CAMPUS CHRONICLES: Marquette University Reflects on Ups and Downs of LGBTQ Student Relations

December 18, 2012

Marquette University’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance members.

A recent profile on the state of LGBTQ relations at Marquette University, a Jesuit institution in Milwaukee, reveals a campus in tension. The Marquette Tribune, a student publication, marked the three month anniversary of the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center by highlighting positive and negative milestones at the University since 2010.

Concerns over Marquette’s treatment of LGBTQ community flared in 2010 when the University withdrew an offer to Jodi O’Brien to be dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Nearly 200 students protested due to speculations that O’Brien lost the job because she was a lesbian woman. That same year, a campus student organization expelled its vice-president after he came out as gay.

Leaders of Marquette’s Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) believe most students support their LGBTQ peers, even if in a “live and let live” mentality, and opposition is from a vocal minority of socially conservative students without exposure to LGBTQ community members. More troubling to them is a conflicted administration:

“‘Honestly, sometimes it feels like we’re walking on eggshells,’ said Emily Wright, the president of the GSA. ‘The administration isn’t blatantly against the LGBTQ community, but we always have to ask what kind of push back we can expect from them’…

“Despite words of support from the administration, members of the LGBTQ community said they feel the university’s past actions have spoken louder than words.

“‘Marquette has had a very hard time reconciling its Catholic identity with its identity as a liberal academic university,’ said Nicole Cunningham, the public relations spokesperson for the GSA.”

However, since the incidents in 2010, Marquette University administrators enacted several programs to reaffirm their stated commitments to the LGBTQ community on campus, notably the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center. The Center exists to provide a dialogue space and is spending its first year assessing the Marquette community’s present and future needs around gender and sexuality.

“[Center Director Susannah] Bartlow said she believes the campus climate toward members of the LGBTQ community can, at times, be unwelcoming.

“‘I think there’s some tension on campus,’ Bartlow said. ‘We don’t really know, and some of that makes it difficult. There’s a lot of silence around it. Some people don’t feel comfortable, and the GSRC presents a space for people to get what they need.’”

Bartlow speaks positively of the progress Marquette is making, and says she receives unconditional support from administrators.

Equally positive is the affirmative tone of campus minister Steve Blaha, who has hosted LGBTQ discussions nights for over two decades at Marquette:

“ ‘There is a movement at Marquette realizing that we need to better manage our commitment to our LGBT community’, said Steve Blaha…

“According to Blaha, the best way to work out the differences between students, including students both for and against expanding university resources for the LGBTQ community, is to sit down and talk openly about these issues.

“‘What we see across the country is not a lot of listening, but rather a lot of statements,’ Blaha said. ‘I find that when we sit down together as people, it more oftentimes then not provides direction for a mutual, civil discussion.’”

Two recent high profile events highlight this deep need for good faith dialogue around LGBTQ campus issues in Catholic higher education. At the University of Notre Dame, administrators responded to student advocates’ requests for a gay-straight alliance by developing a comprehensive pastoral plan regarding issues of gender and sexuality that integrated the school’s Catholic mission with its need to support each and every student. In contrast, continued stonewalling by administrators at The Catholic University of America led to yet another rejection of LGBTQ students as a recognized community on campus.

The example of  Marquette University’s dialogue creating LGBT-positive decisions  is only further evidence that such conversations not only benefit the affected students, but the entire university community, as well.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

For New Ways Ministry’s listing of gay-friendly Catholic colleges and universities, visitnewwaysministry.org/gfc.

For further information on New Ways Ministry’s efforts in Catholic higher education and to get involved, contact youngadults@newwaysministry.org.


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