Sexuality group seeks recognition

By The Beacon | November 14, 2007 9:00pm

Group says its objective does not conflict with UP's Catholic identity

By Anna Walters

A group of 10 UP students identifying themselves as the Gay Straight Partnership (GSP) applied for club recognition with Student Activities last week, according to Jeromy Koffler, director of Student Activities.

If approved, the GSP will end a history of the administration denying the official recognition of various sexuality clubs due to their clash with the university's Catholic ideology.

But the founders of the GSP think their group's mission does not oppose Catholic doctrine.

According to the GSP's proposal, the group would strive "to build a community that is open and welcoming to students of all sexual orientations" and further "the university('s) goals of inclusiveness and community, bringing together gay and straight students."

"We would like the club to be a place where we build an inclusive community," said senior Valerie Silliman, GSP president and co-founder. "Students both gay and straight would benefit from a place where we can talk and discuss issues that take sexuality into account."

Silliman, who identifies as a lesbian, said that the GSP would prompt members to look at the university's core questions through the lens of sexuality. She said that sexual orientation factors into the answers to questions like "Who am I?" and "Who or what is God?" - two questions that all of the UP core classes address.

"The Catholic Church, especially at an educational institution, really encourages asking questions," Silliman said. "As a group, we really want to help ourselves and help each other ask those questions and not necessarily promote a lifestyle or an answer."

If approved, the club plans to hold bi-weekly meetings to educate students, both gay and straight, about issues faced by the GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and questioning) community. The meetings will also carry a social component, and students who join would be encouraged to mingle with other like-minded individuals, Silliman said.

In the past, the UP administration has opted not to recognize proposed sexuality groups as official clubs. A group called Up'N'Out applied for club recognition in 1994, but was rejected by the administration because it disagreed with Catholic views of homosexuality, according to The Beacon archives.

In the fall 1999, Friends United to Educate Lives, a group dedicated to promoting awareness of homosexuality on campus, attempted to gain official recognition, according to The Beacon archives. It was denied. The group rewrote its constitution, reapplied in the spring, and was rejected for a second time.

"There's a precedent for the club to fail," Courtney Spousta, UP's former multi-cultural program coordinator, told The Beacon in February of 2007. "It's important for students to learn from that failure and make something positive happen within the Catholic community."

Social work professor Anissa Rogers and Kristina Houck, the Health Center's substance abuse prevention coordinator, will act as the GSP's advisers if the club is approved. Rogers and Houck both support the GSP in its efforts to provide a place where students can be honest and open about their sexuality.

"I've gotten phone calls from prospective students and families asking about homosexuality groups on campus," Rogers said.

Rogers also has seen GLBTQ students leave school due to the lack of a larger support system on campus. Although Rogers said that many UP faculty and staff offer GLBTQ students individual support, there is currently no way to connect these individuals.

"(GLBTQ) students perceive a gap," Rogers said. "Even students who are not gay, bi or lesbian notice that gap and want to fill it."

Houck, a UP graduate, former RA and former Shipstad hall director, thinks that the group will ultimately promote UP's inclusivity.

"I think that one-on-one and individually there is a lot of welcome in our community, whether it's in the residence halls or around campus," she said. "What (the GSP) does is it gives us something to point to and say, 'see, we are really welcoming.'"

Unlike most other UP clubs, potentially controversial groups like the GSP must have their proposals and constitutions approved by many different departments and University officials. After gaining initial approval from Heather Lee, the coordinator of club and organizations, the GSP's application is now in the hands of the ASUP Club Recognition Advisory Committee.

The Committee will meet on Monday to assess the GSP's purpose and current need for this type of group on campus and will then make a recommendation to Koffler.

The fate of some prospective clubs is determined by Koffler, but due to GSP's potentially controversial nature, the final decision will rest with the University Officers - specifically, John Goldrick, UP's vice president of enrollment management and student life.

"All I can say is that the materials for recognition will be presented to the Officers of the University for full discussion. It is totally inappropriate for me to anticipate the Officers' discussion, and especially to anticipate an outcome of that discussion," Goldrick said in an e-mail.

The Rev. John Donato, C.S.C., UP's associate vice president of student life, meets with Koffler weekly to discuss happenings within Student Activities and also has a hand in granting a club recognition if the club is considered controversial.

Donato will make a recommendation to Goldrick if the GSP makes it through the initial rounds of approval.

"I'm excited to see what happens," he said. "We shouldn't be afraid of controversy."

Donato would not comment on the likelihood of the GSP's approval, but said that the club's emphasis on community was an important attribute.

"The name says 'Gay Straight Partnership.' I don't think it's as much about the gay straight part as it is about the partnership," Donato said, adding that the GSP would focus primarily on building an accepting community on campus, something that is vital to the university.

"The Catholic Church is all about the sacredness of the human person," Donato said. "A club that recognizes the central teachings of Catholicism is obviously going to be important."

Silliman said that the GSP would like to be approved for next semester so it can receive ASUP funding. The club must be granted recognition by Dec. 3 in order to be eligible for funding.

There is no time line for the process," Koffler said. "A decision could come down tomorrow or it could take a month or two longer."

One crucial facet of the GSP is that it does not intend to be an advocacy group, Silliman said. Its purpose is primarily to educate and provide a safe place where students can be open about their sexuality.

"In advocacy, you often join together against something, but because this is such a small community, our voices can be heard, and rather than fight against, we can bring the community together," Silliman said.

Junior Jayme Schroeder, GSP's vice president, emphasizes the group's political neutrality.

"We're not out there to be a political advocate," Schroeder said. "It's not our goal to start picketing The Commons."

Schroeder's gay and lesbian friends at home influenced his decision to get involved in the development of the GSP.

"I know how hard it can be," he said. "If someone's willing to be out, I am willing to support them."

Many students support GSP's approval and think that UP could use an avenue to explore homosexuality more openly.

"I believe that ignoring something is not an effective way to fight against it or stop it from happening, which I think the school is doing by not allowing a club," senior Zoà Zuschlag said. "By not allowing a group to be out on campus, (the administration) is indoctrinating all the students to believe that it's not OK to be gay."

Senior Rachel Good echoed Zuschlag's sentiment.

"I think that the University of Portland makes it so clear that it is a Catholic environment that I think gay and bisexual and lesbian students could feel alienated," Good said. "I think it's fantastic to provide any safe place for communication or support."