Georgetown U. tries to be Catholic and gay-friendly

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009; 10:22 PM

Sivagami "Shiva" Subbaraman was leading a workshop about making college campuses more gay-friendly in February 2008 when a Georgetown University student burst into the room with news: The university president had agreed to open a resource center for gay students and hire a full-time director to run it.

Everyone in the room laughed.

"Not Georgetown," Subbaraman recalls saying, astonished that a university founded by Jesuits was supporting so publicly a community that long has felt shunned by the Catholic Church. "You must mean at GW [George Washington University]."

But less than two months later, Subbaraman interviewed to be that director. She left her job at the University of Maryland's Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equity and, last August, helped open the LGBTQ Resource Center, the first of its kind at a Jesuit university in the United States. (At Georgetown, LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning.)

"This is the biggest unmapped frontier in faith," said Subbaraman, a lesbian who grew up in a Hindu family in India and attended a Catholic high school and college.

The center has two full-time staff members, a rarity at college resource centers, who provide training sessions and workshops for faculty members and student leaders. They also help students find services on campus and plan events such as Coming Out Week festivities in October and Lavender Graduation, an additional graduation ceremony for gay students.

Plus, the center is a regular hangout spot for many students and a place they can go to talk about problems they have encountered. On Monday nights, students gather for an LGBTQ prayer group.

Before the center opened, the gay community at Georgetown was disjointed, said Carlos León-Ojeda, a Georgetown senior and co-chair of the student organization GUPride. "There were groups of friends, but any community was very small."

The center was the university's response to two reported anti-gay attacks on students near campus in fall 2007. In one of the two cases, a sophomore was charged with assaulting a fellow student. Prosecutors later dropped the case, citing a lack of evidence, but the event generated publicity and student protests.

Within weeks, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia organized work groups to study how hate crimes are reported, what additional resources gay students needed and how the entire campus was educated on including and understanding gay students.

Before doing so, DeGioia met with church leaders to explain what he wanted to do and how his plan would follow church teachings and not advocate for positions contrary to those of the church.

"At a Catholic and Jesuit university, we most certainly can 'advocate' for LGBTQ students. We can and must advocate for respect, inclusion, understanding, safety, mentoring, dignity, growth and equal opportunity. We can and must advocate for freedom from prejudice, exclusion, discrimination, and homophobia," DeGioia said during a meeting with students and others in October 2007, according to a copy of his remarks.

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