A recent story from Ontario highlights institutional Catholic intransigence over LGBT issues is trumping reasonable solutions to simple problems.
Xtra.ca, a Canadian LGBT news source reports on the case of an 18-year old secondary school student named Brooke who has experienced repeated harassment at a Catholic school in Windsor, Ontario:
“Administrators at a Catholic school in Windsor, Ontario, are allegedly threatening to launch a lawsuit in an attempt to silence a gay student who is speaking out against homophobic discrimination at the school.
“Brooke, 18, a Grade 12 student at St Thomas of Villanova Catholic Secondary School, who asked that her last name be withheld, has had a rough school year so far. It began with the death of her father on Oct 1. On top of that, Brooke says a teacher has been bullying her because she is gay and in a relationship with a fellow student.
“And ever since the teacher outed their relationship to her girlfriend’s parents, Brooke says, the school has become the only place the pair can see one another, so she has no choice but to stay.”
Brooke claims that harassment from her religion teacher, Jolene Coste, has been occurring all year, with the teacher making remarks in class about the girl’s relationship with her girlfriend and with negative remarks about homosexuality. Things came to a head when Brooke alluded to an obscenity when answering a question about “real” marriage on an exam. Her response resulted in a ten-day suspension from school.
The arguing and accusations have been going on for most of the past school year. School administrators have brought up the possibility of suing Brooke for defamation.
Clearly, this situation has gotten out of hand. What is sad here is not just the possibility that a religion teacher would be bullying a student or that a student would resort to near-obscenity on an exam, but the fact that school administrators have not explored some way to mediate the situation by having the student, her parents, and the teacher discuss the situation together and come to some ground rules for behavior.
As Bondings 2.0 has reported, Ontario Catholic schools are state-funded, and are also subject to the province’s recent Accepting Schools Act, which was designed to eliminate bullying. Though Catholic schools originally balked at such a law, this situation clearly shows the need for it. One member of the Ontario parliament, Cheri DeNovo spoke to Xtra about the need for student safety:
“ ‘That’s not just physical safety, but also psychological and emotional safety as well,’ she says. ‘I call on every adult that surrounds her in that school system to stand up for her safety.
“ ‘Here we have a student in a publicly funded school that is not getting the support from her administration. She does not feel safe. Her concerns are not being addressed. Frankly, I think it’s disgusting that no [administrator] is standing up for her.’
‘DiNovo says it’s now the province’s job to ensure the act is enforced. Students shouldn’t have to face a legal battle to get the protection they deserve, she says. ‘[Education Minister] Liz Sandals herself should intervene. It’s sad we have to ask this of our students.’ ”
It is terribly sad that the government might have to become involved here. Last week, Bondings 2.0 reported on a dispute in New York City between a Catholic pastor and a nearby drag show. The dispute was easily resolved by the parties sitting down and speaking with one another.
In this school case, good Catholic pastoral care and simple human contact and dialogue could have defused this problem before it escalated to such proportions.
Members of the University of Notre Dame’s academic community continue to seek greater recognition of and protection for LGBT students on campus in the new academic year. In recent weeks, 391 faculty released an open letter in campus newspaper, The Observer, and students in the ‘4 to 5 Movement’ keep the issue alive with several public initiatives.
Under the leadership of sociology professor Richard Williams, the faculty letter affirms the value of LGBTQ persons at Notre Dame and notes the faculty’s commitment to providing safe spaces in offices and classrooms, as they simultaneously work for a more inclusive environment campus-wide. It implicitly endorses the pending application for AllianceND’s recognition as a campus GSA as well.
“‘We aren’t just trying to influence the University. … We can’t control what other people do, but we can control what we do ourselves,’ he said. ‘We wanted to show the members of the LGBTQ community that we support them, that we will not discriminate against them.’”
As reported in The Observer, the letter follows up on a statement from faculty released last May in response to the University administration’s public refusal to include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination clause. Since then, the number of faculty signers tripled and continues to expand after this most recent publication.
Faculty support bolsters the student activism present this fall due to optimism that the proposed GSA, AllianceND, will be approved by the administration soon.
Bondings 2.0 spoke with Alex Coccia, a junior leading the ‘4 to 5 Movment,’ about the faculty letter and coinciding student efforts this semester. Regarding the faculty’s efforts, Coccia said:
“We’ve really been keeping in touch with faculty and getting faculty involved. Faculty are in an extremely unique position. They’re not just professors, they act as mentors outside the classroom and this recent letter in particular is extremely good because they make the commitment that their classrooms are safe spaces and they will not discriminate based on sexual orientation.”
Coccia said the student aspect of the ‘4 to 5 Movement’ was in limbo as the academic year commenced because the Student Affairs Office (SAO) postponed its decision on AllianceND until this fall when a broad review of LGBTQ resources at Notre Dame concluded. Amidst that climate, student leadership is hopeful and Coccia told Bondings 2.0:
“At Notre Dame, there’s a sense that it is time…there’s no legitimate reason to reject the GSA, especially this application. We simply need to stress to the Student Affairs officers how important the GSA decision itself is.”
However hopeful they are, students continue to organize and publicize the issue with vigor. Over summer break, they collected 192 testimonies from the Notre Dame community, including alumni and family members, to help those in SAO understand why a gay-straight alliance is necessary for Notre Dame. An “I’m an Athlete, I’m an Ally” photo campaign will include photos from all varsity teams expressing their support and the addition of a high school mentoring program for youth who may be questioning as a service component.
These sentiments reflect wider student opinions, evident in the campus newspaper, including a Letter to the Editor from senior Julia Kohne:
“Last May, you stated that a decision about AllianceND’s application for official club status would be decided at the beginning of this academic year…It is now October…Please know that we have not forgotten AllianceND’s still-pending application for official club status.”
According to Alex Coccia, the Catholic faith is extremely important for many supporters and was clear in the 192 testimonials collected from Notre Dame community members, where about half claimed that their Catholicism causes them to write for justice. Coccia also added that the ‘4 to 5 Movement’ posits itself as enhancing the University’s Catholic identity:
“…because students deserve a place where it is open and very welcoming and people who do struggle to find a relationship between faith and sexuality can have peer-to-peer support…The peer-to-peer support is much more effective than the structures on campus now.”
“Today is National Coming Out Day…The Notre Dame LGBT community certainly remains in this struggle. Current structures and the general campus climate both continue to discourage students from coming out.
“AllianceND itself has come out time and time again over the past two decades, fighting for the right to exist. Today, we write to you all encouraging you to come out in support of our struggle to improve campus climate, and ask administrators of this campus to come out with substantial plans for doing so.”
As the struggle for recognition, protection, and equality at the University of Notre Dame continues through the devoted efforts of students and faculty, New Ways Ministry commends the progress already made by these visionary young adults and their older mentors.
A documentary about CUAllies, the unofficial gay-straight alliance at The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C., was released this week by two recent alumnae.
Andrea Mineo and Heidi Green, both class of 2012, released the short film originally created for a media studies course in April. Mineo’s and Green’s documentary is the latest in a series of student-produced films about CUAllies since students began seeking official recognition in 2009.
You can view the video here:
The documentary captures the students’ ongoing struggle, noting the challenges of attending a religiously-affiliated university where official Church doctrine seems unsettled by a group of people or an idea. It highlights support from students at CUA for a recognized gay-straight alliance, many of whom believe CUAllies’ purpose aligns perfectly with the Catholic identity and mission of the University.
At present, CUAllies awaits a response on their proposal for official recogniton, submitted seven months ago. Provost James Brennan, who assumed charge of student life this fall, will make the final decision, which could be several months away. CUAllies is a student movement at Catholic University to create a safe, welcoming, and affirming environment on campus for LGBT students that does not presently exist.Previously, the Organization for Gay and Lesbian Rights was disbanded by former President Fr. David O’Connell for being ‘political’ in 2002 and sexual orientation was removed from the University’s non-discrimination clause in 2006.
Bondings 2.0 contacted the new leadership for comment on their vision and hopes for CUAllies this year, along with responses to the documentary.
CUAllies Communications Director Chelsea Schoen said: “The documentary was truly well-done and offered beautiful images of community, as well as demonstrated the wide array of support of our movement throughout campus. We are the same as any other student organization: a group of like-minded students seeking to share in fellowship and commonality….we are a group of students striving to create a safe and welcoming environment on campus, working as one to live out the virtue of love.”
CUAllies Deputy Director Travis Dichoso said: “I think this year I would like to focus on solidifying our mission and raising awareness of our mission. I would like to say that we are trying to take the approach of working with CUA’s administration rather than against it. We want to create a group which helps to integrate GLBT students into CUA’s community in a way that is respectful to the mission of the University.”
Speaker of the Student Government Ryan Fecteau, formerly a co-director of CUAllies, released the following statement: “The Student Association made a commitment to support our LGBT brothers and sisters last semester by approving a 20-3 resolution that encourages the administration’s approval of CUAllies. It is clear from my discussions with students on campus…that CUAllies embodies the spirit of our University’s mission. No one should be excluded and a community of love and safety should be fostered for all students. This is our obligation.”
The CUAllies Executive Board recently stated the only agenda of the group is love and safety, which will manifest itself in ‘community’ and ‘safety’ being the primary focuses for the 2012-13 academic year.
In an essay on reviving the Vatican II style of church, Australian writer Will Day discusses how an encounter with LGBT issues helped solidify his resolve for working for better ecclesial leadership. He offers an interesting example of the type of leadership that he would like to see:
“Latin American pop star Ricky Martin [who is gay], alive to the horror of certain church teachings, appeared on talk shows in the US last year, looking straight at the camera and telling gay kids, ”I want you to know there is nothing wrong with you, and I love you!” There’s a role model for a decent pope or bishop!”
The historic statement from President Barack Obama that he supports marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples gave strength and encouragement to Americans across the land who support LGBT justice. Indeed, the statement rang around the world, with LGBT advocates in many countries adding their thanks for the president’s leadership on this issue.
“For President Barack Obama and his team, the decision to back gay marriage came down to a choice between two unpalatable alternatives: Support it and brave the backlash in battleground states where the issue could be a liability — or keep silent and be accused by allies of gutlessness and putting politics over principle.
“Administration officials said the president planned to announce his support before the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., this September. But they acknowledge that Vice President Joe Biden did, indeed, force their hand.”
An Associated Press story also identifies Biden’s remarks as a precipitating cause for the timing of this announcement:
As told by aides, Obama concluded earlier this year that gay couples should have the legal right to marry and planned to say so before the convention. Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House conversations, they said the White House felt compelled to accelerate its plans after Vice President Joe Biden declared his support for gay marriage on a Sunday morning talk show and said he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex couples being legally wed.
“. . . [A]ides said Biden’s comment was impromptu. He taped his appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Friday, and top officials said they and the president were quickly made aware that the vice president went further than Obama ever had on the issue. While officials said Obama was not angry with Biden, he decided that his vice president’s remarks made it difficult to keep his own views private for much longer.”
John Dickerson’s analysis on Slate.com tells the tale most colorfully–and pointedly. Playing on Obama’s long-touted announcement that his position on marriage equality was “evolving,” Dickerson writes:
“Joe Biden has such power over evolution he might make an amoeba get up and walk. Three days ago the vice president announced on Meet the Press that he supported same-sex couples getting married. Wednesday, President Obama announced that after a many-year evolution on the issue, he believed the same thing. The first African-American president became the first ever to announce his support for same-sex marriage. . . .
“This looks like another instance of the vice president stumbling his way into the history books. But Barack Obama’s untenable position is every bit as culpable for the firestorm and rushed decision. The president was for gay marriage in private but wouldn’t say so in public.”
Other analysts have made the point that Obama’s support may not make too much difference, given that people are so entrenched in their postions, pro and con, on marriage equality. But in a blog post, New York Timescolumnist Frank Bruni personally and poignantly touches on the invisible but more powerful impact that Obama’s statement will have:
“Over recent days it has been observed that the president’s position on this [issue of marriage equality] didn’t and wouldn’t make an immediate or enormous difference in the actual law of the land. That remains true. States decide on marriage — as North Carolina did, regressively, on Tuesday — and no signal or word from the president is going to translate into the legalization of same-sex marriage from coast to coast.
“But that doesn’t diminish the emotional importance of what just happened.
“I find myself thinking about all the teenagers and young adults out there who cower in silence because they worry about being ostracized if they speak the truth about their sexual orientation. I think about the ones who are bullied, even the ones who contemplate taking their own lives.
“And I think about what it will mean to them to hear the president say what he did today, not because they’re focused on marriage but because they’re buoyed by any and every reassurance that there’s nothing wrong with them, nothing inferior about them. Today their president gave them that reassurance.
“I think about how it would have felt to me when I was 16, and fearful, and often deeply, deeply depressed, to hear a president say what ours did today. I can’t imagine it. In the three decades since, our country has traveled an enormous distance, and today is a poignant and compelling marker of that.”
Catholic bishops should take heed of Bruni’s testimony: encouraging words from public leaders can have an impact on the self-esteem and lives of LGBT youth everywhere. The opposite, sadly, is also true: disparaging words from public leaders can lead to despair, depression, and death. From Catholic bishops, who seem oblivious to the impact of their language, we have had too much of the latter and precious little of the former.
Whatever happens politically, Obama’s words have already done an immense amount of good. Let’s hope that religious leaders also pay heed to Obama’s explanation during the interview of his faith perspective on marriage equality:
“The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule — you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids, and that’s what motivates me as president.”