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

One-on-One Pastoral Care Is Not Sufficient for LGBT Youth

An editorial in the St. Louis archdiocesan newspaper has commented on the controversy which erupted two weeks ago at Nerinx Hall H.S., a Catholic school, when the Nerinx president turned down a request from students to establish a gay-straight alliance (GSA). The editorial’s headline, “One-on-one pastoral care suggested for adolescents with same-sex attraction,” summarizes its main point, and it also shows the main problem with policies which deny students the opportunity to have a GSA in Catholic schools.

shameWhile some, and perhaps many, LGBT youth need one-on-one pastoral care,  such a model should not be the only one offered to them.  The problem is that if this is the only assistance provided, the method itself sends a message: your sexual orientation is a private matter which you should only talk about in secret and confidential meetings with authority figures.  When this type of pastoral care is the only kind offered, it can foster, even if unintentionally, feelings of shame, fear, and alienation.

A more public model, such as a GSA, helps students to recognize that they are not alone, that they have peers with whom they can discuss these issues, that the topic itself is not a taboo. Moreover, such groups provide social experiences for youths who are at risk of feeling isolated and alone.  GSAs help not only LGBT youth, but heterosexual and cisgender students who may have a close friend or family member who is LGBT.

At the heart of the controversy at Nerinx Hall was the application of a set of guidelines for working with LGBT youth, entitled “Hope and Holiness: Pastoral Care for Those With Same-Sex Attraction,” that the Archdiocese of St. Louis had developed.  Again, the title belies a negative assumption about LGB youth by referring to them as having “same-sex attraction.”  Fr. James Martin, SJ, noted the problem of such terminology in the talk he gave upon receiving New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award.  He said:

“. . . [R]espect means calling a group what it asks to be called. . . .

“Names are important. Thus, church leaders are invited to be attentive to how they name the L.G.B.T. community and lay to rest phrases like ‘afflicted with same-sex attraction,’ which no L.G.B.T. person I know uses, and even ‘homosexual person,’ which seems overly clinical to many. I’m not prescribing what names to use, though ‘gay and lesbian,’ ‘L.G.B.T.’ and ‘L.G.B.T.Q.’ are the most common. I’m saying that people have a right to name themselves. Using those names is part of respect. And if Pope Francis can use the word gay, so can the rest of the church.”

In the editorial, an archdiocesan official defended the guidelines document, saying that the goal is to help youth:

“Kurt Nelson, superintendent of Catholic education for the archdiocese, said the very idea that students requested a club signals that they ‘want more help and support.’

While it may be true that the students want help and support, the fact that they requested a club indicates that the kind of help and support they want is peer socialization, not one-to-one counseling.  If they wanted the latter, that is what they would have requested.

The editorial continued:

“But Nelson also said that ‘just because you don’t have a club doesn’t mean you’re not providing help and support to kids.’ However, many factors need to be considered, such as the adults who will lead the group, as well as providing content that doesn’t contradict Church teaching, thus posing the threat of creating a public scandal.”

When a church official speaks of LGBT issues and uses phrases like “doesn’t contradict Church teaching” and “creating a public scandal,” I always assume that they are discussing issues of sexual ethics.  Of course, not providing sensitive pastoral care to LGBT people or actively discriminating against them both also contradict Church teaching, but I don’t think that these are what Nelson had in mind.  I may be wrong, but I’ve never heard an official use those terms in the ways I described.

If I am correct, then the big problem here is that the archdiocesan officials are only looking at LGBT issues as relating to sex.  They are avoiding things like stigma, oppression, alienation, repression, family difficulties, mental illness, self-loathing–all of which are frequently experienced by youth who have no support for their LGBT identity.  And these are all things which a GSA would help to mitigate.

The editorial noted correctly:

“The one-on-one approach also provides students an experience of accompaniment in many individual aspects of their lives, beyond the issue of sexual orientation.”

Yes, one-on-one is a much-needed form of ministry with LGBT people, especially youth.  But social opportunities, community-building, group prayer, and mutual peer support are also very needed.  GSAs can help provide that kind of ministry.  And their model of openness, honesty, trust, courage, and pride which they inspire are things that one-on-one ministry simply cannot provide.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 28, 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.

Rejection of LGBT Student Group Raises Problems at Catholic H.S.

Following a Missouri Catholic high school’s rejection of a proposed LGBT student group, community members are asking questions about how and why this decision was made. So far there are few clear answers.

kuzp-ldkAt Nerinx Hall Catholic High School, in Webster Groves, near St. Louis, School President John Gabriel said the Archdiocese of St. Louis directed him to reject a request from students for an LGBT club, reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In a response to concerned alumna, Jill Allen, Gabriel explained that the archdiocese mandated any student LGBT group at the all-girls school follow “a carefully charted course of action that includes conversion therapy.” He would later say he misread this archdiocesan directive.  He also told Allen:

“Nerinx Hall believes that we can best minister to our LGBT students through our Loretto charism and the Loretto school values of faith, community, justice, and respect.”

But, Allen wrote in her initial letter to the school president, that rejecting an LGBT group “doesn’t reflect my experience of Nerinx,” and is not consistent with Loretto values. And Allen is not alone. Within a day, more than 600 people joined a Facebook group protesting the rejection. Beth Schumacher, class of 2001, told the Post-Dispatch:

“‘There are a lot of alumnae out there who are really, really disappointed both with the decision and with the direction it might be going in right now. . .There are young people at risk. If someone is asking for a club of that nature, then there are definitely individuals who can use that level of support.'”

The school was founded and is currently sponsored by the Sisters of Loretto.  It an independent institution not formally affiliated with the Archdiocese.  On the school’s website, the statement of philosophy says that the school believes “educated, caring, and empowered young women are essential to our world.” It shares in the Loretto School Values, which include:

“Community: Building relationships that are affirming, inclusive, empowering, and compassionate

“Justice: Promoting changes to eliminate oppression, and creating systems and relationships in which people, especially women, are treated fairly and impartially

“Respect: Being open to differences, and believing in each person’s potential. Promoting the dignity of individuals and protecting the sacredness of all creation.”

Sister Jeannine Gramick, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder and lifelong Catholic advocate for LGBT people provided the following comment to Bondings 2.0 about this decision made at a school that is sponsored by her religious community:

“As a Sister of Loretto, I am embarrassed and ashamed by the stance taken by Mr. John Gabriel. Such a posture does not reflect the Loretto values of inclusion, diversity, and care for all. The students and alumnae of Nerinx deserve leadership that displays these Gospel-based values.”

The story of the school’s decision became even more complex when later in the day, in a letter to parents after news of the rejection broke, Gabriel retracted his claim about “conversion” therapy, writing:

“Today, a Post-Dispatch reporter reached out to Nerinx Hall and the Archdiocese. In preparing my response to the reporter, I also spoke with Archdiocesan Superintendent Dr. Kurt Nelson. It was during my conversation with him that I realized I had misunderstood the Archdiocesan position on conversion therapy within school LGBTQ+ groups.”

Responding to the Post-Dispatch, Gabriel simply “sent a reporter a list of Nerinx Hall’s initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion, which include training for teachers on ministry to LGBT individuals and diversity forums for students.” He commented only that Nerinx Hall would be consulting with the Archdiocese on next steps.

Unfortunately, it is not merely Gabriel and Nerinx Hall administrators who are involved, as they may be more willing to listen to alumnae. Gabe Jones, an archdiocesan spokesperson, said Archbishop Robert Carlson is responsible for all Catholics, and “[w]hen it comes to Catholic teaching, the archdiocese is the arbiter of what is Catholic and what is not.”

At issue in this debate are guidelines on LGBT ministry published by the Archdiocese last year. Titled “Hope and Holiness: Pastoral Care for Those with Same-Sex Attraction,” these guidelines include a “triage checklist” for dealing with LGBT people, and discourage people from publicly coming out. The guidelines also mandate that the Archdiocese be consulted if an LGBT group is being considered at a school or parish.  The guidelines express concern about how adolescents are considered in such groups:

“[T]he boundaries between transitory same-sex attraction and more deep-seated tendencies are not always clear. It is not unusual for a young person to experience attraction to a person of the same sex. It is important not to assume that such experiences are the result of a deep-seated tendency.”

Perhaps this is what confused President Gabriel into citing conversion therapy as a reason for the rejection. It is troubling that a lack of clarity still exists about how, why, and by whom the decision was made. This haze is similar to other LGBT controversies at Catholic institutions where culpability for unpopular decisions is treated as hot potato, passed around by church officials.

But this is a prime moment in which a Catholic high school can assert its independence and take a firm stand for its LGBTQ students. As a former Loretto Volunteer and friend of some Sisters of Loretto, I have come to know well the values of the Loretto Community, with which Nerinx Hall is affiliated. The Sisters “work for justice and act for peace because the Gospel urges us,” and have done so with a pioneer mentality for over two centuries. President Gabriel and Nerinx Hall administrators should tap into the Community’s rich Catholic roots to find a way forward consistent with this history and these values.

What would be best at this moment is for administrators at Nerinx Hall and Archbishop Carlson to share transparently what happened: Did the Archdiocese demand the group be rejected? Are Nerinx Hall administrators hiding their decision under the Archdiocese’s umbrella? Was conversion therapy a relevant aspect in the rejection? And what happens now? Nerinx Hall students, alumnae, teachers, parents, and Catholics in St. Louis generally deserve nothing less than honest and clear answers to these questions.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 16, 2017