Stonewalled

FIU's first gay-rights group finds disciples of Anita Bryant alive and well on campus

When Peter Jaile announced he was gay two years ago, his father greeted the news with a week-long silence, then delivered a chilling reply. "Change your ways," he calmly proposed to his only child, "and I'll pretend this never came up." Stunned, Jaile returned to Florida International University to finish his undergraduate career.

But since helping to found FIU's first gay-rights group in August, Jaile says he's endured a backlash from fellow students that makes dear old dad look progressive. He and other members of Stonewall Students Organization have been subjected to an escalating campaign of harassment, and their request that the state school's anti-discrimination policy be amended to include homosexuals has gone unheeded.

The hassles began predictably enough, with a few boneheaded fraternity skits. Soon, Jaile started receiving lewd phone calls. "Guys would call up and leave messages like, `I have a twelve-inch penis. Can I be president of your club?'" says the aspiring lawyer, a senior majoring in English and International Relations. "Others made threats. I tried not to let it bug me. At a school with 23,000 students, there are bound to be some jerks."

Trouble resurfaced during a push to publicize a National Coming Out Day symposium in early October. Flyers advertising the event were ripped down hours after Jaile posted them around FIU's main campus, in West Dade, and several Stonewall banners were stolen. While the symposium attracted 150 participants, a handful of students from a campus religious group gathered outside the assembly hall to pray for the souls of the heathens within. Two weeks ago campus bigots made their boldest statement to date, taping sheets of anti-gay propaganda over several dozen Stonewall posters. The signs allowed passersby to consider the following salient points:

* "Homosexuals are not a minority. If homosexuals were admitted minority status, then other action-defined groups such as thieves and criminals could claim the same argument to get minority status for themselves.

* "Homosexuality goes against nature and the concept of survival. Notice that homosexuals cannot procreate by their sexual acts. The spirit of tolerance must not be taken to such an extreme so as to bring death upon yourself.

* "Homosexuals bring disease into society. 79% percent of adult and adolescent AIDS patients are homosexual or bisexual. It logically follows that there is a high probability that AIDS originated in the homosexual community, since the disease spreads so well among them."

The authors may not be pushing the upper limits of the IQ range, but Jaile says the leaflets have contributed to a mood of fear among the school's homosexuals - a population he estimates at 2300. "We started Stonewall as a support group, a way of showing kids they are not the only ones in the world who are gay. But the people calling to ask how to join are so nervous. Some are even scared to meet me on campus, as if they'll be considered guilty by association if they're seen with a Stonewall member."

The group was named in honor of Stonewall Inn, a New York City club where police beat to death three homosexuals in 1969, triggering a three-day strike and marking the birth of a gay-rights movement in the United States. Jaile maintains the abuse at FIU, though petty by comparison, also can serve a greater end: highlighting the need for the school to formally prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. By placing the cause at the top of its agenda, Stonewall has revived a battle that dates back to the spring of 1990, when a coalition of campus groups - including the school's faculty senate, women's studies center, and office of equal opportunity programs - joined forces to lobby the administration on the issue.

"All we're trying to do is get FIU to enter the Nineties," says Ana Roca, a Spanish professor who sparked campus activism by forming the Ad Hoc Committee on Equal Rights two years ago. Roca, a lesbian who has taught at FIU for eleven years, emphasizes that expanding the nondiscrimination policy would safeguard not only students, but gay professors, staff, and prospective students.

University President Modesto Maidique supported the proposal. He and his advisory council, however, ultimately referred the matter to the State University System Office for Human Relations, which oversees FIU and eight other state schools. "Frankly, I didn't think it would be a problem," Maidique recalls. "I considered my consultation a courtesy call more than a request for permission. But they felt the decision would set precedent and that precedent should be set at the state level, not by an individual university."

The office promptly rejected the plan, noting with bureaucratic flourish that it would render the system "vulnerable to charges of favoritism" if it "provided protected status to a specified group of behavior, absent some legislative or judicial expression of public policy." In other words, state schools wouldn't protect gays until state lawmakers or judges gave their blessing. "A public agency runs a substantial risk when it guarantees one group special status without a legal precedent. There's a whole host of groups out there who want the same thing. People who are overweight. People who smoke. Where would it stop?" asks James Parry, the University System's director of labor relations.

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