Should Catholic high schools host LGBT student groups, commonly referred to as gay-straight alliances or GSAs? Louis Fisher certainly believes so.
Twice this past spring, Fisher, a senior at Judge Memorial High School, Salt Lake City, Utah, appealed to school administrators to recognize a GSA. Noting the school’s generally welcoming environment, Fisher explained to The Salt Lake Tribune:
” ‘We talk a lot about inclusivity and bullying, but I feel like we never dialogue about the experience of being gay in high school. . .It’s not that I feel unsupported at Judge; it’s that I feel there needs to be explicit support.’ “
Judge Memorial officials did not agree, denying in two letters the student’s requests that had included a 1,200 signature petition. Officials refused any club with “LGBT” in the name or that they see as promoting homosexuality. They suggested concerned students should participate in the Peace and Social Justice Club and add LGBT issues to those discussions. The Tribune reported:
“Principal Patrick Lambert said student safety and inclusion are top priorities for Judge administrators, teachers and counselors, many of whom have rainbow stickers plastered to their doors. . .But Lambert, who said he consulted with officials at other Utah Catholic schools, believes the issues raised by Fisher can be addressed without a new club.’ “
Fisher disagreed with the idea of integrating LGBT issues into an existing student group, saying it makes LGBT people “feel marginalized at Judge” and “would make people less enthusiastic about joining.” A second round of meetings between Fisher, his parents, and school officials produced similar rejection. Fisher has promised to resume his campaign in the fall.
Unlike public schools, religious institutions like Judge Memorial are not bound by federal laws which support GSAs in schools. The Tribune cited only three groups at Catholic schools in the U.S., these being Dowling Catholic High,Des Moines, St. Mary’s Academy, Portland, Oregon, and Xavier High, New York City.
Recently, two incidents at other schools serve as reminders that more proactive support for LGBT students is needed in secondary education. In one case, Catholic high school refused to recognize a gay student’s scholarship, and in another case, a Catholic school expelled a lesbian student from prom for wearing a suit.
This situation at Judge Memorial shows that younger students in Catholic education are not settling for broad claims of acceptance, but they want resources and spaces specific to LGBT students. Administrators’ denial of these supports entails high costs for all persons and institutions involved. The vulnerability of LGBT youth must be the prime concern Catholic educators in these cases. These youth experience higher rates of bullying, harassment, and violence that translates into higher rates of self-injurious behavior and suicide.
Catholic education, at its best, should help every student come to know themselves more fully as God created them. Rather than lumping LGBT students into general concerns, their situation mandates a special option. Coming to know one’s identity is a complex process, particularly in adolescence, and coming out as LGBT can be immensely difficult without love and affirmation. But this is a holy journey that Catholic education can and must support.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry