Keeping the Faith :: GLBT students face adversity at Catholic colleges
"I didn't want to go here."
That, says John Kropowensky, was his first reaction to student life at College of the Holy Cross. Openly gay and comfortably agnostic, he was hesitant to select a school renowned for its Catholic tradition. "I was completely scared to go here," says Kropowensky, now 21 and in his final year of studies.
Halfway across the state, another gay student was having a similar dilemma. "I didn't really want to go to BC," says 20-year-old Ben Lynch. Though Boston College enjoys a stellar academic standing, its reputation as an inhospitable campus for gay students made Lynch nervous. "I was pretty hesitant," he adds.
Seen through the eyes of a campus visitor or a promotional brochure, it would seem that Boston College and College of the Holy Cross share a number of similarities.
Both are competitive schools, ranked among the best Northeastern colleges by the Princeton Review. Both have beautiful campuses; acres of manicured green grass and gothic architecture. And both have an esteemed Catholic background, one that is particularly attractive to students seeking a liberal arts education informed by Jesuit tradition.
But for gay students, these universities are separated by more than the 30 miles between Chestnut Hill and Worcester, Mass. Though Catholic colleges are united under a common religion, one that is frequently inhospitable to the needs of the GLBT community, gay students at BC and Holy Cross voice personal experiences that are worlds apart.
Their perspectives and perceptions reveal unique issues confronted by gay students, and how Catholic schools are--or are not--trying to connect with every member of the campus community.
"There was no place for GLBT students," says Ben Lynch, 20, of his first perception of Boston College. Though he was swayed to the school by the promise of free tuition (faculty is in his family), Lynch was also aware of the college's reputedly homophobic status.
From 2000 to 2004, BC ranked every year on the Princeton Review's list of schools where "alternative lifestyles are not an alternative," though it has been absent from the list since holding the No. 5 spot in 2006.
And it was only in 2005, after years of heated debate and an overwhelmingly supportive student referendum, that Boston College finally added "sexual orientation" to its official non-discrimination statement.
Once at BC, Lynch found a mostly welcoming student body. "The majority of students are very supportive of GLBT students on campus," he says. "And I think every year the new students coming in are a little bit more liberal than the last."
Celso Perez, 21 and president of the GLBTQ leadership council at BC, confirms that the students are occasionally "ignorant and apathetic."
Perez continues, "I wouldn't identify it [the environment] as overtly hostile," he says. "A lot of people don't know gay men and women, yet if one takes the time to sit down and talk to them they're open to new experiences."
Still, both students are aware of a few anti-gay incidents over the last few years, ranging from comparatively minor (homophobic graffiti) to gravely major: one gay student found his dorm room vandalized, his belongings urinated on and the word "FAG" scrawled on his wall.
According to Lynch, administrators twisted the proverbial knife by outing the student to his parents in the course of their investigation.
"A lot of the homophobia on campus comes from the administration," says Lynch of Boston College's unofficial attitude toward the GLBT community. "It's subtle, but insidious."
Indeed, while Lynch is actively involved in the gay student group Lambda, he says his peers are "very much prevented from mobilizing around GLBT issues. I think the administration's views and the policies they've created have a lot to do with that."
For example, unlike other student groups, Lambda isn't officially recognized or funded by Boston College. And though they are allowed to stage events on campus, generally with some opposition.
That is, if an event is allowed to happen, at all.
"We had been planning it for months," recalls Lynch of a dance for gay students, an event cancelled by the administration just days before the big bash. "All the administrators seemed supportive, and we had already made significant financial commitments."
Then, he says, the administration let lose "a completely absurd string of arguments: that we couldn't say it was a 'gay' dance. That it came to their attention that same sex couples would be dancing."
Nearly 500 students--gay and straight--protested the cancellation. Meanwhile, the administration contended that the dance was never cancelled. Rather, they said it was never approved.
Getting beyond semantics, Lambda has even cancelled its own events rather than enduring the college's stifling scrutiny.
"Last year we wanted to do a gay celebration," says Lynch. "It was basically an award dinner for a history professor who works with GLBT history. We wanted it to be the first annual Lambda Awards." But administration meddling, including debate over the term "celebration," rolled up the red carpet before the inaugural ceremony.
"They were stripping the celebration of everything, and we felt like we weren't going to represent our institution's needs if we made all those concessions," says Lynch of the decision to cancel.
Most frustrating to Lynch are the vague, nebulous reasons provided by Boston College for its prying oversight of gay student groups.
According to Lynch, "One of the major things that the administration says is that it [an issue] is not in line with their Catholic teachings. But there's never really any elaboration on their part, or a sense of clarity about what they mean and what they're referencing."
The intrusiveness experienced by gay groups at BC stands in stark contrast to the positive experiences voiced by Holy Cross students. "They've never told us we couldn't do something," says Marjorie Corbman, 20.
Corbman and Kropowensky are co-chairs of Holy Cross' ABiGaLe (Association of Bisexuals, Gays and Lesbians). At the start of November, the organization hosted a Rainbow Alliance Week--a series of socials, panels, and even a lecture by a transgendered speaker--amidst fanfare and support.
"We got all of our funding from the school without question," says Joshua Rodriguez, 19. Rodriguez is a member of the college's Allies organization, which cosponsored the series of events. He says that even when the college interjects Catholicism, it is respectful and within reason.
"We had to have a religious faculty member present [at certain events]," he explains of the limited intervention. "In case people had questions afterwards."
If anything, some suspect that the college's supervision is actually for the benefit of GLBT students.
"The administration is extremely supportive, and always has our back," says Corbman of ABiGaLe's experience with university officials. "I think they have to document what they're doing so that they can defend us... and bring up why it's good."
Students, she says, are equally supportive. "Holy Cross doesn't have a homophobia problem," she laughs. "Sometimes we just have a stupid drunk person problem."
While not all students are partaking of the communal wine, Holy Cross' positive relationship with gay students is also furthering its mission as a Catholic university. According to students, the college's support of the GLBT community has elicited a surprising effect; more students, they say, have become interested in the spiritual side of the school.
"I think a lot of people in the GLBT community shy away from religion because they get negative feedback from the Catholic Church," says Rodriguez. He believes that Holy Cross is crossing the church aisle, and making great strides in connecting gay students with the Catholic faith.
"They give us leeway, and they make us feel at home," he says of the administration. "Seeing the priests says masses for us [gay students]... saying that we should all help each other because that's what God would want... It allows us to open up to them more, as they open up to us. A lot of the GLBT community at Holy Cross is more spiritual for it."
Indeed, with support from the school behind them, gay students are finding that it's their turn to be open-minded. "I was never religious growing up," says Kropowensky, who initially balked at attending the Catholic school. "Being at Holy Cross hasn't changed my beliefs or perceptions, but it kind of gave me a place where I didn't have one before in Catholic society. I feel like I have a role now."
Back at Boston College, Lynch and Perez remain active in their own roles with gay student groups. Among other responsibilities, Perez is currently organizing a "reunion" of sorts for Boston College's GLBT alum, and Lynch is working on a "hate crime protocol" to help administrators deal effectively and sensitively to anti-gay incidents.
But unlike the sense of mutuality and partnership cited by Holy Cross students, Lynch sees Boston College lacking a sense of responsibility towards its GLBT wards.
"It's still student-led," says Lynch of initiatives affecting gay students. "That's my biggest criticism. There's no movement by the administration to address issues until they're pushed by students. It's absurd that some of us spend 30 to 40 hours a week doing stuff that should be met and managed by the administration."
"I think they should be leading these issues," he concludes. But for now, it seems, gay students still lack divine intervention.