Their Catholic University Keeps Shutting Them Down, But This LGBTQ Group Continues Fighting For Recognition
“I feel like the culture on this campus is set back 30 years from America.”
WASHINGTON – It’s a little past 8 on a school night, and CUAllies, an LGBTQ group at The Catholic University of America, has gathered in the student union. The scene plays out just like any campus club meeting. Students drag desks together, chatting over one another. Markers are passed around for the evening’s activity. Someone is taking down the minutes.
But CUAllies isn’t officially a campus club — and these students are fighting damn hard to change that.
The group, which was founded in 2009, has been repeatedly turned down for university recognition. That means they are ineligible for school funding, they can’t table alongside other clubs, and they’re not entitled to their own meeting room.
The school is bucking a progressive trend.
For more than a decade, New Ways Ministry, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ Catholics, has been publishing a growing list of “gay-friendly” Catholic colleges and universities. There are currently over 130 schools on New Ways’ list, which means that nearly two-thirds of Catholic higher ed institutions have some kind of program, policy, or project that affirms LGBTQ students. (The Catholic University of America does sponsor a weekly meeting for LGTBQ students, led by two psychologists, at the school’s counseling center.) About half of the Catholic universities in the U.S. offer a university-recognized LGBTQ club, but not CUA.
“I feel like the culture on this campus is set back 30 years from America,” Kelly Bourbon, CUAllies’ co-president, says over the phone.
A resolution for student senate support, which passed unanimously in 2016, was voted down this year. That decision hit Bourbon especially hard.
“Student Government Association represents the student body,” she says. “Those are my friends, my peers, my graduating class. They’re the ones rejecting my identity and my right to have a club on my campus.”
Bourbon has had her share of run-ins with fellow students. “I’ve been called derogatory terms. I went to a party and I got a drink poured on my head. I was called a dyke.”
Unlike university-sanctioned clubs, CUAllies relies on fundraising and alumni donations for funding. Last year, when they weren’t allowed to meet on campus, they gathered at a nearby Starbucks. This year, they have permission to use a resource center in the student union.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]I’ve been called derogatory terms. I went to a party and I got a drink poured on my head. I was called a dyke.[/quote]
During the university’s annual club fair, CUAllies members were not allowed to have a table alongside other organizations. Instead, they stationed themselves in front of the building, hoping to catch students on their way in and out of the event.
“We didn’t have a table. We just stood there,” Adriana Penafiel, CUAllies’ co-president, says. “We were just hoping we wouldn’t get asked to leave.”
When a marketing intern took a picture of the group promoting their club and put it on the university’s Snapchat, the image was swiftly taken down, according to Penafiel and Bourbon.
The Catholic University of America declined to comment on CUAllies.
Last year, the group ran a social media campaign, started a petition on change.org, and launched an entire week of activities dedicated to recognizing CUAllies.
Now, Bourbon and Penafiel are surveying LGBTQ students on campus and asking them about the ways they contribute to the campus, whether they feel like part of the community, and if they’ve ever considered leaving the university.
They’ll present those results to the university’s president before CUAllies attempts to gain recognition again.
“I want to ask, ‘Are you aware that there are this many identifying students on this campus? That they are taking care of your freshman, running your gym, and your library, and you’re not going to give them a club?’” Bourbon says.
Some members added that gaining university recognition not only would be an enormous victory for the group, but also would send a strong message to CUA’s student body.
“I feel like people give us a side-eye,” Margaret Newbury, a member of CUAllies, says. “I do get looks on campus.” She’s wearing her club’s shirt as she says this, a black tee with CUAllies logo written in rainbow lettering.
CUAllies’ member Liz Hurley adds that the club's struggles have led her to question her own faith. She only applied to Catholic schools, hoping for service opportunities and a sense of community.
“Now that I’m here, I honestly feel less religious than before,” Hurley says. “It’s a big turn off. I identify as LGBT, and it hurts me. I feel like it’s not very Catholic to be discriminatory.”
Despite setbacks at CUA, progressive changes do continue to happen on Catholic college campuses.
“In recent years, I’ve noticed that schools are becoming more aware of transgender students,” Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, says. “I also think there’s been a trend of mainstreaming LGBT issues rather than ghettoizing them, so that the issues are integrated into various programs of the university rather than being a separate initiative.”
Prominent examples include Georgetown University, which has a funded LGBTQ resource center, and DePaul University, the first Catholic university to offer an LGBTQ studies minor. Marquette University and Fordham University have both implemented transgender-inclusive bathrooms.
“I think what’s happening on Catholic college campuses is being reflected on the wider Catholic church. People are ready to have this conversation,” DeBernardo adds.
Pope Francis has been an important religious advocate for the LGBTQ community — up to a point.
In 2013, the pope told America Magazine that he does not believe God condemns LGBTQ individuals, stating: “We must always consider the person.” He’s open-minded about civil unions (but still emphasizes that marriage should be between a man and a woman), and he has met with members of the LGBTQ community, including a one-on-one meeting with a transgender individual who felt marginalized by church officials.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"] The catechism of the Catholic Church’s official stance is to ‘respect’ gay people, but homosexual sex is ‘contrary to the natural law.’[/quote]
There’s a limit though. During a question and answer session with Vatican correspondents in 2016, the Pope said, “It is one thing to have homosexual tendencies or a sex change. But it is another thing to teach it in schools.” Meanwhile, the catechism of the Catholic Church’s official stance is to “respect” gay people, but homosexual sex is “contrary to the natural law.”
Student advocates could play a role in pushing that needle of change further and further.
“Students are becoming more and more vocal,” DeBernardo says. “LGBT issues is the the civil rights issue of this younger generation.”
For Newman University, a Catholic school in Wichita, Kansas, a passionate speech delivered by a gay student named Ruben Lerma helped pave the way for an official LGBTQ group.
Throughout his time at Newman, Lerma dealt with an often hostile environment on campus.
“I remember I was in my chemistry lab and there was this other gay guy in there too,” he says during a phone interview. “Within listening distance, there were these macho religious types, openly talking about how gay people were going to hell and intentionally saying it loud enough so that we could hear.”
During a visiting speaker’s talk on diversity, attended primarily by the school’s faculty, Lerma decided to stand up and speak.
“I was openly weeping, telling them about these things that I hear and I live with and just saying, ‘please let us have a club,’” he recalls. “Newman meant a lot to me, and I didn’t want that love to be conditional.”
Following Lerma’s speech, an article came out in the school newspaper detailing the attempts LGBTQ students were making to start their own organization.
“I think that really laid the groundwork and really got faculty members wanting to support this,” he says. “There were gay faculty members at Newman, and I remember after the article came out, some of them reached out to me and said ‘good job, thank you for talking.’”
Teachers, nuns, priests, students, and administrators worked together to devise a pastoral plan for the student group, modeled after Notre Dame’s official LGBTQ club. The outline mandated that members remain “chaste,” based on the idea that marriage is between a man and a woman.
“It sucks that we had to play around these sensitivities and scripture, but you gotta do what you gotta do,” Lerma says.
In the meantime, CUAllies continues to look to a future of one day, finally, winning over the administration.
“The idea of it makes me emotional,” Bourbon says, her voice catching a little.
“If by the time Kelly graduates or by the time I graduate, CUAllies was made official, it would mean that all the progress and the work and the blood, sweat, and tears — especially the tears — would have come to something,” Penafiel says. “It would be one of my proudest accomplishments.”