Life Beyond the Rainbow: LGBTQ at Georgetown

September 19, 2013

1. Where we’ve been

Four decades ago, the Georgetown community embarked on what was to become a long journey toward becoming a “gay-friendly” university. From where we stand in 2013, it isn’t apparent for most that this journey was, and continues to be, an uphill trek against strong winds of intolerance and ignorance.

After the establishment of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance by a group of undergraduates in 1980, LGBTQ students at Georgetown faced open and vocal opposition from both students and administrators. Though some faculty members and administrators tried to address LGBTQ concerns, intolerance for this minority still permeated the Georgetown culture.

After decades of conflict, which included a lawsuit filed by student groups at both the main campus and the law center in 1981 to allow gay and lesbian groups to receive formal recognition from the University, a series of hate crimes in 2007 finally spurred students to seek large-scale action.

“This one galvanized the student body,” said Sivagami Subbaraman, director of Georgetown’s LGBTQ Resource Center. In 2006, the year before the formation of what became known as the Out for Change campaign, 15 of 23 bias reports filed dealt with discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Tired of living as Georgetown’s best-kept secret, LGBTQ and ally students responded to the crimes with a campus-wide student movement supported by a broad coalition of organizations, including minority ally groups like the Black Student Association.

“When we first had a meeting it was in this one guy’s Henle apartment and it was so small we had to turn the coffee table sideways so people could sit where the coffee table would be,” said student organizer Ellen Greer (SFS ‘11). What began as a grassroots movement of upset students quickly erupted into a full-fledged campaign that openly challenged the University community’s bigotry—or perhaps worse, its ambivalence—toward a minority that saw its personal safety threatened.

“All of a sudden people were roused, a little bit frightened, and really angry. [So] they started to organize,” Greer said. “Tensions were heightened. … People were either very vocally with us or against us.”

Out for Change reached its peak in October 2007 when students wearing “I am” shirts marched from the ICC to Healy Hall to deliver a shirt to University President John DeGioia, along with a petition demanding that the University hire a full-time LGBTQ coordinator, establish working groups, and overhaul the bias-reporting system.

The incident remains controversial. According to campus media and student accounts, students wearing “I am” shirts were purposefully barred from Healy Hall that afternoon. University officials deny these accusations, claiming that, due to a number of high-profile events, the North section of Healy Hall was closed to the general public that day.

Nevertheless, the efforts of student activists ultimately spurred the University to action.  In the spring of 2007, DeGioia convened a town hall forum at which he announced the establishment of an LGBTQ resource center, the first of its kind on a Catholic campus, in addition to the creation of three working groups which would bring faculty, students, and administrators together to improve the conditions faced by LGBTQ Hoyas.

In a sentiment expressed by others involved with the campaign, Greer said, “[DeGioia] did a big thing in sticking up for us that day. … I will always be grateful to President DeGioia.”

Prior to the Out for Change campaign, support for LGBTQ students largely existed behind closed doors. “There was only one employee, Bill McCoy, who was assigned to support LGBTQ students, and he was only funded at half-time though he worked more than a full-time job,” said Dana Luciano, an associate professor in the English Department.

After 2007, it was no longer possible for the University to ignore the needs of its students.

“President DeGioia turned around admirably when he announced the LGBTQ Initiative,” Luciano said. “It was a brilliant move. And that’s when things began to change.”

Though Georgetown administrators have embraced certain pro-gay causes, this shift came about thanks to the decades-long efforts of student activists rallying around LGBTQ rights.

“GU Pride was the one that made our existence possible, and I will never forget that. It is student activism that made us possible,” Subbaraman said.


2. Where we are

Since its establishment in 2008, the LGTBQ Resource Center has provided LGBTQ students with safe spaces to receive counsel and socialize.

More importantly, change can be seen beyond the scope of the Center. Before the Center began its work in 2008, GU Pride was the only place that LGBTQ students had to voice their concerns. Today, LGBTQ students are visible throughout all aspects of campus life, from Residential Living to the leadership of GUSA.

“That’s what has changed on this campus. Gay students feel empowered and safe to do what they love to do,” Subbaraman said.

Additionally, Lavender Graduation, an annual celebration of graduating LGBTQ seniors,  has grown from a humble affair of 30 students and 75 attendees in 2009 to one of Georgetown’s most inclusive graduation events with 140 graduates and 225 attendees from the main campus as well as the law and medical schools in 2013.

These changes have attracted the attention of LGBTQ alumni who return to campus to find their alma mater, the place which once inspired dark memories of intolerance, transformed beyond recognition. For others, though, the wounds of their time here still run too deep.

“A lot of them will never come back,” said Adam Talbot (COL ‘12), a recent gay alumnus. “But a lot of them feel like they can maybe come back and start rebuilding their memories of this place.”

In 2012, Lorri Jean, one of the law students involved in the 1981 lawsuit against the University, returned to deliver graduation addresses on both the main and law campuses. “That’s how far the campus has come, that she who sued us to be recognized could come back as somewhat of a hero to say ‘Yes, the campus has changed,’” Subbaraman said.

In November 2011, the Center received a $1 million endowment from alumnus and Chairman of the Board of Directors Paul J. Tagliabue (COL ‘62) and his wife, Chandler Tagliabue, to further build upon the Center’s resources.

Although Subbaraman has tried to conduct the affairs of the Center in a way that is respectful of the mission and values of Georgetown, opposition to the LGBTQ movement on these grounds persists among students and alumni. Last June, William Peter Blatty (COL ’50) filed a petition in Canon court against Georgetown for failing to adhere to its “Catholic identity,” referencing the Catholic Church’s disapproval of same-sex relations. In addition, Andrew Schilling’s (COL ‘14) article “Marriage is an Institution Defined by Procreation,” published in The Hoya last April, proves Catholic sexual morality still wields significant sway on campus.

“That way of thinking has a long history of correlation with the Catholic tradition,” Greer said. “At Georgetown there is a place for that. I don’t like it, but there is a place for it.”

Many LGBTQ students on campus have nevertheless benefited from the Jesuit ideals upheld by Georgetown. “I really adored having the Jesuit educational experience here because it is so based on self-reflection and not hiding or running away from that knowledge of yourself,” Talbot said.

It has been a difficult balance to strike, but Georgetown administrators have come to see the LGBTQ community as wholly compatible with Jesuit values. “Principles and cultures develop. I think we have seen an expression of cura personalis in a lot of different ways [over the years], just now with lesbian, gay, and bisexual students,” said Fr. Kevin O’Brian, vice president for mission and ministry.

“It is always a balancing act—you have to be a trapeze artist to do this work,” Subbaraman said. “No matter how long I have been here, every day I feel like a trapeze artist.”


3. Where we’re going

Compared to what Georgetown used to be four decades ago, or even a few years ago, campus culture is nearly unrecognizable.

Nevertheless, LGTBQ activists say that a lot of work remains to be done. Nine of the 16 bias reports filed last year dealt with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

In a statement to the New York Times in July, Thomas Lloyd, president of GU Pride, said, “Every month is a good month to be out at Georgetown.”

In an interview with the Voice, Lloyd reaffirmed his statement—but added an important caveat. “The ‘LGB’ community has grown enormously over the last few years,” Lloyd said.

In response to Lloyd, Kimberly Blair (COL ‘15) said, “I would actually challenge that and say that there is more on the ‘G.’”

“In my time here I have seen the same stagnant experience for queer people of color,” Blair said. “There is not a lot of visibility for queer people of color on campus. They don’t feel solidarity.”

Blair, who identifies as Hispanic, black, and lesbian, feels that student culture does not respect her identity as much as it would for a gay, white, cis-gendered male. ‘Cis-gender’ refers to an individual whose gender identity matches their sex at birth.

“Just because I am recognized as a human being doesn’t mean I am recognized the same way as my peers,” she said. “There’s a lot of stigma.”

GU Pride, which in past years had accrued a reputation for being dominated by white, gay males, has evolved into one of the most diverse organizations on campus. The majority of the board identifies as people of color or as women. Despite progress in including more minority perspectives, many students note that GU Pride’s diversity does not reflect the reality of the larger community.

“We all tend to organize most vocally around that piece of identity that is the first place of discrimination,” Subbaraman said. “For white, gay men, the first time they are discriminated against is when they find out they are gay because they are not discriminated against for being white or male.”

Jason Capecchi (COL ‘14) realizes the importance of recognizing this dynamic of the LGBTQ movement on campus. “It is a privilege to be able to do activist work or to choose what kind of activist work you want to do. A lot of the people who I see who are really active as queer people at Georgetown are cis, white men … who are also gay,” he said.

In addition to students who struggle with the intersection of multiple identities, LGTBQ students claim that Georgetown also lags in its support of transgender students.

“I like to think that Georgetown is a very accepting place, but at the same time I am still paranoid about walking around campus in a skirt,” said Lexi Dever (COL ‘16), who identifies as male-to-female transgender.

Todd Olson, Vice President for Student Affairs, articulates that in dealing with gender identity, the University stands firm on its view of gender as binary.

“There is an emerging view that gender identity is sort of something you play with. I think that is quite a different view than the Catholic view of identity and of human sexuality,” he said.

The University cites the position of the Church as the reason it continues to reject calls for gender-neutral housing. As Olson put it, “The fact is, we are a Catholic and Jesuit university. … We do not support gender-neutral living arrangements in university housing because of our mission and what we view as an appropriate way to structure campus housing.”

Though Olson insists that the University has made efforts to work with transgender students on an individual basis, Dever claims she did not receive any support from the University during her identity struggles last year. “It was definitely on my own. … Beyond the fact it was taking place on campus, it was definitely individual. There was not much assistance from the Center at all,” she said.

Over the past year, the trans* community has begun to grow in the public sphere. (“Trans*” is an umbrella term that includes all individuals in the gender identity spectrum.) Last Wednesday, GU Pride elected its first trans* board member, Celeste Chisholm (COL ‘15).

Since her election was announced, Chisholm has received an overwhelmingly positive response from the campus community. “Since then the response has just been astounding. … This just affirms my faith in Georgetown,” Chisholm said.

Moreover, Dever has been working in conjunction with the LGBTQ Resource Center to generate more support for transgender students on campus.

From an administrator’s perspective, the future looks hopeful for Georgetown’s trans* community. According to Olson, all new buildings constructed on campus, including the North East Triangle Project, will include individual or gender-neutral bathrooms. Administrators are also discussing whether to allow students to use their preferred rather than legal name for their NetID.

Despite promises from the University for change, however, Dever remembers an incident in which her floormates in LXR voted to distinguish one of their bathrooms as gender-neutral, but the University denied their request. “It’s the fact that they refuse to allow it when it is such a fundamental need for so many transgender people is not good,” Dever said.

In the coming years, the way Georgetown pulls or pushes the campus community in its balancing act will be indicative of how LGBTQ-frendly this campus has really become. Indeed, securing an inclusive environment for Georgetown’s non-conforming individuals seems to be next in line to tip the scales.


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Chet Bosner

What a well-researched, generally pimp article

Abi Vega

There is also a lot of LGBTQ culture outside the GU gates! For a project I did a bit of research on the LGBTQ history and scene in DC and there is actually a lot going on. in the nations capital. I think what would be really cool in the future is for some of the student groups like GU Pride to actually work with some of these off campus spaces to hold events and stuff (it they don’t already do that.

Kim Jong Il