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Boston College to consider gay/straight student alliance

Chestnut Hill, Mass.

It’s not yet a done deal. But the week of Feb. 10, when representatives of the university’s student government were scheduled to meet with a school vice president, Boston College moved one step closer to formal recognition of a support and educational organization addressing gay students’ needs.

Some details are still to be worked out with university officials, Adam Baker, student body president and a senior from Middlebury, Conn., told NCR. Among the fine points still to be decided are the organization’s name, “the role faculty will play, and other details of governance,” Baker said.

“The student body is very, very supportive of this effort,” said Baker, who praised the university’s president, Jesuit Fr. William P. Leahy, who he said took to heart the student government’s proposal and student body support. “One of the main things we did was collect signatures on a petition in support of the alliance,” he said. “We collected more than 1,000 in a week.”

The proposal and ongoing dialogue relies in part on the language of human rights and dignity, expressed most recently in “Always Our Children,” a pastoral statement issued in 1997 by a committee of U.S. bishops and addressed to the parents of gay children.

Some faculty and other supportive alumni also point to next month’s 40th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s landmark encyclical Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”). That document, with its Catholic social teaching about the inherent dignity of the human person, along with its expectation that all individuals’ rights merit respect, is yet another way, they recommend, to situate the gay/straight alliance’s approval within the church’s rich tradition and progression of full human rights for all.

Meanwhile, a Feb. 1 Boston Globe headline -- “BC gay, straight alliance approved” -- clearly rankled school officials. “Despite the Globe’s premature story suggesting the gay/straight alliance has been approved, discussions are ongoing,” said Jack Dunn, a university press spokesperson during a telephone interview.

Dunn said that the school’s president is committed to increasing the understanding of issues concerning sexual orientation on campus. “Fr. Leahy’s goal is to be inclusive of all people, while at the same time remaining true to Boston College’s Catholic and Jesuit heritage,” he said.

The move by Boston College seems to be in accord with a new tone set by the Boston archdiocese’s new apostolic administrator, Bishop Richard Lennon. At his first locally broadcast news conference recently, Lennon said that all people in the archdiocese will be treated with “dignity and respect,” including members of the “homosexual community.”

Baker sees recognition of a gay/straight organization as a significant sign of changing times. “There has been a rather stunning turnaround in the student body,” he said. “It’s part of a nationwide shift, perhaps because of more familiarity with gay people and issues.”

During the 1980s, gay students say, the environment was outright hostile. Back then, when the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Community at Boston College, or LGBC -- not formally recognized by the university -- held its meetings, they had to call campus police for protection. Students active in the group received death threats and hate mail, Baker said. There was support, however, from other students, clergy and alumni, although many chose to remain anonymous.

The struggle for gay and lesbian student rights and respect has nearly a 30-year history on the Boston College campus. The first gay student organization dates back to 1974, said Tim Carraher, a junior from Oak Park, Ill. Carraher is the current co-director of the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Community -- the still not formally recognized on-campus, self-governing student organization, which provides support, education and counseling for both individuals and groups.

Carraher, who was not involved in the effort to gain recognition for the gay/straight alliance, does not see such recognition as an effort to undermine or supplant the older group. “Traditionally, gay/straight alliances are for straight people, helping them to deal with the presence of gay people on campus,” he said. “I am not worried about an alliance replacing the LGBC,” he said. “LGBC is for helping gay students deal with gay-student issues.”

Carraher sees some of those issues related primarily to sexual identity. “Students need to talk,” he said. “Since the issue of the gay/straight alliance has become a hot topic on campus, there has been an increased need.”

In fact, some of what has been said during the public and heated debate about official recognition of the alliance on campus, Carraher calls “cruel.”

One statement, made by a faculty member, struck many students and faculty as particularly offensive. Jesuit Fr. Robert K. Tacelli, faculty adviser to the St. Thomas More Society on campus and associate professor of philosophy, wrote in a letter to the editor of The Heights, published Dec. 12, 2002: “Homosexual persons are persons and therefore need both to give and to receive love -- just as all persons do. They need to be supported in their loneliness and alienation -- just as all persons do. But homosexuals bear a particularly heavy burden. Their sexual desires lead them to act in ways that result almost inexorably in further alienation and loneliness, in violence, sickness, despair and untimely death. Is it really ‘close-mindedness’ or ‘shallow intolerance’ to warn people of that?”

Last fall, the St. Thomas Moore Society sponsored a panel discussion, a one-sided discussion that posed the question, “Is Gay Good?”

“That’s like asking ‘Is Black Good?’ ” said Carraher.

One key piece of the proposed gay/straight alliance, said Baker, is to foster respect for all. “Everyone is made in the image and likeness of God,” he said.

Free-lance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003