The Balancing Act: Reflecting on the relationship between LGTBQ and Catholic communities at Georgetown

October 8, 2015

“I spent many nights lying awake in bed, knowing that my sexual orientation conflicted with official church teaching, and crying out of fear and sadness. I taught Sunday school, and would deliberately skip over chapters that were less than LGBTQ-friendly. In fact, I felt sort of a duty to teach and spare any LGBTQ student who was in that class, like I once was, from some of the pain and embarrassment that would follow,” Thomas Lloyd (COL ’15) wrote in an email to The Voice.

It’s been a busy week in the world regarding Catholic and LGTBQ relations. Immediately after leaving the United States, news reports exploded concerning a meeting between Pope Francis and Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to serve marriage licenses for same-sex couples. According to Davis’ lawyer, the pope told her to, “stay strong.” Days later, it was then revealed that the pope also arranged a personal meeting with an Argentinian friend, Yago Grassi, and his partner, Iwan Bagus. The couple has been openly gay and together for nineteen years. Just when the Vatican thought it had finished depoliticizing the pope’s meetings, a Vatican priest came out as gay.

Father Monsignor Krysztof Olaf Charamsa held a press conference in Rome on Saturday, asking Pope Francis to revise Catholic doctrine on homosexuality. With his partner by his side, Charamsa declared, “Every homosexual person is a son of God. This is the will of God for our life, also for my life with him.” Promptly after Charamsa’s announcement, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said, “Monsignor Charamsa will certainly be unable to continue to carry out his previous works,” and the priest has been stripped of his duties at the Vatican. Even though the Vatican has not released the exact reason for Charasma’s dismissal — and his breaking of celibacy could easily be cited rather than his homosexuality — such a development is likely to to spark conversation.

This discussion of intersectionality between faith and sexual orientation has been occurring on Georgetown’s campus for quite some time—long before Pope Francis expressed his “who am I to judge” mentality in 2013. The Georgetown administration, alongside Campus Ministry and the LGTBQ Resource Center, have created safe spaces for students to embrace their various identities in ways that have made Georgetown a paradigm for other Catholic and Jesuit universities struggling to define their relationship with LGTBQ students.

The interactions between the Georgetown administration and LGTBQ groups on campus began long before the turn of the century. In the 1980s, the lawsuit Gay Rights Coalition v. Georgetown University brought about the recognition of GUPride as an LGBTQ student group. Before the lawsuit, groups like GUPride were not officially recognized by the university, and therefore were not granted funding. According to Lloyd, “It was made clear that the Catholic Identity was a part of the objection, as was fear on the part of a few key closeted administrators. Georgetown was forced to recognize pride, and so, for nearly twenty years, GUPride existed despite Georgetown’s Catholic Identity.”

GU Pride speaking out after the September 2007 incident. FILE PHOTO: Katie Boran/The Georgetown Voice

Yet between 2002 and 2007, a series of hate crimes inspired student activist groups to protest. The most notable of these acts was in September of 2007, where police later reported a male student followed to 36th and O to the shouts of, “Where are you going, faggot” before being tackled and attacked. These acts of violence, and the fact that their reports were delayed (according to the Resource Center), prompted the Out for Change campaign, a student initiative amongst multiple activist groups that called for the administration to respond to such violent acts. The famous “I Am” shirts that students wear every year during Coming Out Week were originally created for the Out for Change campaign.

The demonstrations succeeded in prompting the creation of the first LGBTQ Center at a Catholic college. “This marked the first time that the University was engaging in a proactive, direct, support of LGBTQ issues and the community. This then also required a re-framing of what being LGBTQ at a Catholic School can mean” wrote Lloyd.

Father Kevin O’Brien, Vice President for Mission and Ministry, recalled Jesuit involvement in the founding of the Center. “At least two Jesuits [Father Boroughs and Father Gray] were involved…One of the reasons for the creation of the Center was how could we better care for our LGTBQ students, and as an exercise of our cura personalis, caring for each person in mind, body and spirit.”

Even in its mission statement online, the LGTBQ Resource Center is directly tied to Jesuit principles and ideals. Under the section “Our Jesuit Values,” the Resource Center declares that it “envision[s] the work of the Center in the context of our understanding Jesuit values and principles… We seek to appreciate the inherent mysteries and paradox of our common human condition, and find ways to support all community members to achieve a full range of expression of their own humanity.”

FILE PHOTO: Andrew Sullivan/The Georgetown Voice

Underneath the Resource’s mission statement is a letter from Fr. O’Brien himself. “We join the Center in caring for students in times of need and in exploring faith in light of sexual orientation… we help each person grow in faith, hope, and love, which ultimately defines who we are as a Jesuit and Catholic university,” he wrote.

Campus Ministry has always been involved in assisting LGTBQ students and the Resource Center, providing various means to engage in dialogue with those struggling with their sexual orientation and religious identity. Prayer groups for those who identify as queer have existed on campus longer than Father O’Brien can remember, giving students an opportunity to pray together and embrace their religious affiliation. “The point of the group was not activism,” said O’Brien. “It truly was to build a supportive faith community, where each person could work out their identity and dialogue with their faith.”

Sivagami Subbaraman, director of the LGTBQ Resource Center, spoke to how important the relationship between the Center and Campus Ministry is for students. “I appreciate that in Georgetown, because of its strength around interfaith, [Campus Ministry] allows us to provide opportunities for students to think, ‘how does my own spiritual life intersect with my LGTBQ identity’ — and there aren’t many places to explore that connection,” she said.

During his tenure as president of GUPride, Lloyd worked hard to incorporate Jesuit principles into the mission of the Resource Center and LGTBQ groups on campus. When looking back on the prayer groups, he wrote that, “Campus Ministry independently recognized the need for and value in a separate place for LGBTQ Catholics to explore their identity and faith simultaneously.”

Current president of GUPride, Campbell James (SFS’17)  also reflected on his own experiences with intersectionality. “I came out as a freshmen at college… I lived in a very conservative, religious area growing up, and I was very uncomfortable with the thought of telling my schoolmates and church friends,” he wrote in an email to the Voice. “I think that the Office of Campus Ministry has a great relationship with the Center and with Pride…I think this really fits with the office’s aim to be resources for all students, not just students of faith.”

Tim Rosenberger (COL’16) recalled his own internal conflicts with religion and sexual orientation before college, and the support he found at Georgetown. “My faith was a big part of why I thought I needed to date and eventually marry a woman,” he wrote in an email to the Voice. Until I found a way to reconcile Christianity and my sexual orientation, I consistently opted for my faith over being able to date people to whom I was sexually attracted. Georgetown has a robust Protestant ministry that allowed me to discover that I was okay to be both gay and Christian… we also had an amazing gay Lutheran chaplain, Pastor Phil Gaines, who really helped me grow.”   

Although not a Catholic, Brian Council (MSB’16) was on the board of GUPride for two years. When considering the Center’s relation with Campus Ministry, he said, “The university puts a lot of thought into how [GUPride and Campus Ministry] interact with each other, but i don’t think that’s in a negative way—there’s a history there between Pride and Campus Ministry.”

Subbaraman also talked about how the positive relationship between Campus Ministry and the Resource Center is a bond that cannot be found on most college campuses, let alone in many religious settings. “Historically speaking, we [the LGTBQ community] have never been made to feel that we have a right to be taken seriously in our religious identities,” she said. “…Most religions are negative to LGTBQ people… I think for me, that connection [between Campus Ministry and the Resource Center] has been very powerful.”

In his email, Lloyd discussed the importance of including Campus Ministry in Resource Center events to continue a positive relationship and dialogue between religious affiliations and sexual orientation on campus. “The Center is pretty integral to many faith-based initiatives. Bringing Chaplains in to coffee hours, hosting an LGBTQ tea with Campus Ministry, sponsoring panel discussions on faith. It’s hard to find a religious event without some effort being made to include LGBTQ voices – admittedly with a few glaring exceptions – and a lot of that is because of the advocacy of the Center,” wrote Lloyd.

In 2015, Georgetown hosted the second annual IgnatianQ, an annual event that allows LGTBQ communities across Jesuit universities to meet and engage in important dialogue.  Both Lloyd and Council contributed in hosting the event last March. “I described IgnatianQ to Campus Ministry [in our pitch] as ‘a gathering space for LGBTQ students at Jesuit Colleges, to build community, share experiences, and to gain a better understanding of what it means to exist at the intersection of these identities.’ wrote Lloyd.

After attending the first event at Fordham University, Lloyd believed Georgetown was more than qualified to host IgnatianQ because of both available resources and more developed community. Council recalled that he personally asked his own Chaplain to speak at IgnatianQ, who was “more than happy” to accept the offer.

Vice President for Mission and Ministry Father Kevin O’Brien S.J. speaking at the IgnaqionQ 2015 Conference, held in March at Georgetown. PHOTO: IgnationQ via Facebook

While Fordham’s conference addressed “Finding God in the LGBTQ Student Community,” Georgetown’s ultimately successful hosting of IgnatianQ in March of 2015 focused on “Forming Contemplative Communities to Ignite Action.” According to Lloyd, “[The theme] pulled on three Jesuit values — being contemplatives in action, building community, and of course, ‘setting the world on fire.’”

Father O’Brien delivered the keynote at last year’s IgnatianQ, and recalled the event with a positive attitude. “It wasn’t just about LGTBQ identity,” he said, “it was also about how the values of the spirit of Georgetown, the ones we see on those blue banners, how they are expressed in our care for LGTBQ students.”  Plans are already being set in motion for the third annual IgnatianQ, but the location has yet to be determined.

Settings such as ESCAPE, too, give an outlet for the gay community to express their struggles with faith and sexual orientation. Affiliated with Campus Ministry, ESCAPE is an overnight experience for first-year and transfer students to get away from the Hilltop to the Calcagnini Contemplative Center in Bluemont, Virginia.

Father O’Brien recalls times where the conversation of queerness and religious affiliation came to the forefront of ESCAPE discussions. “One of the reasons why I think it [ESCAPE] is so popular is because we create a safe place [where] people can be who they are, and bring their experiences into the conversation… I’ve certainly heard team members talk about coming out experiences in a very powerful way, which can only help students who are struggling with their identities,” he said.

The Resource Center has also attempted to facilitate this dialogue through Gatherings, a monthly event that encourages LGTBQ leaders to discuss the different diversities across campus, and how they interact and intersect with their LGTBQ identities.  

Both Campus Ministry and the Resource Center have worked to create safe spaces where the dialogue on intersectionality between religion and sexual orientation can become fluid. Yet in recent years, there has been a lack of dialogue between student-run groups, particularly those such as GUPride, and more religiously affiliated groups like the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic Daughters. According to records at the Resource Center, the last cosponsored event between GUPride and Knights of Columbus was in 2010; the last event coordinated between GUPride and Right for Life, 2012.

Last year, Lloyd encountered another Catholic group on campus, LoveSaxa, that bluntly refused to cosponsor an event with GUPride. “[LoveSaxa] refused to co-sponsor a group discussion about the pressures of having “authentic” relationships… they could pick the date, time, moderator, and Pride would pay for it… But their president at the time, and their board, refused to accept the proposal, claiming that we had no common ground” wrote Lloyd.

In some of these other student groups, the dialogue addressing the intersections between religion and sexual orientation does not occur — even amongst members themselves. Justine Worden (COL’17), a member of Vita Saxa and the Catholic Daughters, noted the silence on issues such as these. “[Catholic Daughters] rarely talk about sexuality issues, which for me is kind of bothersome … there’s a need for not necessarily direction, but reflection,” she said. “I know a lot of our members, including myself, have varying points of view and varying degrees of experience with these issues. Maybe that’s why we don’t talk about it.”

Worden, however, had an enthusiastic response about the Center and its relationship with Campus Ministry. “I’m glad that we have the Resource Center – I think it’s good, and necessary to have that support for those who identify,” she said. “The relationship between the Center and Campus Ministry is good, but [amongst] the student body… I’m not sure there’s much collaboration or communication.”

According to Lloyd, the stance a group takes could very much depend on whom is running it at the time; “The organization [GUPride] could take a combative stance, or just focus on community building. I’d like to think the pride I led was somewhere in the middle, pushing the boundaries of what is required of a Jesuit school to be true to our values,” he wrote. 

Council agreed. When looking back at his time on the GUPride board, Council acknowledges that for him, GUPride didn’t serve as an activist group; rather it was a space to meet others and make lasting friendships. “I think the other part of it is just what the students hope to get out of these groups. I usually have viewed GUPride more as a social group… Some people… would want someone more eager to use it for that purpose… I think that’s where a lot of that desire to create a dialogue would come from.”

It is important to remember, however, that alliances and cooperative moments have happened in the past. James reminded the Voice of last spring, when the Westboro Baptist Church came to Georgetown to protest. Before GUPride chalked in Red Square, the Catholic Daughters held an open rosary to all participants. It was a moment of unity between two separate groups in the face of adversity — one that, however, appears to be an anomaly, rather than the norm.

Across the board, both students and faculty have suggested similar ways to facilitate such a dialogue — as uncomfortable as the conversation may be. “I think a good place to talk would be open dialogue within the groups, and see what could grow out of that,” said Worden. Yet the dilemma with engaging in this dialogue is in fact the amount of discomfort this type of conversation can lead to. “I don’t think there isn’t an interest — a lot of people I’ve spoken to have expressed interest in having these conversations,” said Worden. “I think the problem is that we’re afraid to. We don’t know who to talk to, or how to go about it.”

Coming Out Day 2013. FILE PHOTO: Shiva Subbarman/The Georgetown Voice

Campbell eagerly expressed an interest with collaborating with CMSF student groups in the coming year. “Faith and sexuality are very private and important identities that people hold. As such, it is hard to have dialogues that could be possibly offensive, even with no bad intentions,” he wrote. “I think that allowing students to express themselves and to come into dialogues with open ears and assuming the best intentions from their peers is the best place to start our mutual learning.”

Father O’Brien, too, acknowledged that these conversations are important to have — even if students may have differing opinions. At a Jesuit university, we need to create times and spaces where these conversations could take place… they often can be difficult  — the point is to listen to the experience of another, so as to understand their position or their belief, and to see if there is room for common ground. And if there isn’t, to address the differences and work through them.”

Subbaraman hopes that events such as the weekly coffee hours hosted by the Resource Center will encourage students to interact with one another and have an open dialogue about these relationships and issues. “ Ultimately, [the dialogue] will have to come from students. You’re going to have to tell us what prevents you from reaching out to people different than you,” she said. “I think it’s about instilling that sense of adventure or curiosity, or feeling we will all gain if we get out of that comfort zone.”

This story was originally published in the Oct. 9, 2015 issue.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect Father Kevin O’Brien, S.J.’s current position at Georgetown University.

Cover image by Ted Etyan via Flickr.

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