More than 600 members of the Georgetown University community, including over 30 student organizations, signed a petition asking the University to take action regarding its annual Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life, in part because of the event namesake’s anti-LGBTQ record.
Founded in 2000 by Georgetown students, the conference attracts hundreds of college and high school participants each year as part of the annual March for Life, an anti-abortion protest, in Washington D.C. It is the largest student-run anti-abortion conference in the U.S.
The petition was circulated by the student organization H*yas for Choice and focuses on the slate of speakers as well as the namesake of the conference according to Lauryn Ping, a member of the H*yas for Choice Advocacy Board and a principal author of the petition. Organizers requested that the University condemn O’Connor’s anti-LGBTQ and other positions, and change the conference name by December 2021.
In an interview with The Hoya, Ping explains, “those are the most pressing issues that we have with the conference. Given our current political climate, I think it’s more important than ever to really reject homophobia and transphobia and racism outright.” Cardinal John O’Connor, a former New York archbishop, had a history of being staunchly anti-abortion while also continually supporting anti-LGBTQ ideas and policies. In addition to banning Masses sponsored by Dignity, an organization of LGBTQ Catholics, he criticized a 1986 New York bill that would grant legal protection to the LGBTQ community. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, he opposed condom distribution and programs for AIDS education and prevention. He was vocal about excluding an Irish LGBTQ organization from the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade for many years. Even among fellow bishops, O’Connor was extreme in his anti-LGBTQ views, such as his proposal of an amendment referencing homosexuality as “objectively disordered” for a 1990 USCCB document, which was eventually voted down.
“Year after year, this conference glorifies Cardinal O’Connor–an infamous homophobe and misogynist–and provides a platform for extremely racist, sexist, anti-LGBTQ speakers to indoctrinate hundreds of impressionable teenagers with their hateful ideologies,” the petition states. “The fact that Georgetown continues to host COCC demonstrates its lack of regard for marginalized students and their interests.”
Several of the past and present speakers are also notorious for espousing harmful anti-LGBTQ views. 2021 speakers included Alveda King and Valerie Huber. King is the niece of Martin Luther King, Jr. and has vocally opposed same-sex marriage, comparing it to genocide. Huber, a Trump appointee to the Department of Health and Human Services, has promoted abstinence-only sex education and argued against teaching of consent and sexual assault prevention to teenagers.
Jacob Bernard, who spoke on behalf of the Georgetown University Student Association, said that the school’s commitment to marginalized students, including the LGBTQ community, are reason enough for taking action against the conference: “We would like to see the university take meaningful action to support women and the LGBTQ+ community by supporting Hoyas for Choice Initiatives, combating homophobia, and investing in improved mental health services.”
An editorial in student newspaper The Hoya argues that “Georgetown has a clear duty, according to its Jesuit values, to uplift marginalized student voices and reject those who bring bigotry to campus.” Quoting from the university’s mission statement and stated values, the editorial states: “These speakers shame Georgetown’s Jesuit values. The university cannot “affirm and promote” a “community in diversity” when it supports prejudice on campus. Nor can Georgetown offer a “faith that does justice” for the “marginalized and vulnerable” in our community when it attaches its name to such bigotry.”
Georgetown’s Speech and Expression policy allows for students to invite any chosen speaker to campus, clarifying that permission does not equate to endorsement. Speaking to The Hoya, a University spokesperson claimed that the policy “has guided our approach to speech while maintaining the fundamental right of members of our community to free expression, dialogue, and academic inquiry.”
Yet, as the objectors point out, there is a difference between allowing speakers on campus and directly funding and endorsing them. The website for the O’Connor Conference lists a number of University departments as sponsors, including the Office of the President, Provost, and Catholic Chaplaincy. Georgetown’s institutional support for the conference undermines its stated commitments to human dignity and social justice rooted in faith. Centering speakers and a cardinal whose legacy is rife with harmful rhetoric to marginalized communities hardly represents a preferential option for the vulnerable, nor does it uphold the common good of the campus and broader communities.
Changing the name of the conference and more carefully vetting speakers would continue to allow the free exchange of ideas and dialogue without simultaneously creating an unsafe environment for LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff. Otherwise, the University should cease to promote the event with publicity and resources, signaling its commitment to diversity and inclusion in a true Jesuit spirit.
—Angela Howard McParland, New Ways Ministry, February 9, 2021