MAXWELL:  Trampling the rights of gays and lesbians

4/28/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


America’s gay and lesbian college students pay a heavy price for “coming out of the closet.” And they pay an even higher price when they try to exercise their right to assemble and use their First Amendment right to free speech.

The conflict on campuses is heightening as the number of gay organizations increases. In 1990, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, only 300 gay organizations existed on the nation’s campuses. Today, that count is up to 1,200 on 600 campuses. A major reason for the increase is that, as more gays and lesbians go public, the need to belong to protective organizations becomes more urgent.

But the specter of so many of these groups has alarmed many conservative Republicans, and they now are trying to rid the nation’s public colleges of all gay organizations. This campaign is despicable, and the tactics are cynical. Because public universities depend on their legislatures for money, conservatives are resorting to crude power plays, from pressuring colleges to stop using public dollars for gay programs to barring and evicting organizations from campus facilities. Obviously, when state lawmakers speak, university presidents listen.

A case in point: When word got out that Myles Brand, president of Indiana University at Bloomington, backed a plan to build a resource facility for gay and lesbian students, Republican state Rep. Charles Burton telephoned him. A short time later, Brand reversed himself, deciding to seek private money for the building, even though other student groups on the Bloomington campus can use public funds.

Indiana is joined by Alabama in trampling the rights of gay and lesbian students. After a federal court threw out an Alabama law that prevented public colleges from funding gay student organizations, state Sen. Bill Armistead struck back by drafting a bill that would ask the attorney general to halt all campus activities seen as violating the state’s sexual misconduct and sodomy laws. Armistead also tried to prevent the University of Alabama from hosting a student-led seminar on gay topics.

In West Virginia, life is no better for gay students. Earlier this year, conservative politicians demanded that the president of West Virginia State College kill plans for a festival showing gay and lesbian films. Lawmakers also tried to restrict where gay and lesbian students can meet on public campuses. A state delegate wrote legislation that would kick the gay organization out of the student union.

Although it was rejected by the Georgia Senate, the state’s House of Representatives approved a measure that denies state funds to colleges that permit behavior illegal under the state’s sodomy laws. Moreover, a proposed Senate bill, which students successfully fought, would have prevented gay university students from speaking to high school sex education classes.

Contempt for the right of gay students to receive state funding like other student groups laces the comments of Iowa State Rep. Chuck Hurley in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article: “There is no constitutional requirement to promote homosexuality. If people want to engage in this type of activity, they can raise the money privately.” Republicans like Hurley also obfuscate the intentions of gay groups, as demonstrated in a bill he introduced last year. The measure declares that “no taxpayers’ dollars can be used by the public universities to promote homosexuality as positive alternative lifestyle.”

Public universities do not attempt to promote homosexuality, as Hurley and others claim. These schools are trying to carry out their main mission: educating students. Appropriate information can help us understand gayness and the gay lifestyle. Empirical information is not tantamount to an endorsement of the subject under study, as conservative Republicans would have us believe.

But we digress.

The real issue is that gay students, most of them taxpayers and future leaders in their fields, are U.S. citizens who should have the same rights as heterosexuals. This is not about the public subsidizing a particular lifestyle, but about universities equitably distributing student funds to all student groups.

Not all universities, however, cave in to the homophobic pressures of lawmakers. At the University of Florida, the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Student Union receives strong backing from the administration, has an office in the student government office and receives public dollars, says Brandi Skitalis, the organization’s 19-year-old co-chairman.

Skitalis says also that most other organizations and departments routinely invite her group to participate in campus and community functions. Currently, a dean is establishing a network of professors who support the rights of gay students on the Gainesville campus. If they are to retain basic freedoms _ the very ones the right-wingers are threatening to take away _ gay rights groups need to get better organized and lobby their legislatures as fiercely as other groups do.

Sadly, these young people, who should be studying, must spend much of their time fending off assaults from their elected officials.