Belmont Boulevard GSA is LGBTQ students’ off-campus answer to Bridge Builders
Led by students but unaffiliated with Belmont University, the Belmont Boulevard Gender-Sexuality Alliance is a new group open to the LGBTQ community.
Currently, the only student LGBTQ organization on Belmont’s campus is Bridge Builders, founded in 2011 with the mission of examining the connection between faith, sexuality and gender identity.
But the religious aspect of Bridge Builders and restrictions from Belmont take away its appeal to some queer-identifying students, prompting them instead to create a community that exists independent of the university.
Enter: the Belmont Boulevard GSA.
While its co-president Mac Cappelen appreciates the Bridge Builders community, they said, they recognize that its religious aspect can make some queer students hesitant to join, especially if they’ve faced religion-related trauma in the past.
“I love what they’re doing if that gives people a space who are religious on the campus because it’s a huge part of the student body,” Cappelen said. “But if that’s the only one, then that’s the issue. Because where do all the other kids go?”
The mission of their new organization: “creating a safe space for queer kids on campus, regardless of faith, background or identity,” co-president Katie Brough said.
Belmont Boulevard GSA will not be affiliated with the university, and they doubt it would be approved even if they tried, said senior Opal Burns, a member of Belmont Boulevard GSA who has attended Bridge Builders meetings.
“I don’t think Belmont would be willing to support something for the LGBT community that isn’t explicitly faith connected,” Burns said.
It took Bridge Builders three applications over two years to get approved, and it was only allowed to do so as a faith-based organization.
And while operating officially through Belmont would likely allow the new GSA to reach more students at the university, being unaffiliated allows it to do two things — exist outside of a religious context and avoid administrative restrictions that Bridge Builders faced.
Bridge Builders’ weekly meetings are held at University Ministries, which can be difficult for students who are uncomfortable with religion, said Burns.
“I feel that the religious baggage it has … whether that’s in the name or the location, might make people worried,” she said.
Rylan Anderson, the president of Bridge Builders, said while Bridge Builders may be faith-based in its charter, religion does not normally come up during meetings.
“We’re trying to reframe that you can be a person of faith and also a person who’s queer,” they said.
Bridge Builders has also faced many challenges when it comes to getting programming approved by Belmont. Recently, the group had to make changes in order to get events for Bridge Builders Week approved, said Anderson.
Queer Prom had to be renamed Bridge Builders Prom, and the faculty speaker set to present at the Homosexuality in the Bible WELL Core had to be changed from a non-tenured professor to a tenured professor because the subject material was considered too controversial.
But this isn’t the first time Belmont required Bridge Builders to make changes.
Up until meeting with university president Greg Jones last semester, the club was not allowed to use the words “ally” or “safe space,” said Anderson.
“I want to be in a place where we can use language that our community identifies with and not have to circumvent for the comfort of cis-het individuals,” Anderson said.
This language needs to be welcomed on Belmont’s campus because it is important to queer communities’ self-identification, said Dr. Andy Watts, the tenured WELL Core speaker and former co-adviser of Bridge Builders.
“It was my experience that the university has struggled to find a middle ground on Bridge Builders in a way they haven’t struggled with other organizations,” said Watts.
As much as it may want to, Bridge Builders can’t fight every battle because it needs to maintain a good relationship with university administration in order to accomplish its goals, and it does have a good relationship, Anderson said.
“I feel and understand that we are in the long game,” Anderson said.
But the Belmont Boulevard GSA is taking a different approach.
Although not being affiliated with Belmont might mean less leverage with the university when it comes to reform, remaining unaffiliated allows LGBTQ students to create a more authentic space, said Cappelen.
Without the need to get programming approved, there wouldn’t be restrictions on using language that the LGBTQ community identifies with, Cappelen said.
That language is important to Cappelen, and an aspect of the new GSA that helps work toward making it feel like a safe space inclusive of everyone, they said.
“Saying there’s a safe place implies, yes, of course, there’s bad places. There’s always going to be places that are not for certain groups of people,” said Cappelen.
“We felt that there was a need for a safe space for everyone.”
PHOTO: Anna Jackson / Belmont Vision Multimedia
This article is written by Maddie Buchman. Contributory reporting by Connor Daryani.