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April 25, 2013 at 10:00 am

LGBTQ @ MU

We talk about an issue when something goes wrong.

 After Newtown, we talked about gun control. After the fatal bus gang rape in Delhi, we talked about sexual assault. In 2010, after Marquette rescinded an offer of deanship to Seattle University professor Jodi O’Brien, we talked about Marquette’s LGBTQ community. We talked about what went wrong. We talked about how to make it right. And then we stopped. Because we thought we fixed the problem. Because three years had passed.

The Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer/Questioning community rests in a perplexing state on campus. The multiracial, multicultural, multidenominational group of Marquette students and faculty walk up and down Wisconsin Avenue as an integral part of Marquette. They aren’t defined by the one facet of their identity. One you may not even know about. But this small, proud community isn’t always treated with the level of respect Marquette and the Catholic identity calls upon the gold and blue community to exemplify.

According to the 2012 Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership, 54 percent of the sample LGBTQ population says they had experienced discriminatory words, gestures or behaviors directed at people who identify by the same sexual orientation. The heterosexual population reported 29 percent.

The climate survey went deeper into the topic of diversity and inclusivity asking the Marquette community if they felt accepted or felt they belonged as an individual on campus. Seventy four percent of the heterosexual population agreed or strongly agreed with both statements, while 49 percent of the LGBTQ population agreed or strongly agreed. Words and looks may not wound, but they still sting. Imagine hearing the words: acceptance, diversity, inclusivity and respect when you took that first campus tour of Marquette. Knowing you would be proud to put on that Marquette T-shirt at your high school after sending in your acceptance the spring of your senior year, only to find out a summer later and a little into your freshman year you faced a community everyday where those words didn’t ring true 100 percent of the time.

Catholic Identity

Emily Wright sat sipping her coffee at the Brew in the Alumni Memorial Union while students passed waving hello and wishing each other a good morning. Two friends hugged and asked how each other’s weekend was. She explained that she did not come to Marquette because it was Catholic or Jesuit, but because of the focus on serving the community and loving the individual. While she has witnessed and understands the university has certain Catholic values they have to uphold, she sees a difference in the Catholic Church and the educational institution Marquette is.

“I think there is a difference between Jesuits and the Catholic Church and Catholic individuals as a whole,” Wright, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences and president of Marquette’s Gender Sexuality Alliance, says. “Yes, it is a Catholic university but at the same time it is trying to be a college campus.” A campus that’s multi-denominational and multicultural.

“I feel Marquette doesn’t sell itself as a super conservative, small Christian campus, but is trying to sell itself as a diverse university and cultural accepting university.”

Marquette, as a Catholic, Jesuit university, strives to serve people from all walks of life. With part of the mission statement focusing on diversity and faith, the climate is religious in nature but geared toward advancing knowledge of those in its community. In its mission statement it says, “We must reach beyond traditional academic boundaries and embrace new and collaborative methods of teaching, learning, research and service in an inclusive environment that supports all of our members in reaching their fullest potential.”  This means all those who teach, learn, advise or partake in the communities within our community are to be treated inclusively.

At a university with students who come from urban, rural, conservative or liberal backgrounds, balancing faith and sexuality can be difficult. But university provost John Pauly believes it is not a matter of juggling the Catholic identity and growing LGBTQ community, or a matter of one only being able to exist without the other.

“Our Catholic social teachings insist on the fundamental dignity and worth of all human beings,” Pauly said in an email. “Our deepest Catholic commitment is to seeing ourselves as all God’s children.”

“The fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching is human solidarity. That means everybody.”

By its very nature of the word, “everybody” signifies inclusivity. But equal representation isn’t being felt on all ends of the spectrum.

Nicole Cunningham, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences, is an active voice on campus. As the spokesperson for Marquette’s GSA and an ally for the GSA community since her freshman year, Cunningham has rode Marquette’s rollercoaster ride of progression and regression in creating a safe, comfortable home for the LGBTQ community.

The main snag in the line is that she doesn’t really see the Catholic identity meshing with the educational identity on this topic.

She understands the Catholic stance on sexual orientation. “It says it’s OK that you’re gay and identify as LGBTQ but you should practice celibacy,” Cunningham says. “Unfortunately that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.” According to Cunningham there is a big question of how to balance being both Catholic and an educational institution.

“Marquette has to decide what is going to happen and I don’t know if there is a way to reconcile with these two identities,” Cunningham says. “Yes, it is a Catholic institution, but at a higher education level it has the obligation to protect students and make them feel at home in a safe, reliable university.”

If you go up three floors to room 332 in the AMU you will find the Gender Sexuality Resource Center. With a table, receptionist desk and pamphlets of information on the Human Rights Campaign and a basket of HRC stickers and goodies, the environment welcomes all who enter. Just a few steps from the entrance and to the left is Susannah Bartlow’s office.

Bartlow is in her first year as director of the GSRC, a new space as of this year where students can have an open dialogue and find resources regarding human sexuality and gender identity. Bartlow says there are multiple elements of Catholic thought that create a Catholic identity, two of which are to be welcoming and inclusive. But Bartlow says it’s also important to remind ourselves, “We’re in a university, not a seminary.”

“We have a culturally Catholic identity and Catholic values are constantly being explored in an intellectual context,” she says. “It is the role of the university to create appropriate spaces to explore (other values), even if it is a contradiction.”

But outside of the Gender Sexuality Resource Center and GSA, the work of inclusion is hard at work, according to Pauly.

“The work of inclusion occurs multiple places on campus,” Pauly said. “It occurs when LGBTQ faculty and staff feel comfortable talking about who they are, when we straightforwardly discuss gender and sexuality issues in our classes and when we attend carefully to the special physical, social and spiritual needs of that community.”

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 12.09.52 PMTension and progress

Words cut deep. Riley Hoerner, a junior in the College of Education and Style editor for the Marquette Journal, has been called a faggot, been verbally assaulted outside the 7/11 and had empty cigarette containers thrown at him from passing vehicles, but he doesn’t hide one part of many that makes him who he is: his sexuality.

“You do kinda just stop and wonder why exactly they are doing that,” Hoerner says. “Especially as someone who was raised Catholic and identifies with that religion and knows that the teachings say we are to be welcoming and accepting of everyone.”

Hoerner says he tends to look the other way when things like this happen. He doesn’t try and hide who he is. He sees Marquette as a welcoming and progressive university, for the most part.

“Most faculty and administration are welcoming,” he says, “and I don’t try to downplay who I am in class or at Marquette.”

In his high-heeled wedges, leather pants and vest, he senses tension. He isn’t the only one.

Wright and the GSA want to host a drag show in order to expand the organization’s reach to transgender students and begin educating the Marquette community and club members on something that can be fairly taboo within society.

“As a Catholic institution they have certain values they have to uphold and a drag show doesn’t mesh,” Wright says. “People will support, but there is always going to be that tension because of the Catholic teaching. That tension always exists. We are directly and indirectly limited in what we can accomplish.”

The organization walks on eggshells, but never quite reaches the point where they break.

It’s not just the drag show and programs the GSA would like to have. The tension is planted deep in the wounds of many students who were here three years ago this May. It’s when the Jodi O’Brien news broke.

In May of 2010 Marquette was criticized nationally, locally and even by its own students and faculty after it rescinded an offer of deanship for the College of Arts & Sciences to Jodi O’Brien, an openly gay professor at Seattle University.

Marquette said thedecision was based on concerns about O’Brien’s past writings on gender and sexuality and their compatibility with Marquette’s Catholic identity and mission. O’Brien is a lesbian scholar. At the time the university said the decision was in no way related to her sexual orientation.

Cunningham was a second semester freshman at the time the Jodi O’Brien bombshell dropped. It was one of the reasons why she wanted to transfer from Marquette come the end of the year.

“Everyone felt really angry and betrayed by the administration,” Cunningham says. “You feel the administration doesn’t have your back. It was really sickening.”

“It was mostly disturbing because Marquette has a nondiscrimination policy, but it was all tossed out the window, and it was like well, if Marquette isn’t going to protect this group of people, what does that mean?”

But with the setback came progress: the appearance of the Gender Sexuality Resource Center, the admittance of Vagina Monologues back on campus, the Laramie Project and the new extension of domestic partner benefits to staff who identify as LGBTQ.

“Marquette has worked harder not just to be inclusive but to signal its inclusiveness,” Pauly said.  “We have continued to hire LGBTQ faculty and staff, extended domestic partner benefits, strengthened our counseling and health services for students, begun building an LGBTQ alumni group, and created a Gender and Sexuality Resource Center whose design drew heavily upon the experience and advice of LGBTQ faculty, staff and alums.”

But even with these steps forward comes setbacks. As the university tries to appease many, it has found there is no set answer to any difficult question or problem.

The most recent? It happened only two months ago. Marquette pulled university sponsorship of FemSex in late February. The 12-week long workshop was held at the GSRC and aims at increasing student engagement in speaking about female sexuality. After further review by the university it was determined that the student-led program didn’t match the Center’s mission. The program is currently operating off-campus.

The bumpy road of Marquette’s history doesn’t end here. And it’s not just the administration with a history.

Marquette’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship was put on probation last summer after being accused of asking one of its former officers to step down due to his sexual orientation. The organization maintains that the student was asked to forgo his positions because of his views against celibacy, which opposes the group’s beliefs.

It was first labeled as a discrimination and harassment case. But it was later reduced to just a discrimination case.

Not everyone views the apparent tension in a negative light, per se.

“It’s an interesting tension,” the GSRC’s Bartlow says. “For me I don’t think of it as a contradiction, (but it) is a tension that people have to work through with trying to develop more conversation about the intersection of sexuality.”

Wright, who knows the student dismissed from InterVarsity and was a proponent of FemSex, said the university’s inconsistent stance on the LGBTQ is jarring. However, she appreciates when the university shows signs of progress–however minimal it might be.

“They have tried to change things, I feel like, to a degree,” Wright says. “They haven’t necessarily stopped us from doing things that we want to do and there hasn’t been a crackdown. But there is still tension.”

And when something goes awry and Marquette receives bad publicity, that’s typically when the change comes.

“They are trying to not look bad and made some concessions due to Jodi O’Brien and the negative vibe that was on campus,” Wright says. “So in all we are relatively progressive if you think about the production of the Laramie Project, panel discussions, the fact the GSRC exists. So, in those ways we have been progressive.”

The Future

As the university continues to aim for inclusiveness, students sense a stronger feeling of tolerance and acceptance from their peers.

“I really truly feel like a large majority of the student population is at least tolerant,” Cunningham says, “but obviously there is a difference between tolerance and acceptance.”

Hoerner says the future is difficult to predict. Yet he’s hopeful. “I think there is going to be much more visibility on campus,” he says. “I know there are LGBTQ students who are afraid to walk down the street, and one day they won’t be.”

“I know that off-handed comments still have the power to wound, and that we could all be more conscious of how we speak in one another’s presence,” Pauly said. “We are also learning to ignore the voices of prejudice.”

If the predicted progress is to happen, changes need to occur. And if Hoerner, Wright, Cunninghman and Pauly don’t agree on everything—they do agree students perhaps hold the answer.

See, this issue boils down to a few things: communication and educating the masses.

And the “masses,” are the masses of peers, friends or the morning Brew buddy who walk on Wisconsin Avenue.

“It really comes down to the students being supportive through discussion and realizing the resources we have at Marquette like the Gender Sexuality Resource Center,” Hoerner says.

Having support from the university is necessary. But having support from peers is vital.

“The biggest thing is that people have to speak out and tell administration what they think,” Cunningham says. “ It is ultimately the students that are really going to have to push forward.”