Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have found a new ministry in providing support for their gay and lesbian students.
Several years ago, in a Catholic high school in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, teachers asked seniors in an interdisciplinary honors symposium to tell about their own experiences, or the experiences of individuals they knew, as part of a unit on gender. Their task was to think about all the ways that gender can affect people.
One girl stood at the front of the class and described the life of her friend Heidi. Heidi, she said, had been beaten, kicked, and reviled repeatedly by her parents. When she was 14, they told her she could no longer live at home. Where she went and with whom she lived were her problem, they said.
Heidi moved from place to place, staying with a succession of friends and relatives. She was rarely welcomed, and often was barely tolerated. Heidi attended three different high schools and had not seen her parents or siblings for four years. Students and teachers at the schools she attended often treated her as an outcast, so eventually she learned to keep to herself and tell no one about who or what she was.
What was Heidi’s sin? When she was in her early teens, she told her parents that she was a lesbian. They would not, and could not, accept her. Now, at the age of 17—after much self-doubt and pain—she had only recently come to accept herself.
The girl ended her talk with the admission, “I am Heidi.”
A Mandate for Educators
Heidi is not alone. In schools across the country, students are struggling to deal with issues of sexual identity. How can we ensure that all students feel safe in school and that they are able to learn?
First, we have to make careful decisions about the messages we convey to students concerning gender roles. Social and behavioral codes, curriculum, and school activities all are based on traditional, heterosexual roles. Seemingly innocuous activities such as the prom, Valentine’s Day, the election of kings and queens for various activities, and classes about marriage all create situations where gay and lesbian youth must hide their identities, where they feel they are excluded. We do not acknowledge their identity and presence.
There exists in our society a negative perception—if not an outright fear and loathing—of homosexuality. The stress and pain with which gay and lesbian youngsters must deal is reflected in the statistics. Consider the following:
- Fifty percent of lesbian and gay teens say they are rejected by their parents because they are gay (Hetrick-Martin Institute 1992).
- Eighty percent of lesbian and gay youths report severe feelings of isolation (Hetrick-Martin Institute 1992).
- Thirty percent of all young people who commit suicide are gay or lesbian (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 1989).
The Archdiocese’s Response
In the fall of 1995, the Schools Team of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis invited a representative, counselor, or campus minister from each of our 11 high schools to join a Study Group on Pastoral Care and Sexual Identity. (Although each school in the Archdiocese has its own administration and develops its own policies, the Schools Team is available to provide resources on any issue.) Our charge was to consider the issues confronting gay and lesbian students.
The group met for a full year. We looked at church documents, including letters from bishops regarding the church’s response to homosexuality and its directives that we must minister to all, because all of us are God’s creatures. We also studied homosexuality. We looked at the treatment of homosexuals throughout history, the experiences of homosexual adolescents in schools, psychosexual development, gay culture, and psychological and sociological perspectives. We found the literature on schools as safe communities to be particularly significant.
We developed the following mission statement: “The Pastoral Care and Sexual Identity Study Group in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis exists to support competent and compassionate pastoral care for all students, families, and staff in the Catholic schools communities.” By the end of the year, we had identified four goals:
- Hold a workshop for all teachers, administrators, and counselors on the topic of sexual identity.
- Train faculty members in each school to function as “safe staff.”
- Teach students and teachers that homophobic behavior is inappropriate and unacceptable.
- Form an interschool support group for students.
Each school proceeded individually to achieve the goals, based on its own identity, climate, and level of readiness.
Training for administrators, teachers and counselors. We have offered this training seven times to date, and will offer it again in the future as it is needed. Training sessions last a full day. Participants review a summary of the psychological and social research on homosexuality. They discuss the issues emerging in their various schools. They hear presentations by gay and lesbian graduates of our schools about their experiences relating to sexual identity. And, they have the opportunity to share their own discomfort, concerns, lack of knowledge, and hopes for the future.
Training for safe staff. This training is designed to help interested teachers learn how to help students who approach them with sexual identity issues. The trainers are adults from an organization called Family and Friends of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Persons in Catholic Education as well as community counselors—both gay and straight—who have worked with students. Teachers who complete the training may—if they feel comfortable doing so—display a rainbow sticker in their classroom. The rainbow sticker is generally associated with the Gay Pride movement. Students know, however, that in our schools the symbol means everyone is safe in that teacher’s space.
Education for students. Our student education effort is designed to make sure students understand that behaviors that hurt others will not be tolerated. We also provide positive reinforcement for those students who already are supportive of others. We have delivered the message about tolerance and respect for all in various ways, depending on the school:
A support group for students.
- At one school, the principal talked with students at each grade level about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. The principal discussed the importance of individual dignity as a rationale for a safe climate and stressed that homophobic behaviors are as unacceptable as racist behaviors.
- Another school devoted an entire edition of the school paper to various aspects of the sexual identity issue. One student described her coming out at home, another wrote an article discussing church teachings, and yet another described how it feels to be the only heterosexual in a group of homosexuals. The writer concluded that it’s normal to feel strange when you are different.
- In some schools, counselors have placed gay and lesbian-related posters on the walls. One poster states, “My best friend just told me he is gay! Now what do I do?”
- We encourage teachers to incorporate discussions of homosexuality into the curriculum. Topics covered to date have ranged from famous homosexuals and their influence in history, to the struggle of homosexuals to gain acceptance and how that struggle compares to the efforts of other groups, to the lives of some famous homosexual athletes.
We are fortunate to have the assistance of Family and Friends of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Persons. This local group, which has been in existence for about 20 years, provides us with research, information, staff training, and support. Recently, Family and Friends members helped us establish an off-site, interschool support group for students. Safe staff members in each of our schools can refer students to the group. Before joining the group, however, students meet with a trained referral person in each school who can address other, more serious problems that might not be appropriate for a group setting. We strive to ensure that the steps we take are thoughtful and caring, and that we ensure student safety and privacy.
What steps to we plan to take next? There are several goals that we would like to address in the future:
- Training the members of our boards of directors. Most Catholic schools are governed by a board of directors that is responsible for setting policy. We would like to provide training for our board members about our efforts and their underlying principles.
- Developing our parent support group. The foundation for a parent support group is in place. Now, we would like to see the group become active, because we know parents of gay and lesbian youngsters often feel very isolated.
- Supporting gay and lesbian staff. We want to address the very real concerns of gay and lesbian staff members and teachers, many of whom remain closeted because of concerns about job security. We also believe these individuals could serve as valuable resources for our program.
Approaching the Problem in a Catholic Setting
It may come as a surprise to many readers that Catholic schools are dealing with topics such as homosexuality and the rights of homosexual students. However, recent writings by the American bishops place a greater emphasis on the call of Catholics to demonstrate justice and respect for all people. These writings show less concern for homosexual behaviors and more concern for the pastoral care and just treatment.
Consider this statement by John Roach, Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis (1991): “Many homosexuals experience unnecessary pain and suffering ... It is the firm intention of this local church not only to advocate for the rights of homosexual persons, but to provide care for such persons.”
Members of our study group view our work as a matter of justice and charity. All our work has proceeded from the basic adherence to the Catholic teaching that sexual activity outside of marriage is not acceptable. Our basic assumptions and guidelines are aimed at promoting chastity.
What we have done in our archdiocesan schools for gay and lesbian students can serve as a useful example of a process to improve school climate in any school—public or private. We believe strongly that as educators we must address the larger, albeit sometimes difficult, issues of society. We also believe—and articulate for our students—that if one person is not safe, no person is safe.
Factfile: Lesbian, gay and Bisexual Youth. (1992). Hetrick-Martin Institute for Lesbian and Gay Youth: New York.
Roach, J.R. (November 7, 1991). “The Rights of Homosexual Persons.” Origins 21, 22: 356. Washington, D.C.: Catholic News Service
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1989) Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Youth Suicide. Washington, D.C.: Author.
Sister Mary Ellen Gevelinger, O.P., is Director of Personnel and Planning for the Catholic Schools of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, 328 W. Kellogg Blvd, St. Paul, MN 55102.
Laurel Zimmerman is Chair of the Guidance Department at Cretin Derham Hall High School, 550 South Albert, St. Paul, MN 55116. Both authors are adjunct professors at St. Mary’s University in Winona and at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.