A Catholic university in Connecticut joins a small but growing number of church-affiliated institutions who are establishing more resources, like student centers and staff, to support LGBTQ+ students.
Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, has hired Kyle Humphreys, a queer and trans masculine individual, as the school’s manager of LGBTQ+ affairs, reported Inside Higher Ed. A graduate from a Catholic school where LGBTQ+ needs were never addressed, Humphreys was happily shocked that such a position existed, yet is deeply cognizant of its necessity and importance.
“All my life, I’ve wanted to contribute to something larger than myself,” Humphreys said. “Being a queer and trans masculine person, I felt like I had a lot to offer to this role with my lived experiences. Having transitioned in college, I know how stressful and challenging that can be.”
Especially as Catholic colleges nationwide vary in their responses to LGBTQ+ students, with some colleges announcing policies to be more inclusive of transgender students while others reverse such policies, it is significant that Sacred Heart University is seeking to not only address the needs of LGBTQ+ students with the new Sexuality and Gender Equality Center (SAGE), but also making sure that students see themselves represented in the faculty and staff with the hiring of individuals like Humphreys.
Both the new center and Humphrey’s new position are efforts by Sacred Heart to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Maurice Nelson, chief diversity officer and head of the Office of Inclusive Excellence, said that these efforts stem from the university’s Catholic identity and mission to “love and care for the whole person.”
Although only about 60% of each freshman class at Sacred Heart identify as Catholic, Nelson says that the university’s Catholic identity mandates that the school welcome each student with compassion and mercy. “We have a responsibility,” Nelson said. “We committed at the inception of the institution to support everyone holistically.”
Though LGBTQ+ centers are not standard features at U.S. colleges and universities, the number of centers is growing. The positive impact of these centers on student well-being cannot be overstated. Jonathan Coley, an Oklahoma State University professor studying Catholic and Christian institutions’ treatment of LGBTQ+ issues, says of such centers: “Not only do they help educate their larger campus communities about LGBTQ issues, but they provide a place of belonging for LGBTQ students who may feel isolated on their campuses.”
John Petillo, the university’s president, has been a vocal supporter of LGBTQ+ inclusion. This past October, at a campus celebration for Coming Out Day, Petillo said:
“Equality is rooted not in laws, but firmly in the hearts and minds of the community, this community. . .We gather to unequivocally profess our support for each of our sisters and brothers. We refuse to be bullied into silence.”
In 2021, President Petillo joined more than 150 other personnel at Sacred Heart in signing New Ways Ministry’s statement, “A Home for All: A Catholic Call for LGBTQ Non-Discrimination.”
Nicole Sperling, a senior and president of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), was instrumental in these recent efforts and sees them as a sign of major progress. For Sperling, these steps are just a few of many on the university’s journey towards greater inclusion and celebration of LGBTQ+ voices.
“There’s power in numbers. So the louder that we are, the more people will know about us—that we’re here and we’re staying,” Sperling said.
No significant opposition to the university’s recent decisions has emerged. Staff and administration are committed to supporting Humphreys and the SAGE center. Francis Origanti, senior vice president of mission and culture, had this to say:
“SHU plays an important role in shaping today’s modern, vibrant Catholic intellectual tradition, where faith and reason coexist…We see a call to embrace social justice as part of our mission, one that requires discernment, reading the signs of the times and properly celebrating the diversity in our midst as a gift.”
While some institutions have reacted out of fear of change and difference, limiting or reversing LGBTQ-positive work, Sacred Heart University—rooted in its Catholic identity—remains committed to what Christ demands: mercy, justice, and compassion. On Catholic campuses especially, where administrators, faculty, and staff are called to model and embody the welcoming presence of Christ, LGBTQ+ centers can be places of great grace, where those who feel rejected and overlooked can find a place of peace.
—Phoebe Carstens (they/them), New Ways Ministry, January 24, 2024