The Words LGBTQ+ Students Need to Hear: Reflections from a Theology Teacher

David Palmieri

Today’s post is from guest contributor David Palmieri. David is a theology teacher at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, MA. He is the founder of Without Exception, a grassroots network of secondary educators dedicated to discerning the art of accompaniment for LGBTQ+ students in Catholic high schools.

“It’s hard to be happy expressing yourself when the way you were raised tells you that you are basically a walking sin. I was told multiple times by peers and teachers that I couldn’t be proud of who I am because it reflects poorly on the school.”

Those words were shared by a high school senior who graduated from a Catholic high school in the United States last May. They reveal a sad truth: our Catholic high schools are not equipped to encounter or support LGBTQ+ students, families, and friends. Sure, it’s a minority population, and certain church leaders want to rightfully make sure our Catholic faith is taught in its fullness. But our faith also means embracing the fullness of our baptismal anointing as Priests, Prophets, and Royalty in the one Body of Christ.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve done extensive research on supporting LGBTQ+ students in Catholic schools. After discovering an absence of resources, I started a network of Catholic secondary educators dedicated to discerning the “art of accompaniment” for these young people. The network is called Without Exception, a name taken from the Catechism entry that says the Sacred Heart of Jesus loves all human beings without exception (CCC 478). Through a commitment to faithful dialogue and peer collaboration among teachers and others from related fields of ministry, we seek to understand what “without exception” means for every person in a Catholic school.

In a few weeks we will be back to school across the country. I’ve been in a classroom every year of my life since nursery school (I’ve been a teacher now for over 20 years), and I still get that feeling in the days leading up to the first day of school. It’s a feeling beset by the drama of anticipation and uncertainty, replete with dreams of student mutinies and classroom chaos. But those are fears of the imagination—not realities.

I’ve discovered something, though. For some students, the return to school is full of dread and fear, not imagined but real. Particularly for some LGBTQ+ kids, they are subjected to a terrible form of trauma: the violence of words. Physical wounds heal; they get stitches, scab over, and eventually leave scars that might tell good stories. Emotional wounds are different; they stay raw and bleed forever.

In just the last school year, I collected these words from LGBTQ+ students around the country, who were told:

  • “That’s gay.”
  • “Don’t be such a fag.”
  • “Why do they need the whole alphabet?”
  • “I support you, but I can’t support the community.”
  • “Transgender people have a mental illness.”
  • “I identify as an attack helicopter.”
  • “An apple a day keeps the homo away.”
  • “The only place I would want to be with them is in a gas chamber.”

Then there are the adults, who said:

  • “Lesbians are so scary.”
  • “A Gay Straight Alliance should not be at a Catholic school.”
  • “I think you’re straight.”
  • “Being nonbinary is not real.”
  • “Which gender are you choosing to be today?”

Children are sometimes taught this sing-songy response: “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Frankly, that’s nonsense. The Trevor Project’s 2022 data shows that 50% of LGBTQ+ high school students seriously considered suicide in the last year, with 18% actually attempting it. That’s compared to the Centers for Disease Control 2019 data suggesting those numbers are 20% and 9% for the overall high school population. There is a measurable toll on LGBTQ+ students in unsupportive environments, and that is correlated to an increased risk for self-destructive behaviors. “Just be tough” isn’t the right pastoral response. I knew a teen who was tough enough to shoot and kill himself.

Want to know what my hope is for this school year? It’s that students in our Catholic schools and parishes start hearing a different word, the kind of word desired by the centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” (Mt 8:8). The words of Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God himself, have life. This Word became flesh and dwells among us (Jn 1:14). If we really believe that, then we should take action. Catholic faith is not only to be believed; it is to be lived.

What students really need to hear are words like these:

  • “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself” (Mt 6:34).
  • “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).
  • “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them” (Mt 19:14).
  • “Do not weep” (Lk 7:13).
  • “My peace I give to you … Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (Jn 14:27).

The reason is quite simple: so that we may all be one in the Body of Christ (Jn 17:21). In the words of another Catholic high school graduate:

“When I was young, my favorite game to play was hide and seek. In the woods behind my house, my neighbors and I used to spread out and hide amongst the bramble, praying that we’d somehow survive the keen glare of the seeker. In the end though, we’d all inevitably be found. We’d all laugh and the game would start over again. There was one more chance to  win … one more chance to get it right. 

“I’ve found that being gay at school is not so different  from my favorite childhood game. Over the past four years, I’ve been playing the ultimate game of hide and seek. This time though, my thicket is in plain sight. I go to school with all of you. I take the same classes; I play the same sports. Still though, I leave parts of myself covered beneath the bushes, hidden, never to be seen. In the lunchroom, I hear the slurs, and the conversations that go unheard in class. ‘God, he’s basically a girl.’ ‘Burn in hell.’ ‘That’s so gay.’

“I know to some of you, what I’m saying today seems like a joke, something that you can complain to your friends about later. To me though, those comments dig deep; it’s more than just a laugh. It’s my life. It’s my heart. Please don’t break it. In the end, my time at school is almost up. But please, for the sake of the other kids still crouching in the woods, think before you act, choose your words, and be a friend.”

My wish is simple. Be the neighbor who answers the call to “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37).

David Palmieri, 

12 replies
  1. Alexei
    Alexei says:

    Right on, David! Your comments remind me of two books by Andre Aciman: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME and FIND ME. For me they are divine requests of the Word-of-God made Flesh; a wonderful expression of the “marvelous exchange” our ancient theologians declared: God became human so that we humans might become divine. All are called and no one is excluded. Keep spreading the word.

    Reply
  2. Donna
    Donna says:

    I read these posts every day. This is the one that touched my heart the most. I understand fully the image of hiding in the bushes throughout high school and beyond. Thank you, David, for really being there for these kids who are hurting and for challenging the church and others to accept them.

    Reply
  3. Bob Nee
    Bob Nee says:

    As long as anybody wants to teach “the fullness of the Catholic faith” as currently enshrined this destructive behavior will persist. As long as “assigned at birth” defines sexuality and everything other expression is sinful hatred grows.

    Reply
  4. Ron Zeilinger
    Ron Zeilinger says:

    Profound thanks to David Palmieri for these wonderful and needed words at the beginning of this school year. Every Catholic school principal and teacher, as well as pastors-parochial and episcopal-should read and implement this as well. Thank you, David, and keep up the wonderful work through your organization.

    Reply
  5. Duane Sherry
    Duane Sherry says:

    If atheists and agnostics can love LBGTQ+ students–as they are–surely we Catholics can do the same. And if we human beings are able to do so, surely God does so as well!

    Reply
  6. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    This is a poem I wrote almost 20 years ago about the harm that words can have on a person. Your wonderful article reminded me of this.

    Sticks & stones
    can break my bones
    But hateful words
    are glass splinters
    stabbing, slicing, severing
    the spirit,
    deforming the soul.

    Reply
  7. Alexei
    Alexei says:

    Read this book a while back, but it has quite an indictment that I think is worth sharing. It comes from an Orthodox lay theologian.
    “Christianity is behind the times. The Church has the message of liberation, but it is others who “liberate”. When the “good people” abdicate, other forces take over the same tasks, but with different and new principles which are by their nature alien to Christianity. In the East, woman emerges from slavery, and her lips pronounce other names than that of Christ. The world is outdistancing Christianity.”
    WOMAN AND THE SALVATION OF THE WORLD – Paul Evdokimov, Prologue, p. 19.

    Reply
  8. Joe Jurovcik
    Joe Jurovcik says:

    Dear David,
    May I be of assistance to you? I spent grades one through 12 in a Catholic school. I started as a teacher, special education teacher and then school psychologist.
    While I am “officially “ retired I still teach 4th, 5th and 6th graders in an after school program.

    Reply

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