he was not opposed to a gay student club. He said he wanted it to be formed “not in secret and not in a way that felt exceptional.”