Proposal for student organization prompts Belmont dialogue group on LGBT issues

Proposal for student organization prompts Belmont dialogue group on LGBT issues

Belmont University recently made a decision not to charter Belmont Bridge Builders, a proposed student organization to foster dialogue about the intersection of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender  – LGBT – issues and the Christian faith.

Instead, the university is sponsoring a dialogue group, which has already met several times, on many of the issues set forth in the Bridge Builders proposal.

“Given the history of the type of campus that we are, we didn’t want to create a group to start a campus-wide organization around things that could be potentially divisive or difficult for the institution at this point,” said Dr. Andrew Johnston, Belmont University’s Dean of Student Affairs.

Junior Robbie Maris, who is now Bridge Builders’ president, first started Bridge Builders as a Facebook group. After that group gained members, he and other students held interest meetings to gauge student interest in turning Bridge Builders into an official organization.

Last semester, Maris and others began the process of trying to get this recognition, offering in their rationale that Bridge Builders would strive to:

•     foster examination of the intersection of Christian faith and LGBT related issues through group discussion, use of diverse guest speakers, and possible convocation events on Belmont’s campus;
•     promote healthy, respectful exchange between the Christian and LGBT communities present on-campus.

Earlier this semester, the Student Life Council recommended approval of Bridge Builders. While the council makes recommendations for chartering potential student organizations, the decision ultimately falls on the offices of the provost and student affairs. Belmont Provost Dr. Marcia McDonald decided to take the proposed organization “under review.”

Ultimately, the university decided not to charter Bridge Builders, and instead to sponsor the dialogue group.

“My decision was to respond to a student need for talking about some of the issues that were raised in the Bridge Builders proposal, and we have done that,” McDonald said. “I think it’s a responsible place for us to be as a university, given our broadly ecumenical community.”

According to Johnston, the potential for Bridge Builders to be divisive was one reason the group was not chartered. “Given our own history and the fact that we are a broadly ecumenical institution with all sorts of perspectives on the topic, we recognize that it’s potentially provocative or even divisive,” he said. “We don’t want it to distract or become a problem, and most of all we don’t want it to prove to be something that’s divisive to our university community.”

In the past, however, Belmont has chartered at least one student organization that centers on an issue – abortion – that has long been volatile in society.  Belmont’s Students for Life strives to “educate the campus, students, and faculty regarding abortion and infanticide” and “to put the abortion issue out front, promote a pro-life culture and serve local crisis pregnancy centers.”

Sophomore Pomai Verzon, a political science and international economics major, became involved with Bridge Builders shortly before the group learned it would not be chartered.  She questioned labeling Bridge Builders as potentially divisive while chartering Students for Life.

“I think if you’re going to say that this issue is divisive, it should apply to all issues that are controversial,” Verzon said. “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous for them to have a double standard.”

Johnston said another reason Bridge Builders was not chartered was because  “it was the type of organization that we have not found appropriate for the campus community in the past.”

But Dr. Bonnie Smith, who serves as an informal adviser to the group, disagrees that historical precedent should factor in the decision. “If we truly are student-centered, then we need to acknowledge that our students may bring things to us that make us slightly uncomfortable or that might not jive with our history,” she said.

Maris thought Bridge Builders could serve as a medium to dispel stereotypes about the gay community. Gay people, Maris said, are widely perceived as being promiscuous and rarely Christian.

“We’re not the stereotype,” he said, noting that Bridge Builders includes many students who are both gay and Christian, but welcoming to any interested Belmont students.

According to the group’s rationale, diverse opinions on LGBT issues within the Christian community, and in the wider culture, necessitate “fair, loving acknowledgment of LGBT individuals, their supporters, and their dissenters.”

As an alternative to chartering Bridge Builders as a student organization, Belmont is sponsoring a dialogue group to discuss issues in the group’s proposal. Participants include those who helped create the proposal, as well as other students, faculty and Johnston himself.

“While we didn’t want to charter an organization or to have a campus-wide conversation on that run by just a student organization, we did recognize that the conversation was important,” Johnston said. “We wanted to give that a place to occur.”

So far, the dialogue group is not open. “To have the kind of candid conversation we hope to have, we try to develop a relationship with one another,” he said.

The dialogue group is not designed to forge a consensus or answer a question, but “to produce a rich conversation, so that’s what we’re all working on,” Johnston said.

McDonald said the dialogue group provides a structured environment for a conversation to ensure that diverse perspectives are recognized. “A student organization is not necessarily committed to a range of perspectives,” she explained. University-sponsored dialogue groups, however, have to be “attentive to the broader university community.”

Dr. Andrea Stover, another informal adviser to Bridge Builders, said she believes there are good intentions behind the dialogue groups, and she hopes it will eventually lead to the organization being chartered.

But Stover said she thinks there is uncertainty about the ultimate purpose of the dialogue group.

“I don’t think there is a common goal among the members of the dialogue group, and I think that may be a source of confusion and frustration for people,” she said. That different people involved have different views on the purpose of the dialogue group makes it “a very curious establishment,” she added.

Maris commended Johnston for the way he is conducting the groups. “I think he was happy to take on this. It’s more focused, we can probably get more done.”

Some, however, are not content with a dialogue group alone and believe the organization should have been chartered.

Stover said she was disappointed when the proposal was not chartered, but she said the first dialogue group was supportive and respectful. But she also said, “If it had been in student hands, I don’t think it would have been any less successful.”

Some students felt that approving the organization would have been a better choice than choosing to hold the university-sponsored dialogue group. “A dialogue group kind of sounds like you’re shoving it to the side as opposed to an organization,” said sophomore neuroscience major Roxy Musharrafeia. “I think the organization would be very worthwhile because these issues need to be discussed.”

Sophomore biology major Sylvia Chac said the dialogue group seems like it was created to “appease the public.”

“I feel like the students are a lot more liberal than the people in charge, and I feel like we have a lot of different goals than the people in charge,” said freshman music business major Ale Delgado.

Sponsoring the dialogue group instead of chartering the organization, she said, seems “not so much hatred as disapproval, shoving it under the rug.”

Verzon said that, ideally, “students should be able to have their own sovereignty” to discuss these issues “without other people supervising it.”

Smith said she respects the people in the administration who made the decision, but she thinks that to charter an organization such as Bridge Builders is not out of step with Belmont’s mission. “We are a Christian university, and we are a student-centered university, and we say that we care about courage and compassion and faith,” she said. “Because I want to embody courage, which is part of our mission statement, I am not afraid to help that along.”

Maris specifically pointed out sections of Vision 2015, a document that outlines Belmont’s goals for the next five years and how, to him, not chartering Bridge Builders is not consistent with these sections. “If the administration wants to create a ‘culture of inclusion,’ they need to start owning up to what they preach,” he said.

As Belmont reaches out to enroll 7,000 students by 2015, Maris said, “there’s obviously going to be more gay, lesbian, bisexual students on campus. If we grow more, Belmont is really going to need a home for those students.”

But some students say the decision not to charter Bridge Builders should not come as a surprise. Senior mass communications major Ebony Cosby said she had no problem with the group existing, but felt the decision was understandable at a “school that’s openly Christian.”

And sophomore audio engineering technology major Jeremy Quarles said the dialogue group seemed like “a good solution” if the goal was to discuss how the group could eventually become a student organization.

Johnston said choosing not to charter Bridge Builders as a student organization was not a simple decision. “We want to be sensitive not only to … the number of people that are interested but even those that might not be speaking up or alternative perspectives on either side,” he said.

Whether or not Bridge Builders is ever chartered in the future, Maris thinks it is important to clear up confusion about LGBT issues and Christianity. “For any dissenters out there, you really can be gay and Christian,” he said. “If those in the divide actually opened their minds, it would benefit this campus, this country and above all themselves.”


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