For the second time in less than a month, local university students have turned down a pro-LGBT proposition.
On Tuesday, Dec. 1, the Southern Methodist University Student Senate voted against an amendment to add a sexual orientation and gender identity seat to the student government body.
The final vote was a 19-to-19 tie. A three-fourths majority was needed to pass the resolution that would have then gone to the entire student body for a vote.
Two weeks earlier, the students at University of North Texas voted against allowing same-sex couples to run for homecoming king and queen.
The SMU proposal was first introduced at a senate meeting two weeks earlier with a number of speakers commenting in favor of it. At this week’s meeting, two freshmen spoke against adding the seat, while professors, staff, alumni and students voiced support.
Organizer Tom Elliott, a senior, read letters from professors who were unable to attend the meeting.
Political science professor Joseph Kobylka called the struggle for LGBT rights "a battle for all of us to share." He said, "One way that ensures inclusion is to create seats for special interest senators."
Rick Halperin, director of the SMU human rights program, wrote that students face threats and violence.
SMU staff member Susan Harper backed that up. She spoke about walking one student across campus who was afraid of being attacked after "faggot" was keyed across his car.
She said students regularly walk into her office and say, "Susan, I have something to tell you."
Harper explained to the senate who anti-gay activist Fred Phelps was. She told about his visit to campus 10 years ago after partnership benefits were enacted for employees. Describing that incident as SMU at its best, she said Phelps was met with 1,200 counter-protesters.
When she called upon the senate to rise to that occasion, she received a standing ovation.
Richard Bozorth, an associate professor of English, teaches an LGBT literature course.
"SMU is not as welcoming as it should be," Bozorth said. He said that students have told him that they didn’t take his class because of the climate on campus.
Cece Cox, an SMU alumnae and associate executive director of GLBT programs at Resource Center Dallas, brought up the school’s ranking as 14th most homophobic school in the Princeton Review. That ranking is determined by student surveys.
She said that 90 percent of businesses prohibit discrimination and noted that there is a disconnect between what SMU faculty and staff are doing and attitudes among students.
"The business community looks to you to do the right thing," Cox said. "Make the campus better for all of the LGBT students attending."
Two students spoke against adding an LGBT senator. Jennifer Fugate identified herself as a freshman from southeast Oklahoma and a Native American.
"If we allow this seat, how many more minorities will want seats?" she asked. "I am discriminated against because I am a minority. Even if you accept gay people and their rights, they don’t deserve a special seat."
Freshman Philip Hayes said, "Special seats encourage inequalities." He said he was opposed to the idea "because it says some people deserve more representation than others."
He asked the senate to treat all students as equals.
Had the measure passed the senate, it would have then gone to the student body for a vote. Hayes said that if the school was "as homophobic as some people say," then it was going to fail anyway. If it passed, it proved the school was not homophobic and therefore there was no need for the seat.
In a debate among the senators, one said that adding the seat would help end the homophobic image the school has gained.
Another said that although he questioned the actual need for the seat, "We shouldn’t make students jump through hoops to feel represented."
One senator said that she welcomed gays and lesbians into the senate but invited them to run for already existing open seats.
Harper said that during the 12 years she has been at the school, a number of LGBT candidates have run, but none has ever won.
Patrick Sherrill, a senator who supported the issue, was disturbed by the tone of the debate. He said that he kept hearing the LGBT community referred to as "them" rather than as part of the student body.
"Who here ran on LGBT issues?" Sherrill asked. When no one responded, he offered that as proof of the need for LGBT representation.
Joseph Esau, a senator who voted against the issue, said, "If there are students who say they don’t feel represented, we’ve failed to do our duty."
For the final vote, Esau asked for a secret ballot. Another senator said that in a previous controversial vote, those who voted against a measure were subjected to harassment.
One senator who supported the LGBT seat asked for a roll call vote. Instead, the chair decided to use regular procedure and the vote was taken by a show of hands.
Elliott said that despite the loss in the senate, LGBT students have one other method to get the amendment to the student body. He said with a petition signed by 10 percent of the student body, the issue goes to a vote.
SMU has an enrollment of 11,000 students. Elliott and Harper did not think they would have trouble getting the necessary 1,100 signatures by early next semester.
"We may be No. 14 now, but this is a step for making us No. 10 next year," Harper said after the vote, referring to the school’s Princeton ranking.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 4, 2009.
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