Newman University Recognizes LGBTQ Group; The Catholic University of America Holds Out

As another school year wraps up, students at Newman University, Wichita, Kansas,  are celebrating a new LGBTQ student group. Today’s post shares this story and an opposite one from The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.  Both stories highlight the importance of such groups.

Newman University Welcomes LGBTQ Group

Facing student pressure, Newman University administrators approved an LGBTQ student group this spring.

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Ruben Lerma

Ruben Lerma led efforts for a recognized group at the school, which he decided to attend because it offered him generous financial aid despite his lack of U.S. citizenship. But being gay, Lerma was skeptical of attending a Catholic institution. The Witchita Eagle reported:

“He overheard other students on campus talk about how gay people should go to hell, he said, and how the legalization of gay marriage would lead gays to want to get married to animals. Some of his friends would point out other students on campus who, he was told, hated gay people.”

These experiences propelled Lerma to make a public speech his junior year, acknowledging that he was not the only gay person on campus and, “If for their sake, if not mine, you should make [the campus] more amiable, make the environment better.”

Student interest in an LGBTQ group spread quickly, building on existing alumni support and a more general overhaul on campus about how the school handles diversity.

In response to this pressure, administrators formed a committee to figure out how the school could better support LGBTQ students like Lerma. The Eagle reported that the committee, “which included nuns, priests, students, faculty, and administrators,” is modeled on the University of Notre Dame’s pastoral plan for LGBT students.

The plan, supported by Newman University staff, recognizes a new student group called Kaleidoscope. Student Adviser Ami Larrea, who helped form the group, explained the name:

“‘A kaleidoscope has all these different colors and shapes, but they somehow come together to make this really awesome picture and it’s beautiful even though it’s all different. . .That was important for us. We are LGBTQ, but we are different colors, different shapes and sizes, and it all looks great.'”

The plan, unfortunately, reveals the compromises which LGBTQ students are often required to make in more conservative Catholic environments. The Eagle reported:

“The Notre Dame-type model included language that emphasizes that the club cannot contradict the Catholic view that LGBTQ students should be ‘chaste,’ because sex is condoned only in marriage between a man and a woman.

“‘The University exhorts all to hear and live the Church’s teaching that ‘the deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage (between man and woman) is essentially contrary to its purpose’ and is considered gravely sinful,’ the plan reads.”

Dean of Student Affairs Levi Esses affirmed this mission, saying the group would be a “very supportive atmosphere” for students to remain celibate outside of heterosexual marriage. Nonetheless, students are celebrating the plan even with its compromises:

“Kevin Clack, who will be the group’s first student leader, said he doesn’t think the language in the pastoral plan means the group won’t be able to talk about dating and romance. But LGBTQ students have a lot of concerns, and Clack said he doesn’t expect the group to focus on sexuality more than any other group on campus, including the Black Student Union, of which he is also a member.

“Clack doesn’t agree with the language about what constitutes a true marriage but thinks compromise was necessary to get the group started.”

Catholic University of America Denies LGBTQ Group Again

Meanwhile, administrators at The Catholic University of America again denied students’ application for a recognized LGBTQ group, CUAllies.

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John Garvey

Speaking at a town hall with students, President John Garvey explained his rationale, according to campus newspaper The Tower:

“‘We’re not going to officially sponsor CUAllies. But that should not, I hope, be the measure of our support. . .We do not want to endorse a whole set of propositions that our culture insists on sexuality and gender. . .Neither do we want to ignore the needs of our gay and lesbian students. We ask all freshmen to take a pledge when coming here, we offer a counseling center, and Father Jude has a chaplet initiative.'”

Earlier this spring, the University hosted lesbian Catholic speaker Eve Tushnet who promotes celibacy for lesbian and gay people. In response, CUAllies President Carly Tomaine told The Tower that in keeping with Tushnet’s message about inclusion, “[The university] needs to publicly acknowledge [CUAllies] because no one wants to be pushed to the side.”

Administrators have rejected student and alumni requests for CUAllies to be recognized since 2008, leading one alumnus to publish a post on Buzzfeed recently titled “Reasons Queer Youth Should Not Attend Catholic University of America.”

Student demands at both Newman University and Catholic University make clear the importance of recognized LGBTQ student groups that act both as safe spaces and campus educators. Thankfully, more often than not, we report on Catholic institutions which are recognizing, not rejecting such groups.

This post is part of our “Campus Chronicles” series on Catholic higher education. You can read more stories by clicking “Campus Chronicles” in the Categories section to the right or by clicking here. For the latest updates on Catholic LGBT issues, subscribe to our blog in the upper right-hand corner of this page.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 21, 2017

 

 

Gay Teacher Harassed by Students Fired by Jesuit High School

A Catholic high school in Chicago has fired a gay teacher after students outed and harassed him for over a year.

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Matt Tedeschi

Matt Tedeschi taught religious studies and French at St. Ignatius College Prep, a Jesuit institution. Having taught for four years, he was up for tenure next year. But trouble began in February 2016 when a student discovered his profile on an online dating website. DNA Info reported:

“After discovering the dating profile, the St. Ignatius student texted screenshots of Tedeschi’s profile to several other St. Ignatius students, and it spread across campus.

” ‘He “outed” me to a bunch of students. He knew that he was making fun of me and insulting me,’ Tedeschi said. ‘He wanted to embarrass me.’ “

Tedeschi said he never expected students to find him on the website, which is for people age eighteen and older and which is used by other staff at St. Ignatius. He told DNA Info, “Everyone should have the right to a private life.”

Students continued to harass Tedeschi for over a year. One student tweeted against him sixteen times. The tweets include one that said, “Let’s not forget I have screenshots that can end you,” a reference to the screenshots of the teacher’s dating profile, one of which was included in the tweet. All of this created what Tedeschi described as “a horrible environment,” especially given the aforementioned tweet which he considers “public blackmail.”

Unfortunately, school administrators offered little support for Tedeschi. He informed them multiple times about students finding his dating profile and about their continued harassment. Just one student received two detentions for tweeting against Tedeschi. Principal Brianna Latko did little to stop what Tedeschi called a “culture of harassment.” He explained:

” ‘[School officials] were just watching it play out. . .I was having anxiety attacks before I went to class. It just completely undermined my authority as a teacher and made me feel small. … This unnecessarily pitted me against my students, which never should have been the case.’ “

This March, Tedeschi was informed that St. Ignatius would not be renewing his contract for the 2017-2018 school year. According to DNA Info:

“The school gave him the opportunity to finish out the school year, but after he discussed his departure with a colleague, the school called him to say that his employment was being terminated immediately. In exchange for the rest of his salary he would have earned over the semester, school administrators urged him to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but Tedeschi declined, he said.

“Tedeschi said he was told he was being fired because he showed poor judgment posting photos online and didn’t stop the classroom conversation involving the sensitive information. He said he was also told he was negative and undermined authority — although administrators declined to elaborate to him on these charges or provide further details in writing.”

Administrators will not comment on the firing or surrounding events. Spokesperson Ryan Bergin said confidentiality precluded any comment, but that Tedeschi was “treated fairly” and that school officials “wish him all the best.”

Though his sexual orientation was not explicitly referenced when he was fired, Tedeschi said the firing is really about him being forcibly outed by students as a gay man, his decision to seek an end to the harassment, and the school’s attempt to cover up an embarrassing incident. A colleague agreed that it was not Matt being gay which was the problem, but that his public outing violated the “hush-hush” attitude towards gay faculty and students and was “creating too much trouble.”

Tedeschi has released an open letter (see end of linked article) to the school community, in which he expressed gratitude for the school community. He is publicly telling his story of firing because “only by speaking truthfully and openly can our institution become a better version of itself.” He is now considering his legal options.

This firing is a tremendous loss. Students have lost a teacher who by all accounts was gifted and enthusiastic. Tedeschi was not supported by the administration against harrassment. St. Ignatius administrators’ decision to fire him is troubling for one more reason. It sends the message to offending students and the wider community that homophobia is implicitly acceptable because, in this case, it was the victim who was punished, not the harassers.

 —Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 19, 2017

 

Former Vice President Joe Biden Calls for Greater Global LGBT Solidarity

Marking yesterday’s International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia, former Vice President Joe Biden called for people in the U.S. to be in greater solidarity with LGBT people around the world.

Biden - Human DignityBiden, who is Catholic, wrote in the Washington Post that his father instilled in him a belief that “everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.” He continued:

“It’s a simple but powerful notion that lies at the heart of our identity as Americans. It is a truth that continues to drive me today, particularly when it comes to full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. . .

“Progress doesn’t happen by chance. It happens because good people come together and demand change. And any person of conscience, regardless of their religious or partisan beliefs, should be able to agree: Violence against any person, in any form, is intolerable. No one should be killed, tortured, assaulted or harassed because of who they are.”

Biden noted the many advances in LGBT rights in recent years, but he pointed out how much work remains when LGBT people are being discriminated against, tortured, and even killed in places like Chechnya, Syria, Iraq, and Uganda. Biden notably rejected the use of religion to justify such human rights violations:

“This offensive argument ignores the fundamental truth that LGBT rights are human rights. Prejudice is prejudice; inhumanity is inhumanity. Using religion or culture to license discrimination and demonizing LGBT individuals to score political points are no more justifiable around the world than they are here at home.”

Biden - Work to DoBiden concluded with an appeal to fellow Americans to enact greater solidarity with LGBT communities worldwide through government policy, business partnerships, and personal action:

“In the face of such atrocities, it is the responsibility of every person to speak out. . .Progress is possible. But we cannot wait, we cannot stand by. . .

“Together, we will work to defend and advance the human rights of all people, and we will not rest until equality, at home and around the world, is fully realized. Until then, to all those suffering discrimination and violence simply because of who they are or whom they love, know this: The American people are on your side.”

 As Vice President, he was a noted advocate for LGBT equality who once said trans rights were “the civil rights issue of our time.”  He vocally supported the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and he is credited with moving former President Barack Obama to support marriage equality. Biden even officiated at a staffer’s same-gender wedding in the vice presidential residence, despite some bishops’ criticism. Biden has said that the criteria for marriage he used was, “Who do you love?

It is a hopeful sign that the former vice president, through the Biden Foundation, is still prioritizing global LGBT rights, growing his profile as one of the nation’s most high-profile Catholic advocates for equality.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 18, 2017

 

Fr. James Martin: Some Saints Were “Probably Gay” and Will Greet You in Heaven

There are Catholic saints who were “probably gay,” said Jesuit Fr. James Martin, the well-known author, against online commenters critical of Bishop John Stowe’s attendance at New Ways Ministry’s Symposium two weeks ago.

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 3.34.33 PMMartin posted a news story to his Facebook page about spiritual reflections Stowe gave at the Symposium. The priest, who has more than a half million followers online, commented on the story, “Another sign of welcome and building bridges.”

But some followers were critical of Stowe and Martin. Walter Maczynski said, “Any canonized saints would not be impressed.” That is when Martin offered his powerful reply:

“Some of them were probably gay. A certain percentage of humanity is gay, and so were most likely some of the saints. You may be surprised when you get to heaven to be greeted by LGBT men and women.”

While some commenters joined Maczynski’s criticism, most people affirmed Fr. Martin’s idea and shared their own stories of being an LGBT Catholic or having a loved one who is.  This post was similar to Martin’s 2014 post when he said the sexual orientation of theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who some have theorized was a gay man, should matter in remembering him.

The Advocate noted that Martin was recently appointed by Pope Francis to be a consultor for the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications, and he has also spoken out for LGBT equality:

“Martin has a history of LGBT advocacy within the Catholic Church. Last summer, he released a viral video on Facebook imploring Catholics to “stand with… their LGBT brothers and sisters” in the wake of the Orlando shooting.

“Afterward, he penned a book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. He was honored by New Ways Ministry, a Catholic LGBT group, with its Bridge Building Award for his work.”

He recently challenged another priest to be more supportive of transgender people, an act one journalist described as a “holy mic drop.

The communion of saints is a very powerful aspect of the Catholic imagination, and thus there have been many efforts to celebrate Catholic saints who would today likely identify as LGBT. Catholics remember those holy people in our history who have practiced radical hospitality or lived as their authentic self in defiance of the cultural norms of their times. For example, one artist has created queer depictions of popular saints, and there is a significant devotion to Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM, the saint of 9/11, who was gay.

LGBT Catholics and allies can once again thank Fr. Martin for his outspoken advocacy for a church where all people are welcome.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 13, 2017

 

Against Vice President Pence’s Upcoming Speech, University of Notre Dame Community Fights for LGBT Inclusion

If it’s May, it is time for commencement ceremony controversies in Catholic higher education. Recently, these flaps have often been tied to speakers’ more permissive views on LGBT issues, which bishops and conservative Catholics publicly criticize. This year, however, it is the speaker’s anti-LGBT record which has instigated controversy at the University of Notre Dame.

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Vice President Mike Pence

Notre Dame has invited Vice President Mike Pence to speak at its main graduation ceremony, reported the National Catholic Reporter. His record on LGBT issues is poor. In 2000, he sought federal funding for conversion therapy by diverting funds from HIV/AIDS research. In 2015, he signed “license to discriminate” legislation into law as the governor of Indiana, which caused so much uproar from the business community that it was quickly amended to protect LGBT people.

Pence’s record is leading many “Fighting Irish” to defend their campus against an anti-LGBT voice. NCR explained further:

“[U]ndergraduates and alumni from the Notre Dame and St. Mary’s College LGBT community were also busy preparing for commencement. In the third week of April, they distributed almost 500 rainbow flags representing gay pride around campus and asked for community support in displaying them as a protest against the Pence visit. The flags were soon hanging from dorm windows at Notre Dame. They were also seen hanging in Nieuwland Science Hall and Geddes Hall, where many theology faculty members have offices. Flags were also flapping from windows in the 13-story Hesburgh Library.”

Senior Bryan Ricketts said the flags and other actions around campus were an initial show of support for LGBT members of the Notre Dame community. In the same week as the flags were hung, GALA Notre Dame/Saint Mary’s College, an LGBT alumni association, gave its Thomas A. Dooley Award to alumna Kristen Matha for her involvement in LGBT outreach at the National Collegiate Athletic Association  (NCAA), one of the business organizations that strongly protested Indiana’s original religious freedom law mentioned above.

Additionally, GALA joined with the gender studies department to host a panel discussion, “Reconciling Religious Freedom and Civil Rights.” Panelist Mary Celeste Kearney, who heads that department, told attendees:

“We are in a precarious position at a conservative Catholic institution like Notre Dame [because gender studies] defines gender as a social formation that impacts all of our various identities, relationships, opportunities, employment and points of agency — for everyone. [But the church says] gender is biologically determined or ordained by God.”

Ricketts, an openly gay student, acknowledged the problems at Notre Dame and threats facing LGBT people today, but also affirmed the progress happening on campus:

“I see that many people want to live out their Catholic faith by allowing everyone to feel welcomed. . .And there are plenty of LGBT people here who are also faithful to Catholicism and who continue to be practicing Catholics. I don’t think there’s necessarily any conflict between the two. Notre Dame is a place where all that is being sorted out.”

Progress has been slow. It was only in 2012 that the University released the LGBT pastoral plan, “Beloved Friends and Allies.” Implementing that plan has been mixed; the University has hired staff to support LGBTQ students, but it was also reported that safe housing was denied to a transgender student. This mixed record has left students pondering about whether Notre Dame was really a hospitable environment for sexual and gender minorities.

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Rainbow flag hung from the window of a men’s dormitory at Notre Dame

Campus newspaper The Observer reported that during this most recent show of support, there has been pushback from University staff. At least five students were asked to remove their flags, though few have complied. Additionally, a theology professor has been complaining about the presence of rainbow flags in some campus buildings. Jessica Baron of the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values commented:

“That this is a problem is disturbing to me — a symbol of love and acceptance is offensive and misleading?”

A few weeks ago, to mark the passing Gilbert Baker who designed the rainbow flag, I wrote about how important it was for this symbol of inclusion and pride to be present in Catholic spaces. Visibility is essential for youth and young adults, and especially so when the University chooses to host someone who has so fervently sought to deny LGBT people equal rights.

This incident is not the University of Notre Dame’s first controversy over its graduation speaker. In the past, right-wing figures including the local bishop and other bishops across the country criticized the school for hosting former President Barack Obama at commencement in 2009. Administrators were criticized from the left when Kevin Hasson, who founded the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty which has spearheaded lawsuits against LGBT rights, received an honorary degree in 2012.

While it is important that a university allow all views to be aired and discussed, it is also important that the human dignity of university students, faculty, and students be protected.  Given Pence’s strong anti-LGBT record, the University of Notre Dame needs to express its commitment to LGBT equality by making a statement of support during this controversial time.   Such a statement would balance academic freedom with a recommitment to the school’s Catholic social justice principles.  It would show clearly that the University does not support anti-LGBT policies.

Thankfully, students and staff are not letting administrators’ choice be the last word on this issue. Their supportive non-violent actions are showing that they have imbibed strong Catholic values in their time at Notre Dame.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 12, 2017

Catholic Schools in Ontario Cancel Children’s Play on Gender Identity

Catholic schools in Ontario, Canada have canceled scheduled performances of a play because of concerns that its protagonist is a small child who explores gender boundaries.

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Photo of a “Boys, Girls, and Other Mythological Creatures” performance

Carousel Players, the theater company behind the play, announced the cancellations of “Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures.” According to Global Newsthe play “tells the story of 8-year-old Simon, who dreams of becoming a princess and feels boxed in gender stereotypes.”

Parents’ complaints about the content led the Niagara Catholic District School Board to cancel the show on the grounds that the play was “not age-appropriate” and students would not understand the issues it raises. The Board claimed Carousel Players did not include information in its promotional materials that the play was about gender identity.

Yet, CBC Radio reported the play, targeted at elementary age children, “was created in conjunction with representatives from several Ontario school boards to be in line with the province’s new sex-ed curriculum.” The Players were explicit in marketing their performance as such.

Not everyone is convinced the cancellations happened due to concerns over students’ ages. Jessica Carmichael, the artistic director for Carousel Players, released a statement which said, in part:

“I fear these cancellations may be based on misinformation, grown out of fear, intolerance, transphobia, homophobia and misogyny. . .The core message from the main character, Simon(e), in Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures, is that every child needs the support of friends and family no matter who they are, what they dress like, what toys they like to play with and what they imagine they can be. I wholeheartedly believe in this message.”

Carmichael further said the play has been well received when performed at other schools, where staff are “encouraging children to have conversations which promote acceptance” and where the magic of live theater “brings people together to work towards a better today and tomorrow and it encourages discussion.”

The Carousel Players have since staged a free performance, followed by a question and answer period so anyone in the local community who wished to view the play could do so.

Having not seen “Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures” myself, I cannot comment on the play’s contents, and whether it would be appropriate for elementary age children. But school officials should be aware that even young children are already grappling with questions about gender. Many trans individuals claim they had a consciousness about their identities as young as five or six years of age.

Whether through the Carousel Players or some other means, Catholic schools in Ontario and elsewhere should be addressing issues of gender identity as an essential aspect of their commitment to students’ flourishing.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 8, 2017

QUOTE TO NOTE: Longer Communion Lines, When All Are Welcome

Though the Eucharist should be an unmitigated source of unity for Catholics, too often the Communion line becomes a place for exclusion. People deemed “unworthy” do not receive or are even denied Communion, and these “unworthy” people have too often included LGBT Catholics and their families.

computer_key_Quotation_MarksBut after several years of dialogue, and sometimes sharp debate, is Pope Francis’ desire for a more welcoming and merciful church being realized at the Communion line? Perhaps, answered one parish priest writing for Commonweal

The priest, who uses the pseudonym “Fr. Nonomen,” wrote about an encounter he had in the produce section of his local market. A woman shared with him that she was moved greatly when she saw her former pastor, a Fr. Ed who left the priesthood to marry, receive Communion at the Easter Vigil this year. Fr. Nonomen quoted her:

“In that moment, I knew. . .I was suddenly filled with a joyful, peaceful assurance that the church I love would weather the storms and issues that seem sometimes to tear it apart. Seeing Father Ed with his wife showed me how God is always doing something new! As they received Communion, I saw that there is room for all in Christ. And that has helped heal my heart.'”

Fr. Nonomen reflected on the many other people who helped him see “that the depth and breadth of humanity was in the Communion line. . .drawn to one table, one altar, one Lord.” In them, he saw “a foretaste of what liturgists call ‘the heavenly banquet.'” When everyone who sought Communion received that night, there was not, as church leaders often warn of, “scandal.” There was healing. The priest concluded:

“The more intriguing question, perhaps, is not how but why this happened. I figure it to be a lesson in grace. At a time when elitism and intolerance have crept into so many facets of life, the Lord insists that the Kingdom of God will be otherwise and often surprises us with glimpses of it right here, right now. The people of the Kingdom are a richly diverse people, aware of their need and drawn to the God who welcomes all and lavishes grace on all, even that former priest, even that same-sex couple. . . “

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Vatican II identifies eucharistic liturgy as the source from which and summit to which our Christian lives ebb and flow. There is no greater test for how inclusive the church is in reality than how many people feel comfortable to approach and be welcomed into the Communion line.

In Fr. Nonomen’s lesson of grace, I also see longer lines at Mass as a sign that the tireless efforts of LGBT Catholics and their allies are finally able to bear fruit in the new space Pope Francis has created.

Do you agree? Did you see longer, more inclusive Communion lines at Mass today? How have you witnessed the unity of God’s people being made real in liturgy? 

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 7, 2017