They began meeting last spring, half a dozen gay students from Loyola Marymount University, gathering in an off-campus apartment away from the school's serene setting on a bluff overlooking the Pacific.
As students at a Catholic university, they often felt isolated and fearful of allowing others to know about their homosexuality. They sought each other out, as group President James Munselle puts it, "just to have a base where we could talk to other gay students."
This year, the Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, which has grown to include about a dozen members, is seeking the right to meet on the Jesuit-run campus. And that quest has sparked wide-ranging debate among the university's nearly 4,000 undergraduates.
Proponents of the group argue that the issue is one of human rights and freedom of assembly, while opponents cite the church's view that homosexual acts are sinful.
Alliance members argue that they should have the same access to campus facilities as any other group. Without official recognition, the group cannot meet on campus, advertise in the campus newsletter or receive funding from the university.
"I think what happens a lot at Loyola is that because gay people can't or don't always feel comfortable on campus, a lot of the time the only arena they see as an option is the gay bars in West Hollywood," Munselle said. "To be forced to go to that arena because it's the only place you feel comfortable is a tragedy."
One 19-year-old club member, who asked not to be named, said the meetings have changed his life: "We talked about religion, about family--everything about the experience of being gay. . . . Last year I was lost and I felt away from God. Now that I'm speaking out, I feel like a whole other person, like I'm closer to God."
The alliance has drafted a constitution, enlisted English department chairman Mel Bertolozzi as faculty sponsor and submitted an application to the Student Affairs Committee.
The committee approved the application by a 9-2 vote in December and forwarded it to Father James N. Loughran, the university president.
Last week, the faculty senate passed a resolution by a 9-8 secret ballot urging university recognition. On Feb. 1, the student senate voted 12 to 4 in favor of a resolution urging Loughran to grant the group recognition. Although the president of the Associated Students vetoed the resolution on procedural grounds last week, it may be reintroduced in revised form this week.
The only vote that really matters, however, belongs to Loughran.
Munselle said the president told him in a Jan. 19 meeting that he could not approve the club, but alliance members hope Loughran ultimately will decide in their favor.
Joan Gaulene, the university's director of public relations, said last week that Loughran "feels it is premature to comment" on the issue. "It is a major and serious decision," Gaulene said, "and one he plans to make very shortly."
Whether he will--or should--grant recognition to a homosexual students' group has been the subject of a campuswide debate that goes to the heart of the university's role as a Catholic institution.
In 1986, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which monitors adherence to church doctrine for the Vatican, sent Roman Catholic bishops a letter that called homosexuality "an objective disorder" and urged the bishops not to yield to "enormous pressure" to condone pro-homosexual views or behavior. The church urges abstinence rather than engaging in homosexual acts.
Brother Jeffrey Seeger, a German professor and assistant registrar, said although there are church documents "which allow for homosexuality as a natural variant of human sexuality," any sexual act outside of marriage is viewed as sinful. "You help the sinner while condemning the act," he said. Seeger added that the group's constitution does not transgress church teachings and he therefore found it "difficult to find any grounds not to allow it."
Last week, the university's 16-member student senate released the results of a poll sent to 2,000 students. The poll asked whether the university should approve the club and outlined arguments for and against approval.
Among the 269 students who responded, 59% were against the proposed club, 35% in favor and 6% undecided, said Travis Lawmaster, a student senator who supervised the polling.
Alliance members discounted the poll's methodology, saying the arguments relied on unsubstantiated statistics and focused on the church's stance on the homosexual act rather than on the issue of human rights.
Last week, alliance members and students from the university's Peace Studies group collected signatures on a petition asking for student support of the club's application. They estimate they have gathered more than 200 signatures, which they plan to submit to Loughran this week.
Munselle--who has retained attorney Gloria Allred to represent the group--believes there may be as many as 400 gay and lesbian students among the school's undergraduates.
"I really think that's a significant number of people for the university to say we don't want to affirm you as a human being because of your (sexual) orientation," said Munselle, 25, who is not a Catholic. "I think the fact that there are only about 12 active members of this group indicates the problems these students are having about coming out on campus or speaking about gay issues on campus."
Opinions are widely diverse among faculty members and students as to whether Loughran should recognize the group.
In a letter published in the campus newspaper, history professor Susan Rabe argued that "what the Gay and Lesbian Alliance is asking of the university, and of each of us, is that we confront homophobia and stand for human dignity. By the very fact that we are a Catholic university, we have a particular responsibility to do so."
Father Robert Caro, an English professor and member of the faculty senate, said many students and professors want to provide some sort of campus support for homosexuals, whether the club is approved or not. "I think everybody wants to find a solution that is sensitive and compassionate for all our students," he said.
But in random interviews on campus last week, some students expressed misgivings about the group.
"If you want that kind of stuff, go to a state school," said senior Caryn Herlihy, 21. "This is a Jesuit, Catholic school, so students should come in with the knowledge of what it's founded on. To get in here and try to change it is definitely wrong."
Said Daren Kalish, 18: "The argument I've heard is (the university) doesn't have a heterosexual group, so why have a homosexual group?"
Junior Dave Holden said that more education about homosexuality is needed, but he added: "If it's a matter of Catholic teachings, I don't see how they can have (a club) on campus. But in principle alone I don't see anything wrong with it."
Another student, who did not want to be named, said: "I really don't like the fact that there's a gay and lesbian group, but if they keep it to themselves, I don't mind."
Lawmaster, one of the four student senators who voted against the resolution, said he is opposed to the club for religious reasons. When the issue was discussed at an emotional student senate forum, Lawmaster quoted from the Bible in arguing against approving the club.
"My argument was since one of the goals was to uphold the Christian and Catholic traditions, if we allow this club we would be condoning homosexuality," Lawmaster said.
During the forum before the student senate vote, Lawmaster said, some students became tearful and a few admitted their homosexuality for the first time in public. Lawmaster said he was moved but did not change his mind.
"When I went into the meeting I knew I wouldn't be swayed because I was following God's law," he said. "I had to follow what I felt was right."
A fundamental issue among students, Rabe said in an interview, is "confusion about whether the church is against homosexuals per se."
"I think the real fear on the part of a lot of people is that what this group will do is advocate behavior the church does not condone," said Rabe, a Catholic. But, she said, supporters argue that the group's opponents are "reading in a motive that is not justified on the basis of the group's constitution, nor by the students themselves, who are a fine group of students."
According to its constitution, the group's purpose is to support gays and lesbians on campus and to promote sensitivity to the homosexual community, to educate the community about the history of gays and lesbians, and to support human rights. Membership would be open to all LMU students and faculty and others.
"Recognition of a club does not mean endorsement of its position," Rabe said. "We have all kinds of groups on campus that take positions of which the Catholic church might not approve. . . . The broad consensus of the Student Affairs Committee was that we are demanding of this group, for no apparent reason, criteria that we do not demand of any other group."
Some students say the university set a precedent when it approved a similar group at Loyola Law School 15 years ago. That group, the Lesbian and Gay Law Union, was recognized during the administration of former Loyola Marymount President Donald P. Merrifield, who approved the group on the basis that it advocated human rights but did not promote a gay life style.
Brian Gurwitz, a member of the student senate who sponsored the resolution to support the proposed undergraduate club, said the two groups have nearly identical goals.
"It's really an insult to the students to hold the undergraduates to a different test," said Gurwitz, who is Jewish. "In my view, Father Loughran can either approve this club or revoke the recognition that's previously been granted to the club at Loyola Law School."
Another element in the LMU debate is the eight-year legal battle for recognition by gay students' groups at Georgetown University in Washington. After a ruling by the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals, the Jesuit university agreed under that city's Human Rights Act to provide funding and meeting space to gay groups.
However, under First Amendment rights protecting religious freedom, the university was not obligated to officially recognize gay groups. Gary Krull, a spokesman for Georgetown University, said under a settlement outlined by the court, Georgetown's gay rights groups must print a disclaimer on all their literature stating that they are not recognized or endorsed by the university.
Whether Loughran is likely to choose a similar course is far from certain.
Munselle said he is hoping to meet with Loughran again before a final decision is made.
"We're hoping with all the manifest support . . . that if it doesn't encourage Father Loughran to approve the application, that at least it would speed up the process of releasing an approval or a rejection, so that we know where we stand," Munselle said.
Regardless of the university's decision, one gay Catholic student said he will remain steadfast in his beliefs. "Religion is in no way relevant (to) what I am. God has a place for me. It takes a long time for things to change in the Catholic church. I'm a Catholic and I'll always be one. There's a place for me in the Catholic church."