Gay group carves out niche at Catholic University

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009 3:25 PM

Every Wednesday morning, 150 officials at Catholic University receive an e-mail about a gay student's struggles on campus.

There's a graduate student who doesn't mention her girlfriend to classmates or professors for fear of being lectured. An undergraduate who held her girlfriend's hand and was called an ugly name. Another student learned his roommate's mother tried to have her son reassigned when she learned he was gay.

Every Wednesday night, more than three dozen students gather to discuss what Catholic can do to welcome, affirm and protect its gay students, staff members and others.

So far, the administration has not been receptive to the group's Wednesday efforts. This summer they rejected an application from the group, CUAllies, to be an official student club. Doing so would have led to supporting an advocacy group for positions contrary to church teachings, Catholic spokesman Victor Nakas said in a statement.

"What else could be their purpose?" Nakas said.

Additionally, he said all students already have access to support services, such as the health center, counseling, public safety and campus ministry.

Still, CUAllies managed to build a presence and a member list this fall.

Although only approved student organizations can reserve space for meetings or events, all students have the right to gather informally on campus. Although only student organizations can advertise their meetings and events on campus bulletin boards, any student can tape a poster to his or her own door in the dorms or wear the group's signature blue T-shirts.

"We might not be an official group, but we're winning," said Robby Diesu, a senior political theory major from New York who is a founder of the group. "We have our own community. . . . It's empowering."

But the group has a self-imposed list of topics that are off-limits: pre-marital sex, gay sex, birth control, gay marriage and behavior not permitted by the Catholic church.

Despite the university's refusal to sanction the group, the students say they want to respect the campus's conservative nature and rules. Instead, they focus on helping gay students who are trying to navigate campus and educating the rest of the student body about gay issues.

"Everything that we are doing, it's Catholic, it's what the church is about," said David Freerksen, a junior economics major from Delaware who came out in middle school and converted to Catholicism in high school because of the religion's emphasis on community service.

For decades, public and private universities have grappled with how to support gay students and protect them from verbal or physical attacks. Religious schools also have the challenge of upholding church teachings, such as the Catholic stance that it is not sinful to be attracted to someone of the same sex but it is sinful to act on such desires.

This delicate balance often puts gay students in a "conflicted state of acceptance," said Shane L. Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a national organization that helps colleges assess their gay friendliness. "The church wants to love the person and hate the sin. But what does that really mean?"

So visible support for gay students -- such as a resource center, rainbow stickers, club tables and awareness weeks -- is especially important at religious schools, he said. But such actions do not change campus attitudes overnight, he said.

Today, about 100 of the more than 220 Catholic colleges in the U.S. have a club dedicated to gay students, according to several gay rights advocacy groups. A few schools have gone further: The country's largest Catholic university, DePaul University in Chicago, started a LGBTQ Studies program (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer) in 2005. In the mid-1990s, the University of Notre Dame started the Core Council for Gay and Lesbian Students, which advises administrators. Georgetown University has had an official group for gay students since the 1980s and last fall it opened a resource center for gay students, the first of its kind at a U.S. Jesuit university.

The Rev. Kevin O'Brien, Georgetown's executive director of campus ministry, said if gay students are not supported by their professors, residence hall advisers, mentors, coaches and others, there is a risk they will engage in risky behaviors, commit suicide, drop out of school or leave the church.

"That's exactly the type of stuff any type of religion would want to avoid," he said. "The point is, we're trying to care for our students: mind, body and spirit."

Catholic University used to have a gay-straight alliance, the Organization for Lesbian and Gay Student Rights, which was formed in 1979 and was officially recognized as a student organization in 1988. The group's original constitution stated that it will not permit "any ambiguous use of the University's name to imply that the University approves of homosexual lifestyles as morally neutral, of homosexual activity, or of homosexual behavior."

The group was forced to dissolve several years ago because it became an advocacy group, Nakas said.

"The university has chosen not to go down that path again," he said, adding that the university would not comment on what other institutions choose to do.

The campus's conservative policies and formerly disconnected gay community created an environment where gay students didn't know who they could trust or where they could go for help, and there was a general lack of understanding among the student body, CUAllies members said.

Being denied campus recognition has revealed to students which administrators and faculty members support them. One professor purchased the group Web domain, and about 30 faculty members have signed a petition in favor of the group.

"There are pockets of acceptance and pockets of tolerance," said Lauren Crook, a senior sociology major from Florida. But it's not those pockets that CUAllies are trying to reach and educate, she said: "It's the rest of the university, the 3,000 other people on campus. That's our goal."

The idea for CUAllies arose this spring after the campus newspaper published a student column that criticized actor Sean Penn for using his Oscar win for the movie "Milk" as a platform for gay rights advocacy. A few gay students wrote letters to the editor and then met each other and learned they faced similar problems.

The newspaper then published an editorial cartoon showing the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and a sign showing symbols for gays and lesbians and an arrow pointing to Catholic's campus. The headline read: "No longer underground."

At least 2,000 copies of that paper were taken from the paper's distribution sites and thrown into recycling bins. Several copies of the paper were torn up outside the newspaper office and a copy of the cartoon was ripped out of the paper and taped to the wall.

Meanwhile, CUAllies began to take form. Organizers collected testimony from gay students and alumni, which they began to e-mail to administrators in early September.

The first e-mail was from a 2008 alum who realized he was gay in fourth grade, founded a gay-straight alliance at his high school and stunned his friends when he decided to attend Catholic. He was convinced it was an accepting place, but found instead "it was a culture shock." Someone wrote an anti-gay slur on his dorm door and he overheard students talking derogatively about him. "I felt like I had nowhere to turn."

That e-mail, like all of the e-mails since, ends with a quote from a 1997 pastoral message U.S. bishops wrote to the parents of gay children: "All homosexual persons have a right to be welcomed into the community."

Please see related story: Georgetown U. tries to be Catholic and gay-friendly.

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