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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.
"A preposterous position," scoffs Greg Baldwin, a lawyer who earlier this year penned a five-page legal opinion asserting FIU's right to set its own discrimination policy. "What could be favoritism about insuring a group equal rights?" Baldwin, chair of the gay-rights Dade Action PAC, says he is disappointed that FIU officials passed the buck to Tallahassee and especially galled at the administrative silence that has accompanied the fresh rash of hatemongering. "If this were a black student group or a Jewish student group being harassed, the president of the university would be screaming holy bloody hell over this. When people are afraid to take a stand, that's when the bigots move in."
Though Jaile says he made a formal complaint to FIU's office of Equal Opportunity Programs two weeks ago, Maidique counters that he was unaware of Stonewall's most recent grievances. He insists he has taken a leading role in advocating gay rights. "I was the first president to bring the issue up at the state level," Maidique stresses. "I could have just ignored it, but I didn't. I wrote to them and they said it was a systemwide issue. End of case."
Not so, says Jaile, who cites more than 300 colleges throughout the nation, many of them state-funded, that already have adopted nondiscrimination policies based on sexual orientation. "Our so-called enlightened universities should be setting the example on civil rights issues, not waiting for permission," asserts Jaile, whose latest lobbying efforts included a short audience with Sen. Bob Graham during his September visit to FIU.
Attorney Baldwin argues that Florida's new Hate Crimes Act should provide the groundwork for the state system to broaden its policy. The law, passed in March, was recently amended to include homosexuals as one of the minority groups targeted by perpetrators of "hate crimes." Labor Director Parry says the Board of Regents, the system's official governing body, may well review the legislation to determine if it constitutes a precedent - next year. "We recognize that this issue has momentum on a statewide basis, but given the state's financial crisis, our top priority for this year is figuring out how to avoid laying people off," he says.
Maidique sees no cause for panic. "Whatever the words say, my interpretation is that sexual orientation is included in our policy," the president concludes. "Even if it's not explicitly stated." His counterpart at Tampa's South Florida University, Frank Borkowski, took a less soothing stand on the issue last month, when he released a memorandum formally including sexual orientation in the school's equal-opportunity policy. If Maidique wants to advance his concern for FIU's gays beyond lip service, Peter Jaile says, he should listen to his conscience, not Tallahassee's orders, and follow suit.