They say anti-gay response likely scuttled proposal, but hope controversy won’t harm other efforts on campus
FORT WORTH — Texas Christian University has made national news twice in as many weeks over a proposal to launch an on-campus housing community for LGBT students and their supporters.
But in the wake of the media firestorm, the students behind the proposal said that when it comes to LGBT issues that need to be addressed on campus, the so-called "gay dorm" is just the tip of the iceberg.
Shelly Newkirk, a TCU sophomore who initially proposed the DiversCity Q community in January, said although she believes the controversy was distorted by the media, she’s hoping the attention will be helpful as LGBT advocates pursue other initiatives.
"It was getting attention because it was sensationalized, but at the same time, anything that creates dialogue about the issues I think has done some good, so I’m not too upset," Newkirk said Wednesday, April 15. "It has polarized people a little bit, but it has also taken away the ambiguity of opinion."
Both Newkirk and Su Harz, a TCU junior who was also involved with DiversCity Q, said they were disappointed with the administration’s decision this week to shelve the proposal, which had previously been approved by the Office of Residential Services.
TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini Jr. announced Monday that the university was postponing all new living-learning communities while it determines whether they’re in line with the school’s academic mission.
Boschini said the decision, which will also affect about eight other proposed living-learning communities, was in response to general concerns that "themed housing" segregates students.
But Harz said it was pretty clear that the administration was reacting to anti-gay backlash after it was widely reported that TCU would be the first school in the region to offer LGBT-themed housing.
"I guess I feel that there were a lot of phone calls being made from alumni and external sources, people who have vested interests in TCU, that felt concerned that TCU was promoting homosexuality on campus," Harz said.
"I wouldn’t say I regret it," Harz said of the controversy, "because it actually forced the administration to make a decision. It fosters, I think, great discussion about the future for the TCU LGBT community."
Newkirk and Harz acknowledged that they were reluctant to be overly critical of the administration. They said they didn’t want to burn bridges because there’s too much at stake.
For example, a grassroots organization they launched earlier this year, the Iris Reaction, planned a rally on campus Friday, April 17, to push for an LGBT resource center at TCU. Unlike LGBT housing communities, resource centers are fairly common on college campuses.
"It’s just one aspect of a lot of other things that we’re wanting to do here," Newkirk said of DiversCity Q. "We still don’t want to frame it as us versus them, because the administration has worked with us on a lot of these issues, and we would rather promote cooperation."
Newkirk’s plunge into campus activism began in earnest a few months ago, after she produced a three-minute YouTube video segment titled, "If I Could Speak Freely," In the video, Newkirk talks about LGBT issues at TCU and recounts some of her own experiences —such as being told by a work-study supervisor that she needed to grow out her hair. After "If I Could Speak Freely" went viral on campus, Newkirk was summoned to Boschini’s office to discuss some of the issues raised in the video.
Newkirk said she’s now circulating a petition in support of the resource center proposal. She also recently completed an academic study in which four of five gay students at TCU said they’d experienced at least one instance of harassment on campus.
Meanwhile, a committee of faculty and staff from the TCU Allies program is meeting to draft a document that will be submitted to the administration outlining proposed improvements related to LGBT affairs. Committee members didn’t return phone calls seeking comment, and one said Dallas Voice’s inquiry would have to go through the university’s communications office.
The only faculty member willing to go on record was Stephen Sprinkle, an openly gay associate professor at Brite Divinity School, which is affiliated with TCU but independent from the university. Sprinkle said he actually opposed the DiversCity Q proposal because he felt the housing community would have amounted to "separate but equal." But he said he appreciates the students behind the proposal and believes their voices are badly needed on campus.
Sprinkle, who’s been at Brite for 15 years, called TCU a very politically and socially conservative place.
But he said that has more to do with its location in North Texas than its religious affiliation with the moderate Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination.
Sprinkle noted that TCU has a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and offers domestic partner benefits, but he called those policies "aspirational."
"TCU’s got a long way to go," Sprinkle said. "If there’s any good that comes out of this, it will be a broader debate about what social justice and fairness look like on this campus."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 17, 2009.