A 16-year old Colombian boy committed suicide recently, a tragic act his parents blame on the faculty and staff at his Catholic high school and an act that raises questions for Catholic education globally.
Sergio Urrego had attended Gimnasio Castillo Campestre, Bogota, for six years, but the troubles started after administrators became aware of a cell phone photo in which Urrego is kissing his boyfriend. In a school meeting, The Advocate reports the principal outed the student as gay and added that Urrego was an “anarchist” and “atheist.”
Months later in August, facing persistent harassment, Urrego jumped to his death from a shopping center after messaging friends and posting the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “Goodbye Cruel World” on Facebook.
Now, the boy’s family and LGBT advocates are demanding accountability from the school and greater acceptance in a country that is more than 90% Catholic. America magazine reports:
“According to local media, Urrego’s mother charges that her son had been discriminated against and bullied at the school because he was gay. Directors at the school were cooperating with the police investigation and denied any wrongdoing or maltreatment of Urrego. The school principal, Amanda Castillo said that the ‘intimacy of human beings’ is respected at the school and assured that ‘there was never pressure or discrimination for being gay.’ “
Local prosecutors are investigating to decide whether charges should be filed, and LGBT advocates have promised to protest at the Ministry of Education, as well as having previously held rallies at the school, the site of the suicide, and Urrego’s family’s hometown.
Anti-LGBT attitudes are still prevalent in Colombia, and Latin America generally suffers from elevated levels of violence and discrimination based on sexuality and gender. Though legal rights are slowly progressing, and that nation’s top cardinal has even endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples, much work remains in fighting the homophobia which contributed to Urrego’s suicide.
Since this young man’s tragic death happened within the context of Catholic education, which seeks to form young people in faith to live flourishing lives, the Church has a particular obligation to respond. Catholic schools should be sanctuaries for teenagers struggling to understand and define their identities, giving them both the space and resources necessary to learn about themselves and grow. Catholic schools should further teach inclusion, mercy, and the social teachings around human dignity to promote an understanding of each person’s worth.
I acknowledge that I do not know for sure what happened at Gimnasio Castillo Campestre or what was going on in Sergio Urrego’s head in the months leading up to and the moments right before he took his life. Yet, there seems to be credible evidence that Catholic educators negatively impacted him. This should give all those involved with the church’s educational and youth efforts pause, to consider how well their local community includes LGBT youth and helps them to develop safely. Certainly what happened at this Colombian school is among the worst examples of institutional homophobia, but the many smaller ways prevalent in schools and youth programs worldwide contribute to much suffering as well.
One step you can take to stand up and pursue a safer, more inclusive world for LGBT youth is participating with New Ways Ministry and other Catholics in GLAAD’s #SpiritDay on October 16th, by wearing purple and posting online to make public your support of youth and tocombat the all-too-pervasive bullying experience LGBT suffer. You can find out how you and your company, school, church, organization can participate by clicking here.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry