Gay Band Director Is Example to Students and to Catholic Schools

Too often lately, there have been too many stories of LGBT people and allies being fired from Catholic institutions because of their identities, marriages, or support of LGBT equality.  So, it’s a refreshing change to report on a case where an out gay man is serving safely and successfully at a Catholic school and has only positive things to report about his experience.

Outsports.com recently published a reflective essay by Keith Johnston, the marching band, pep band, and concert band director at Sacred Heart University, Bridgeport, Connecticut.  Johnston reports that he has worked at the school for the past 14 years, and that “I’ve been an out gay man for the last 20 years, and have been married to the same man for 17 years.”

Keith Johnston leads the band at Sacred Heart University.

Johnston reports that his positive experience at the school has changed his perception of Catholic institutions:

“When I started at Sacred Heart University 14 years ago, despite having been out for a lot of years, I came in with a pre-conceived notion of how my Catholic college students would react to a gay director. While the administration that hired me was aware I was gay, I’m not Catholic, and I wasn’t experienced enough at that time to know how – or even if – I should integrate the personal side of who I am as a person into my teaching.

“I’ve learned much since starting here at SHU, an institution steeped in the Catholic Intellectual tradition, and more progressive than many would suspect.”

Johnston’s example as a successful, out gay man certainly has some impact on the students with whom he works.  He reflects on the experiences that his musically talented young people often face:

“Take the usual uncertainty that many young gay men and women have, add in a few comments about “band geeks” and “band nerds” (often coming from a high school sports team), and you have a recipe for stunting the emotional and personal growth of thousands of kids – harsh words and sentiments that could set them back for years.

And he notes the importance for teachers to be role models for them:

” The biggest thing I’ve learned, however, has been from my students. Yes, they’re in band to play music. But what they really want to learn is how to become who they really are, and who they have the potential to be. The only way they can learn that is for their teachers to be unafraid to share with them who they are, regardless of their sexuality.”

Keith Johnston

Johnston is explicit in his support:

“At the start of each year at band camp, I tell my students that if you’re gay, straight, bi, transgender, or you don’t know what you are, you’re welcome in the band. If, like me, you’ve heard the voices screaming inside of your head saying “you’re gay”, and you don’t know how to make the noise stop…come and talk with me.”

In the essay,  Johnston recounts his own tumultuous coming out experience in which his own physical health was put in peril.  He survived the ordeal, and he has come out stronger on the other side:

“. . . [E]very day I look at myself in the mirror and am reminded of the physical damage that can happen by trying to be someone we’re not. It was not long after that I decided it was time to start accepting who I was, and if anyone had a problem with it, it was indeed their problem, not mine.”

The band director at this Catholic school, though not a Catholic himself, certainly has values that reflect the Catholic tradition.  At the end of his essay, he states:

“Each of us has worth and dignity, and that worth includes our gender and our sexuality. My door is always open to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

“Sexuality and gender is a spiritual gift.

“All of who you are is sacred.

“All of who you are is welcome.”

I can’t think of any better expression of Catholic values about humankind, identity, and hospitality.  I think Pope Francis has, in other ways, expressed those same values.

I also can’t think of a better argument for why Catholic institutions, especially schools, should continue to employ LGBT people.  The gifts they bring from their personal struggle and growth are a blessing to all they serve.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, April 23, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. For more information, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

On Gilbert Baker’s Passing, Why Rainbow Flags Are Needed in Catholic Spaces

Gilbert Baker, the person who designed the rainbow flag used as a symbol of LGBT identity, passed away last week. Despite his flag first appearing in 1978, controversy about its presence continues, including a recent spate at a Catholic university in Australia. As we remember Baker’s contribution, this additional unfortunate incident is a reminder of why pride flags are so essential for Catholic spaces.

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The flag sticker in dispute

Rainbow flag stickers have twice been posted, and twice torn down, at the University of Notre Dame Australia’s campus in Fremantle. The stickers were posted by the Student Association on their office windows as an expression of welcome, given the general absence of LGBTQ supports on campus. Buzzfeed reported:

“’We took it upon ourselves to do stuff for our LGBTIQ students, because there was nothing,’ student association president Dylan Gojak told BuzzFeed News. ‘One of the first steps was putting up these ally stickers.’ . . .But the vandalism has placed the stickers in the spotlight – and prompted complaints to university management arguing the ‘divisive’ rainbow flag has no place on campus.”

Gojak said for LGBTQ students like himself “there’s nothing, there’s no public statement, there’s no sign that you’re welcome here.” No action thus far has been taken on recommendations made by the Sexuality and Pastoral Care Working Party. The repeated vandalism against the flag stickers has only intensified awareness that such supports are absent.

Administrators initially asked the Student Association to remove the flag stickers, though a compromise was reached which allowed them to remain. After the stickers were vandalized a second time, Vice Chancellor Celia Hammond sent an email, saying:

“‘While I believe the symbol is divisive, and the University does not support all that has come to be associated with the Rainbow flag, the University does not condone the sticker being deliberately taken down in the way that it was. . .This only aggravates the situation and has the potential to cause additional distress.’ . . .

“‘To that end, while the University does not endorse the Rainbow flag, and does not approve it being displayed on any other parts of the University campus, the University is not seeking for it to be removed from the two windows of the Student Association Office at this time.'”

According to Hammond, “the display of the politically charged stickers” could imply the University is not in full compliance with Catholic teaching. She acknowledged there may be people on campus with homophobic views that are “inconsistent with our Catholic teachings,” but that there were others with “legitimate concerns” about the flag stickers.

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Gilbert Baker

Over time, the rainbow flag has come to signify inclusion, acceptance, and pride in embracing the sexual and/or gender identity.  These are all Catholic values and can lead a person on the path to holiness.

Baker’s flag, created at the request of martyred gay icon Harvey Milk, was to be more celebratory than the pink triangle symbol then in use, which has ties to Nazi Germany. And, according to Gay Star NewsBaker imbued the flag with even more meaning:

“Each stripe on the original eight-color flag had a meaning starting with hot pink which represented sexuality. Red represented life, orange was healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for magic and art, blue for serenity and harmony and violet for spirit.”

These facts make it hard to understand what “legitimate concerns” could be lodged against the posting of rainbow flag stickers. Rather, it is very disturbing that the University of Notre Dame Australia offers no formal support to LGBTQ students, and, in this recent situation, administrators could not express unqualified solidarity with such students.

As the world remembers Gilbert Baker, church officials should remember that church teaching backs the value of each stripe on the rainbow flag, as well as the flag’s symbol of welcome and acceptance. Given how important LGBTQ visibility can be for youth and young adults, every Catholic institution should fly the rainbow flag with pride this spring.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, April 10, 2017

 

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Praying for Identity

For Ash Wednesday and the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 is presenting spiritual reflections from a diverse group of students at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California,  who either identify as LGBTQ+ or who are involved with LGBTQ+ theological research and/or ministry. Today’s post is from Fernanda Beldero, a second-generation Filipinx-American, working as a Religious Studies teacher in the San Francisco-Bay Area. Fernanda received a Master of Arts in Ethics in 2014  from the Graduate Theological Union.

Scripture readings for Palm Sunday can be found by clicking here.

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. As I reflect on today’s gospel story, I cannot help but identify with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Allow me to explain.

Gethsemane – Matthew 26:36-46

While I identify as Catholic, and work at a Catholic high school, my lived reality is that I do not fit the pattern of an “ideal” Catholic.  I am marginalized in the Church in three ways: being Filipinx, a woman, and queer.

My marginalization goes further. On New Ways Ministry’s blog, we can read the list of names of employees at Catholic institutions who have been fired, forced to resign, or had offers rescinded because of their LGBTQ+ identity.  I was acutely aware of this terrible trend as I was finishing my master’s degree at the Graduate Theological Union and knew I would soon be seeking a job in a Catholic school.

Last year, a writer on a conservative Catholic website wrote an article about me after having trolled my school’s website and my LinkedIn profile, and then assumed that I am gay based on how I express my gender. This invasive experience made me question my ability to stay in the Church. Yes, I am gay, but this writer took my power away from me by outing me without my consent or knowledge. These are threatening times in our Church today for any LGBTQ+ person working in a Catholic institution, so this article made my employment as a Catholic educator extremely vulnerable. I was stunned and deeply hurt by this writer’s violation.

At the same time, I also heard the voices of my friends and family members who ask me “Why do you work for an institution that does not accept you?” After I found out about the article, I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror. I seriously questioned my calling to work as an educator for my faith, which is itself is a complex issue.

I have dated women who could not understand why I am still Catholic, and yet this community is very much a part of my identity. It has been a lens through which I have experienced my spirituality. The examples of my mother and grandfather, who embodied my Christian faith, the rituals and traditions of Mass and praying Novenas after a family member who has passed, spending time in nature with my family: all of these have lain the foundation of my current spirituality.

My faith is something I cannot shake, nor can I turn away from. And yet I struggle with it every day. Many in the Catholic LGBTQ+ community also struggle with this dilemma, asking the question: “How can we authentically be ourselves, our whole selves, which includes our sexuality?”

So, in today’s gospel reading, I am drawn to the image of Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemane, where, frightened at what the next hours will hold, he prays aloud: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” How many times in our own lives have we said a similar prayer to God, in times of distress, sorrow, facing the unknown? Jesus knew his calling, his purpose in his life: to give us all people an example to live by, and to die on the cross to show God’s deep love for us. But in this moment, he showed us that while he knew his vocation, he, like us, had doubts and weaknesses.

We need to ask ourselves an important question:  What is our own personal calling and purpose in life? In what ways are we challenged by others who judge us as not fit to be following our call, or who do not accept our authentic, God-given selves?

After Jesus requested his disciples to stay awake with him while he prayed, they ended up falling asleep.  His response to them: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” My spirit is willing: I want to continue to impart to my students the best of the Catholic faith. I want them to know that the Catholic faith is centered on Jesus who ministered with the marginalized in his community, with the lepers, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the outcasts. He preached and lived unconditional love. Our Catholic faith calls us to be in solidarity with those on the margins of society, of the Church, and of our world. Our faith is not a faith meant to keep us comfortable. It should challenge us constantly, shaking up our worldview, and inspiring us to seek justice for those who deserve to be acknowledged as human beings.

But it is my flesh, my ego, that is weak at times: I sometimes give into others’ judgments about me and my sexuality, the color of my skin and the organs I was born with. In order to be my whole self, I need to acknowledge and feel the sorrow, the hurt, the despair, that this dilemma has on me. I need also to reflection how I have to continue my work both as a queer womxn and as a Catholic educator.

As I struggle with all these challenges, I look outside my window and see the trees budding with new life, the cherry blossoms blossoming. I hear the sweet sound of birdsong. It is possible to experience peace in the midst of an inner storm.

As we embark on this Holy Week, may we all reflect on our own pains and sorrows as a way of sharing the pain of Jesus’ persecution for being who he is.  May we work toward being in solidarity with the pains that our human family and Mother Earth are experiencing which is the contemporary version of Jesus’ death on the cross. May we also not forget to look forward to the Easter hope of Jesus’ resurrection and to experience it in our own lives.

Fernanda Beldero, April 9, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.    

Calling All LGBTQ Educators in Catholic Schools!

If you’ve been a regular reader of Bondings 2.0, you will be aware of the terrible trend in recent years where LGBT and ally church workers are being dismissed from Catholic institutions.  If this information is news to you, please check out this blog’s resource page which archives all the news related to this terrible injustice.

Catholic schools have been a main target for these firings–both high schools and elementary schools.  While we’ve reported on the firings, the reactions, the protests, one thing that has been missing is the personal stories of the teachers affected.  Furthermore, another untold story is the fear and anxiety that these firings have had on those currently employed in Catholic institutions.

Two researchers from academic institutions have contacted New Ways Ministry to let us know about a study they are doing where they will survey LGBTQ educators currently working in Catholic schools.  This category includes teachers, counselors, administrators, coaches, support staff, and others working in Catholic schools.  Respondents do not have to be Catholic themselves. The goal of the survey is to generate a sense of the experience these people face as employees in Catholic schools. The survey would take 15-25 minutes to complete and is completely anonymous. The identity of the participant, along with any potential identifying factor, will be kept strictly confidential.   Educators do not have to be “out” as LGBTQ to participate.

This research will be a boon to our church, providing first-hand testimony and data from those who are most affected by this misguided policy of firing.

The researchers have asked New Ways Ministry for help in identifying LGBTQ educators in Catholic schools.  So, we turn to you, our faithful blog readers, to spread the word about this research project.  If you are an LGBTQ teacher in a Catholic school or you know someone who is one, please be in touch with New Ways Ministry: office@NewWaysMinistry.org or phone (301) 277-5674 between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., Eastern U.S. Time.

All information will be held in strictest confidence by New Ways Ministry and by the researchers.   The study is being conducted in April and May, so quick responses would be the most helpful.

This research work will provide solid, scientific information and personal experience that can help our church better understand LGBTQ people, particularly those employed in church institutions.  If you have any possibility of asking someone to participate, please do so. Please feel free to share this information with others.

This upcoming Sunday is Palm Sunday, and Bondings 2.0 will continue our Lenten reflection series with an essay penned by a Catholic high school teacher who identifies as gay and queer.  If you are interested in getting the personal dimension to this issue, be sure to check back here on Sunday, April 9, 2017, to read this moving account.

If you would like to learn more about the issue of LGBT church workers in Catholic institutions, consider attending New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois.  Leslie Griffin, a professor of law, will give a plenary session talk on “Religious Liberty, Employment, & LGBT Issues.”  During one of the focus sessions, three people affected by the firings, Colleen Simon, Margie Winters, and Andrea Vettori will give personal testimony about “The Challenges of LGBT Church Workers.” For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, April 7, 2017

Another Teen Can’t Bring Her Female Date to Catholic H.S. Prom

As we enter the thick of the high school prom season, news comes of yet another same-gender couple not being allowed to attend a Catholic high school’s big dance.  This trend is becoming larger and larger, and soon Catholic schools are going to have to face the reality that more and more of their students will be seeking to attend with an escort of the same-gender.

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Paula Goodgame, left, and her girlfriend, Anjali Persad

Buzzfeed reported that Paula Goodgame, a 17-year old student at St. Petersburg Catholic High School, Florida, “had discovered she wouldn’t be allowed to take her girlfriend, Anjali Persad, to the big dance as her date, according to an email she received from her school guidance counselor.” 

The guidance counselor told her that school rules required “escorts must be of the opposite gender.”  In an email the counselor gave her an alternative suggestion, but one that falls short of the mark:  “. . . [I]f you could have one of your male friends ask her as his date that would probably work.”

However well-intentioned the guidance counselor is, that solution is not satisfying.  If anything, such a suggestion teaches students to find a way around an unjust rule, rather than confronting the injustice that exists.  It sends the message that this student must find underhanded ways of living out her relationship.  Neither of these lessons expresses Catholic values.

As Bondings 2.0 has reported, while this trend of barring same-gender couples from proms is growing, there have been some instances where Catholic leaders have taken a more enlightened approach to the issue.  In 2013, McQuaid Jesuit H.S., Rochester, an all-boys school allowed a same-gender couple, and the school’s president used concepts from Pope Francis to defend the decision.  In Australia, an archbishop made a blanket decision that all Catholic high school students should be allowed to take to the prom whoever they want.

The whole controversy raises a number of questions and puzzled expressions.  For one thing, girls dancing with girls, and women dancing with women, has been a socially acceptable practice for decades even in the most heterosexual of environments.   What’s the big deal here?

More importantly, do Catholic school officials assume that all of their heterosexually-coupled prom dates are going to engage in sexual activity on the big night?  Of course, the answer is no. So where is the problem in allowing a same-gender couple to attend the event, using the same assumption that sexual contact is not a foregone conclusion?

If Catholic schools justify their bans on same-gender prom couples by saying they are upholding church teaching on sexuality, the question needs to be asked, why aren’t they doing the same thing with the way proms celebrate conspicuous consumption.  Catholic high school students will sometimes spend way beyond their means for dresses, tuxedos, flowers, limousines, tickets, after-parties.  Why are school officials only concerned about one part of church teaching–sex–and not the more socially justice oriented values of modest and moderate use of financial resources.

Finally, what is the purpose of such bans on same-gender couples except to exclude?  Do school officials believe that such rules will discourage gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens from acknowledging their orientations and from seeking relationships that are honest and personally fulfilling to them? All these rules do is create bad feelings–and not least among the majority of heterosexually-oriented ally students who are friends with their LGB peers.

Just as with the terrible scourge of Catholic institutions firing LGBT and ally employees,  the Church is soon going to learn that this strategy is not only unjust but unsustainable.  As more and more LGB students step up and seek to attend proms with their special guests, schools are going to find that the institution of prom will have to start accommodating them or risk becoming an outdated tradition.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, April 6, 2017

Related articles:

South Florida Gay News:  Catholic High School Bans Lesbian Couple From Attending Prom Together

Gay Star News: “Gay girl was told she can’t bring her girlfriend to prom, and the internet is outraged”

Michael Maher, a researcher on Catholic youth and LGBT issues be speaking at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

 

Carmelite Sisters Become Key Allies for Transgender Youth in India

In January, Bondings 2.0 reported about Indian Catholics’ involvement in starting the country’s first school inclusive of trans youth. This week, The Atlantic posted a more in-depth look at the women religious who helped make the school a reality, and who have remained involved as key allies.

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Vijayaraja Mallika and Sr. Pavithra

Transgender  educator Vijayaraja Mallika had a dream was to start a school for trans people and to give it the name “Sahaj,” which in Hindi means “natural.” But Mallika lacked a proper space for the school until Carmelite sisters, having become aware of the activist’s efforts, invited her for tea. The article continued:

 

“Splitting themselves between an auto-rickshaw and a public bus, the sisters and the activist rode past palm trees, tech offices, and paddy fields to the spot they had in mind: an unused building that the CMC convent had once intended to turn into a dormitory.

“Mallika looked at the size of the structure, the roomy kitchen and sunny terrace. She was so overwhelmed that she burst into tears. The building was not only a concrete way to get her school started, it was also indicative of an entirely new support system. The Carmelites, she realized, could become unlikely allies for transgender activists pushing for education and acceptance in [the state of] Kerala.”

The Carmelites spent $8,000 to help outfit the school, and there are now two sisters living on the property. Sr. Pavithra, who helped connect the order with Mallika, said there is potential for more support, too. The sisters have “conceived of a new initiative to help trans youth by educating children in Carmelite-run schools about what it means to be transgender.” Through this awareness-raising program and through financial support for trans youth, the Carmelites goal for the students is “to ensure that they never drop out of school to begin with” and will not have to enter the sex trade. Sr. Pavithra said:

“We are 6,000 sisters. We have so many institutions. We are known to the society. Unless and until we take them up, how will [trans people] come up?”

Yet, establishing Sahaj itself has been a struggle. The initial excitement of establishing the school has ceded to frustrations. At present, there are “no teachers, no accreditation, and no students.” The building, instead, is functioning as a shelter. But despite administrative challenges, Sr. Pavithra and the Carmelites remain hopeful:

“‘Any new beginning has got its own problems. It takes time, even for a normal school. A transgender school? We have miles to go ahead. . .Of course it can happen in Kerala. . .These are all the initial struggles to take up a new responsibility. I said, “Mallika, you are the first generation. Us sisters, we may be part of it, and maybe [by] the third generation, we will see the fruits. It will take.”‘”

The sisters’ commitment is important because the needs of trans people in Kerala are great. Approximately 25,000 trans people live there, and their outcomes are impaired by the high levels of discrimination, harassment, and violence that they and other trans communities in the world face. The Atlantic compared education outcomes:

“Kerala boasts a higher literacy rate for both men and women than any of India’s other 28 states. But 58 percent of transgender students in the state drop out before completing 10th grade and 24 percent drop out before ninth grade.”

Kerala’s 2015 Transgender Policy and the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to legalize a third gender option have done little to mitigate these oppressions, said Mallika. Indeed, a trans advocate named Faisal said Kerala is a worse place to be trans than other states. Hijras, who are “transgender, intersex, and transsexual people who live within a strict hierarchical community” found elsewhere in India, are less present there. And Kerala has fewer Hindus and far more Christians than the overall demographics of India, with Christianity being far less accepting of non-binary genders than Hinduism.

Thankfully, the Carmelite sisters are paying attention to voices on the peripheries, and have been quite accepting of trans people in their state. The partnership began when Sr. Pavithra encountered Mallika at a social work gathering:

“There, Mallika spoke about how she had looked at almost 700 properties to no avail; some were too small, while others closed their doors when the owners learned what would be done with the space. Sister Pavithra took up the issue with her convent’s administrative council and advocated that they retrofit one of their vacant buildings into a school. . .The six council members approved the lease, with the blessing of the local bishop.”

The partnership is not, however, without its own problems. In an effort to protect trans people with whom they are working, the sisters have, at times, enforced strict curfews to keep people staying with them from going into sex work. They also “occasionally try to persuade trans people to wear clothing associated with the gender they were assigned at birth,” though one sister said this is so trans persons will “blend in, gain acceptance, and avoid ridicule” in society. She explicitly rejected that there have been any attempts at “conversion therapy.”

And there are intra-church hiccups, too, with some Catholics critical of the sisters’ work and of trans outreach generally. To them, Sr. Pavithra simply said, “If we consider everybody’s opinion, nothing will take place in the world.”

Church officials have had a leading and largely positive role when it comes to LGBT people in India. Last fall, the bishops’ official development agency, Caritas India, announced trans-specific outreach programs (though, it must be noted, the director’s approach to gender identity has been criticized). Virginia Saldanha, a leading lay person who was once executive secretary of the Office of Laity for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, said the church must bring LGBT people “in from the cold.”

A particularly bright light is Bombay’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias who, in a message to LGBT people conveyed through a personal interview with Bondings 2.0’s Francis DeBernardo, said the “church embraces you, wants you, needs you.” Gracias has said repeatedly that homosexuality should not be criminalized.In fact, he was the only religious leader in India to criticize the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to reinstate criminalization in 2013.

5The witness of these Carmelite sisters and other Indian church officials to the dignity and worth of LGBT people can be an inspiration and model for the church universal.

To learn more about Catholics involvement in international LGBT human rights, attend New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Frank Mugisha, a Catholic who heads Sexual Minorities Uganda, will speak on “The Catholic Church, Criminalization Laws, and the LGBT Experience in Uganda.”  An international panel of transgender and intersex advocates will speak during a focus session. For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 30, 2017

Why Catholic High Schools Need LGBTQ+ Student Groups

Last month, a St. Louis, MO, Catholic high school, Nerinx Hall, made news when it turned down a student request to establish a gay-straight alliance (GSA). Questions arose about how Catholic high schools can best serve their LGBTQ+ students while retaining their Catholic identity. 

To aid Nerinx Hall and all other Catholic schools when deciding whether to start an LGBTQ+ student group, Bondings 2.0 has compiled data on the experiences of LGBTQ+ high school students and the proven impact LGBTQ+ student groups have on high school campus climates. 

Educational Consequences of Unsafe Environments

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educators Network’s (GLSEN) 2015 National School Climate Survey Executive Summary spelled out the problems students face

op-story-lgbt-safety-300x250“A hostile school climate affects students’ academic success and mental health. LGBTQ+ students who experience victimization and discrimination at school have worse educational outcomes and poorer psychological well-being.” Additionally, the GLSEN document said that unsafe school environments also lead students to drop out of school early, “42.5% of LGBTQ+ students who reported that they did not plan to finish high school, or were not sure if they would finish, indicated that they were considering dropping out because of the harassment they faced at school.” 

LGBTQ+ students who experienced discrimination were “more than three times as likely to have missed school in the past month, had lower GPAs than their peers, and had lower self-esteem and school belonging and higher levels of depression,” according to the GLSEN report. 

“We see that LGBT youth are being deprived of an equal education based on these hostile school climates,” Emily Greytak, GLSEN Research Director.

School climate directly impacts how well students learn and socialize. Heightened stressors like bullying, discrimination, victimization, and lacking a sense of community are proven to make LGBTQ+ students more likely to have negative educational and developmental outcomes. LGBTQ+ student groups provide a space for students to create a sense of community and support so they can better perform as students as they develop into adulthood. 

Do LGBTQ+ student groups work? The data says, “Yes!” 

According to a report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, data from as early as 1998 shows that LGBTQ+ students attending schools with LGBTQ+ student groups “were less likely to report being victimized, skipping school because of fear of victimization, or attempting suicide.” The same report showed that LGBTQ+ student groups are “significantly protective” in decreasing suicidal ideation and attempts by LGB high school students. 

More recent data in GLSEN “Safe Space Kit” 2016 and GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey shows students who did have an LGBTQ+ student group were less likely to feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation, experienced lower levels of victimization related to their sexual orientation and gender expression, reported a greater number of supportive school staff and more accepting peers, were more likely to report incidents of harassment and assault, felt more connected to their school community, and were less likely to miss school because of safety concerns than LGBTQ+ students in schools without an LGBTQ+ student group. 

LGBTQ+ student groups have even been found to benefit school climates on issues beyond sexuality and gender identity. According to the GLSEN “Teasing to Torment” 2015 document, even non-LGBTQ+ students in schools with LGBTQ+ student groups “experience less victimization based on race/ethnicity and based on appearance than students without a GSA” and reported “greater feelings of safety for the general student body.” 

Catholic Schools Need LGBTQ+ Student Groups

Some Catholic educators and administrators are worried that granting students an LGBTQ+ student group would negatively impact the Catholic identity of the school, but this fear is by no means an excuse to deny students what they need: an LGBTQ+ student group. 

rolingAccording to a GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey, barring students from forming or promoting an LGBTQ+ student group clearly sends “the message that LGBT topics, and in some cases, even LGBTQ+ people, are not appropriate for extracurricular activities.” GLSEN claimed that by denying or hindering LGBTQ+ student groups, the school administration marks “official school activities distinctly as non-LGBT” and that such discrimination prevents “LGBTQ+ students from participating in the school community as fully and completely as other students.”

In Pope Francis’ directive for Catholic education, listed on the Catholic education web page of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, he calls us to care for the needs of all students, which, of course, means LGBTQ+ students, too: 

“Our generation will show that it can rise to the promise found in each young person when we know how to give them space. This means that we have to create the material and spiritual conditions for their full development; to give them a solid basis on which to build their lives; to guarantee their safety and their education to be everything they can be.” 

Catholic school administrators and educators cannot ignore the needs of LGBTQ+ students as they raise themselves to the promise found in their own selves. Denying them the space to grow and heal does not rise to their promise, it denies that their promise exists. 

So, paraphrasing Pope Francis, Catholic school administrators should ask themselves: “Can we rise to the promise found in your LGBTQ+ students and guarantee their safety and their education to be everything they can be?” 

Glen Bradley, New Ways Ministry, March 28, 2017


Would you like to start an LGBTQ+ student group at your school? The GSA Network has resources available here. GLSEN also has resources on how to start an LGBTQ+ student group and general resources for LGBTQ+ student groups

Come to New Ways Ministry’s symposium this April for our focus session “Youth, Young Adult Ministry, and LGBT Questions.” Find more information on our symposium website.

Youth, Young Adult Ministry, and LGBT Questions