Berry College students push for official LGBT group


Students with Berry College who are determined to get an official LGBT group started at the Christian liberal arts school say they are hopeful that the campus will soon get an official LGBT campus organization after faculty and administrators discussed the issue at a meeting on April 17.

An earlier version of this story stated students also met with the faculty and administrators, but that was incorrect.

According to the petition started to get the LGBT group, LISTEN, to move from unofficial status to an official campus organization, a group of students met April 17 with faculty. They said the “meeting was productive and pointed to a commitment on the part of the college to move Listen towards an official student group in a timely, though not immediate, manner.”

“We are hopeful about the outcome of this meeting and eagerly await the achievement of our goal of official recognition,” the petition website states.

There are more than 1,000 petitions on the website already.

Berry College is located in Rome, Ga., about 70 miles northwest of Atlanta.

Bekah Ingram, a student at Berry College who started the petition, also said in an email that support is needed from all people and organizations.

“As a group, LISTEN feels that it is important that we work with other groups on campus to stand with them to fight against prejudices on campus and off. A meeting with the faculty and staff and Dr. [Stephen] Briggs, our current president, happened today [April 17] and it seems that we are moving closer to our goal,” Ingram said.

“However, we NEED every possible organization to help us. We would love for you all to be involved! Below is the link to the petition I started, so please pass it along to your group,” she said. 

Dr. Jeffrey Lidkey, associate professor of Religion & Philosophy, summed up the faculty and staff meeting on the LISTEN group’s Tumblr page, saying “there was much reason to be optimistic.”

[President Stephen Briggs] has proposed that a committee be formed that will meet over the summer to look at a host of issues associated with the recognition of LISTEN and to plan to discuss those conversations with the larger campus community early in the fall with the desired aim of official approval, sooner than later.

I cannot over-emphasize how important it is that we all continue to embrace and approach this opportunity with respect, calm and wisdom. This is not a battle. This is a community dialogue. We are not all going to agree, but we can all listen to each other and if we do, then, in the end, I am highly optimistic that LISTEN will be officially approved. This is not a guarantee. It is just a statement of the fact that the President himself is clearly open to, and perhaps even desirous of, an outcome that has that result.

We, as a community, are very capable of bringing that outcome to fruition. However, we are also capable of negating that outcome. Let us be patient and thoughtful. Let us be willing to listen and respect others just as we thoughtfully articulate—and deserve respect for—our own views. All is and will be good. This is my prayer and conviction.

Students have ramped up efforts to make the LGBT group official after a student had bleach poured on his clothes and a note with the words “faggot nigger fuck off” left in his dorm room on March 26 in an incident described as a hate crime. He also had his car tire slashed.

Added to the petition website after the April 17 meeting was this statement:

On Tuesday, April 17, a group of faculty met with Berry College’s president and other administrators to discuss the status of Listen, Berry’s unofficial LGBT group. The meeting was productive and pointed to a commitment on the part of the college to move Listen towards an official student group in a timely, though not immediate, manner. We are hopeful about the outcome of this meeting and eagerly await the achievement of our goal of official recognition.

In the meantime, however, we also think it is important to continue to demonstrate to Berry College’s administration, campus community, board of trustees, and broader interested parties that support for granting Listen official status is both strong and widespread.

Berry College’s Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Affairs Debbie Heida sent out an email to students to explain the administration’s concern about the crime against the student, that an investigation is ongoing, and to stress Berry’s commitment to equality for all people.

Heida states in the email that Berry College strives “to be a community where all are valued and where no one is targeted based on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.”

Fron her email:

The hate crime incident that occurred on March 26th has continued to concern our campus community. We pride ourselves on being an open and appreciative community and the act of one person who showed utter disrespect about racial and sexual orientation has been both a topic of concern and an opportunity for our students, faculty, and staff to speak out both in support of the victim and against the behavior of the person responsible.

In the meantime, thank you to the campus community for participating in the investigation, for an outpouring of support for the victim, and for making strong statements against intolerance at Berry. We strive to be a community where all are valued and where no one is targeted based on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. It takes all of us to make this a good place to live and learn — the actions of one person can impact Berry in many ways including those of the person responsible and those who are speaking up about the kind of campus we want to be.

According to Berry College history, LISTEN members tried to get the group to be recognized as an official campus club in 2003 but it was rejected by the board of trustees. Allegations were made that because Berry College is affiliated with Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A’s WinShape program, a group that donates significant money to ex-gay groups, the administration did not approve a group dedicated to LGBT issues.

John Countryman, a professor and director of theatre, sent out a campus email on Friday, April 13, urging the administration to support the LISTEN group. Countryman also asked the Chick-fil-A’s Cathy family to reconsider their anti-gay beliefs.

“My guess is that none of the Board members, almost none of the faculty, and only those students most affected by the bigotry, have read any of the abundant scientific literature on the topic of homosexuality. Talk about the blind leading the blind! And we are supposed to be a community of critical thinkers!” Countryman said.

“Finally, if I had the opportunity to speak to the Board of Trustees (which will never happen!) and to the Cathy family to whom they pay obeisance, this is what I would say: ‘For God’s sake, PLEASE entertain the possibility that you just might be wrong!'” he added.

 The WinShape website includes this statement:

Additionally, Chick-fil-A’s WinShape Foundation provides thousands of dollars in scholarships to qualifying students enrolled in Berry College in Rome, Ga. WinShape’s partnership with Berry College offers joint four-year scholarship funding to students of up to $32,000. To date, the foundation has awarded approximately 951 scholarships to students from across the nation to attend Berry, one of the top regional liberal arts schools in the country.

 Watch a video of Truett Cathy talk about his fast-food’s restaurant relationship with Berry College: