Op-ed: How the Jesuits Dance With LGBT Students

By Jeffrey Hartinger

Originally published on Advocate.com April 20 2012 10:07 AM ET

Last week Zach Wahls, a student from Iowa who was raised by two lesbian moms, was scheduled to speak at my alma mater — Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y.—but he never got the chance.

Wahls, whose February 2011 testimony before the Iowa state legislature defending marriage equality was the most-watched political video of 2011, became an icon for children of LGBT parents. Wahls opened the eyes of many who were torn about that aspect of same-sex marriage.

His event was ultimately canceled by the administration of Canisius College, a Catholic institution. Directly or not, administrators risked advocating for same-sex marriage. And I suppose that by now I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am that they didn’t want to hear from Wahls.

In August 2007, I arrived at Canisius College, like many modern-day college students, at a time when I was becoming politically active for the first time and starting to make my own decisions.

Canisius, one of 28 Jesuit institutions in the nation, is a beautiful campus on the east side of Buffalo, which is nestled in the historic Hamlin Park district. I was drawn to the college for a variety of reasons, but most important to me, was the demeanor and attitude of the students I came across during my visits. Unlike atother places, the students seemed lively, happy, and friendly; there was an unspoken acceptance that I felt even as a prospective student.

Another thing I noticed about Canisius, and it would be hard not to, was that the “Catholic” aspects of the school were evident. Priests walked throughout the quad. A massive, beautiful chapel stood in the middle of campus. Still, the college seemed progressive and liberal, an impression that proved true during my time at Canisius. That isn’t to say, though, that I wouldn’t go on to face many roadblocks as a gay student.

Simply put, I was raised agnostic. My parents talked about “God” from time to time, but we never spoke of a religion. We certainly never went to church, except on a few random occasions. On a political level, my parents spoke of their beliefs and shared thoughts on the economy and social issues. And as a son of blue-collar parents, I suppose, when it comes down to it, I was raised in a Democratic household without the label.I came out as gay during my freshman year. Just as I thought,
there was practically no fallout. I looked up to my gay and lesbian
classmates and was welcomed with open arms by all family and friends —
gay and straight. There were even out LGBT members of the faculty and
administration that helped me understand that yes, Canisius College was a
safe place for me to open up about my sexuality. 

During my
last few years, I became heavily involved with Unity, which is the
gay-straight alliance of the college. Although all 28 Jesuit schools in
the country vary in regard to LGBT acceptance and activism, I am happy
to share that all have a GSA on campus.
 
As the summer before my senior year pulled to a close, the other e-board members and I got together and set goals for the following two semesters. That year we were able to host and sponsor nearly a dozen events, in addition to bringing in LGBT activists such as Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter of Milk; Ian Harvie, the first transgender individual to speak on campus; and Brian Sims, one of the first college football players to come out as gay. I, of course, would promote the events in the school paper and in Buffalo publications.

Quite frankly, though, it seemed as if the administration wasn’t all that happy about my activism.

“Jeffrey, I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you again; you need to stop promoting these gay events. The school has a PR person and they will take care of it,” one administrator told me.

“Well, that’s the thing, actually.  They don’t promote our events as they would other events that are non-LGBT oriented,” I replied. “What’s the point of having these events if those we are trying to reach are not even informed?”

Our argument went on like that for some time, and as I left his office, I realized the tricky role that administrators at religious colleges must play when it comes to LGBT students and events, and the support they show to our community. For the most part, they try to appease the older, more conservative alumni and religious folk. Further, the progressive and liberal students from Generation Y — whether religious or not — pressure those in charge for equality and acceptance. It may be a generational thing, but it’s not a coincidence that my generation is the most nonreligious in history and is generally skeptical of organized religion.

I’m proud to be from Buffalo and I am proud to be an alumnus of Canisius College; yet, I am constantly disappointed by the administration and its actions when it comes to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students. The Zach Wahls decision is just the latest of those letdowns. Feel free to send the administration a letter or email; a wise professor from Canisius once told me that writing sometimes makes a difference.