Andrew Perez joined his high school’s gay-straight alliance (GSA) because he believed in Pope Francis’ message of love for all people. His religion class at Xavier High School, a Jesuit boys school in Manhattan, discussed sexuality and the pope’s response. “I was interested to hear Pope Francis say [gay people] are welcomed with open arms,” Perez, now a senior, says. “A lot of [gay people] are under the impression that they are not accepted.” He joined the group because “as a straight male I thought it was important to stand up for a group in my school who may not be comfortable,” he says. “As an ally, you are actively practicing having open arms.”
A close friend has disclosed to Perez that he is gay, and Perez has openly LGBT relatives. He often wears a plastic bracelet from the school’s annual Ally Week, an October program that features speakers and activities welcoming LGBT people. The club distributed more than 600 purple bracelets that read, “I’m an ally.” “At Xavier, kids are openly gay and are accepted,” Perez says. “We do not ostracize those who prefer the same sex.”
Xavier’s GSA brings together LGBT and straight students to support each other and provide a safe place to socialize. And—despite Pope Francis’ softer tone on gays and lesbians, and the June 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling supporting the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide—this visible, sanctioned group remains unusual among the 1,200 Catholic high schools in the United States. Even among those dioceses or schools that do operate GSAs, few are willing to discuss their programs or policies.
However, most Catholic educators agree that in a society increasingly open to same-sex marriage, Catholic schools need a thoughtful approach to talking about Catholic teachings on sexuality.
GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, is a national organization that provides resources to improve the atmosphere for LGBT students in grades K–12. The group provides training and supports safe school policies. According to GLSEN spokeswoman Kari Hudnell, the number of high school GSAs registered with GLSEN nationwide was 4,000 in 2015. Growth from previous years roughly mirrored the country’s significant developments in the acknowledgment of gay rights.
However, there is no comparable organization that tracks GSAs in Catholic schools. No easily accessible public resource—Catholic organization or secular gay advocacy group—lists Catholic high school GSAs. Representatives from neither the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) nor the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) knew how many GSAs operate in Catholic schools. The best estimate of how many GSAs exist in Catholic schools comes from GLSEN’s 2013 National School Climate Survey, in which only 18 percent of LGBT students at private religious schools reported that their school had a GSA. Among middle and high school students at public and private nonreligious schools, this number jumped to 50 percent.
The 1984 Equal Access Act requires that any public secondary school that receives federal financial assistance must not discriminate against students who wish to create a GSA. But for now, Catholic schools are exempt from that requirement.
A safe space
Advocates of GSAs say that these student groups provide a safe place for teens to ask about sexual orientation and gender expression, get information and support, and address bullying and discrimination. “We know from our research that GSAs, supportive educators, and comprehensive and inclusive antibullying policies have a direct influence on school climate,” Hudnell says.
According to Alexander Lavy, a physics teacher who is openly gay and serves as one of three faculty advisers to Xavier’s GSA, this is why Xavier administrators started the group: They wanted to create a safe school. Administrators responded to the 2010 suicide of Tyler Clementi, a gay Rutgers University student whose classmates filmed him in an intimate encounter with another man and outed him online. The high-profile case drew national attention to anti-gay bullying and the shocking reality that gay and lesbian teens are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than other youths. LGBT youth are also more likely than heterosexual youth to report high levels of bullying and substance use.
Most Xavier students were unaware of Clementi’s suicide, says Lavy. But this doesn’t mean that the students don’t benefit from anti-bullying education. The GSA at Xavier is designed to provide a safe place for students to discuss any issue related to their sexuality. The October 2015 Ally Week they sponsored focused on the importance of athletes supporting LGBT people. The club also supports GLSEN’s National Day of Silence, intended to raise awareness about the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying, harassment, and discrimination.
Even with all the advocacy that’s being done by the GSA, some bullying still takes place at Xavier, which is in Chelsea, a neighborhood in Manhattan with a large LGBT population. “It’s not like anything you see in a movie,” Lavy explains. “It’s not like kids getting shoved in a locker. But you hear kids calling each other ‘gay’ or ‘faggot’ as an insult.”
Although a few Xavier students are “out and proud,” the group isn’t just about protecting these students. It’s “important to have a group that’s building not just tolerance, but love,” Lavy says. “We feel we are all created in God’s image. We encourage sensitivity and humility to acknowledge that everyone’s feelings and experiences have value.”
Lavy is clear that having a GSA does not mean Xavier skirts Catholic teachings on sexuality. He says that those topics—the church’s prohibition on sex outside of marriage and same-sex marriage—belong in theology class. “We try to work on the human dignity piece. If we want to be a visible sign of Christ’s love, we’re not allowed to say it’s OK to bully someone,” he says. “LGBT people are historically people who get discriminated against, who lose jobs, who sometimes get abused or killed for being gay. It is part of our Christian witness to stand up to that discrimination.”
The Catholic Church faces a delicate balancing act of upholding two significant teachings, says Michael Maher, who has worked as a Catholic campus minister for many years and has researched and written about gay and lesbian students in Catholic schools. “The magisterium (the church’s teaching authority) does not condone homosexual behavior, yet it encourages the Christian community to be welcoming and supportive to LGBT persons,” he says. “That is a built-in tension and contributes to a reluctance to talk about it.” Some people see the two teachings as incompatible, even hypocritical, he adds.
The former document is addressed to “parents trying to cope with the discovery of homosexuality in their adolescent or adult child” and acknowledges the “tension between loving your child as God’s precious creation and not wanting to endorse any behavior you know the Church teaches is wrong.” The document also stresses two points central to the challenge of upholding church teaching both on human sexuality and human rights. “The Church’s teaching on homosexuality is clear,” it asserts. But it also states, “Every person has an inherent dignity because he or she is created in God’s image.”
Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination, the most recent U.S. bishops’ document addressing homosexuality, highlights the connection between the modern context and the teaching of the Catholic Church. “The phenomenon of homosexuality poses challenges that can only be met with the help of a clear understanding of the place of sexuality within God’s plan for humanity,” it says. While it reinforces the church’s commitment to human dignity, the letter also includes a section many LGBT people and allies find uncomfortable: “The homosexual inclination is objectively disordered, i.e., it is an inclination that predisposes one toward what is truly not good for the human person.”
For many Catholics, church teaching on sexuality—as on birth control and divorce and remarriage—conflicts with their lived experience. Maher notes, “These are very challenging things, and adolescents have a tendency to view things as black and white. It’s part of their development that it is hard to contextualize things.”
That’s precisely why Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the USCCB, advocates starting with what the Catholic Church teaches about the human person when discussing sexuality with young adults. We are “made in the image and likeness of God, body and soul, intellect and will, and made for an eternal destiny that includes an intellectual and moral reality,” she says. “No question of human sexuality makes sense without an understanding of who the human person is. Bringing young people into a fuller discussion about these topics is a service to them and respectful of them.”
“Catholic schools have a mission to preach the gospel, and we teach about sexuality in that context,” Fleming says. “We teach young people struggling with realities that have a social context while integrating the beauty of the gospel and who the individual is in the light of faith.” Because of this, she explains, campus ministers and chaplains are crucial in addressing all relationship issues: homosexuality, premarital sex, cohabitation, divorce, and remarriage. “We’re still dealing with minors in a catechetical mode,” she says. According to Fleming, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, the Beatitudes, and the church’s respect for the human person all “guide our responses to helping young people in evaluating good choices and situations that require a positive, moral, prudent judgment.”
In fall 2015 U.S. bishops were still discussing what resources or documents they will create to address the legalization of gay marriage in the United States. In the meantime, Sister Fleming is not convinced GSAs are the best way for Catholic high schools to address homosexuality—not because the church shouldn’t talk about sexuality, but because of church teaching on the integration of the human person. “We would support anything that supports the integration of the person as a whole individual, not necessarily identifying just a single aspect of the person,” she says. “Defining someone solely by their sexuality does not appear to be a good thing long term. We want to be sensitive to the topic but not politicize it.”
Maher chronicled Catholic schools’ widespread silence about homosexuality in his 2001 book, Being Gay and Lesbian in a Catholic High School: Beyond the Uniform (Routledge). The book is based on two student surveys and on his 1995 and 1996 interviews with 25 gay and lesbian adults who attended Catholic high schools in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He concluded that Catholic education largely fails gay and lesbian students. “The pious admonitions of the Catholic magisterium are being lost in a vast sea of homophobia,” claimed a 2002 review by the Jesuit magazine America.
“When I began to study this, it was not on people’s radar at all,” Maher says. He remembers a counselor at a boys Catholic high school who said only once had a student raised the issue. But in 2003, when he did follow-up research, school administrators and teachers and counselors in Catholic high schools were starting to address the needs of LGBT students. “They said students suddenly started to present the topic and expect some support from the Catholic school,” he says.
“In the 1980s it used to be thought of as, ‘You’re going through a phase.’ Now you have very young people who self-identify and expect support,” he says. “They see it in the larger culture. They watched Glee. You have same-sex parents who expect to be welcomed in the community. That’s only going to increase with legal gay marriage.”
The necessity of change
Catholic schools have a responsibility to talk about homosexuality and same-sex marriage, says Heather Gossart, director of special projects at NCEA and a 40-year-veteran of Catholic education. “To not have these conversations is a failure to evangelize,” she says. “We have the opportunity to keep these young people in our church and to respect their dignity.”
Her concern is well-founded. Seventy percent of millennials—those between the ages of 18 and 34—say religious groups alienate youth by being judgmental on gay/lesbian issues, according to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Furthermore, about a third of millennials who no longer identify with their childhood religion say negative teachings about or mistreatment of gays and lesbians was an important factor in their disaffiliation.
Gossart recounts the difficulty a gay friend described when he attended a boys Catholic school 30 years ago. “He said it was the loneliest, most isolating time of his life,” she says. “If we’ve learned anything since then, it’s that we don’t want that to be the experience of our young people. It is our responsibility to talk to our young people, gay or straight, and share the church’s position on chastity outside of marriage.”
Aaron Ledesma, who writes a blog called “The Gay Catholic,” didn’t feel he could be open about his sexual orientation when he attended Strake Jesuit College Preparatory high school in Houston, Texas. “When you’re 13 and coming to terms with your sexuality, it’s terrifying,” he writes in an email exchange. “It doesn’t help to feel alone in that. Without GSAs or a campus counselor who can provide a safe haven, some of the LGBT community will feel lonely and scared.”
Ledesma graduated high school in 2010 and came out to his family during a Christmas visit home when he was 21. “High school wasn’t the place for me to do it because, at the time, I did not feel that I would have support or the ability to thrive by being myself,” he writes. “That’s the case for a lot of the LGBT community, especially those who were raised in private, religious schools. Sexuality and homosexuals were never discussed in school. The topic was completely avoided all together.”
Ledesma, who now lives in Richmond, Virginia found the atmosphere at Marquette University, a Jesuit university in Milwaukee, much more supportive. (The college has a GSA, called Gender Sexuality Alliance.) During his fifth high school reunion, Ledesma reconnected with several classmates who had also come out since high school. “We all agreed that we might have come out sooner if there had been support and resources available to us,” he writes. “In my class of nearly 210 alone, there are at least seven openly gay men and two transgender women.”
Schools without GSAs “are ostracizing the LGBT community and potentially ignoring the issues they face,” Ledesma writes. “This shouldn’t be about who is right or wrong; this should be about supporting young men and women during a critical time in their life. High school isn’t a walk in the park to begin with, but without resources for all students it can be even harder.” Catholic schools need not condone LGBT lifestyles, but they “need to acknowledge that we exist and let students talk about it and understand what it means,” he writes.
The decision about allowing a school to run a formal GSA or similar group is up to the local diocese, according to both NCEA’s Gossart and the USCCB’s Sister Fleming. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, either. “In one community or diocese it might work very well to have a GSA, and it has a lot of community support,” Gossart says. “There are others that are more conservative and not ready to go there.”
Even among schools that don’t have a GSA, it may be reassuring to know that a lot of support and counseling about sexual orientation in Catholic schools happens more discreetly. “It would be a mistake to believe there is not care and counseling going on,” Gossart says. “Schools are going about doing what they feel they need to do without a lot of fanfare.”
This article appears in the February 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 2, pages 19–23).