In December, Pepperdine University, a Church-of-Christ school, denied official recognition to a gay-straight alliance for the fourth time. Recognition would have allowed the group, Reach OUT, to meet in classrooms, advertise on campus, hold events, and utilize funds from the student activities fee collected from students every semester.
Campus Coordinator Alex Cooper, co-president of Reach OUT
Though the decision probably doesn’t surprise most people, Reach OUT explicitly wrote in its constitution that it doesn’t encourage sexual activity. The group primarily aims to provide the campus’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning student population with community and support, as well as sponsor dialogue on LGBTQ issues. It is meant to be a place where everyone—from the celibate gay students who believe homosexuality is wrong to the annual pride parade participants—feel safe and respected.
After we learned about the decision, Lindsay Jakows and I created a petition on Change.org asking Pepperdine to reconsider its decision. As co-presidents of Reach OUT, we knew that the only way to get Pepperdine to change its mind was to show them that the creation of this group would not alienate their supporters. The petition was instrumental toward proving that students, faculty, alumni, members of the broader community, and even donors support Reach OUT’s mission.
I advertised the petition through several channels, including libertarian groups. While the feedback I received was mostly positive, I often found myself facing opposing arguments among my libertarian peers. One of the most frequent negative comments made toward the petition was something like the following “Like-It-or-Leave” argument:
“Pepperdine is a private, religious university, and it’s their right to decide whether or not to accept a gay student organization. What are gay students doing at Pepperdine in the first place? If they don’t like it, then maybe they should just leave.”
This strikes me as a bizarre argument from the outset. It seems to imply that whenever you don’t like the way things are done in a private institution, you ought to just leave. What organization would survive the mass exodus if we all lived by that principle?
I should start by noting that the petition is not an attempt to force Pepperdine, by the arm of the state, to recognize Reach OUT. I am not challenging the university’s right to recognize any group they choose. But to say that when we disagree with an act of a private institution our response should be to leave or stop complaining is just absurd.
Gay students come to Pepperdine for a number of reasons. When I came, I was still a Pentecostal Christian (and a conservative!) actively seeking resources to change my sexuality, so Pepperdine’s stance was no problem for me. Not all gay students even realize that they are gay until they’re already well into college. College is meant to be a place where students grow and learn about themselves, so the fact that students change should come as no surprise.
At some point, however, those of us who formed Reach OUT realized that we were gay, that we weren’t going to change, and that there are many out there who are hurting over this issue. At Pepperdine especially—where students presuming the sanction of the university flippantly make remarks about how disgusting gays are and where LGBTQ students in particular struggle tirelessly to reconcile faith with their sexuality—a group like Reach OUT is critical.
Now knowing how important Reach OUT is for a national university like Pepperdine, should I just leave the school, no matter how much I love attending it besides? Ultimately, I don’t find the “Like-It-or-Leave” argument compelling, and it surprises me that so many defer to it in criticizing Reach OUT’s efforts.
When I ask my dissenters to clarify their position, however, they often deviate from “Like-It-or-Leave” and instead turn to what I shall call the “Lost Cause” argument:
“Pepperdine is a private Christian university, and its policies, which are based on traditional religious tenets, are not going to change. Your efforts there are useless, and you would be better off leaving unless there is some outweighing good to keep you there.”
This argument is substantively different from the “Like-It-or-Leave” argument. Whereas one seems to endorse the view that one should leave any organization one disagrees with, the “Lost Cause” argument makes the much more reasonable point that, if an institution is unyielding with regard to an especially important policy, one ought to leave that institution.
While I agree with that point, I disagree that this applies at Pepperdine. Our Reach OUT petition has shown me that a huge portion of Pepperdine’s population supports Reach OUT and agrees that we are not inconsistent with Pepperdine’s principles.
And, indeed, it is peculiar that the university thinks we are against its principles. As I’ve said, Reach OUT does not encourage sexual relationships. The university, however, thinks that this is too “neutral” a stance. They want us to explicitly condemn homosexuality.
This standard is not applied to any other student group, mind you. Were someone to ask Chelsea Krafve, the president of our Pepperdine Libertarians, what the official stance of the Pepperdine Libertarians is toward homosexuality, she would probably respond, “The Pepperdine Libertarians do not take a stance on the morality of homosexuality, but we believe the following about gay rights…” I’m sure she would be incensed to learn that her response is forbidden and that the group, by virtue of being recognized as a student organization, must therefore condemn homosexuality.
At any rate, as we spread our petition and the support of students, alumni, faculty, and community members rains in, I hope to quell Pepperdine’s concerns about extending equality toward LGBTQ students. They have already taken some steps over the last year to address the needs of LGBTQ students, and though their work falls far from fully addressing those needs, it indicates at least the desire to do more.
Pepperdine is not a lost cause, and I believe that in time even our administrators will realize the harm their discriminatory policies are doing to students, prompting them to take steps toward making Pepperdine a truly free academy.