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Out for change
Gay students at Boston College say that while their school’s reputation for being unaccepting of homosexuals is largely undeserved, there’s much room for improvement. Amending the university’s nondiscrimination clause is a good way to start.

ON A SPRING morning on the campus of Boston College, shower-wet undergrads toting notebooks and messenger bags amble lazily into a dining hall redolent of pancakes. A few grab copies of the Heights, BC’s weekly independent student paper, to thumb through over breakfast. The full-page soft-focus photo on the cover shows Pope John Paul II leaning wearily on his scepter; inside, students who met the pontiff give their remembrances. Others offer their prayers. Still others express hope that a new pope might bring about change in a church that many think needs it.

On news of the pope’s death, the bells of BC’s churches pealed in mourning. In the days that followed, some students walked around campus weeping and clutching rosaries. It was a powerful reminder that, above all else, Boston College is a Catholic institution. Founded by the Society of Jesus in 1863, the school seeks, according to its mission statement, "to bring ... to contemporary society the richness of the Catholic intellectual ideal of a mutually illuminating relationship between religious faith and free intellectual inquiry."

But in the 21st century, BC is also a popular American university, a school whose diverse student body reflects the American population. There are Protestants at Boston College. There are Jews, Muslims, and atheists. And there are gay students. According to an optional campus survey of entering freshmen, roughly seven percent of undergrads at BC identify themselves as something other than strictly straight. So what is it like to be gay at a college affiliated with a church that calls homosexuality "a troubling moral and social phenomenon," whose Catechism holds that gays are victims of an "intrinsically disordered inclination," and whose late spiritual leader wrote that gay marriage represents a "new ideology of evil"?

The consensus among BC’s gay students seems to be that it’s not all that bad — at least with regard to fellow students and faculty. Few students I spoke with have experienced harassment or overt discrimination, and all say they feel welcome on campus. But that hardly means there isn’t room for improvement at a college that, fairly or not, was ranked as the fifth-most-gay-unfriendly school on Princeton Review’s "Alternative Lifestyles Not an Alternative" list, in 2004. Most gay students I talked with dispute that ranking, saying that it’s anecdotal and based on BC’s conservative-Irish-Catholic stereotype. But there are real problems, they say. And many of them stem from an administration that, while receptive to gay students’ concerns, hews to traditional Church teachings on homosexuality, and insists on strictly preserving its Catholic identity.

All the same, these are momentous times for BC’s gay students. Two years ago, the administration granted official recognition — and school funding — to an on-campus gay/straight alliance, Allies of Boston College, after years of rejecting requests from other gay groups. Two weeks ago, BC’s undergraduate government (UGBC) voted to recast the school’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Leadership Council — which, rather than acting as a support or advocacy group, focuses on gay and lesbian concerns as they relate to student government — as a funded, semiautonomous organization. It’s a step that will give more visibility to GLBT issues and allow them to be tackled in more substantive ways. On March 1, more than 4000 students — nearly half of BC’s undergrad population — voted on a non-binding referendum asking whether the school’s nondiscrimination policy should be amended to include sexual orientation. Eighty-four percent of the votes cast favored the amendment. And last Friday saw a culmination of the effort to change that policy, when more than a thousand students engaged in a campus-wide "Strike for Equality," skipping afternoon classes — often with their professors’ blessings — and taking part in a clamorous march around campus. (See sidebar, page 27.)

Advocates cast the issue in light of the Jesuits’ teachings of compassion, of the order’s pledge that there is "no service of faith without ... promotion of justice." But despite overwhelming student support of the amendment, and despite the fact that almost three quarters of the 28 Jesuit colleges in America have added sexual orientation to their nondiscrimination policies, the school’s president, the Reverend William P. Leahy, SJ, is unwilling to implement a gay-nondiscrimination policy at BC.

"I wouldn’t call it a hostile environment, but it’s a hard environment to acclimate yourself to," says Chris Young, class of ’07, a member of the GLBT Leadership Council. "The attitude among the students, for the most part, is very accepting. The faculty are unbelievable. It’s basically the administration that proves to be hostile. Not really hostile, I take that back. They’re just not as supportive."

Nick Salter, ’07, UGBC’s director of domestic affairs and a major force behind the proposed nondiscrimination policy, puts it more bluntly: "Gay and lesbian people at BC are being denied rights they deserve."

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Issue Date: April 22 - 28, 2005
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