This story originally appeared in volume 25, issue 2 of the Prospective. Gathering all of the necessary information for this one was an adventure– I ended up spending a lot of time at the Diocese of Little Rock, driving up to the campus for fact checks and interviews. Additionally, this was my first time seriously dealing with an anonymous source. If the student’s identity was revealed, they could quite possibly face expulsion. I struggled with the journalistic ethics of a lot of the material I gathered for this story and worked hard to balance opposing viewpoints.
The Catholic Diocese of Little Rock is facing disapproval for a policy introduced this summer that some have deemed anti-LGBT. The policy, a student handbook addendum that will be enforced in Catholic high schools across Arkansas, reads that students cannot advocate for or advertise sexualities “in such a way as to cause confusion or distraction in the context of Catholic school classes, activities, or events,” and that students “are expected to conduct themselves at school in a manner consistent with their biological sex,” which includes pronoun and bathroom use at school and the pronouns used on official school documents.
The addendum states that punishment will ensue if a student’s “expression of gender, sexual identity, or sexuality should mislead others, or cause scandal, or have the potential to cause scandal.” The resulting consequences are communication with parents and then possible expulsion.
LGBT activist sites such as The New Civil Rights Movement and ThinkProgress have sharply criticized the diocese and Bishop Anthony Taylor for the new ruling. However, the Catholic schools of Little Rock are familiar with such criticisms. Three years ago, an English teacher at Mount St. Mary Academy was fired less than an hour after she married her same-sex partner in New Mexico. The teacher, Tippi McCullough, became the focus of a Human Rights Campaign protest that gained national attention. McCullough is now president of the Stonewall Democrats, the party’s LGBT constituency caucus.
“I continue to worry about the messages sent to the LGBT students at both schools,” McCullough said.
When approached about the policy, the Diocese maintained that the addendum is not discriminatory and is not meant to target homosexual students. The policy itself does not point out specific sexualities; rather, it focuses on public displays of affection and other actions that could be interpreted as sexual and is applicable to straight students as well.
“I do believe the policy was meant to be discriminatory,” a Catholic High School student who chose to remain anonymous said. “The policy is purposely worded ambiguously so that the diocese avoids coming across as discriminating. If it wasn’t meant to be discriminatory, then a policy regarding PDA would have been perfectly sufficient for most of the queer students. As far as [transgender] issues go, I don’t see the Church or diocese respecting trans students’ gender identities anytime soon.”
In regard to transgender issues, the addendum requires students to act in accordance with their biological sex and not their preferred gender. This means the sex of a student must align with their sports teams, locker rooms, pronouns and bathrooms (unless deemed otherwise by an administrator).
Though some students at Catholic High School have started protesting the policy by wearing purple and yellow equality bracelets, some feel that the backlash is an overreaction.
“The student body has mixed feelings,” the anonymous student said. “I’ve heard several comments that the LGBT community at Catholic is just trying to ‘stir things up’ by protesting the new policy.”
The addendum includes “Reasons for a Policy on Human Sexuality”, a page-and-a-half prelude to the actual rules of the policy. The reasons cite the Catechism of the Catholic Church (essentially, a publication of Catholic beliefs) and Pope Francis, calling for “a proper understanding of our sexuality.”
“All [Catholic] teachings about sexuality have at their root that God created sexuality for unity,” Father Erik Pohlmeier, director of the Diocese of Little Rock’s Faith Formation Office, said. “It comes from this commitment to give everything [to your spouse]. That’s what we believe marriage is. Therefore, sex becomes living up to that promise. We see God’s design for unity and for procreation… same-sex [intercourse] does not have the possibility of creating life. That’s why we would say that expression of same-sex attraction cannot follow the design God has.”
Catholicism as a whole is oriented toward unity. According to the Pew Research Center, there were approximately 1.1 billion Catholics in the world in 2010, which means Catholics make up about half of the worldwide Christian population. However, in theory, each Catholic church teaches the same theology. This is achieved throughout a hierarchical structure with the pope at the top as the primary teacher; therefore, what the pope says is what the church believes. While this does not mean that all Catholics believe the same way, it does mean that there is a much smaller margin of difference in teachings across the board.
Catholicism (and, consequently popes) have historically never approved of homosexuality. Pope Francis, the current pope and one of the most progressive that the church has seen in recent years, called for Christians to apologize for their general treatment of the LGBT population.
“It’s hard to find people in the LGBT community who are fine with Christians because of how bad [discrimination has] gotten with certain groups of Christians,” Bryant senior and Sexuality and Gender Acceptance (SAGA) club vice president Karmen Merritt said. “It’s hard to find queer people who are Christian or okay with being Christian.”
Merritt both supports the LGBT community and is Christian, a place in her life that she has struggled to reach.
“I had a bunch of internalized homophobia in middle school,” Merritt said. “It took me until the end of 10th grade to figure out who I [am]. I don’t think that [LGBT people are] sinning. Why would they be this way if they weren’t supposed to? They didn’t choose this life. You are who you are. Repressing that identity is going to hurt you in the long run.”
McCullough has concerns that the younger generation of LGBT people will suffer because of mentalities like those reflected in the new policy.
“I hope that Pope Francis will put some of his words into action before we let another generation of young people be discriminated against,” McCullough said. “This is especially dangerous to a young person’s mental health. The suicide rate for LGBT teens is extremely high.”
Pope Francis is well-known for stating “Who am I to judge?”, a statement that many feel largely reflects his style as pope. Pohlmeier feels that this notion of “judgment,” especially in a religious context, is often misunderstood.
“We judge things constantly,” Pohlmeier said. “You have to make judgments. If people around you are doing something that you don’t want to be a part of, you judge, ‘I need to stay away from that.’ You’re not wrong to do that. When we have in the gospel teaching that you shouldn’t judge, it doesn’t mean ‘Don’t judge, period.’ You have to judge the actions of what someone does. But you can’t then translate that into an eternal judgment about a person. When it comes to somebody’s very salvation, God is making that judgment. That can be a hard balance to understand.”
Not everybody feels like the diocese has been maintaining that balance, however. Despite the pushbacks from the media and LGBT community, the diocese has not revealed any intention to change or remove the policy.
“On a personal level, it has been heartbreaking,” the anonymous Catholic student said. “If the Church truly wanted to save souls, they wouldn’t play politics in a way that discriminates against high school students.”