What I Wish I Could Tell My Students

Today’s post is from an anonymous guest blogger who is a campus minister at a U.S. Catholic university.

Last year, I sat as a queer campus minister in a breakout session at a conference for LGBTQ students from Catholic universities, and I marveled at the strength, courage, and grace these students display in their daily lives. One student posed a question along these lines: “Where are all the queer campus ministers? Why aren’t they standing up to administration when queer students are targeted or excluded?”

I shrunk into my chair, fidgeting. My knee began bouncing up and down involuntarily as it always does when I’m anxious. I looked around the room at my colleagues from other schools–some of whom I knew to be allies, others I knew to be “family.” The room sat quietly for a minute, as shame and indignation simultaneously washed over me–and very likely many of my colleagues. 

The awkward silence was broken by a brave participant who invited the workshop members to think more justly about the situation. The reality is that queer campus ministers are often themselves targeted, excluded, and marginalized. We often walk on eggshells, carefully calculating with whom we can be honest, what we say in public, and how we interact with students–especially LGBTQ students. 

Students at the conference assumed that because they attend schools where justice and inclusion are central to the educational mission, that campus ministers should be free to live their lives openly and courageously. My colleague explained that because of our roles in direct ministry in Catholic institutions, that is not the case. While we wholeheartedly support LGBTQ students’ struggle for full inclusion, safe space, and affirmation of their identity, full-throated support would call attention to us, leaving us exposed and vulnerable to the power brokers at universities: donors, some clergy, bishops, and even external community members who feel it is their duty to police Catholic spaces. And these figures often do not want us in active ministry. 

I have replayed that conference interaction–both the student’s disappointment and my colleague’s careful, raw response–as I read about LGBTQ employees losing their jobs at Catholic schools, including a campus minister forced to resign from a Jesuit university. I experience that internal struggle between wanting to stand up and scream my support for my queer colleagues and students, on the one hand, and sinking into my chair, wishing to toe the line and blend in with my straight colleagues, on the other.. 

That internal grappling has brought to the surface a few things I wish I could tell my students. 

To my LGBTQ students who are courageous enough to live openly and honestly about their identities and who participate in Campus Ministry activities, I see you, I support you, and I very truly love you. To those of you who have found your place in the world and on campus, your courage and your hunger for justice inspire me. When I think back to my college days and remember the scared, closeted, angry person I was, I am amazed at the grace with which you all move through life. Every one of you offers a beautiful light to this campus, and even in the darker moments living in the shadows here, I, too,  carry that light. You are my hope for a future in which the Church lives up to its mission as the Body of Christ by welcoming, accepting, loving, and offering the fullness of life to every person. 

To those LGBTQ students who are skeptical of Campus Ministry, I see you, too. I love you, too. And, truly, I get it. Though our offices proudly display “safe space” decals, talk and symbols are cheap. That decal does not erase the Church’s history of oppression of our community. Please know that no one in Campus Ministry would be anything but affirming and supportive of you. Our primary responsibility as employees of the university is to support you, and we are happy to fulfill that duty. I promise to continue to hold myself and my colleagues accountable to the hurt and exclusion perpetuated in the past, and work ever harder to ensure all are welcome in our physical and spiritual space. 

To those who are not ready to come out (like I was in college), or who can only come out to the safest of people, know that there are allies all around our Catholic campus. Queer faculty and staff inhabit many academic and administrative departments, and they are ready to be mentors and role models. And there are allies, too. In my own journey, finding a straight professor and a straight campus minister who were allies were a huge part of my coming out process. Even though queer campus ministers aren’t able to advertise our mentorship, we are here to support you the best we can.

To the LGBTQ students who, like the student at the conference, are disappointed by my silence, I hear you, too. Please know how much it truly pains me to have to keep myself quiet and go back into the closet to stay employed. But also know that as part of living my vocation, I am trying to shift the paradigm and to challenge the system in subtle ways. And please know that my fear about being out at work is not imagined or delusional. Even as closeted as I am at work, I have been called homophobic slurs by students, coworkers, and supervisors. I have been targeted and even threatened by supervisors and administrators because of my sexuality. At the same time, I have been excluded from queer spaces and shamed by LGBTQ coworkers for not being out. Living as a queer Catholic Campus Minister, but not being fully accepted in either space, is not easy. 

Finally, to the students who out of fear, ignorance, upbringing, or outside pressure do not believe I belong in ministry or that your LGBTQ peers do not belong in the Church: Please know that my life is not a difference of opinion or theological ambiguity. I belong here. We belong here. I invite you to listen to LGBTQ Catholics to hear how they feel, what they’ve experienced, how they have felt the same unconditional love of God in their lives that you have felt, and how hurtful homophobic rhetoric in the Church can feel. Know that the lives of LGBTQ people everywhere, including those in the Church, are not a thought experiment for you to theorize about or debate. Christ’s commandment to love one another as you love yourself is neither a theory nor open to interpretation. Love your LGBTQ brothers and sisters as you love yourself. If you need to learn how to love yourself first, we in Campus Ministry are here to love and support you through that journey. And yes, just as I have learned to love myself, I love you, too. 

In ministry, I have had the gift of getting to know countless young Catholics (and people of many beliefs) who take their faith seriously. These young people have displayed sincere understanding of our Catholic fundamentals: to love unconditionally as Jesus loved, to show preference to the poor and marginalized as God does, and to courageously follow their consciences in pursuit of this mission as our ancestors have done. Most of the students I have met recognize that discrimination LGBTQ Catholics face is unjust, and they do not stand for it. Their allyship, combined with the fearlessness of LGBTQ Catholics who refuse to be excluded from their spiritual home, will mean a different future for the Church–one in which all are welcome. Until that time, I will continue to share the same message to all students I have shared throughout my career: God loves you and so do I.

Anonymous, April 27, 2020

6 replies
  1. Mary Roche
    Mary Roche says:

    To the author and my colleague in Catholic higher education, Peace! I see you too – and love you. Thank you for writing this powerful message!

    Reply
  2. lovedbyGod
    lovedbyGod says:

    yes! I am presently finding out how much God loves me just the way I was created! I’m glad to finally come to this “Resurrection” especially during this Easter Season. I feel God is speaking to me through many ways, but especially in New Ways Ministry. I thank God for you and all who are on this journey! AMEN

    Reply
  3. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    I appreciate the wwriter’s very horrible position in lilfe. The only thing I can recommend is for you to find another student support position at a non-religious/Catholic institution so you can be yourself. Living by a wink and nod will lead you to a broken life. The freedom for which you yearn will not be achieved by passing. The church perpetuates its anti LGBT-stance by fear and punishment. When the hierarchy and religious who are LGBT decide to come out all of a sudden the anti homosexual rules will be dropped as the shame that they are. Good people will be seen. According to the current myth Pope Francis will drop the Ratzinger letter once Pope emeritus Benedict goes to his reward but no one will live that long. Individuals have to make the change they want to live now. It is not easy, but it is the path to happiness which Christ wants for you for all of us.

    Reply
  4. Stacy St. Clair
    Stacy St. Clair says:

    I am saddened when anyone suppresses the truth… especially their truth. I am a mature trans-woman who had not realized it until late 2018. I came out to my brother with “liquid courage” in New Orleans but really to my wife “first” later, children, friends, work and the world at large almost immediately after realizing the undeniable truth of who I am… a woman.

    Secrets can only hurt. While I had not hid “being a woman”, I had kept secret the dressing, predilection, obsession with feminization. Until I came out, it was something that I felt I could deny, could push away, could tell the lie to myself of “never again” and that did not define me. For long bouts, I could.

    I was wrong about all of it.

    Coming out was something to fear – which I am forced to laugh at in retrospect.

    It potentially loses all that one has built up in a life – which is a rationalization.

    But NOT being true to yourself hurts not only you… but the world at large.

    One cannot “do more” to help acceptance and to promote a new paradigm for LGBTQ from the wings… from the shadows. Rainbows only shine through a new sun after a rain.

    I was part of a voice-feminization support group hosted by a truly remarkable woman in a university setting. There had been a Coming Out Day panel-discussion in another room down the hall from us. Our group made a field trip.

    It was a wonderful event but sad in a way too – and for many of the same reasons. The panel and audience were essentially the LGB part of the rainbow, some 60 or so in all which was very encouraging to see.

    But I was struck by a certain something said – by some of the “out” panel and by some who were brave enough to stand at the Q&A section at the end.

    I stood and accepted the mike. I was not hiding. Trans-people never really CAN hide which I pointed out to them.

    I.e. the term “hiding their gay” (which I had never heard before) came up too frequently… even with some who had been out for decades and living with their partner.
    They might hide their gay from a particular relative back in the home country who just would not understand. They might hide their gay from their boss and co-workers… their church… their…

    I pointed out that there was no hiding being trans. Once out, there is no hiding anymore.
    I said how terrified I had been of being found out. How much I liked my life… in general. The old-me was someone I liked, like an old shoe that one might hold onto a little beyond its useful life.

    I explained how stunned (once I came out) I had been by the acceptance, love and support I had received from those I loved and knew and from new friends I had made. People used “brave” and “inspiring” and a whole bunch of other words that I never believed anyone might attribute to me. I became the bartender, hair-dresser and confessor. After having revealed such a thing as I had done, people became emboldened to share their secrets with me.

    A friend had said that she was inspired by me.

    “How? Why? You do not walk on the rainbow.”

    “You are brave enough to live your truth in spite of the obstacles. It’s time I live my truth.”

    There ARE obstacles. My parents (or “my brother’s parents”) have turned their backs on me, cut me out of their will (yes, that still happens) and continued their lives while actively SHUNNING me. I had made more than my share of efforts but I have finally accepted that there will never be a reconciliation with them.

    But I am Ok with that. I have drawn strength from it and (ironically) wonder if I could have kept marching on without that strength.

    What do I care if someone across the street points and laughs at me… strangers who do not mean anything to me cannot bother me after my own parents (who I have been close to my entire life) have cut me out of their lives?

    Oh… and no one points and laughs by the way.

    Meetings and events are wonderful and DO help. But what helps more is living honestly. My simply walking out of the door to go about my daily life is far more important to affecting changes in attitudes. People see me getting mail, going to work, shopping, getting my nails done, eating in restaurants and doing all of those things matter-of-factly or even proudly. Own it! For trans-people, the best way to draw attention to yourself is to try to shrink from sight or to try being inconspicuous. There should be no “hiding your gay” to anyone… not even Aunt Rosa in Haiti.

    If we are seen as just people living our lives (and not monsters eating children in the street), we affect more “change” than any amount of rainbows and marches ever will.
    I will not tell anyone what to do or how to live. People talk about “support”… but support is SO much more than mere words, those marches and those meetings where there is safety (what a strange word) in either numbers or the hidden places with others like us. Support is largely NOT active at all. It is not just comforting words. It is living as an example to be seen which will change minds (however slowly) and pull society along with us.

    THERE IS NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF FOR SIMPLY BEING YOU!

    You will encounter obstacles. It is hard. I remain super close to my brother but am dead to my “brother’s parents”. I have lost the woman and only true love that I have been married to for three decades. I have been pushed out of my home, have had to change how I work, am encountering crippling financial strain and an acute awareness of how women can often be truly second-class citizens.

    Yet living my truth outweighs all of it. It is so freeing and wonderful to realize (which only happens in hindsight) how truly broken I had been “before” I had begun to correct my life.

    Life is choice. Life is hard. Life is wonderful. In spite of all the hardships, loss and mountains yet looming above me… I have never been happier in my entire life.
    Having climbed over the fence from a world of secrecy to actually begin LIVING, I can only look with sadness at all those still clinging to imagined fears and choices that they falsely believe mean happiness. Yes. You risk all by coming out. You may not realize the happiness that I have. You may have regrets.

    But one must risk all to gain everything… and to be astounded by WHAT you are gaining.
    Living one’s truth. There will be no regrets of would haves… could haves… should haves for those that dare. I have never belonged to any cause… but I realize that I have been conscripted into fighting for “the cause”… and very happily accept that role.

    PS If you do step into the light and finally find peace. Please try to pay it forward and to help people who need it where you are able… LGBTQ or otherwise.

    Love to all… and to myself as well.

    Reply
  5. Scott Hill
    Scott Hill says:

    My Anonymous Queer Campus Minister:
    I read your letter to the LGBTQAI students you companion on their journey of self-discovery and affirming them as they claim their truth and their belovedness before God.
    You spoke from your heart. Yet, as I read your letter my heart was aching. The path you walk is a tenuous one. On the one hand, I hear you longing to live authentically while being allowed to minister without the fear of retribution. Sadly, and painfully, you are being forced to live dualistic life. You are not supported by the very institutions that affirm your ministry as a college chaplain. These institutions support your ministry to young adults on their journey into self-discovery and exploring their place in this world, in themselves. Your presence accompanies them on a search for wholeness and, yes, holiness. Yet, you are being denied the same opportunity. I find this an untenable position and a heavy burden to carry.
    I hear, in your letter, a heart longing for the same wholeness; for the integration of your humanity, as well as the welcome and acceptance by the same institutions you help carry out their mission.
    This is no easy path you walk. Yet, I encourage you to hold the contradictions in your heart. As difficult and painful as it will be, holding in your heart (pondering the contradictions of life, as Mary did) a place of vulnerability and powerlessness will prepare your heart to hear the voice of God speak loving words to you; the Divine voice whispering of your name: “Beloved!”
    The image of Mary “pondering” has reassured me that, while, there are no quick answers to the darkness in which you are forced to dwell, insight, a heart-filled understanding will gradually grow within you; the time will be ripe for you to claim your whole-self and all that is holy about you. A new dawn will arrive, and the darkness will fade, Easter will once again will reveal itself to a heart, your heart; the heart of the “beloved.”
    As much as you may struggle taking the risk of vulnerability, stepping not powerlessness till the soil of your heart preparing your heart to hear and understand the suffering of other disenfranchised youth. You have an incredibly special place with our youth as they take on the mantle of seeker.
    Your message to your students reveals a pastor in the truest meaning of the word: to shepherd, accompany and protect. In the meantime, trust the journey you are on; be present to your students, as well as be present to your heart’s growth and one day you, I am learning, you will dance, with abandon, to a new tune that is true about you. One day, with the Lord of the Dance.

    Reply

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