"They deserve the right to congregate, to be open about who they are"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

My name is Elissa England (formerly Young), and I graduated with honors from Samford University in 2008. Since my time at Samford, I have tried to stay involved and connected with those I was close to, including the English Department, London Study Programs and various professors and staff members employed by your institution. I consider my time at Samford a happy time and am grateful for all I learned, the friendships cultivated and memories shared as a student there.

Things were relatively easy for me, because I was a heterosexual person. I did not have to worry about how other students or staff perceived my identity or love life. However, I had several very close friends, both male and female, that could not say the same. Perhaps it is not truly clear to the university how many of its student body feel they must hide who they are – it is actually a very large number. I am still close with several of these former students – some very successful and accepting of the struggles they faced and others who still feel the sting of discrimination acutely.  And, of course, with each new wave or generation that walks Samford’s sidewalks and halls, more young men and women who are gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning their sexuality are repeatedly marginalized and have no official support system to ground them and provide community that is positive and accepting.

Samford’s tenets of character building, religious philosophy and mission of all-inclusive learning in Birmingham, AL is surely such that this type of deliberate denial or absence of community, kindness and support is disturbing to say the least. However, the recent decision to deny Samford Together a vote with the board of trustees is actually a very hostile line drawn in the sand that greatly saddens me and inspires me to write to you to reconsider this unfortunate decision.

Samford should be a safe space for ALL students, even those with contrary beliefs or philosophies. However, the repeated soundbite that the Samford Together group is a place for LGBT advocacy is misleading. Samford Together isn’t about beliefs, philosophy, sociology or even religious doctrine. Samford Together is merely a student organization that provides support to those who are questioning their sexuality or identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender. These students exist at your organization. They deserve the right to congregate, to be open about who they are, and they deserve university sponsored counseling, acceptance and respect – no different than any other student-led group that has gone through the official recognition process. Samford has funded and accepted many special interest groups that are equally thought-provoking and perhaps considered controversial to some – and to exclusively deny Samford Together the same chance of approval is nothing less than discrimination – stamped and sealed with the credentials of the administration. It is shameful.

Because I love the university, I feel led to tell you that this decision to deny the group even a vote – a seat at the table, is clearly a huge failing of character and is reminiscent of so much of our history – especially in the south. Using religion and politics as a smokescreen to deny a basic right to a group of your current and past students is no different than those many religious and political figures of the 1950s and 60s who repeatedly advocated and defended segregation.

I am extremely disappointed in this cycle repeating itself so willfully and publicly. I urge you to take the time to reconsider this decision. I believe that if you met personally with the Samford Together leadership and spoke to some of your openly gay, bisexual or transgender students, you will see that this group is purely looking for a space that is safe, supportive and where they can be honest about who they are and what they feel. It is merely a group that would like to offer community, friendship, love and support to many of those who are afraid, depressed and alienated from the majority of your student body. I urge you to at least give these voices a seat at the table and not repeat such an ugly, shameful cycle of discrimination that can only lead to further contention and hardship. It is my hope that this decision will be withdrawn, and you will give the group its fair chance for legitimacy. 

Thank you for your time and for your consideration,

Elissa England, Class of '08

Brit Blalock