• Lillie Burke

LGBT group focuses on creating ‘open environment’

Goofy topics and laughs and giggles are the only thing happening as 20 students move University Ministries’ furniture around to form a circle late on a Friday afternoon.

The 4 p.m. meeting is late, “like usual.”

Some chair shuffling takes place while the stragglers seat themselves for the weekly meeting of Bridge Builders.

Time for an icebreaker. Anybody got a question?

“So if there was a zombie apocalypse, what would your role be?”

A goofy topic. Goofy answers. More laughs.

Bridge Builders’ president, senior Karlen Paxton, then managed to get the meeting back on track for the four new faces.

“Say your first name, preferred gender pronouns and answer the random question,” said Paxton. “… Just pick what pronouns you identify most with, like he, him, his or she, her, hers. You can even pick ze and zer or they and them if you want.”

Bridge Builders has come a long way since peaceful protests and petition signings more than a year ago.

On Dec. 1, 2010, the group was refused official recognition as a student organization for the second time. Bridge Builders’ mission, as they submitted the application, was to “examine the intersection of Christian faith and LGBT related issues through group discussion.”

The following day, former Belmont soccer coach Lisa Howe left the university in an apparent conflict with administration after she told her team that she and her same-sex partner were expecting a child in May.

After a month of national media attention, much of it negative, Belmont President Bob Fisher announced the university would add “sexual orientation” to its non-discrimination policy.

On Feb. 25, 2011, Bridge Builders, on its third try, got official status as an organization.

A year after the group’s approval, Bridge Builders is serving not only Belmont, but also the Nashville community.

“We’re glad to be official, to live up to expectation,” said Paxton, president of Bridge Builders. “We’re trying really hard.”

Bridge Builders was unofficially formed in early 2009 by founder and the group’s former president Robbie Maris when he became “intrigued and curious about why there was no gay group” at Belmont. Maris graduated last May.

From the first meeting at Bongo Java during the first semester of 2009, Maris’ focus was the creation of an open space for an underserved group on campus, but it wasn’t until three denials for approval and the exit of Lisa Howe that Bridge Builders gained enough clout for approval.

“I think many people, in Bridge Builders and at Belmont, would agree that even though the Lisa Howe event was very unfortunate, it was the tide and shift that pushed the conversation over the edge at Belmont in terms of adding sexual orientation to its non-discrimination language and in turn, allowing Bridge Builders to exist on campus,” said Maris.

Following approval, Bridge Builders members turned their approach from raising student awareness of the group to creating “an open environment” and overcoming the struggles that come with starting a new student organization, including a shift in leadership.

“There was a little bit of a struggle in terms of leadership,” Maris said. “I had been steering the boat for a while and it was my intention to pass the torch on leadership. Bridge Builders had never been my group; it was a collective group and I was happy to pass the torch.”

Once leadership was in place, time was spent to develop a community, not just a discussion venue.

“They’ve done a great job creating a free and open space. Early on, time was spent on cultivating that space and … now they can start branching out,” said Micah Weedman, director of outreach at University Ministries and Bridge Builders’ adviser.

Even with all Bridge Builders has managed to overcome, campus awareness has slipped well beneath the levels they had while fighting for approval.

“Part of that is there’s less of a controversy around us,” said Paxton. “We’d still love to be everywhere and want to be something they talk about and a part of the campus culture. [We] did take a downturn, now we’re definitely trying to get back to that level of frequency. We’re not there right now but we try to be.”

One of the ways Bridge Builders is keeping the group on the radar is through hosting events and convocations, as well as the meetings every Friday.

Planning is already underway for Bridge Builders’ next event, the “National Day of Silence,” on April 20. Bridge Builders will slightly shift its focus from the official Day of Silence by focusing on raising awareness against bullying in general. The official Day of Silence is centered around LGBT bullying.

But the continued building of the group has also hit a few snags in the past year, including what the group members refer to as “trial by fire,” particularly in their attempts to secure funding from the Student Government Association.

“Grant petitioning is its own fun process. [We] had to figure it out, your first couple of times are difficult,” Paxton said. “It’s not like they aren’t trying to fund us, we’re just trying to figure it out. I think we have it under control then we go to grant petition and they are like ‘nope, you missed this.’”

In the past year, Bridge Builders has been disqualified for funds twice and has just submitted a third attempt for grant petitioning funds.

While additional funding is not yet come through, Bridge Builders has received backing from University Ministries, its sponsor.

Stability was a major factor in the decision when Maris approached the office of Student Affairs in January 2011 after former adviser Shelby Longard stepped down.

The recommendation of University Ministries and Weedman as an adviser was initially met with mixed reactions from members of the group.

“I thought it was a great idea but I didn’t know what our group thought about it,” said Maris. “There were individuals in our group that were resistant to it because they really didn’t know Micah or anyone in UM but I tried to reassure them that he was a good candidate and he is and has been doing a fantastic job.”

The initial resistance wore off, and now Bridge Builders and UM feel that the partnership is the best fit for both programs and in line with what the Belmont wanted for the group in the beginning.

“[It’s a] fantastic fit, exists for entire campus community,” said Weedman. “We encounter students from everywhere and invite all who are trying to find what their faith is and what it means. And on a college campus, that includes sex and sexuality, which makes Bridge Builders a perfect fit since it’s a student organization that does just that.”

Paxton likes the message the partnership with UM presents to campus.

She said that their place in University Ministries holds nice symbolism. “Shows we’re here, not hiding and that we are 100 percent into this as Belmont students and as part of the community. We are really happy with the decision.”

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