Pepperdine University gay and lesbian students, buoyed by on- and off-campus support, are petitioning the administration to reconsider its refusal to recognize their group as an official campus organization.
Lindsay Jakows, a Pepperdine senior and co-president of Reach OUT, calls the recent denial of her group’s application for club status unfair, saying the administration doesn’t uniformly require other student groups to adopt and promote every university tenet.
When contacted by Diverse, university spokesman Jerry Derloshon issued a statement on behalf of the administration calling the decision “to withhold official recognition of Reach OUT consistent with Pepperdine’s traditional views of biblical teaching as understood by Christian churches.”
Dr. Mark Davis, dean of students, has been quoted in the student newspaper, Graphic, as saying Reach OUT isn’t aligned with the conservative, private school’s position on sexual morality and that it seemed impossible for an LGBT group such as Reach OUT to maintain a neutral stance concerning sexual relations.
“Our group doesn’t endorse sexual activity,” Jakows says, “but what really bothers me is that this doesn’t come up with other student groups. Graphic openly states that the views expressed in published news and opinions don’t necessarily reflect those of the university. There are political clubs on campus with views different from the university. We are being held to a double standard.”
With 7,700 students, Pepperdine is affiliated with the Churches of Christ. The administration’s refusal to officially recognize Reach OUT is part of its complicated relationship and dialogue with openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.
For the past year, Pepperdine has sponsored a faculty-staff committee called Building Bridges to try to address LGBT issues. Jakows and Reach OUT co-president Alexander Cooper are student members of Building Bridges. Among the initiatives resulting from these meetings, Pepperdine officials are in the process of strengthening the institutional anti-harassment policy to include protection for LGBT students.
Jakows applauds the move but says recognition of Reach OUT as an official campus organization “would show that we have an equal voice as everyone else.” Some critics say they shouldn’t have enrolled at a school steeped in conservatism, but she says many Reach OUT members didn’t come out as gay until after they began college, one of the reasons their peer support group exists.
The student petition, which is hosted online by the social advocacy platform Change.org, has garnered more than 5,600 signatures so far, some from people identifying themselves as Pepperdine faculty, alumni and current students.
“We strive to meet all students where they are, whether they come from traditional backgrounds or otherwise, so they feel at home,” the petition states.
In response to the petition, the university statement read, “Pepperdine has been committed to values of kindness, compassion and respect for all, whatever their orientation. Individual members of our community hold different viewpoints and (they) should be treated with dignity and respect.” The statement expressed gratitude for student participation on the Building Bridges committee and mentioned the administration’s intent to update the school’s written policies to make clear that “students have never been disciplined or lost scholarships based on sexual orientation.”
Reach OUT members meet once weekly, Jakows says. While they have not been banned from convening on campus, the lack of official recognition renders them ineligible for university funds supporting club programs and events.
The petition drive by Reach OUT members coincided with last week’s first-ever observance of National Gay-Straight Alliance Day in this country. Since 1999, more than 4,000 such clubs have been established among LGBT youth and their heterosexual allies, working to erase homophobia at schools and universities.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan released a video message for the observance, saying, “Harassment and bullying are serious problems at schools and colleges, especially for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. We have to dispel the myth that bullying is a rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up.”