A Case of Denial: Pepperdine and Notre Dame Say 'No' to LGBT Students

Yes, indeed, we are everywhere. And, yes, we are even at private religious colleges like Pepperdine University and University of Notre Dame -- and why shouldn't we?

This week Pepperdine University once again denied a request by its LGBT students to create a support group called "ReachOUT." This was the fourth time LGBT students tried to establish such a group at the private university affiliated with the Churches of Christ. The Dean of Students, Mark Davis, said that the organization would conflict with the school's religious teachings on sexual morality and did not "believe it is possible for a LGBT student organization to maintain a neutral position."

Since 2007 the University of Notre Dame has also repeatedly refused to allow a gay/straight alliance on campus and has denied efforts by LGBT and ally students to add sexual orientation to the campus nondiscrimination clause. The Catholic university historically has held the opinion that having a group or adding the clause would conflict with the core beliefs of the church and "may not allow us to distinguish between sexual orientation and behavior, which is a distinction that we must maintain as a Catholic university."

These outright denials and history of exclusion would be enough for many LGBT students to not attend Pepperdine or Notre Dame. But for others, their choice of college may not be that simple. Faith is a part of many of our lives, and colleges that are religiously affiliated need to understand that LGBT people come from all religious backgrounds.

As private colleges, Pepperdine University and University of Notre Dame do have the right to deny a gay-straight alliance from forming on campus. The campuses also have the right to not pass LGBT-inclusive policies. However, the fact that these universities are home to out LGBT-identified students and a community of allies can no longer be ignored.

With visibility comes a moral responsibility for administrators to create a safe learning environment, regardless of sexual or gender identity. Public and private colleges are held responsible for the safety of all their students. It is not a surprise that the LGBT and ally students at both Pepperdine and Notre Dame give their negative experiences of bias and prejudice as reasons for forming a student group on campus. Ignoring these anti-LGBT incidents will only hurt the university and its students.

In 2010 Campus Pride reported in the "State of Higher Education for LGBT People" that nearly a quarter of LGB (and an even a greater percentage of transgender) students, faculty, and staff encounter harassment and discrimination on their campuses across the country. The percentage is even higher for religiously affiliated campuses.

Despite the failed attempts, University of Notre Dame's LGBT and ally students believe "the support is there." Recently, the students formed a new ally initiative titled the "4 to 5 Movement." The goal is to get the majority of the college students, at least 4 out of 5, to speak up in support of the rights of LGBT people on campus. The initiative is built on the notion that 4 out of 5 college-age students (18 to 30 years old) support the general civil rights package for LGBT people.

There is hope in these numbers. The UCLA Higher Education Institute recently reported that in 2011 a record-breaking 71.3 percent of the new students support same-sex marriage, and 42.8 percent of conservative freshman agree that gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry. The annual survey looks at more than 200,000 freshmen annually, and the numbers in support of gays and lesbians have only increased over the years.

I commend the LGBT and ally students at both Pepperdine University and University of Notre Dame for not giving up, despite the challenges posed by administrators. Faith empowers us to believe in something greater than ourselves. Your faith is strong and, on behalf of Campus Pride, I thank you for your courage and leadership.

Pepperdine University, University of Notre Dame, and other private, religiously affiliated colleges need to do the right thing. All students deserve support and safety at college. It is time to recognize your LGBT students as part of your faith community.