For gay and lesbian students at Christian-based Belmont University, the dismissal this week of soccer coach Lisa Howe after she revealed she and her same-sex partner are planning for motherhood  might be a chiller. But a greater challenge exists for those who are leading the effort to get official university recognition of a group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
For roughly a year, students in an LGBT group and their straight classmates have pushed Belmont officials for status as a recognized student organization — and twice they’ve been rejected. Now the students, who work under the name Bridge Builders and have about 1,000 student signatures on a petition of support, are pointing to the early January arrival of incoming university provost Thomas Burns as a moment of truth.
“The new provost is very important,” said Robbie Maris, Bridge Builders president and a junior majoring in music business. “The provost is in the last line of decision-making in approving student organizations.”
Despite meeting with what Maris characterized as “little to no resistance” from the greater student population, the group has twice been rebuffed by the administration. In March, former interim provost Marcia McDonald rejected Bridge Builders’ request for official status. After the school’s Division of Student Affairs rejected the group’s second attempt in September, associate provost and dean of students Andrew Johnston was quoted by the Belmont Vision, the student newspaper, calling the LGBT group “potentially provocative or even divisive.”
The group meets informally on campus twice a month and averages about 15 attendees. A Bridge Builders Facebook page has more than 270 members, and the group’s effort has drawn national attention from change.org, a gay rights website.
Pushed for comment, Johnston said in a statement that the university is “committed to the safety and well-being” of its students.
“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,” Johnston said. “Beginning last spring, a university-sponsored discussion group [which is called Difficult Dialogue and is not connected to Bridge Builders] on these issues has convened twice monthly and expects to continue for the duration of this academic year.”
Through a representative, Johnston declined to speak to The City Paper on the specifics of the Bridge Builders request. The Belmont Vision has quoted him as saying he does not want the issue “to be something that’s divisive to our university community.”
Maris called Johnston’s comments “extremely offensive.”
Incoming provost Burns, who is finishing his stay at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, did not respond to a request for comment. Millersville is a public liberal arts institution.
Maris said that if the Belmont administration remains opposed to the Bridge Builders’ effort, a peaceful protest could be in the works.
“There very well could be a protest, depending on how much resistance we receive from the administration,” Maris said. “We’re hoping we don’t have to go there and would do so respectfully.”
In addition, Maris said there might be contingency plans if the group’s push for official recognition is nixed. “There is more than one avenue, including [being part of] a ‘diversity group’ or going at it through a department like a sociology club,” he said.
Since breaking its affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention in 2007, Belmont has undertaken a mission to raise its status among private liberal arts universities. Part of that has been a continuing push to brand itself as a diverse and open campus. The school’s “Vision 2015” focuses largely on enrollment, program and donation increases. But it also includes a “diversity” element. Belmont officials have been silent regarding how that relates to sexual orientation and religion.
If Bridge Builders eventually succeeds, it would become the first of its kind among Nashville’s four-year liberal arts colleges with religious affiliations. Aquinas College, Lipscomb University and Trevecca Nazarene University do not have formal LGBT student groups and likely have not seen attempts to create such groups in the past, according to officials at those schools.
Becca Stone, a Belmont senior majoring in Christian ethics, is a member of the Bridge Builders Facebook group. She is uncertain whether Burns’ arrival will have much effect on the group’s effort.
Stone said Belmont president Bob Fisher and the university’s board of trustees are rigid in their opposition to Bridge Builders being a sanctioned student group.
“It's saddening to me that the president of this university — who I believe is a genuinely kind man interested in the well-being of the students — cannot look past his own personal agenda and/or beliefs to see what the student body is asking for,” Stone said. “He, like most of the white, privileged student body — myself included — has not felt the pain of being constantly in the minority and being pointed out as different.
“We are not asking for a gay pride parade or rampant gay sex on campus,” she added.
Still, at historically socially conservative and Christian-oriented Belmont, even a student group with an “LGBT” tag might be too much for the school’s most powerful to stomach. Maris said he realizes Burns — even if he wanted to recognize Bridge Builders — might not be able to win support from Fisher or the board of trustees. Still, he wants to plant seeds for the future.
“I’m hoping to talk to [Burns] and see what he says personally,” Maris said. “It will be the first thing on my 2011 to-do list.”