Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Report about LGBT Issues at Marquette University: Climate of Fear and Harassment

While inclusion of social justice is a strong Jesuit tenet, LGBT inclusion at Marquette is generally not part of the social justice work (Report on LGBT issues at Marquette by Ronnie Sanlo, December 2010). 

Last spring, I reported on a situation at Marquette, a Jesuit-owned Catholic university in Milwaukee, that stirred national dialogue about how LGBT students and employees are received in Catholic universities.  When Marquette rescinded a job offer to out lesbian scholar Jodi O'Brien, some members of that campus community maintained that the decision to rescind this job offer had everything to do with O'Brien's public sexual orientation and scholarship about LGBT issues.  Following the withdrawal of the job offer, Marquette's faculty recommended a vote of no confidence in the leadership of Fr. Robert Wild, the university president.  And the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a statement noting that the decision to withdraw O'Brien's job offer threatened academic freedom at the university.

One of the results of this incident was to spark a national dialogue--well, more precisely, the faint beginning of a national dialogue--about how gay and lesbian students, faculty, staff, and administrators are treated on the campuses of Catholic universities in the U.S.  After the Marquette story broke, Scott Jaschick published an article in USA Today asking whether gays face a "stained-glass ceiling" in Catholic universities.  

Jaschick reported that some LGBT faculty at Catholic universities express strong fears that if they are public about their sexual orientation, they will encounter a glass ceiling.  This analysis echoes a claim made by W. King Mott, a faculty member at Seton Hall University, who has maintained (see the first link above for this citation) that the Catholic hierarchy in the U.S. will not permit an openly gay or lesbian administrator in a Catholic university.

Following the appearance of Jaschick's article, the Wall Street Journal published an article rebutting the claims of Jaschick and Mott, and the claim that O'Brien was denied a job due to her public sexual orientation.  (This Bilgrimage posting links to my several comments on the WSJ essay, which link to the essay itself.)  The WSJ article claims that there are openly gay or lesbian faculty in leadership positions in Catholic universities in the U.S.

Following this, Kate Childs Graham published an essay at National Catholic Reporter in which she recounted her experiences as an out lesbian student at Catholic University (see also here).  Her testimony:

When I walked onto CUA’s campus for the first time as a student, I thought I was walking on to a safe and welcoming campus. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

In my years at CUA, I was called a fag in class. I was constantly reminded about the rules against “homosexual activity” on campus. I was encouraged to live a chaste life by campus ministers. I was asked to resign from leading a women’s prayer group. I was ostracized from campus ministry activities. I was laughed at when I tried to start a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students on campus. The list goes on.

I'm suggesting that this chain of documents and statements might productively been seen as at least the faint beginning of a national dialogue about how gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students, faculty, staff, and administrators are treated on Catholic university campuses across the U.S.  And now I'd like to point to another link in the chain of evidence.

Following the O'Brien saga at Marquette, which has caused significant upheaval on that campus, Marquette's vice-president for student affairs L. Christopher Miller commissioned a study of the campus by an outside consultant, to provide an overview of issues of sexual orientation and gender identity at Marquette and to make recommendations about these issues.  As its consultant, Marquette brought in Ronnie Sanlo, director of UCLA's master's program in student affairs and senior associate dean of students at UCLA.

Sanlo's visit to Marquette occurred last October, and she submitted her report in December.  It is now available online at the website of the Wisconsin Gazette (with a summary here).  Sanlo interviewed students, faculty, administrators, and staff and made recommendations in various areas.  Key findings of Sanlo's interviews with students (some of what follows is direct quotation from Sanlo's report, other statements are paraphrases that seek to be faithful to the original):

1. Marquette has few publicly self-identified LGBT students, and LGBT students report a climate of fear and harassment.

2. Because the university policy re: submitting harassment claims requires the person making the claim to be publicly identified, students are afraid to report incidents of anti-gay harassment.  Gross under-reporting of anti-LGBT hate incidences is the result.

3. Students indicated that they believe the administration is aware that LGBT students do not feel welcome, but there are almost no substantive support systems provided for LGBT students.

4. Students report ongoing harassment in the residence halls and in classrooms. 
5. Students noted that some theology professors, for example, tell students that homosexuality is a sin; this leads students to feel unwelcome and not accepted in the campus community.

In her interviews with faculty, Sanlo found the following:

1. Faculty members stated, "I regularly try to challenge and interrupt antigay language and actions, and have done so for a number of years, but I am very close to deciding that it is no longer worth it to try to reform Marquette's sexist/heterosexist culture," and "As a lesbian faculty member I am in constant terror that I will become the next campus controversy, so I tend to avoid campus events and speaking out."

2. Faculty feel academic freedom is threatened by the anti-gay climate and will affect recruitment.

3. Faculty report that at least one professor bullies LGBT colleagues, students, and staff, along with supporters of these members of the campus community, and is permitted to do so by the administration.

4. Only one course in the curriculum of the university now has LGBT content--an honors course that is not cross-listed with other courses and departments.

With regard to the student affairs component of the university, various people interviewed noted the following:

1. There are very few out LGBT professionals in student affairs.

2. The student affairs office does a good job of public relations work around LGBT issues but does not provide services, training for staff, nor training for students.
Vis-a-vis the school's administrators, Sanlo heard the following:

1. There is a perception of a lack of strong administrative leadership to address the harm done by the O'Brien situation.

2. LGBT scholarship is quite limited at Marquette, and does not appear to be encouraged.

3. While inclusion of social justice is a strong tenet of Jesuit spirituality and a strong component of Jesus institutions,  LGBT inclusion at Marquette is generally not part of the social justice work.

4. There is not a well-organized program of outreach to LGBT campus members, coordinated by a single professional hired specifically to do this work.

5. Though faculty have appealed for a women's center and an LGBT center, the administration has not yet followed through on faculty appeals.

6. There are no domestic partnership benefits for LGBT employees of the university.

Sanlo's report also makes very sane recommendations for ways Marquette might constructively address these findings.  I'll leave it to readers interested in the topic to read Sanlo's report for those suggestions.  What I'd like to focus on in conclusion is what this document implies, as yet another piece of evidence in a chain of documents about how LGBT students, faculty, staff, and administrations are treated on Catholic university campuses in the U.S.

This is yet another important piece of evidence that the claims of those who find many, if not most, Catholic universities in the U.S. conspicuously unwelcoming to those who are gay and lesbian or bisexual and transgendered are substantively correct in making these claims.  And those who seek to draw an apologetic curtain around the reality of life for gay folks on Catholic campuses in the U.S. are glossing over and distorting a serious situation that seriously undermines what the Catholic church wants to proclaim in the public square about social justice.

As the epigraph to this posting, which is lifted from Sanlo's report, notes, Jesuit universities pride themselves on their commitment to social justice.  Campus ministry offices at Jesuit universities sponsor programs of outreach to those in prison, to children in impoverished neighborhoods, to people in developing nations, etc.  I myself had the privilege of taking part in some of these programs during my undergraduate years at Loyola University in New Orleans.

But as students, faculty, and staff noted in their interviews with Sanlo, when it comes to issues of social justice for the vulnerable and often oppressed minority right in front of everyone's face--gay and lesbian members of the community of Jesuit university campuses--a don't ask, don't tell policy is still strongly in place.  And no one is fooled by what this means.

What it means, concretely, is that at Jesuit universities along with all Catholic universities in the U.S., gay and lesbian faculty, staff, and students are still largely encouraged to keep their "private lives" to themselves.  To stay closeted.  To sit through interminable discussions of the invisibility of the poor and marginal in the social structures of our society, while never disclosing their own identities.  While never becoming visible.  While never challenging Catholic universities to face their own gross discrimination against those who are LGBT, even as those universities talk endless about justice for all.

As the lesbian faculty member who informed Sanlo that she lives in fear of being made a public object of controversy notes, the price of comfort--even of survival--in this climate of hostile invisibility imposed by "Catholic values" is to run.  To hide.  To keep silent.

As students informed Sanlo, it is not at all uncommon for gay students to sit through classes in Catholic universities--including theology classes--and hear those who are gay or lesbian slammed, condemned, grossly mischaracterized in stereotypical terms.  I have had students tell me about hair-raising comments they have heard in recent years made by faculty teaching theology in lay ministry programs at a Jesuit university, comments about how the decision of the American Psychological Association to remove homosexuality from its list of diagnostic disorders was driven by gay thugs, and that homosexuality really is a psychological illness--something the church gets right with its teaching about intrinsic disorder.

And I am not surprised by the report that at least one professor on the Marquette campus bullies those who are gay and lesbian and their supporters, and is allowed to get away with this.  I've seen, and I've experienced, that kind of bullying as a closeted but still identifiable gay faculty member on Catholic university campuses.

If we Catholic expect to be taken seriously when we talk about love and justice and welcome and inclusion, we're going to have to start acting out those virtues in our own institutions.  And if we theologians expect to have a credible voice in public debates about respect for life and about matters of social justice, we're going to have to stop playing the shoddy and increasingly unconvincing game of talking about every marginalized and oppressed group in the universe, while we ignore the group right in our midst whom we ourselves ignore, make invisible, and treat with gross injustice and inhumanity. 

Otherwise, if we continue the game-playing, people are going to begin to conclude that everything we have to say about issues of social justice (and love, welcome, and catholicity inclusion) is simply so much hot air.

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