Lindenwood University balks at having exclusively gay student group
By Doug Moore
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
ST. CHARLES — Gays will have a formally recognized student organization at Lindenwood University, but sexual orientation cannot be a part of the title and the group must be expanded to include "other students in need of understanding and support."
That was the upshot of a lengthy back-and-forth between students who wanted to form a gay-straight alliance and administrators who called such a proposal "parochial and self-serving."
The compromise reached last week was a move forward, said Jack Sago, the graduate student who led efforts to form the group, which will be known as Spectrum Alliance.
"I think at the end of the day, we accomplished our goal," Sago said. Although the group now goes well beyond an advocacy group for gays and their allies, "it's still an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) group. We can pick our own topics, speakers and own events and functions."
Administrators at the private university said Spectrum would operate as a social justice group.
"Its mission includes issues pertaining to various groups including LGBT, the disabled and other groups/students in need of understanding and support," according to a mission statement approved by University President James D. Evans after Richard Boyle, vice president of human resources, met with Sago.
However, some who have worked with gay-straight alliances say putting gays in a group with other students where the only common bond is a lack of campus representation makes no sense.
"They're being told they can have a club, but they have to be in it with all the other marginalized groups," said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a nonprofit that helps with programs and services for gay college groups across the country. "It basically says you're not important enough to have your own club."
Kenjus Watson, adviser for the gay-straight alliance at St. Louis University, said lumping various groups of students together "waters down" efforts.
"How can you expect folks to come in under the pretense that all are interested in social justice, know what that is and are comfortable in that environment?" said Watson, coordinator for SLU's Cross Cultural Center. Rainbow Alliance was established at the Jesuit university in 1991 "as an advocacy and support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning students and their allies."
In a meeting Wednesday at Lindenwood with members of those wanting a formal GSA club, Boyle said the administration would leave the door open to review the mission of the group. But having a group just for gays did not meet the mission of the university, he said.
"It was too narrow in scope," Boyle says in a video recording of the meeting. Groups "have to serve an educational purpose with a breadth and scope that everyone within the university can be a part of."
Boyle said he added the disabled as one of the groups because "we don't have that many disabled students on our campus. Why not bring them into the group so they can feel they are a part?"
Gay-straight alliances are common on many college campuses, including St. Louis University, Washington University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, as well as on hundreds of high school campuses across the country. So the resistance of Lindenwood administrators came as a surprise to the students, who applied in September to become a formally recognized student organization. Doing so allows a group to have access to school facilities, sponsor activities and university funding.
On Feb. 5, Kerry Cox, director of student activities, rejected the group's application.
"The rationale for organizing the club does not meet either our educational or our social service criterion for approval," Cox said in his letter. "Rather, its principal purpose appears to be the support and promotion of a particular lifestyle." Cox also said the GSA "does not coincide with the traditional values of Lindenwood University."
When a reporter asked for more explanation from the university on why the application was rejected, spokesman Scott Queen said: "We want to further our students' best educational and developmental interests. GSA, as it stands now, would not contribute to that goal."
He went on to say that the GSA application is "rather parochial and self-serving. It doesn't offer a benefit to the campus community. Lindenwood University would like the members of the organization to consider a social justice alliance that could deal with race, religion, sexual orientation and other issues that face frequent scrutiny."
According to the school website, eight student organizations are related to religion, seven specifically related to Christianity. The eighth was formed "to help students grow in their relationship with God."
The liberal arts university is described in its promotional materials as having a historical relationship with the Presbyterian Church "and is firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian values." One of the eight points highlighted in the university's mission is "promoting ethical lifestyles."
Queen said the school had no formal affiliation with any religion.
Asked why the GSA's initial proposal was considered more narrow in scope than other recognized groups, Queen said that the university recently had a task force evaluate all student clubs, and it found that some of those clubs "had a very narrow focus without significant educational and service components."
As a result, new parameters are in place "and Spectrum Alliance was subject to the new rules. Other clubs and organizations, although grandfathered in, will be expected to strengthen their educational and service activities as well."