A gay teenager who is a former student of a Catholic high school in Iowa, spoke out about discrimination there, and, in the process, set off a chain reaction of similar statements from other students, and a declaration defending the school from the principal.
Landon Sandel who left Xavier High School, Cedar Rapids, after sophomore year there published an account of his two years there in The CWR Surveyor, the student newspaper of Cedar Rapids George Washington High School from which he graduated this spring. He wrote of overt and microaggressions by both staff and students.
For example, Sandel wrote:
“Like many other LGBTQ youth, I knew my sexual orientation for a long time, but struggled with accepting it, justifiably so. At its core, our society subjects minority groups, especially LGBTQ, to violence and defamation. At Xavier, LGBTQ inequality and inequity were both prevalent, yet repeatedly neglected by the administration. The discrimination was not commonly individual-based, but was institutionalized through less-overt actions and policies. During my required freshman theology class, the teacher lectured several times on how the national legalization of same sex marriage was a tragedy to society, and how gay sex is just as bad as bestiality. Additionally, a priest who presented in another theology class in a different grade level taught the same belief. Later that year, I was shocked as a stage manager in the spring play when numerous lines were deliberately blacked out of the script to eliminate the existence of homosexuality. The director even had to come up with a new character to fill the void. When I expressed my concerns to the director, it was clear that she was not at liberty to revert the edits.”
Even after enduring these and other attacks on his sexuality, Sandel is quick to point out that he believes that Catholic schools are able to move beyond their position and be more inclusive of all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, writing:
“To be clear, I do not think that Catholicism is anti-gay, or hateful in general, but many Catholic high schools are having this issue, and it needs to be addressed! I think Catholics struggling with accepting LGBTQ people should not lose sight of Jesus’s welcoming actions, in addition to Pope Francis’s peaceful and co-existing sentiments.”
Another Xavier student who chose to remain anonymous told the newspaper:
“I would say that I feel the need to live a lie of sorts, like, I have to appeal to the majority, faking that I’m going to live a heterosexual life with a wife and procreate. The school fails to project that as LGBTQ children, we belong to God. We are made in his likeness and image with a unique purposes in life. We aren’t defective. God made me, me. If he wanted me otherwise, he would have made me otherwise.”
After Sandel’s letter was published, The Little Village Magazine followed up by interviewing Sandel and other LGBT students and former students from Xavier. One former student, who chose not to be named, talked to a reporter at length about the types of discrimination they experienced while a student at Xavier, saying:
“It made me constantly afraid. I never felt secure in myself, which still has a huge impact on me. I have a lot of social anxiety and paranoia. I struggled with it for a long time. It takes a lot of work and has to do with completely disconnecting yourself from that environment to get perspective on it, and kids shouldn’t have to. They should feel secure within their home.”
Xavier principal Tom Keating, says that he understands the struggles that LGBT students undergo while students at the school, but ultimately thinks that he must be accountable to parents and the church hierarchy, not vulnerable students. Little Village Magazine quoted him:
” ‘It’s a fragile time in regards to where your life is going, and I don’t want to harm that,’ Keating said, addressing the fact LGBTQ youth are almost five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. ‘We can’t be in denial there are LGBTQ students at Xavier, but at the same time we can’t be in denial of what Catholic teaching says and our responsibility to the Catholic church as a Catholic school. That’s the challenge. We have parents and pastors we have to answer to. Parishes give us $1.6 million a year. We must be true to Catholicism. What students, parents, pastors and I think it means is different for all of us.’ “
When asked about the inclusion of a Gay-Straight Alliance or a similar organization at the school, Keating denied that there is a problem for LGBT students, and that there are other, marginalized and underrepresented groups at the school. (However, Keating does not acknowledge the intersectionality and diversity of the LGBT community. Many LGBT students are people of color and non-Catholics.)
Sandel said that he holds no animosity towards Keating and other school officials:
“I truly believe that the Xavier administration isn’t trying to target the LGBTQ youth. I know them. Mr. Keating, I live in his neighborhood. I see him out for walks, I really don’t think he’s that type of person. But, he receives so much backlash from parents in the Xavier community. With that said, I think that Xavier needs to prioritize their students mental health and well-being over public image.”
In fact, The Little Village Magazine interviewed Matthew Lieser , a Chicago-based psychologist, who warns against the lifelong effects microaggressions and lack of inclusion like those that occurred at Xavier can have on a person’s mental health:
“Conservative churches cause a lot of detriment to gay members who grew up in the system. I see clients now in their late 20s, early 30s who struggle with obesity, low self-esteem, high blood pressure, high stress tolerance, sweating and panic attacks. [Being brought up in strictly structured schooling] can be very detrimental to sense of identity. If it’s extreme, it can result in a fractured identity. You lose part of yourself and you don’t know how to integrate that part of yourself as an adult. It can impact your ability to have healthy relationships later in life.”
Sandel and others who publicly speak out are helping to make Catholic schools more inclusive and welcoming to LGBT students. It’s time for school administrators to take their experiences seriously.
—Kaitlin Brown, New Ways Ministry, July 12, 2018