From Students’ Perspective: Treatment of LGBTQIA+ Students at Catholic University
Image courtesy of Catholic University’s Facebook, edited by Mariah Solis
By Mariah Solis
Some names have been partially withheld to ensure their privacy and safety.
The Catholic University of America has a history of being criticized by students for its lack of inclusion and care of queer students on campus, due in large part to how faculty and peers treat queer students, what speakers are invited on campus, and the school’s refusal to recognize CUAllies as an official club.
Senior musical theatre major Allison Fitzgerald shared, “Being a musical theatre major has helped me a lot because I feel like the Rome school is the most accepting school in the university because a lot of us are queer-identifying. It is really great to have a lot of queer people around me in my classes that are always there for me.”
Despite the sense of community with students in her major, she mentioned how sometimes it is hard to feel seen on campus.
In Fitzgerald’s musical theatre history class, her professor ignored shows focused on queer topics, despite students encouraging her to speak on them. For the class’s final project, students were allowed to pick any musical to research and write about, and many students brought up shows matching their queer identities. The professor, however, would not allow them to research these shows, and the class had to bring the situation to the University administration. The administration brought in a lecturer to teach about queer musical theatre history, which somewhat resolved the situation, but not to the extent that the students were hoping.
“The Rome school has always felt like my safe space, especially in a university that is so conservative in its general views,” Fitzgerald said. “So for someone in my own safe space to come in and make me feel like I wasn’t welcome made me extremely angry and upset, and I felt isolated. Especially when some of my peers who are in the class didn’t really help us out in getting the resolution we wanted and weren’t really being fully supportive, that was really hard for me.”
Fitzgerald talked about how when she mentioned she was queer in her orientation group chat for class of 2022, and students told her that she would be going to hell, making her feel unsafe and prompting her to go back into the closet her entire freshman year, despite her comfortably being out in high school. She also added how she felt supported by the Counseling Center when she needed it, but felt like she had to “tip-toe” around others on campus outside her major.
Ashton Samuels, junior social work major and president of CUAllies, talked about how professors in the social work program are very accepting and supportive. They mentioned a time their professor was calling roll, and when Samuels said that the name called was their deadname (birth name), the professor was quick to make that correction and was even surprised the school didn’t mark that down, making Samuels feel comfortable telling their professor that they are trans.
They also talked about Harrison Hanvey, assistant Campus Minister for community service at the university, who was auditing a sociology class Samuels was in.
“He was and is totally cool with me being trans, used they/them pronouns for me the entire semester, and still does, even though I barely see him anymore,” Samuels said. “For someone from Campus Ministry, I was super surprised to find him supportive about it and it made me really happy.”
Samuels also mentioned the time their theology professor made the statement, “I don’t like to speak out against the Catholic Church, but all of you are loved,” the day after the Vatican said they could not bless gay marriage. Other than these instances, however, they expressed feeling unsupported by faculty outside of the social work school.
Nay, sophomore politics major and vice president of CUAllies, shared, “If I had to say what it was like on this campus, I’d say people aren’t going to violently confront you or hate-crime you, but you’ll get looks and you’ll sense that they do not want your presence on campus.”
Nay also gave some examples of the negative experiences they had on campus, including a time Nay was wearing drag makeup and started getting looks from a group of boys, who then began to follow him. Thankfully, Nay was able to get to their room without any confrontation.
One aspect of the University every student mentioned was the continuous denial to recognize CUAllies as a school organization. CUAllies was officially established in 2009, however, the history of various queer groups on campus goes all the way back to the 1970s. Because it is not recognized as an official club, CUAllies cannot table in the Pryzbyla Center, request Treasury Board funding, or receive the same access to Office of Campus Activities resources. Until as recently as 2017, the club gathered in spaces off-campus, such as Starbucks or Barnes & Nobles.
Catholic University has a long history of queer students speaking up about their experiences. SGA has supported multiple times the recognition of CUAllies, but the Board of Trustees continues to say no to SGA’s suggestion, followed by the President later clarifying the school’s position during Town Hall panels. Because the University is the only American university with a pontifical charter, it is directly tied to the Vatican. This makes it harder for the school to fund LGBTQIA+ resource centers and queer organizations as compared to other Catholic universities since it has an obligation to abide by Church teaching quite strictly.
Nay talked about what it was like to be on the Zoom call last year for the SGA senate meeting that voted whether or not to recognize CUAllies as a legitimate organization.
“People talked to us like we were subhuman almost, it was sad to hear,” Nay said. “And the thing I found a little bit funny was how the people that said those things; none of them had their camera on, but the rest of us did. You couldn’t really put a face to the nasty things said during that meeting.”
Nay continued by sharing how the meeting reminded him that not everyone on campus is accepting.
“Having a lot of people around you that are really supportive sort of puts you in a bubble,” Nay said. “[Y]ou don’t really think that people hate you just because of the way you are: you forget that sort of.”
Junior social work major Rachel Sanders talked about how she has a group of supportive friends that make her feel welcomed but is hesitant to mention her queerness around other people. One example she gave was seeing a fellow student repost homophobic things on her Instagram story, which made Sanders uncomfortable to post her and her partner in a romantic setting.
“Part of me is like, ‘I’m so proud of myself for figuring this out, I am who I am’ and the other side of me is like, ‘I don’t wanna see someone’s facial expression change when I mention my not-heterosexual relationship.’”
Catholic University has a history of hosting events that students have disagreed with. For example, three years ago, the Institute of Human Ecology sponsored a panel titled “Navigating the Transgender Debate,” presenting information about the “current transgender trends”. Outside the event was a small silent protest, and other students in attendance shared their concerns about the event when it was over.
“When it comes to the discussion of LGBT people on campus, trans people are usually left out,” Nay said. “The focus is usually on gays and lesbians and bisexuals, but trans people exist, trans students exist, being trans or nonbinary is not something that is new or something that is made up. We are valid and we are not people that should be forgotten.”
The interviewed students also shared their suggestions for how to improve the university. Samuel’s first suggestion was to invite “fewer speakers who have opinions against the LGBTQ community.”
“Last year when College Republicans brought Abby Johnson to campus, it really terrified me,” said Fitzgerald, “I remember I didn’t leave my dorm that entire weekend because I felt like everyone on campus hated me. I felt like no one respected me or wanted me there, especially because I use a pronoun set that’s not the typical, and I publicized that and I also publicize my queerness on my social media.”
The most suggested improvement for the school mentioned by the students was to make CUAllies a recognized club. Samuels talked about how officially recognizing the club could show queer students have a space and are accepted here, as opposed to saying they are accepted because “Catholics accept everybody.” Samuels added, “It would be a statement that they are actually welcome rather than ‘you are welcome but just like, offer it under the table’ which is essentially what we are doing right now.”
As recently as June of 2020, the University said that the Supreme Court expanding civil rights protections to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity would “negatively impact faith-based institutions.”
“I think there needs to be more rules about discrimination against LGBTQ students, especially by professors because I feel like they can get away with a lot,” said Fitzgerald. “I remember in one of my theology classes, we had to debate if trans people were valid or should have rights, and I think stuff like that should not be allowed at the University. I think any sort of homophobia should not be tolerated, and I think a lot of it is excused or let go and it shouldn’t be.”
To current students at Catholic, Sanders says, “I’m not here to pressure anybody to be my biggest fan or a queer person’s biggest fan, but its always nice to be polite and realize that there are people who are different from you. We’re not trying to hurt anybody, we’re just trying to love people we want to love in a good way. I feel like a lot of queer people may feel like they have to justify their state of being to somebody and it’s like no, I’m here, I’m around, and I’m not going anywhere!”
To queer students at Catholic University reading, Fitzgerald said, “I know that being queer can feel extremely isolating and difficult on this campus, but you’re not alone and there are so many more people like you. We’re living in a city that has the highest queer population of any other city in the country, so it might take a little time to branch out and find more people that are like you, but they exist and we’re all here for you.”
Nay added, “You are not alone on this campus, there’s a lot of us. There are a lot of people here that are accepting. Feel free if you have the time to stop by our CUAllies meetings, which are held usually on Wednesdays at 6 in the CCE, which is on the middle floor of the Pryz. Or if you feel like you don’t want to be seen in these meetings, you can always reach out to us on our social media.”
Although there is a lot of work to be done to include LGBTQIA+ students on campus and make them feel welcomed, there are safe spaces well known for being accepting. The Counseling Center offers Mosaic, which is a psychoeducational group that meets every Thursday from 5:10 to 6:30 pm to create an environment of support and discuss important LGBTQ+ topics. To join, call 202-319-5765 or email [email protected]. CUAllies also has meetings every Wednesday at 6 pm to discuss specific topics, offer support, and make friends.
This year, Campus Ministry started the organization Beyond the Labels for LGBTQ+ students committed to the Christian faith that would like friendship and support in an environment of trust. Anyone interested can contact [email protected]
For off-campus options in the DC area, see Washington Blade’s list of community resources.