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 LGBTQ+ students on campus, due in large part to how faculty and peers treat LGBTQ+ students, what speakers are invited on campus, and the school’s refusal to officially recognize CUAllies, a student-run LGBTQ+ support organization.
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 gave examples of the negative experiences she had on campus, including a time she was wearing drag makeup and started getting looks from a group of boys, who then began to follow her. Thankfully, Nay was able to get to her room without any confrontation.
One aspect of the University every student mentioned was the continuous denial to recognize CUAllies as a school organization. Although CUAllies was established in 2009, various student-led LGBTQ+ groups have operated since the 1970s. Because it is not recognized as an official club, CUAllies cannot advertise in the food court, 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.
The Student Government Association (SGA) has passed legislation supporting the recognition of CUAllies multiple times, but the Board of Trustees continues to deny 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 much harder for CUA to fund LGBTQIA+ resource centers and organizations, compared to other Catholic universities, since it has an obligation to strictly abide by Church teaching.
Nay talked about what it was like to be in the Zoom meeting last year for the SGA senate meeting that voted whether or not to recognize CUAllies as a legitimate organization, which included the mandatory open-comment for other students to share their opinions on a legislation.
“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 her 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.”
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 LGBTQ+ 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, with many students picking LGBTQ+ shows. The professor, however, would not allow them to research these shows, resulting in the class bringing the situation to administration. The administration brought in a lecturer to teach about LGBTQ+ 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 being a part of the LGBTQ+ community in her orientation group chat for the class of 2022, students told her that she would be going to hell, making her feel unsafe. This prompted her to go back into the closet during her entire freshman year, despite being out in high school.
Ashton Samuels, junior social work major and president of CUAllies, shared 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 listed was their deadname, the professor quickly made the 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 a statement about how each student is loved the day after the Vatican said they could not bless gay marriage. Other than these instances, however, Samuels expressed feeling unsupported by faculty outside of the social work school.
Junior social work major Rachel Sanders stated that although she has a group of supportive friends that make her feel welcomed, she is still hesitant around other people on campus. She recalled seeing a peer repost homophobic rhetoric on Instagram, 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.’”
The interviewed students also made suggestions for how to make the university safer and more welcoming for LGBTQ+ students.
Samuel’s first suggestion was to invite “fewer speakers who have opinions against the LGBTQ community,” citing past instances where the university has hosted anti-LGBTQ+ events.
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.
The most suggested improvement for the school mentioned by the students was to make CUAllies a recognized student organization. Samuels talked about how officially recognizing the club could show LGBTQ+ students that they have a space where they are fully accepted.
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.”
Fitzgerald wished to offer support to current LGBTQ+ students, stating, “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 6:30pm 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 6pm to discuss specific topics, offer support, and make friends.
For off campus options in the DC area, see Washington Blade’s list of community resources.