Senior Daniel Iturri by the Freedom Wall. Photo by Milan Loiacono.
For the past four years, SGA senior Senator Daniel Iturri said he has felt a disconnect between Pepperdine’s administration and its LGBTQ+ students.
“I just feel like Pepperdine is on the wrong side of history,” Iturri said. “In 50 years, we’ll look back and say, ‘This is insane that Pepperdine was doing this.’ But now we’re living through it, and we have to fight so we can get to the end.”
Iturri and others say that life at Pepperdine can be challenging for LGBTQ+ students because of university policy and ongoing incidents of exclusion. In mid-October, controversy erupted on the Freedom Wall over anonymous comments posted in response to a student’s counter-petition on bringing a Chick-fil-A to campus. SGA then passed a resolution written by Iturri denouncing hate speech and homophobia. SGA posted a pride flag quoting Bible verses on the Freedom Wall, along with a copy of the resolution.
Just days later, the flag and the resolution were no longer there, and the anonymous individual posted another response on a piece of notebook paper denouncing sodomy for religious reasons. The recent events of the Freedom Wall and statements from SGA cast light on a larger, ongoing conversation about the relationship between Pepperdine and its LGBTQ+ students.
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Freedom Wall Controversy
The second note doubled-down on the anonymous writer’s initial statement, defending Chick-fil-A’s alleged stance against the LGBTQ+ community. It stated that “scripture infallibly teaches that sodomy is an objective moral evil.”
Photo courtesy of Justis Crocker
Psychology Prof. Steve Rouse, who is the faculty adviser for the campus LGBTQ+ group Crossroads, said the back-and-forth on the Freedom Wall affected Pepperdine’s queer students.
“To almost immediately have a counter-statement come up felt painful to a lot of the students,” Rouse said. “After just being able to see a statement that you belong here, you are accepted here, you are valued here, to get another statement that said, ‘you are not accepted here, you are not valued here, you do not belong here,’ really felt demeaning to a lot of students.”
Rouse said he had concerns with the language used in the notes.
“That word, ‘sodomy,’ was used very inconsistently,” Rouse said. “It was used as kind of a stand-in or synonym for non-straight orientations; that feels very dehumanizing to a lot of people from the LGBT[Q+] community.”
The Graphic reached out to the anonymous student for comment via the Freedom Wall, and received an anonymous email claiming responsibility for the notes. The source of that email could not be confirmed. The student defended their statements on the Freedom Wall, claiming that they are not anti-LGBTQ+ but rather anti-sodomy. They wrote that they would have posted similar comments on other Freedom Wall posts that supported sodomy.
However, nowhere on the original anti-Chick-fil-A display was there a statement in support of sodomy or sexual relations.
Steve Rouse working in his office. Photo by James Moore.
The writer’s use of scripture brings into question how Biblical passages can inform opinions on sexual relationships. Rouse said these interpretations were misinformed.
“There are only a few translations of the Bible that include that word at all, and they’re even some fairly fringe versions of the Bible,” Rouse said.
The Student Code of Conduct and the Traditional Christian Sexual Ethic
The Student Code of Conduct outlines acceptable sexual relations as those between a married man and woman.
On page 83 in the sexual relationships section of Pepperdine’s Student Code of Conduct, the university states:
“Pepperdine University affirms that sexual relationships are designed by God to be expressed solely within a marriage between husband and wife. This view of sexuality and marriage is rooted in the Genesis account of creation and is maintained consistently throughout Scripture.”
The policy goes on to state:
“Sexual relations of any kind outside of marriage are inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture, as understood by Christian churches throughout history, including Churches of Christ. Therefore, as a matter of moral and faith witness, all members of the university are expected to avoid such conduct themselves and to respect this understanding of sexual relationships.”
Dean of Students Mark Davis wrote in an email that the wording of Pepperdine’s sex policy was added in 2002 from a joint-effort between Pepperdine’s faculty, staff, students and administrators.
“The administration at the time agreed that the statement was vague and benchmarked several statements on sexuality at other Christian universities,” Davis wrote.
Below Pepperdine’s sexual ethics policy is a FAQ section, which states that the university choses to include a section in their Code of Conduct about sexual ethics “so that those who join our community are aware of our values and expectations.”
The FAQ section goes on to state that “Pepperdine affirms the dignity and worth of every person and seeks to create a campus culture where each person is treated with love and respect.”
Iturri said several administrators at Pepperdine take LGBTQ+ inclusion seriously and seem to be less concerned with religious doctrine.
“[The Code of Conduct] says ‘we reject all homophobia, we’re supportive of all LGBTQ[+] students.’ I mean, that’s the wording, I don’t know how real that is,” Iturri said. “After talking to a lot of people in administration and faculty, the support for queer students is overwhelming. I don’t want this to appear like ‘Pepperdine sucks, and they’ve been horrible to us!’ No, I think individual people in faculty and administration have been fighting for the rights of queer students, and I don’t want to neglect that at all.”
The Code of Conduct Today
The cover of the Code of Conduct includes a statement that reads, “each student is responsible for knowing and adhering to the University’s Student Code of Conduct and its related policies.” When students enroll at Pepperdine, they sign a contract confirming their awareness of the Code of Conduct and agreeing to comply with it.
However, in a survey of 275 students conducted by the Graphic on Nov. 6, 36% of students answered “no” when asked if they were aware of the sex policy in the Student Code of Conduct. Additionally, 47% of respondents said they were unaware of the fact that they had signed paperwork affirming this statement when they enrolled to Pepperdine.
Junior Vice President of Crossroads Madison Thacker said her leadership position in Crossroads prevents her from speaking in favor of policy change due to Pepperdine’s organizational constitution barring political activism. However she did say she personally doesn’t agree with the university’s policy on sexual ethics.
“It is frustrating, and at times it feels unfair,” Thacker said. “Signing ECLOM every year, it’s just disheartening because you’re agreeing to something that you don’t agree with.”
Itturi concurred with Thacker.
“Every time I’ve had to sign the ECLOM where it says that statement, it always stabs me in the back a little bit,” Iturri said.
This sentiment appears to be shared by many on campus, regardless of sexual orientation, according to the survey. In the survey, 77.8% of students responded that LGBTQ+ relationships should be accepted at Pepperdine.
Results from the anonymous survey The Graphic conducted learn about how Pepperdine students perceive LGTBQ+ issues on campus.
Also, 52.8% of students answered that they either “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the part of the Student Code of Conduct pertaining to the traditional Christian sexual ethic.
During the survey, one student — who requested anonymity — expressed their appreciation for the function of the policy as a homosexual. They defended the passage, saying that it appealed to the beliefs of some parents.
“It allows closeted LGBT[Q+] people, if they have very conservative, very religious parents, to go someplace where they can feel safe and feel accepted for who they are and, at the same time, maintain that face with the parents back at home,” the student said. “That’s something that’s often overlooked.”
The student said the guidelines pose no actual threat of disciplinary action to students but are merely symbolic.
“Without these tokens of adherence to conservative principles, Pepperdine would not be a safe place for those seeking freedom from oppression from within their own families,” the student said.
Faculty and the Code of Conduct
In 2003, Pepperdine added a similar sex policy to the Faculty Code of Conduct without properly notifying them, which immediately sparked outrage.
The Graphic reported in 2003 that “many faculty members interviewed by the Graphic said the policy overstep[ped] the boundaries of affirming the Christian ideal of keeping sexual relationships within the realm of marriage between a man and wife.”
Religion Prof. Chris Doran, who hosts a club convo on homosexuality and religion, said he thinks Pepperdine needs to have a new discussion about its sex policy.
“I wasn’t around when they put the official, traditional position together,” Doran said. “But what I would like to know is who was in the room when they put that together. Because I think it’s really easy to think that this position was dropped in from God-on-high.”
Doran said the lack of clarity in the policy leaves a lot to be desired and fails to address bigger questions about sexual morality.
“We’re not really having that profound conversation about, what is sin? Is it expressing one’s sexuality? Is it dressing a certain way? Is it talking a certain way? I think that’s a really healthy conversation to have,” Doran said. “It’s one I’ve had with many students over the years and LGBT[Q+] members on their own individually.”
Doran continued to say the administration is selective with the implementation of its policy.
“I think Pepperdine has kind of shied away from these questions,” Doran said. “There’s lots of unions on this campus, people in heterosexual, cisgender unions, doing weird stuff that we would not necessarily say is charitable or loving or as Christ-filled.”
The student-group Crossroads was formed in 2016 as a space for LGBTQ+ students on campus to connect with a community.
Rouse said the Crossroads organization acts as a social haven for students who otherwise would feel alienated.
“[Crossroads is] an opportunity for forming connections with other people who have similar life experiences and have similar feelings about their position within the university,” Rouse said. “It’s an opportunity for people to be able to know that they’re not alone — to be able to know that there are other people who are similar to them here on campus.”
Members of Pepperdine’s Crossroads said they particularly see the effects of the sex policy from the Student Code of Conduct. The organization’s constitution contains a controversial statement, preventing members from participating in organized political activism.
“Built into the Crossroads constitution is a statement that the organization recognizes that Pepperdine affirms a traditional sexual ethic of sex between a married husband and a wife,” Rouse said. “As part of its founding document, the organization is not allowed to make any kind of advocacy against that type of understanding of sexual ethics.”
Rouse said the wording of this clause in the Crossroads constitution makes it difficult to know what actions or words dictate “political speech.”
“We’ve already started reaching out to some people in the administration to get more clarity on what that terminology means because we’re not exactly sure what the implications would be,” Rouse said. “We can’t really we can’t really make any judgments or make any assumptions based on precedents with other groups. Because other groups don’t have those that language and their constitution.”
Thacker and Crossroads President Juan Carlos Hugues said the prevention of political activism on campus changes the way LGBTQ+ students approach change. However, they have not advocated for any kind of policy change.
“I definitely think [LGBTQ+] activism would look different at Pepperdine if Crossroads didn’t have that part of the Constitution,” Thacker said.
Iturri said he believes it is time for the constitution to be changed.
“I think it’s possible for Crossroads to change their constitution, and I know there’s talk within Crossroads to do that,” Iturri said. “In my personal opinion, it’s stupid to not let an organization like Crossroads be political, that makes no sense. Being gay on campus is political on its own; it’s impossible to separate the two, especially at a place like Pepperdine.”
Davis wrote that he became involved with the process of drafting the Crossroads constitution when students approached him in 2015. He explained why the application process for Crossroads required further review.
“Any time Student Activities determines that an application for a student organization might raise questions about Pepperdine’s Christian identity, the senior administration reviews it and presents it to the Board of Regents before final approval,” Davis wrote.
Davis wrote he was in support of the founding of Crossroads.
“President Benton and I presented the proposed Crossroads constitution to the Faith and Heritage Committee of the Board of Regents in March 2016 and they shared our support,” Davis wrote. “The recognition of Crossroads remains one of the most positive experiences in my tenure as vice president for Student Life and dean of Student Affairs. It is a strong example of the administration’s commitment to listen to students, meet them in thoughtful conversation and prioritize our God-given calling to love and care for each of them.”
The Rock, Title IX and Dance in Flight
In 1992, Jimmy Radosta was a junior Journalism major at Pepperdine and editor-in-chief of the Graphic. That fall, Radosta reported on an incident in which a student repeatedly painted over an undercover LGBTQ+ group’s statements on “the Rock.” At the time, Radosta said he knew he was gay but had not come out.
“Friday’s rock featured an upside-down pink triangle, which is a symbol for homosexuals, along with two male symbols, two female symbols, and the word ‘OUT.’” Radosta reported. “Monday’s rock read ‘You can’t cover our pride.’”
Radosta’s article in the Oct. 1, 1992 issue of The Graphic.
The student responsible for covering the messages claimed in the article that he did so in defense of the university’s Christian values.
“I just don’t think that is the kind of values that need to be expressed, it doesn’t cover the mission of Christian values,” the student said in 1992.
The student’s statements later in the article prompted a number of calls of safety concerns to both the Seaver Dean’s office and the Campus Life office, Radosta reported.
“[In] no way is homosexuality tolerated or should be tolerated,” the student continued. “If they want to paint it during the day, I’ll watch over them with my baseball bat.”
Radosta, now in his forties, remembers the event as a turning point in the inclusion of LGBTQ+ students at Pepperdine.
“When I went to Pepperdine, nobody was out,” Radosta said. “I don’t know anybody who felt safe and accepted on campus. That incident really woke people up. When they saw the ugliness of the words that [the student used], I think they saw in a more tangible way what bigotry looks like. It became pretty clear in the weeks following that incident that nobody really wanted to be associated with that except for a few on the fringe.”
Radosta said in recent visits to Pepperdine, he observed a large cultural shift.
“I’m actually really impressed to see how far things have changed in the past quarter-century,” Radosta said. “I’m still friends with a couple of classmates who are LGBTQ[+]-identified, and I think we’re all in agreement that the university has come a long way, but still has a long way to go.”
In 2014, the Princeton Review ranked Pepperdine No. 7 on their list of the top 20 LGBT-unfriendly schools. Pepperdine has had a long and conflicted history with Title IX.
Title IX is the federal law that prevents institutions funded by the federal government from discriminating on the basis of sex. After the law was enacted in 1972, Pepperdine’s then-President William Banowsky petitioned for an exemption on the basis that elements of Title IX were inconsistent with the beliefs of the Churches of Christ.
“There are two principal religious tenets which are inconsistent with the Title IX regulations,” Banowsky wrote in 1972. “The first such tenet is the belief that women should not serve in positions of authority or leadership over men in public worship, religious instruction, or in the home. The second such tenet is the belief that God approves sexual relationships only between male and female in holy wedlock.”
However, in January of 2016, former President Andrew K. Benton wrote a letter to the Department of Education revoking the exemption. According to a story published in the Graphic, Benton said the exemption was not needed.
“Since , the university has not asserted its exemption,” Benton wrote. “While the university continues to be controlled through its affiliation with the churches of Christ, within the meaning contemplated by Title IX, the university is committed to complying with Title IX.”
Two years before Benton revoked the exemption, a legal dispute arose in which two athletes on the women’s basketball team claimed the university violated Title IX, according to the article. They accused their coach of harassing and discriminating against them after learning the two players were in a relationship. In 2017, the case came to an end when a federal court ruled the university was not in violation of Title IX.
In 2016, the Graphic reported on a LGBTQ+-themed Dance in Flight (DIF) production that was censored by the university.
“Student Activities put the brakes on two of senior David Limon’s choreographed LGBTQ+ themed performances for this year’s Dance In Flight although the university has still not offered a clear reason as to why, according to student directors,” the Graphic reported.
Then-senior David Limon had choreographed multiple pieces for DIF, but Student Activities censored two in particular. One dance was a contemporary trio which included two males and one female and explored sexual identity, according to the article. The other dance was a large group hip-hop piece that explored interracial, heterosexual and homosexual relationships as a “celebration of love.”
Limon met with Director of Student Activities Doug Hurley; Alexa Grambush, Student Activities’ Campus Programs coordinator and DIF adviser; and Director of Student Activities Brittany Skinner.
“Soon after he started the choreography, Student Activities contacted Limon to set up a meeting time, as they were hoping ‘to be intentional in working with choreographers,’” the Graphic reported.
During this meeting, Limon was asked to change his pieces.
“When he walked into the room, Limon said it ‘was a sad and heartbreaking atmosphere,'” the article reported.
Limon said in the article that it was clear Student Activities was not eager to make this decision.
“Then all three of them [Hurley, Grambush and Skinner] started crying,” Limon said. “Any intention I had of fighting after that was gone, because I felt their pain and struggle of being in such a hard place with this [and] I know they fought as best as they could.”
Student Activities’ only explanation for the censorship was that they wanted to ensure that DIF would align with the university’s mission.
“The reason for the censorship of the piece was to ‘uphold the university mission in our work and all of our programs,’” Hurley said in the article.
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