SOUTHERN Methodist University is viewed – when it is viewed at all – as separate from Dallas, a private enclave of tenured professors and rowdy fraternity boys. SMU, nestled in the nether lands of academia and adolescence, is not a part of the real world. Or is it?
The real world hit SMU hard this spring when a small group of students formed a gay support group and asked for official recognition from the university. The request was denied by the SMU student senate. Confusion and questions concerning SMU’s political structure, its ties with the United Methodist Church and the very nature of a university followed in the aftermath of the controversial decision. The final question, many believed, was one of civil rights.
On Wednesday, February 23, a small advertisement ran in The Daily Campus, SMU’s student newspaper, announcing the first meeting of the SMU Gay and Lesbian Student Organization. A boldface note at the bottom read, “Everybody is welcome. ” The ad elicited sarcastic remarks from some students and approval from others, but most students didn’t even see it. Several weeks later, the group, which had grown to a membership of 40 to 50 and had renamed itself the Gay and Lesbian Student Support Organization (GLSSO), asked the student senate for recognition as an official student organization, which would place it on par with the Organization of International Students, the Association of Black Students, Campus Crusade for Christ and other groups eligible for university funding. By this time, everyone on campus – as well as local and state media-had heard of the GLSSO.
Letters ran daily in the Campus. Several scholars from SMU’s Perkins School of Theology encouraged support of the group, pointing to the ambiguity of Biblical passages that refer to homosexuality as well as to the United Methodist Church’s openness to inquiry on the issue. They urged Christian tolerance. Others used the Bible to argue against the group and the implied sin of recognizing such an organization. Students wrote of the oppression that gay students at SMU suffer. Many faculty members argued strongly for recognition of the group, stressing the importance of all students’ rights to assemble as spelled out in SMU’s student constitution. And, for the first time ever, SMU’s gay students were writing letters and doing the unthinkable-signing their names.
Many students automatically voiced disapproval, reacting from the gut to a way of life they couldn’t imagine-especially at their SMU. But just whose SMU was it? A petition against the group was signed by more than 2, 500 students – less than half the student population. While opponents cried that the majority didn’t want the group on campus, others argued that democracy should be based on the protection of minorities, not on the discrimination of a majority.
During the two weeks between the request and the senate vote, many of the student senators stated that regardless of the highly emotional nature of the issue, their decision would be based solely on whether or not the GLSSO met the criteria necessary to qualify as a recognized organ-ization as specified in the Student Code. To do so, the GLSSO must (1) be open to all members of the student body; (2) have a faculty advisor; and (3) be “consistent with the goals and philosophy of Southern Methodist University. ” As with all organizations applying for recognition, the GLSSO was reviewed by the organizations committee, a subcommittee of the student senate. After two hearings and its own investigation, the committee gave a unanimous recommendation to the senate in favor of the GLSSO. Still, two and a half hours later -after exhaustive and emotionally charged debate heightened by the glare of TV cameras and a mob of spectators – the 28 voting senators denied the GLSSO’s request, 17 to 11.
Later, several faculty members expressed more concern with the reaction of the spectators sitting in the senate chamber gallery than with the outcome of the vote. With what one person described as “more enthusiasm than those kids show at their own football games, ” many students burst into wild applause and cheers upon announcement of the vote. As the victory party carried itself into the student center hallway, one male student remarked, “Makes you feel like a man, don’t it?”
Throughout the issue, the voice of the SMU administration remained practically silent. SMU President L. Donald Shields maintained that the question of recognition should go through proper channels, namely the senate, which it did. He refused to express an opinion unless he was later called upon to arbitrate. Opposing SMU alumni, however, wrote letters and spoke at the debates, expressing shock and (disapproval at the possibility of a homo-sexual group becoming an official campus organization. Some alums even threatened |to cut off donations to the university.
The day before the senate vote, Shields announced that the SMU board of trustees and the board of governors – the two or-ganizations with the final say in all SMU decisions – strongly opposed recognition. Many students believe that had the senate recognized the GLSSO, the board of governors and the board of trustees would have overturned the ruling.
Several days after the senate vote, a new complication was thrown into the fray. Writers at The Daily Campus learned that on the night before the vote, SMU Dean of Student Life James Caswell arranged for 10 student senators, many of them undecided on the issue, to attend a free dinner and hear Paul Cameron speak against homosexuality. Cameron, a Nebraska psychologist, was passing through Dallas on his way to Austin to testify in the legislative hearings concerning homosexuality when he heard about the impending vote at SMU and asked to speak to the senators. At the dinner, he graphically discussed gay sexual practices, made a visual presentation and talked about venereal disease and AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). The Perkins student council, which represents SMU theology students, called for an immediate investigation into the dinner. The council felt that due process had been violated since no gay or pro-gay representatives had been invited to the dinner. Shields vowed to conduct a private investigation, but the senate vote stood.
The GLSSO petitioned SMU’s highest judiciary board, asking it to overturn the senate decision, but the board declared the issue out of its jurisdiction. The group appealed to Shields to reverse the senate decision and Shields refused. The GLSSO will try again for recognition in the fall. But for now, the GLSSO is a group without university sanction, as is the gay student group at Texas A&M, whose bid for recognition is in appeal. Rice, the University of Houston and the University of Texas all have recognized gay groups.
Some people believe that defeats such asthe one at SMU only strengthen the gayconstituency on a campus and that a quietvictory for the GLSSO would have madeless of an impact. Others see it as a simplecase of democracy upheld. If so, it was anawkward and unsettling democracy and,not incidentally, a good indication of thepotential difficulties Dallas will face in itsfuture encounters with gays.