An Australian Catholic secondary school has committed itself to providing a safe space for LGBTQ students, exemplified in its support for a transgender student in its community.
Alex Dalton, a transgender student who graduated from MacKillop College, a secondary school similar to a high school in the United States, recently shared his positive experiences with the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH).
When Alex came out to his parents, they had a great deal to learn. Alex’s father offered a frank assessment of his initial reaction: “There’s no book on parenting and how things are going to end up and what you should and shouldn’t do.” The Dalton family needed institutional empowerment to ensure that Alex was properly supported. Excitingly, his school was an important resource. SMH reported:
“Alex said MacKillop College was consistently supportive. He met regularly with teachers to discuss potentially fraught issues such as which tent he would sleep in on camps…and which toilets he would use.”
MacKillop’s well-being coordinator, Andrew Exton, worked to better understand Alex’s situation and provide him the support that he needed to thrive at the school in a way that affirmed his dignity and identity. Alex described some of Exton’s support:
“‘He tended to ask questions – quite bluntly at times – but it was genuinely for the betterment of his understanding. It was something that I really appreciated, him taking the time to try and learn and understand and be able to use that to help other people.'”
The school coordinated with Alex and his parents to navigate his gender transition. With the assistance of his school, he returned from a semester break with a change of name and pronouns. Staff proactively offered ways to make him more comfortable in class, such as changes in uniform, and ensured that their classrooms were safe spaces for trans students. His father explained:
“‘The school suggested to us that Alex would be much happier if he wore pants and he was, they were right. I thought they handled things very well. I still can’t believe he didn’t get picked on or anything by other students. He seemed to be accepted by everyone there.'”
MacKillop’s president, Rory Kennedy, views the school’s affirmation of Alex as an extension of Catholic teaching: “As a Catholic school, we believe that every person is made in the image of God.” For Kennedy, that statement means clear and enforced rules against discrimination and bullying, in addition to the active work undertaken by MacKillop’s well-being coordinator. He emphasized the importance of pastoral care for the individual, and the responsibility of educational institutions to set a strong foundation for students. Kennedy said, “I am very pleased that Alex has felt supported by the college and our pastoral care, and that we have played a role in setting him up for his journey through life.”
From teachers to counselors to administrators, MacKillop ensured that Alex had a positive transition while experiencing a quality Catholic education. By viewing student well-being through the lens of upholding human dignity, and centering the individual as a reflection of the image of God, MacKillop has showcased the way that Catholic education can uniquely address LGBTQ issues in a positive manner.
MacKillop has created a framework of active communication, dialogue, and support which other schools can emulate. While the wider church continues to struggle to support LGBTQ teachers and students, schools like MacKillop offer a glimpse at a brighter future for queer people in Catholic education.
—Andru Zodrow (he/him), April 7, 2022