After resubmitting paperwork to achieve recognition as a student organization on Belmont’s campus, Student Affairs has again rejected Bridge Builders, a group whose intended mission is to “examine the intersection of Christian faith and LGBT related issues through group discussion.”
The group also sought recognition in the spring, but the application was denied.
Dean of Students Dr. Andrew Johnston declined an interview request but issued a statement in light of attention from local media, including the Vision and Nashville’s CBS affiliate station, WTVF News Channel 5.
“Some Belmont students requested that Belmont officially sponsor a student group to lead the campus community in discussions of human sexuality. Recognizing the importance of mutual respect and diverse opinions from Christian perspectives and the challenges of cultivating such in formal dialog on these issues, the university chose not to meet their request but to create a university led opportunity for this discussion. Beginning last spring, a university sponsored discussion group on these issues has convened twice monthly and expects to continue for the duration of this academic year. Belmont is committed to the safety and wellbeing of all of its students. Mistreatment or harassment of anyone because of a personal characteristic or belief is contrary to the mission and values of the university and will not be tolerated.”
For many involved with Bridge Builders, the statement still leaves many unanswered questions.
“I don’t think [the students] have been given an adequate response,” English professor Dr. Doug Murray said.
Senior Robbie Maris is the president of the Bridge Builders group that continues to pursue the effort to have official status as a Belmont student organization. He referenced a quote Johnston gave in an April interview with the Vision, saying that the group could be “potentially divisive.”
“That language is extremely offensive,” Maris said. “I feel like I’ve been lied to as a student. I’m being told ‘I love you’ to my face and then I’m being discriminated against behind my back.”
After the rejection in the spring, the university initiated a series of discussion groups entitled “Difficult Dialogues.” According to Maris, Difficult Dialogues meets every other Wednesday at 10 a.m. Students interested in attending must contact the Dean of Students office.
Murray, a professor who said he has “cheer[ed] from the sidelines” from the beginning, posed a question regarding the very name of the dialogue group: “Difficult for whom?” He said while he realized this was not the intent behind the name, the title itself “suggests that the presence of the gay students is the problem.”
“It seems to me the discussion group is a lot of people with the same opinion, sitting in a room, bouncing the same opinion off each other,” sophomore Dorian McQuaid said.
Johnston leads the meetings, which is a key difference from the student-led discussion that Maris envisioned.
“I don’t think that the discussions on this campus should be necessarily initiated 100 percent of the time by the university,” Maris said.
Senior Kevin Foster had similar thoughts. “The strict manner in which the conversation is monitored undermines the whole thing. If the university’s goal is really to empower students, to allow us to develop into mature, critical thinkers, I don’t think the Difficult Dialogues group encourages that,” he said.
McQuaid sees a certain futility in what she says is preaching to the choir. “I don’t really think it’s going to go anywhere,” she said. She also said she felt that the formation of the discussion group was an effort to placate the more vocal students. Part of the goal of Bridge Builders, however, is to dispel myths and raise awareness, she said.
“Bridge Builders feel that Belmont is trying to make it a tidy place where we don’t grapple with bigger, complex issues,” Maris said.
Attendance at the meetings, Maris said, generally includes Johnston; students who are advocates of Bridge Builders; faculty members who are allies in Bridge Builders’ effort; and representatives from University Ministries.
“The group does not exist for the faculty; the group exists for the students,” Murray said, explaining the role Belmont faculty play. “It’s growing out of student needs.”
Before McQuaid met Maris and joined Bridge Builders, she had started a Facebook group of her own called “I support the formation of a Gay/Straight Alliance at Belmont University.” She described the response she got from students looking for support with issues like coming out to friends and family or dealing with having same-sex attraction after having been raised to consider it a sin.
Maris acknowledged that Belmont President Bob Fisher has said he won’t tolerate discrimination or bullying. “I feel like that’s a given,” Maris said. “That’s not nearly the whole part of what gay Belmont students need.”
With regard to bullying, Maris said the dialogue group has talked about the gay teenagers who have recently committed suicide.
“We’ve talked a lot about Tyler Clemente who jumped off the Washington Bridge at Rutgers University,” Maris said. But because the group comprises mainly of students sympathetic to Bridge Builders, “there was no one there to listen.”
“Growing up is oftentimes very, very difficult, and it’s especially difficult if people are outside of what is typically considered to be normal,” Murray said with reference to the suicides. “It’s a real tragedy when this happens anywhere, but especially on a university campus where you would expect standards of hospitality and openness, acceptance of diversity to be present.”
Maris said his vision was that once Bridge Builders was recognized, people who had opposing views would come and meet with the group. “I feel like it would have been a much more respectful thing,” Maris said. “The way that the university has been handling it, I don’t think is very respectful.” He said the university’s decision “definitely sends negative feelings to the GLBT community here.”
While Bridge Builders remains unrecognized, those involved are still working beyond the bi-weekly meetings. During November, Bridge Builders started gathering signatures in support of the group.
“The administration believes [Bridge Builders] would be divisive and distracting to the students. The petition, then, is a direct challenge to that claim. We hope to be able to show, empirically, that that belief is unfounded,” freshman Max Ellis said. Ellis has headed up the petition drive.
On the first day they collected 585 signatures and broke 1,000 in roughly two weeks. “I know it’s not a majority, but it’s enough people that maybe someone will think twice about it,” McQuaid said.
Maris also said that there has been some talk of forming a diversity group since Bridge Builders cannot continue the recognition process indefinitely.
“Dr. Johnston and President Fisher are only willing to define diversity in terms of race and ethnic background, and obviously there are a lot of other minorities that are included in that, and so I think maybe something can happen there,” Maris said, though the idea is very much in “baby stages.” For now the group is still working at the basics, or as McQuaid put it, “We’re asking for recognition as a student group, as a minority— just the right to gather, that’s all.”