At Catholic colleges like Georgetown, grappling with what it means to be young and gay

New York Times News ServiceAugust 6, 2013 

“Come out of the closet in style!” read the poster, and on a crisp fall day, dozens of students on Georgetown’s Red Square did - metaphorically at least. They formed a winding conga line and sashayed through a life-size closet door. That afternoon, they gathered for same-sex smooching in a campus “kiss-in.”

The day’s events were part of “OUTober,” a month jam-packed with celebrations related to all things LGBTQ, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning.

“Every month is a good month to be gay at Georgetown,” said Thomas Lloyd, president of the campus pride group. Indeed, there’s a Gender Liberation Week, Gay Pride Month, a drag ball called Genderfunk and a Lavender graduation ceremony attended by the university president.

Not so long ago, relations between the university and its gay students were strained. In 1980, the students had to sue for equal privileges for their organizations. In 2007, they stormed the steps of Healy Hall, protesting what they saw as an inadequate response to anti-gay incidents. And a 2008 survey found that 61 percent of students thought homophobia was an issue. That year, the administration began to address the problem, opening an LGBTQ resource center with a full-time staff.

Further honing its current image as a gay-friendly campus, in March Nate Tisa became Georgetown’s first openly gay student body president. Tisa, who clocked numerous hours at church retreats and religious summer camps as a boy in Rochester, N.Y., has called on the university to lead the church toward a new interpretation of homosexuality.

“Society is changing,” Tisa wrote in The Hoya, Georgetown’s student newspaper, “and God is in that change - do not reject it.”

As the national gay rights movement touches down in state legislatures, the Supreme Court and even the Boy Scouts, it is also being felt at many of the nation’s 267 Roman Catholic colleges and universities, where students and administrators are grappling with what it means to be young, gay and Catholic in 2013.

Perhaps nowhere has the movement been more visible than at the country’s oldest Catholic university.

“Georgetown has made a huge commitment to its LGBTQ community,” said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a national nonprofit group. “It has a history. It has a past. But today it is pushing the needle forward.”

The support for gay students has elicited nods of approval from many alumni, but it has agitated others. Some say that Georgetown is losing sight of its Catholic mission and has become a hotbed for viewpoints that conflict with church teachings. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” says to “respect” homosexuals - an attitude suggested by Pope Francis in his remarks last week regarding gay priests. But it denounces homosexual sex as “contrary to the natural law”; homosexuality is thus, some argue, not part of God’s plan.

Shortly after Tisa’s victory, William Peter Blatty, the octogenarian author of “The Exorcist,” and Manuel A. Miranda, a fellow alumnus, circulated a petition and 198-page memorandum condemning Georgetown for promoting a culture of “moral relativism” and an ideology of “radical autonomy.” More than 2,000 alumni have signed the petition, which was sent in May to Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington. The petition calls on the archbishop to better regulate the university or strip it of its Catholic identity, an unlikely but technically possible outcome.

“The petition’s primary aim is very much akin to pressuring someone that you love very much into going into rehab,” Blatty wrote me in an email. He has deep roots at Georgetown. He attended on full scholarship, set his blockbuster horror story on campus and named his new watchdog group, the Father King Society to Make Georgetown Honest, Catholic and Better, after the late Thomas M. King, a beloved theology professor.

Several pages of the Georgetown memorandum are dedicated to Tisa, his “irrepressible and well-trained gay agenda” and his attempts at “cleverly redefining what Catholic means.”

Wuerl declined to comment, but Rachel Pugh, a Georgetown spokeswoman, pointed to the university’s two required theology classes and up to seven Sunday Masses at the main chapel as evidence that it is deeply connected to its Catholic identity. The university also organizes church retreats and regular Eucharistic adoration ceremonies. Dozens of priests live on campus and serve as spiritual mentors.

“Our Catholic and Jesuit identity on campus has never been stronger,” Pugh said. “Academically, we remain committed to the Catholic intellectual tradition.”

Many students have an entirely secular experience at Georgetown. Sitting on a knoll overlooking the Potomac River, the university is a magnet for political junkies wanting access to the Capitol. But the obsession with politics is only part of the Georgetown story. Half of undergraduates identify as Catholic. The university’s religious underpinnings are embedded in its philosophy, and so, too, is what some students refer to as “the God conversation,” a dialogue about Jesuit values that regularly arises inside and outside of class.

The Jesuit educational model created by St. Ignatius of Loyola has a distinctly humanist bent. Todd A. Olson, Georgetown’s dean of students, says he is confident that providing gay students support, freedom of expression and a place to celebrate who they are does not conflict with the university’s Jesuit heritage. He cites cura personalis, the Jesuit tenet that loosely translates into care of the whole person, saying that Georgetown has an obligation to concern itself with the well-being of all its students.

“What is important and what is behind that is that each person has individual needs,” Olson said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The university, he said, is careful not to take positions or advocate behavior that contradicts church teachings. The resource center, for example, does not distribute condoms or provide safe-sex counseling.

Its guides are Pope John Paul II’s 1990 document outlining administrators’ roles and responsibilities and a sister report, released in 1999 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, exploring how the pope’s words ought to be applied. The latter document urges administrators to “enjoy institutional autonomy” and foster academic debate but to consistently uphold teachings about homosexuality, abortion, family planning and premarital sex. These seemingly contradictory missions have caused tension in recent years, particularly as Catholic institutions seek to educate and protect the health of their students, many of whom are sexually active.

During his sophomore year as vice speaker of the student senate and his junior year as speaker, Tisa helped produce a report on the challenges that incoming gay students face when they arrive. While students found a welcoming environment in the LGBTQ Resource Center, with its beanbags, Diet Cokes and lots of students to share thoughts with, Georgetown was still a scary place to come out. Some complained of intolerant, sometimes verbally abusive roommates, and resident assistants unskilled at addressing altercations.

The report proposed several initiatives - a gender-neutral dorm and a Safe Spaces program that would designate rooms on every dorm floor where gay and minority students could retreat if needed. Last spring, Tisa began vigorously pushing for both.

Many of Georgetown’s straight students say they are proud of the university’s work on behalf of gay students, largely because they see it as a civil rights issue. Maggie Cleary, a senior and former head of the Georgetown University College Republicans, said she thought it was important for gay students to feel welcome on campus and for those who might not have a lot of experience with openly gay people to be exposed to them.

According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, 62 percent of 18- to 34-year-old Catholics favor legalizing same-sex marriage, compared with 48 percent of those 35 to 54, and 39 percent 55 and over.

But in a much-talked-about opinion piece in April in The Hoya, titled “Marriage an Institution Defined by Procreation,” Andrew Schilling, a government major from Iowa, argued in support of the church’s stance on homosexuality. “True compassion for our LGBT friends,” he wrote, did not mean turning “marriage into a legal tool for social inclusion.”

Schilling said he was chastised for his opinions. “I can feel like my voice is being silenced,” he said.

Asked about this, Tisa said he thought it was crucial that all students express themselves on these issues. Still, he said, for gay students, certain viewpoints can be difficult to hear.

“For a lot of people, these are not abstract debates,” he said. “They’re personal.”

At a Formica table in his split-level dorm suite, wearing khakis and a Georgetown sweatshirt, Tisa was eager to discuss his own coming out.

He attended a Jesuit high school, where, tall and broad-shouldered, he played football. Early on, he began to suspect that he was gay. It was as tortuous internally as it was externally. Would he have to choose between God and a happy life?

His faith had brought him strength as a child dealing with his parents’ divorce. Once again, he found solace in prayer, and in conversations with other Catholics. The first person he shared his story with was a layperson he had grown close to during weekend youth retreats.

“She said, ‘I love you. God loves you. And I’m here for you,’” he recalled. “Then we cried.” That encounter, he said, reminded him that Catholic teachings were “based on love, not condemnation.”

“I really wanted to be part of that,” he said.

During Thanksgiving break his freshman year, Tisa broke the news to his parents. This past year, he wrote an opinion piece telling the entire campus. “Baby, we were born this way,” he proclaimed, calling on Georgetown to become a voice for a new Catholicism, one that supports the entirety of a gay person’s life.

Diane Butler Bass, author of “Christianity After Religion,” says many gay students find it too painful to stay in the church. “Those who do,” she said, “remain because there is something about the church they find beautiful and soothing. And they end up determining for themselves the things that they believe are central to being Catholic.”

It has taken Tisa years of reflection to work through how his sexual orientation and his Catholic faith can coexist. He refuses to accept that his relationship with another man is “intrinsically disordered,” as described in church catechism. And he is quite sure of this: “God is not a child in a sandbox, making sculptures and throwing them away.”

It is a message he is intent on spreading across campus with evangelical verve. As he often tells students: “We need to bring the Catholic identity into the 21st century.”

Can he do that from his perch at Georgetown?

“Yes,” Tisa said. “I have a lot of faith.”

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