When I was bony ninth grader in Los Angeles scuttling to and from my high school classes between reading Jacqueline Susan novels, we had what was termed “GSA” — also known as the gay-straight alliance. One teacher was named the head of said club which was hosted in their classroom come lunchtime and there were all kinds of fundraisers and events where teenagers sold candy. But when I look back now as an adult, the club was clearly about more than lunch inside and the chance to color rainbows on cardboard signs. Because in a high school, where homophobic language is unfortunately common and gay kids are bullied until no end, a club like GSA can make all the difference in creating tolerance and even awareness in straight students — as well as keeping the administration in check for any policies or actions that may harm gay kids.
So when two girls were issued suspensions for kissing during my school’s talent show, it was the GSA who stepped in and reminded the deans and teachers that they should reconsider that call because of the message it sent queer students.
Unfortunately, some kids at Pepperdine University, not too far from where my own high school GSA originated, have been denied that opportunity. The administrators have said a resounding “no” to acknowledging “Reach OUT”, a gay-straight alliance as an official club at the university because they “cannot take a neutral position on sexual morality.”
Dean of Students Mark Davis released a statement in the student newspaper explaining their reasons, specifically “honoring the biblical conviction that sexual activity should be reserved for a husband-wife relationship.” He is quoted in the LA Weekly blog as saying:
“Pepperdine seeks to be faithful to this teaching because we believe it is God’s will,” Davis said, “and therefore we cannot endorse another view or take a neutral position on sexual morality. Although Reach OUT stated in its application that it has no position on sexual activity, we do not believe it is possible for a LGBT student organization to maintain a neutral position.”
Simone Wilson writes that the university already has a committee developed by the administration called “Building Bridges,” which addresses LGBTQ issues. So I suppose one gay-ish group is the cap for Pepperdine students, as who knows what multiple groups committed to tolerance might produce on campus.
The private and religiously-affiliated university is clearly within their right to create, acknowledge, and disband groups as they like — but not without student push back. Alexander Cooper, a senior who runs the alliance, has created that trustworthy Change.org petition and has so far accumulated over 4,000 signatures asking that the university reconsider their decision. The petition states that this is the fourth time that a gay-straight alliance has been “denied or discouraged from applying.” But even though there already exists an LGBTQ issues committee, the petition reads that this club is not adequately addressing the needs of gay students, nor creating a sense of community that is sorely needed on campus.
One mother named Shelly Cooper comments on the petition:
I am somewhat remorseful that I encouraged my son to attend Pepperdine due to their oppressive policies. I feel he was denied the opportunity to grow in a supportive environment. Fortunately, he came out fighting for recognition and equality, for himself and other LBGT students. For this, he is a better man.
Other students fill the thread stating both their dedication to their faith and their commitment to equality, like Rachel O’Conner who simply wrote, “Pepperdine student, church of christ member, believer in equality.”
Dillion McGill, another student, shared his own experiences as a gay kid on campus and how the lack of community empowers homophobia:
As a gay Church of Christ junior on campus, I can personally attest that the silence harbors not only an atmosphere of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but also an atmosphere where those who hold dangerous attitudes toward homosexuality feel both comfortable and protected speaking out, through religion, against gay individuals. I’ve spoken to classes and a Bible study group at Pepperdine, and have felt the deep pain and fear expressed by gay individuals who have sought my advice afterward. Faculty is afraid of engaging the topic altogether, and when I recently asked my professor if s/he would sign the petition, s/he simply replied, “I’m not tenured, Dillon. I’m sorry.” Break the silence. Speak out.
Although it’s disappointing to see a well-known university like Pepperdine take such a stance on creating a safe, inclusive environment for all students — especially when there is such a demand by the student body — seeing all these kids, parents, and alumni unite over the issue of tolerance more than makes up for such a narrow-minded institution.