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The Botany Club: Gay Kids in Catholic Schools

Some thoughts prompted by Rod Dreher’s post here, but not actually dealing with the substance of that post.

I went to a progressive urban private high school which, up until the end of my freshman year, didn’t allow students to form a (public) gay-straight alliance. This was in 1992-3, and the administrators argued that a group like that would force students to choose an identity too quickly, and also that the group was unnecessary since the school was safe for gay students.

(The latter claim was almost true. Both the public elementary school I attended and this private middle/high school had virtually no bullying, as far as I know–and I was the kind of kid who would have attracted it, being intensely weird, hypersensitive, easily infuriated and physically weak. My sense is that the adults took a no-nonsense, strict approach, so I was teased a bit but not targeted for ongoing harassment. In almost every story of bullying I’ve ever heard, adults in authority knew about the bullying–parents, teachers, administrators–and the tacit permission of these adults is a suppressed theme. That didn’t happen at the schools I attended. That said, the two exceptions I can think of were both incidents of explicitly anti-gay harassment of openly gay students.)

We eventually did end up getting permission to form a GSA. But before that, we found one another through more covert means. We gossiped and spoke in code, and we formed a network of gay/bi teens. We joked that we were the Botany Club: Our first order of business was the study of pansies. We supported one another, in a semi-feral way, separated from and antagonistic toward adults in authority.

So this is one lesson I take away from the tumult over whether or not Catholic schools should (or should be forced to, but that’s a separate question) have GSAs. Gay students will find one another. CUA, to take a pertinent example (although not a high-school one), can’t choose whether or not it has a gay-straight alliance. It can only choose how much the administration knows about it.

Right now gay young people mostly hear a catechism of silence–not about Church teaching on gay marriage or homosexual acts, about which they’re wincingly aware, but about their futures.

It seems to me that one major purpose of a Catholic educational system is to help young people discern their vocations. Heterosexual teens desperately need this guidance, in a world of premarital sex and the anchorless, alienating endless-summer of “emerging adulthood.” And gay teens need it too. They need to know that God is calling them to love and to be loved: to form devoted friendships, to care for their families, to serve the suffering, to dedicate themselves to God in ascesis and prayer, to serve God and the Church through artistic creation, to teach. They, too, are being called to increase the love, beauty, and joy in the world.

How could an openly-acknowledged GSA aid in this discernment? Well, for one thing, its relationship to the adults around it would not need to be antagonistic. The school chaplain or a local priest could attend some of the meetings, and talk with the kids about any misconceptions they may have about the faith. Specifically, I often hear that it’s okay for the Church to require (most) priests to be celibate, since they chose that way of life, but it’s cruel to require celibacy of gay people since we didn’t choose to be gay. This isn’t a good way to think about vocation–you don’t always choose what God is asking of you, and it’s rare that the greatest sacrifices in your life are the ones you chose entirely freely. A priest talking honestly about his own discernment process, and whether or not he felt directly “called” to celibacy, might offer a better model of discernment–and a better understanding of the purposes and challenges of a celibate life.

The group could be encouraged to spend some time volunteering in places–the most obvious example for me would be folding clothes or babysitting at a crisis pregnancy center–where they’d see how tough chastity and fidelity can be for heterosexuals. Married teachers, or single ones, could speak with them about their vocations and discernment process. They could be encouraged to see that all forms of love come with characteristic sufferings and lonelinesses: Every form of love has its own kind of cross. These priests and teachers could seek to learn from the kids, from their fears and questions and experiences, and encourage the kids to learn from the adults. (I do think straight adults often underestimate the loneliness–and fear of even greater future loneliness–of gay Christian teens. But it’s also, of course, very easy for teenagers of any sexual orientation to have unrealistic romantic ideas in which marriage solves the problem of the self, grants us our “soulmate” and ends our loneliness forever.) The solidarity implied by the “alliance” name could become more vivid and realistic–and more Catholic. None of this is likely to happen in a hidden, covert group.

Right now gay teens hear a robust “Yes!” from the mainstream media and gay culture. From the Church, they hear only a “No.” And you can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.

about the author

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos and has written for Commonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications. She is working on a book on vocation for gay Catholics. Her email is eve_tushnet@yahoo.com and she can be found on Twitter at @evetushnet.

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