CAPE GIRARDEAU — Gay-rights organizations fighting for equality are not in abundance. But there is a group at Southeast Missouri State University that is trying to make the lives of gay and lesbian students no different from those of their heterosexual counterparts.
"I would say acceptance of gays and lesbians on campus has grown," said James Francis, a Southeast senior and president of the university's Gay-Straight Alliance. "I believe minds have been changed compared to 10 or even five years ago."
The GSA, an official student organization at Southeast, consists of about 40 members. When Francis of Annapolis, Mo., joined as a freshman there were about 15 members.
"We've experienced growth," he said. "Not a whole lot, but some. I think there's a stereotype about the GSA, that if you belong to it you're either gay or a lesbian. I'd say that 50 percent of our membership is straight."
According to Francis, the GSA's main purpose is to be a support group for someone who is, or thinks they are, gay or lesbian.
"We're trying to make things easier for students who are out or might want to come out," he said. "We can help make their college experience better and safer."
Francis said he wasn't aware of any GSA member being physically accosted on campus, but rude comments are sometimes hurled their way. He referenced an occasion when a female student wearing a GSA T-shirt was called a derogatory term for lesbian.
"It goes back to the stereotype, I guess."
Nonetheless, Francis believes attitudes have changed at Southeast, however slow it has come. He pointed out that the GSA's fall Drag Show drew nearly 300 people.
Francis said there could be future lobbying for "gay studies" in the Southeast curriculum.
"The closest thing is the Human Sexuality class taught as part of the University Studies program," he said. "But the main issue would be finding a professor qualified to teach gay studies."
The GSA also would like to see a nondiscrimination amendment on sexual orientation added to Southeast's student constitution. In March, a proposal to put such an amendment to a student vote was defeated 29-8 by the Student Government Association senate.
"The senate voted it down, but we want to work with potential candidates for the senate in an effort to try again," Francis said.
Dylan Lloyd, a student senator from Harviell, Mo., voted against putting the nondiscrimination amendment to a campus-wide vote.
"If there was blatant discrimination against gays and lesbians on campus, I'd be ready to support an amendment," Lloyd said. "But as of now, there's no threat to their rights."
Bruce Skinner, assistant vice president for student success at Southeast, said attitudes toward gay and lesbian students have been trending more toward acceptance.
"Younger people tend to be more progressive," he said. "The current generation at Southeast seems more accepting compared to others."
Regarding the nondiscrimination vote taken by the student senate, Skinner said the Southeast administration recognizes that it's a student matter.
"It was about the student constitution," he said. "Right or wrong, the university doesn't want to step in and tell them what to do. It would be a disservice to students for the university to overrule any vote they have taken."
Cape Girardeau Central High School counselor Amy Sutterer said she has seen gay and lesbian students become more accepted in her five years there as a counselor.
"There's a GSA group at Central," Sutterer added. "It started about three years ago and I think it has five members."
Sutterer said the group, though small, is a good vehicle for teaching tolerance to other students.
"Diversity stems in all different directions, and diversity includes sexual orientation," she said. "It's important for all students to have a group they can belong to."
Sutterer said that if a student comes to the counselor's office with questions about their sexual orientation, a counselor will be a "listening ear" and also a support system for them. But if a student needs more help than the counselor's office can give, they contact the student's parents.
Central High School has a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of bullying that includes sexual orientation, Sutterer said.
But Cape Girardeau does have stories of young people acting out violently against people who are gay.
A 17-year-old Cape Girardeau girl pleaded guilty in October to beating a gay woman at the victim's home last summer, and in 2006 two teenagers were charged with beating a high school senior with his own prosthetic leg. Like the other attack, this one was off campus.
Other hate crimes — spray-painted slurs, a broken window at the Islamic Center and a "verbal assault" — have been reported since the 2006 incident, but none with injuries as severe as last summer's attack, when the victim was treated for injuries to the head and face.