Formation of Gay-Straight Alliances Should Be Top Priority at Catholic Schools

National Gay-Straight Alliance DayToday is National Gay-Straight Alliance Day.  February 6th has been marked by a coalition of youth advocacy organizations to raise awareness for the need of such organizations in our schools. Catholic schools are no exception.

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network highlights the challenges posed to gay, lesbian, and transgender students:

  • “More than 85 percent of LGBT students have been verbally harassed;
  • Nearly 20 percent of LGBT students were physically assaulted by their peers at school;
  • Almost 40 percent of LGBT students reported that faculty and staff never intervene when homophobic language is used in their presence;
  • Nearly 30 percent of LGBT students reported missing at least one entire school day because they felt unsafe.”

Those behind National Gay-Straight Alliance Day propose expanding the presence of GSAs at schools to combat negative experiences and provide greater safety:

“Violence and discrimination against LGBT students is the rule, not the exception, in American schools. It is a national disgrace that students feel threatened in school simply because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.  While Americans need to know that thousands of students each day go to school or college and endure LGBT violence and harassment, they must also know that GSAs are a tool in helping end violence and that these student groups save lives.”

Nearly half of Catholic colleges in the United States offer gay-friendly resources (here is a full listing by New Ways Ministry) and there are many GSA-style groups in Catholic high schools,  but the establishment of support groups remains a conflict for many schools.

In Canada, the province of Ontario passed legislation in mid-2012 mandating that all schools allow student clubs focused upon sexual orientation or gender identity. Catholic schools, which are funded by the government, were included in the law, but critics claim they have failed to provide anti-bullying or school spirit groups with an explicit LGBT focus. The Hamilton Spectator reports on this criticism and the government’s firm enforcement of the law:

“But according to local activist Deirdre Pike, [not naming the support clubs “gay-straight alliances”] could leave students feeling excluded and without the support they need…

“‘Until they get intentional about naming these groups, the silence will continue.’

“The education minister’s office, meanwhile, says the legislation is “clear” about the government’s commitment to safe, inclusive and accepting schools for all students, including those who are LGBT.”

In Australia, Daniel Torcasio is speaking about his troubling experiences teaching at an all-male Catholic high school where homophobic speech, bullying, and discriminatory employment practices were commonplace. The former teacher details one incident in 2009 for The Star Observer:

“‘A 13-year old kid came to me and told me he was gay. He’d only told his family and a few close friends, and told me so that if he was ever bullied at school someone would understand the situation and be able to help,’ Torcasio said.

“‘Naturally I took it to the school leadership, who then went to the Catholic Education Office…’

“‘The reply back from them was that we were never to mention matters like this again. That kid could’ve come to me as a cry for help – if he’d said he was suicidal or that he was being bullied, we would’ve been told to help him in any way we could, but because he was gay, we weren’t ever to discuss it,’ he said.”

Torcasio also left that position because of policies against gay staff that created a culture of silence for fear of termination:

“‘I was fairly open about my sexuality in the staff room, but I couldn’t let one detail of my private life slip to my students. If I’d mentioned my sexuality to someone or a parent had complained, I would have lost my job,’ he said.

“Torcasio claimed the ‘Catholic ethos’ stipulation in teacher’s contracts was only enforced on gay teachers.”

Torcasio, an alumnus of the high school, had returned to teach at the school after fifteen years expecting students would be more accepting than when he was a student and experienced severe bullying. He was disturbed by a continued culture of homophobia. The Catholic school district officially has no policy on LGBT students other than bland language regarding Catholic values.

Clearly, the common thread in these stories is the desperate need for students, educators, and parents to speak up. In Catholic schools, the establishment of gay-straight alliances that provide safe spaces for LGBT and questioning students, allow peer support to emerge, and create respectful atmospheres should be a top priority.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related recent post

February 1: Raising LGBT Standards in Catholic Schools

Raising LGBT Standards in Catholic Schools

National Catholic Schools Week concludes today having celebrated, under the theme “Catholic Schools Raise the Standards,” the many positives that Catholic education provides millions of students. In many areas of education parochial schools lead, but it is past due for Catholic education to confront its poor record on LGBT issues.

Catholic schools, historically, strove to live according to the ideals of dignity and welcome by educating those of varying ethnicities,  creeds, and economic classes with an emphasis on marginalized communities. Quality education in a respectful atmosphere, provided to all regardless of finances, was one fruit from generations of women and men religious, and now lay educators.

Yet, the news today about Catholic education too frequently tells of unjustified firings for inclusively-minded church workers, a lack of support for LGBT students, or excluded same-gender parents. If Catholic schools claim they raise the standards, it is time to do just that by forging a positive future for every student, teacher, staff, administrator, and parent.

On Wednesday of this week, I attended a discussion sponsored by Georgetown University about “LGBTQ Life on a Jesuit Campus.” Students, staff, Jesuits, and alumni gathered to reflect on Georgetown’s efforts to foster a welcoming campus for every student. These efforts blossomed in recent years to indeed raise the standards of LGBT acceptance there, and include the active LGBTQ Resource Center, an LGBTQ prayer group out of the Catholic chaplaincy, student organizations, and peer discussion groups.

Not every Catholic institution of higher education, high school, or elementary school will be so progressive, lacking both the resources and prestige Georgetown benefits from. All can apply the lessons of Georgetown to their local circumstances though.

Transforming a school into an LGBT-positive environment does not involve diminishing the Catholic identity, rather it involves enhancing those core principles of love, inclusion, and dignity that makes a school most Catholic.

For younger students, creating respectful environments encourages life-long toleration for each person based upon their dignity, not their differences. For older students, schools can foster a harmony between developing spiritualities and sexualities and combat the harmful divergence of these two that leads to so much pain for students of faith.

Catholic schools promise value-added education of the whole person, not just academic knowledge. Each of us must now contribute to creating an LGBT-affirmative educational system within the Catholic Church that truly raises the standards.

The handicap of an institutional hierarchy fixated on anti-marriage equality efforts should not constrict parents, educators, and students from implementing small, meaningful changes at their institution. We can emphasize inclusive language that combats hetero-normativity and respects a variety of gender expressions and identities. We can create respectful classrooms where anti-gay name-calling and harassment are not  tolerated, and actively programmed for eradication. We can explicitly include LGBT community members by welcoming same-gender parents and standing by transgender teachers. We can ensure schools provide counseling, spiritual, and guidance resources for students confronting the complexities of sexuality, spirituality, or some combination of the two.

I recommended the website of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network for further resources on making a primary or secondary school more welcoming. I also highly encourage those struggling within a Catholic college or university to contact New Ways Ministry for support we provide in Catholic higher education.

We can do more to raise the standard of Catholic schools on LGBT issues and we must. The Gospel demands no less of us.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry