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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.

At Georgetown, students are encouraged to question their faith, learn about other religions and discuss sensitive topics such as the culture of casual sex on college campuses, said the Rev. Kevin O'Brien, executive director of campus ministry. Such discussions are integral to the university's mission and do not conflict with its Catholic identity, he said.

"We don't have a political agenda. We don't have a lifestyle agenda. We're concerned about helping our young people," he said. "It's something that we're really proud of."

Gay students at Georgetown first organized in the 1970s, just after the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders. The students repeatedly petitioned the university for recognition and resources. They were denied over and over.

In the 1980s two groups representing gay undergraduates and law students sued Georgetown under the D.C. Human Rights Act, which says it is illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation. In 1987, an appeals court decided that although the university is not required to endorse the group, it cannot deny students access to resources and benefits enjoyed by other campus clubs. Today that group is called GUPride.

In 2002, students again petitioned the administration, this time for a resource center. They were turned down, but as a compromise, in 2004, the university dedicated a part-time employee to advise gay student on what resources were available on campus.

The center was a major victory, said Zack Pesavento, who graduated from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service in 2008 and was involved with the petition. The center indicates to students that they are welcome on campus, and it helps them figure out who they are, a process that can be made more confusing by religion, he said.

"I have my gay identity and my Catholic identity, and these are two things that are very important to me. But they grew very separately," said Pesavento, now a communications consultant. "I needed to live and be as one integrated person."

But opening the center has not solved all of Georgetown's anti-gay problems. In October, a female student wearing a gay rights T-shirt was attacked by two men near campus and called names. On Halloween night, a male student was sent to the hospital after a man called him an anti-gay slur and beat him in a neighborhood near campus. About the same time, a note was posted on the door of the resource center that called Subbaraman a name and told her to leave campus.

"It takes a long time to change the culture of a campus," Subbaraman said. "I don't want just the center to be a safe space. All of campus should be a safe space."

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