Approximately 200 high school students walked out of class after a lesbian classmate at Los Angeles’s largest Catholic high school was reportedly targeted by faculty and staff for being open about her sexuality and relationship with a female classmate.
BuzzFeed reported that Magali Rodriguez, a senior at Bishop Amat Memorial High School, and her girlfriend were “forced into disciplinary meetings and counseling, barred from sitting next to [each other] at lunch, and kept under close eye by staff members.” Both Rodriguez and her girlfriend were also prohibited from spending time together during breaks.
This alleged treatment led approximately 200 students walked out of class one day recently to show solidarity with Rodriguez. They rallied in her “honor with chants, prayers, and song,” according to The Advocate.
Rodriguez said that school officials threatened to inform her parents about her identity and relationship if she disobeyed–something which they do not do to students in heterosexual relationships.
Despite being targeted, Rodriguez obeyed these arbitrary guidelines and refrained from showing affection to her girlfriend on school property. But as a result of this harassment, she suffered emotional distress and anxiety, which negatively impacted her grades. After several years of enduring this discrimination, she decided to take action. She wrote a letter to her parents and informed them how she was being treated by school officials.
Upon receiving the letter, Rodriguez’s parents were dismayed, not at their daughter’s sexuality, but at the school’s conduct. Rodriguez’s mother said, “[t]hey took it upon themselves to parent our daughter, to counsel her, to lecture her.” Rodriquez’s father said his daughter’s note “sounded like a suicide letter. It was a huge cry for help.”
Rodriquez’s parents subsequently removed their daughter from Bishop Amat High School and transferred her to another school.
In response to this incident and the rally, Bishop Amat High School administrators issued the following statement:
“Bishop Amat High School is committed to providing a supportive and inclusive learning environment for all students, irrespective of their sexual orientation. Students who are involved in a relationship may socialize appropriately on campus; however, engaging in excessive displays of affection is not permitted by any student.”
BuzzFeed reported that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and school officials from the school declined to answer specific questions, citing concerns of student privacy. A spokesperson on behalf of the school commented that Rodriguez’s account was not “entirely accurate.”
This incident presents a fundamental question: what spaces are available for LGBTQ students in Catholic schools?
In a comment to Religion News Service, Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director of New Ways Ministry, emphasized that the “treatment of LGBTQ students varies in Catholic schools across the United States.”
DeBernardo provided additional reflections, emphasizing:
” ‘There will be a time when acceptance of LGBTQ people, including youth in Catholic schools, will be universal in the Catholic Church.’ But that vision of equality is not imminent: ‘[i]f the schools don’t change, they’re going to close, because more and more Catholic youth and students generally are becoming pro-LGBTQ.’ “
DeBernardo told BuzzFeed that the schools and parishes need to learn to support LGBTQ students:
” ‘As a baptized Catholic, they belong to the church community,’ DeBernardo said. ‘They have gifts they can offer to the church community, but unfortunately, not all church community members are going to recognize that.’ “
Rodriquez’s experience exemplifies a challenging, but beautiful journey, in which she navigated a homophobic environment that discriminated against her because of her sexual identity. Rodriquez’s courage, bravery, and resilience to speak out against the harassment and discrimination she endured will undoubtedly empower other targeted LGBTQ students to stand up to prejudice in their schools.
Moreover, in a world where we often hear of families rejecting their LGBTQ children, the words and actions of Rodriguez’s parents should offer hope and inspiration. And the response from the student body at Bishop Amat High School, rallying in solidarity for Rodriguez, also signals a shift in the cultural attitudes towards LGBTQ students at Catholic schools.
It is disappointing however that members of the faculty and staff at Bishop Amat High School are the main outlier. There remains a great deal of work to be accomplished in Catholic schools to not only protect LGBTQ students from discrimination and prejudice, but to ensure that they have the space to develop and explore their identities holistically with the same support and guidance that every student deserves. Anything less fails to honor the dignity and sacred beauty of God’s children.
Looking to develop LGBTQ initiatives for your Catholic school? Consider hosting “Creating a Spirit of Welcome: LGBTQ Issues in Catholic Schools,” a workshop facilitated by New Ways Ministry and designed to fit the unique character of your school community. The program includes presentations, discussions, real life examples, small group activities, and discernment of next steps. For more information on the workshop, click here.
–Brian William Kaufman, November 19, 2019