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Campus becomes gay rights microcosm

The University of North Florida explores the possibility of religious adherence without creating discrimination.

By RON MATUS
Published November 29, 2004

JACKSONVILLE - In the bustling food court at the University of North Florida, Randy Register tears into a slice of lukewarm pizza and soberly eyes the campus around him.

It all looks typical: Students flood sidewalks. Cars hunt parking spaces. On a nearby message board, fliers sarcastically promise "biased leftist propaganda" on the campus radio station.

But don't be fooled, Register says, his voice dropping a notch.

"It's very Biblical here."

Register might be more sensitive to UNF's religious vibe than most.

He's openly gay. And as vice president of Pride, an official student club that represents gays and lesbians, he's in the middle of a simmering, religion-tinged debate that pits gay students against the student body president and some administrators.

Last summer, the student body president, Jerry Watterson, refused to sign a bill giving Pride $1,000 to stage a drag show that doubled as a fundraiser for breast cancer research. An evangelical Christian, Watterson believes the Bible condemns cross-dressing and that approving funding for the event would have violated his religious beliefs.

The bill became law without Watterson's signature and didn't attract attention until Oct. 28, when the Florida Times-Union published a story that quoted Watterson as saying, "I am just taking a stand against homosexuality."

That's when the floodgates opened: Gay and lesbian students are renewing complaints about harassment from straight peers, criticizing UNF administrators for being too slow to respond and pushing for creation of a gay and lesbian counseling center. Last week, several dozen gay students rallied on campus, only to be interrupted by a student shouting slurs.

UNF president John Delaney reacted by calling for a campuswide conversation on gay rights issues and promising to consider whether sexual orientation should be added to the school's nondiscrimination policies. He also defended Watterson.

Nobody involved sees any end in sight, and in light of the national mood on similar issues, it's likely the conflict will linger.

"This is the microcosm of a national debate," Delaney says.

College campuses may be ripe for more clashes.

Gay and lesbian students have long been visible and politically active. And many expect renewed efforts by campus conservatives on gay rights issues, given the recent passage of amendments in 11 states banning gay marriage and a strong showing by right-wing Christians in the presidential election.

The result has "left bigots feeling a great deal more emboldened," says Nadine Smith, executive director of the civil rights group Equality Florida.

Watterson insists he's no bigot.

He says homosexuality is wrong, but that his beliefs on that matter did not play a role on the Pride bill. He says he did not veto the bill because that would have been discriminatory. He has signed other Pride-related legislation.

"In this case, my religion called for me to try to be fair and, at the same time, not violate my beliefs," says Watterson, a Jacksonville native serving a second elected term as student body president.

Watterson says his decision on the bill is separate from the harassment issue - which he has pledged to tackle - and that his critics are melding the two to leverage sympathy into action on the counseling center.

His critics disagree.

When people with power take positions, it helps shape the atmosphere around a debate, says Register, a sophomore majoring in political science. In this case, he says, Watterson's statements brought intolerance against gays and lesbians from "back channels to out front."

Gay students recently met with administrators to complain about alleged harassment.

Last year, Register says he was forced to call police after his dormitory neighbors repeatedly ripped down drag show posters on his door and nearly attacked him in his room. He soon moved out.

In another alleged incident, two lesbian students told friends they were followed home after a Pride meeting by two men who yelled derogatory names at them. Now, the group's members make sure no one walks home alone at night.

UNF is hardly the only school where such complaints surface.

In a survey released last year by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, more than 1 in 3 gay and lesbian undergraduates said they had been harassed within the past year and almost 1 in 5 had feared for their physical safety.

Earlier this month, vandals spray-painted "fag," "queer" and "God Save You" on the car of an openly gay student at Georgia Southern University. In 2000, members of a University of Florida fraternity tied a drunk pledge to a tree across from a sorority house and wrote "I am a fag" on his cheek.

"You can go to any campus and hear these same stories," Smith says.

Legislative efforts to curb such incidents haven't gotten far.

In 2001, state lawmakers introduced a bill in the Legislature to beef up legal protection for gay and lesbian students, but three years later, it has yet to pass. Gay students lobbying for it said one legislator told them, "God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and he is going to destroy you."

Delaney says discrimination in any form will not be tolerated at UNF.

In an e-mail sent to all 14,000 students last week, Delaney wrote, "No one on our campus should be made to feel marginalized, excluded or threatened because of their sexual orientation."

At the same time, he continued, a university should support free speech and debate diverse viewpoints. To that end, he asked UNF's vice president of student affairs to meet with Pride and student government leaders and begin "a series of dialogues" with students, faculty and staff about attitudes toward homosexuality and the role of religion in public decisionmaking.

A former Jacksonville mayor, Delaney describes the issues as particularly thorny.

"Can people adhere to their religious beliefs, which speak against homosexual activity ... while not engaging in a discriminatory act?" he says. "If they can't, we have a hell of a problem."

Delaney says Watterson has been unfairly portrayed in the local media and that refusal to sign the Pride bill was not discriminatory. But, he quickly adds, "There is some debate about that among some of my gay friends."

On campus, it is easy to find students who say Watterson should keep his religious beliefs to himself. A drag show is "harmless fun," says junior Sara Dougherty. "This isn't a Christian college."

But Watterson maintains he has support from a "silent majority."

Last week, fliers for a gay rights rally remained posted above the urinals in the student life center. "If you don't stand for something," the fliers said, "you'll fall for anything."

At the bottom of one, someone scribbled, "Stand for righteousness."

Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 29, 2004, 00:39:13]


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