Celebrating GLAAD’s 2020 Spirit Day: Reflections from Working in a Catholic High School 

Today, we celebrate GLAAD’s annual Spirit Day, a worldwide initiative to support LGBTQ youth who experience disproportionate amounts of bullying, harassment, and prejudice based on who they are and who they love. GLAAD suggests people “Go Purple”–wear purple clothes, put a purple tint to your social media photos, pin a purple ribbon to your clothes, and any other public display. The organization explains:

“Pledging to ‘go purple’ on Spirit Day is a way for everyone — global and local brands and companies, world leaders, celebrities, neighbors, parents, classmates, and friends — to visibly showsolidarity with youth and to take part in the largest, most visible LGBTQ anti-bullying campaign in the world.”

Spirit Day is especially meaningful for me because of my work with youth. For the past seven years, I’ve worked as a Dorm Parent (Resident Assistant) for Georgetown Preparatory School, a Jesuit day and boarding high school located in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. As the only Jesuit male boarding school in the country, Georgetown Prep attracts resident students from a broad array of cultural backgrounds, races, and ethnicities.

LGBTQ identity also contributes to our beautifully diverse student population. 

The school requires that all students participate in the liturgical life of the school’s Jesuit community, regardless of the student’s religious affiliation or national heritage. When I started working at the school, it was clear that the majority of our resident students did not enjoy attending our weekly Sunday morning Mass. Tension and indifference filled the chapel because many students felt forced to participate in an unfamiliar religious ceremony.

I sought to address the apathy among the teenage students by cultivating a dynamic, affirming spiritual environment, with a keen eye towards addressing the needs of my LGBTQ students who often report hostile attitudes from religious denominations, local church leaders, and bullying and harassment in their educational environments.

After several discussions with my direct supervisor, I began targeted outreach to my students. I suggested they  participate in Mass by proclaiming scripture, playing an instrument, singing, or being an altar server. I also began facilitating a monthly reflection group designed to address questions of religion, faith, and diversity, in which I encouraged my students to share their spiritual joys and struggles with each other.

While centered around a Catholic principle or a scripture passage, my students organically shifted towards a discussion of what made them feel included – as well as ostracized – within the liturgy, the wider institutional church, and their school. Conversations included sensitive topics such as racism, homophobia, misogyny, and xenophobia.

What struck me was the joyful, intentional manner in which the students gravitated towards engendering a Catholic space that made them and all their schoolmates feel safe, nurtured, and welcomed. A by-product of this approach was that I was able to offer a theological container through which they could explore and discover their spiritual selves, which sometimes encompassed their LGBTQ identity.

Here are four ways that the Catholic institutions and lay people can uplift and support LGBTQ youth:

  • Educate yourself about LGBTQ Identity: There’s a wealth of affirming, data-driven resources on LGBTQ identity. Being a member of the LGBTQ community, as with any minority group, does not mean that everyone’s experience, appearance, or way of being is monolithic to everyone else in that group. For example, “Queer” is considered a broad umbrella term that includes individuals who identify as gender non-conforming (people who do not prescribe to a male/female gender binary) or pansexual (people who are romantically attracted to another person regardless of their gender). Children and youth require a nurturing environment to discover and harmonize their identity as they develop and grow.
  • Listen to LGBTQ Persons: The best way to cultivate an inclusive, affirming spiritual space for LGBTQ persons is to listen compassionately to them. Don’t assume that every LGBTQ child is having the same experience. Listen intently to an LGBTQ child can also help dispel the negative stereotypes about LGBTQ people that are often perpetuated by some religious leaders and political officials.
  • Expand your knowledge of Catholic Social Teaching: The Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality extends far beyond the few lines found in the Catechism. The dignity of all God’s creation, compassion for the vulnerable, and lovingly caring for one’s neighbor are salient principles of Catholic Social Teaching that provide a powerful human rights lens for welcoming LGBTQ persons in all aspects of society, including the church.
  • Start an LGBTQ Support Group in your local parish, school, or community: New Ways Ministry provides guidance (see below) to assist with this process. Perhaps there are other individuals in your area who have already expressed an interest in creating a support group or ministry within your particular setting. Starting the conversation could connect you to other advocates seeking to launch a similar initiative. 

To help achieve these goals, New Ways Ministry offers several resources to put these ideas into action:

  1. Next Steps: Developing Catholic LGBTQ Ministry: This online series is designed to help parishioners, pastoral leaders, and church volunteers figure out what form LGBTQ ministry should take in their community.
  2. Creating a Spirit of Welcome Workshop: This workshop, designed for administrators, staff, and faculty members,  focuses on integrating LGBTQ issues in Catholic schools.
  3. Trans-forming Love: This program of education, dialogue, and prayer can help Catholics learn more about  welcoming transgender people.

For this year’s Spirit Day, let’s pledge to wholeheartedly support LGBTQ children and youth so that they feel nurtured and welcomed in all aspects of their lives, especially in their spiritual and educational environments.

Brian William Kaufman, New Ways Ministry, October 15, 2020

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