For 12 years, I was taught in the Catholic school system to stand up for what’s right, love all, and treat everyone equally. Ten months ago, I was given the opportunity to put my faith into action when I began advocating for a guidance counselor at my school who was fired for being in a same-sex marriage. At that very moment, I saw the great need for a deeper sense of belonging for LGBTQ+ individuals in the Catholic community.
However, when I stood up for what I thought was right, I was told by officials of my school that I was "leading people away from Christ" and that the school might not be "the right fit" for me. I felt betrayed. I felt alone. The resentment and discrimination I experienced made my heart break. I fear for other students in the Catholic school system who, like me, are being taught that their voice and who they are do not matter.
At the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, I was horrified by the way my school treated Shelly Fitzgerald, a guidance counselor of 15 years and alumna of Roncalli High School. She was stripped of her career and banished from the place we all used to call home. I felt compelled to combat this act of hatred because other LGBTQ+ students were afraid and needed people to stand up for Shelly, and in turn, for them.
Thankfully, I was not the only one with these thoughts. A few weeks after the news got out, Shelly's Voice Advocacy Group was founded by six high school students from Roncalli High School who saw a great need for social reform in the Catholic Church and, frankly, in Indianapolis citywide. Shelly’s Voice appeared on The Ellen Show, held a launch party with over 300 guests, gave statements to multiple media outlets, established a working board of directors, and mobilized for the future. Standing up for Shelly was the only way I knew how to cope with what was going on inside the school that now felt cold to me.
It was when I finally stood up for Shelly that I no longer felt comfortable being a part of the LGBTQ+ community in my school. I no longer trusted the administration after the president of my school emailed me and referred to a committed and loving same-sex marriage as “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.” Walking through the hallways was no longer the same after a teacher, former friend, and mentor told me I was “leading people away from Christ.” I felt alone after I was pulled into meeting after meeting and told Roncalli might not be “the right fit” for me. How could a school I had called home for over three years treat me like this just because I wanted to accept and love everyone?
Until February, I continued to advocate despite the administration’s constant attempts to quiet my outspokenness. The fear of losing my ability to advocate became a reality in early February when I was told by the principal of Roncalli and the superintendent of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis that my recent public statements were no longer acceptable. They said graduation was only a few months away. They “wanted” to let me walk on graduation day.
In that very moment, I was terrified. My diploma. My college education. My hard work. That is what they were willing to dangle over my head in order to hear nothing but silence from me. I felt defeated when I looked down at the table and said, “I will be silent in order to graduate from this school.” They ended the meeting shortly after. The closing remark still rings in my ear: “Well Dominic, this seems to have been a very productive meeting.” They finally got what they wanted and, at that very moment, my heart finally broke as I realized I fell in love with a church that did not approve of who I was.
On May 25, I received my diploma. For most students, graduation is a time to celebrate your achievements and reflect fondly on your experience; but for me, I walked across the stage at graduation feeling heartbroken with a dark cloud hanging over my time at Roncalli High School.
Above: Waving at the Indy Pride Parade, June 8, 2019. Dominic far left and Shelly Fitzgerald in rainbow skirt at near right.
I tell my story today because it needs to be heard and I can finally tell it. I want people to realize that like most high school students, I just wanted to be normal. I was supposed to be a senior in high school. I was supposed to be getting excited for college. I was supposed to focus on my standardized tests. I was supposed to have fun with my friends at Friday night football games. Frankly, I was supposed to be preparing myself for future challenges in a school environment that fosters and appreciates the “change-maker” spirit. I tell my story because I know it represents countless students who were and are still being targeted for supporting LGBTQ+ causes like the one I stood up for. There are so many students who are silenced for speaking out against what has happened to them.
LGBTQ+ youth, please hear me when I say this: I believe in you and you have amazing people standing up for you every day. You will get through this. I promise.
To this day, Shelly’s Voice Advocacy Group continues to live out its mission of advocating for a better, more inclusive Catholic community. I urge each one of you to stand with us by writing a letter to a church leader asking them to change the way in which they treat the LGBTQ+ community. Join us in making sure the Catholic Church understands that LGBTQ+ youth matter. Join us in erasing the prejudice that LGBTQ+ students have to experience in their schools.
Stand up and be a part of the change with us, unafraid.
Dominic Conover is a recent graduate of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis and an activist with Shelly’s Voice, which serves to create greater understanding and acceptance for LGBTQ people in the Catholic Church.