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Catholic schools can't neglect LGBTI students



Recently Gilbert Baker, the man who designed the rainbow pride flag, died. The rainbow flag, created in 1978, was designed to be a symbol for the LGBTIQ movement, representing the diversity of the community.

Catholic teacher tears up rainbow flag while rainbow coloured elephant carrying young people watches on sadly. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonHowever, within the same news cycle, in Australia, it was reported that Catholic Notre Dame University in Sydney had had pride flag stickers torn down from the window of its student association office.

The stickers were there to convey a sense of allyship and welcome to LGBTIQ students. 'You have queer students that are struggling,' student association president Dylan Gojak told Buzzfeed, 'and there's nothing, there's no public statement, there's no sign that you're welcome here.'

The official statement from Notre Dame's vice chancellor Celia Hammond was that while they didn't approve the way the sticker had been taken down, the 'symbol is divisive, and the university does not support all that has come to be associated with the rainbow flag'.

Schools' main concern should be the welfare of their students, but that is made difficult when they have an arm tied behind their backs in regards to supporting LGBTIQ students. When even such small gestures like a sticker are deemed 'divisive', it's no surprise that LGBTIQ students can feel isolated and ignored in the Catholic education system.

Religious freedom is important, but with rates of suicide and self harm among LGBTIQ youth worryingly high, using it as a shield to ignore LGBTIQ issues is harmful.

While there were thankfully only a few instances of homophobia in my schooling, silence wasn't the same as welcome. LGBTIQ issues felt illicit somehow. There was an unspoken 'don't ask, don't tell' attitude, where teachers were often mandated not to speak about LGBTIQ issues. When LGBTIQ friends of mine asked for help from counsellors, the best they could do was refer them to outside services.

Micah Scott, the chief executive of youth-led LGBTIQ network Minus18, has seen the effects of this firsthand. 'Many topics, including sexual and gender diversity, are unspoken,' he said. 'It sends a message to already vulnerable young people that who they are is institutionally forbidden, and that they should be ashamed of their identity.'


"The rainbow flag, to me, means safety. When I went to my first pride parade, I felt like crying with relief. The happiness and exuberance on display were the opposite of the shame I had felt."


Gender and sexuality sneaks into education whether we want it to or not. Though my Catholic college was relatively progressive, teachers would use exclusively gendered terms, often referring to our 'boyfriends'. We were allowed to 'debate' same sex marriage, but writing about LGBTIQ issues could lead to you being pulled aside by a teacher. We could take a same sex partner to the formal, but it was school policy to formally ask the principal. When you were told be grateful for the barest consideration, it was hard not to feel like an underclass of student.

Professor Peter Norden, a professor at RMIT and former Jesuit priest, summarised it perfectly. 'In many ways, same-sex attracted students are being asked to remain voiceless and invisible in some Catholic schools.'

To say that students and teachers should simply choose different schools is beside the point. It assumes that students are always in control of what school they are able to attend, when in fact it can be confined by geographical and economic considerations. It assumes that all LGBTIQ students are able to come out to their parents. And critically, it disregards the duty of care that schools have to their students.

There are avenues for Catholic schools to take. Only two Catholic schools have signed up to be part of the Safe Schools Coalition, which is specifically designed to tackle transphobia and homophobia in schools. Schools and universities could institute a Gay–Straight Alliance or other LGBTIQ support groups. And in 2006 Norden wrote a report called Not So Straight, which had a list of 17 recommendations on how Catholic schools could better institute pastoral care for LGBTIQ students, with some deference to Catholic teachings.

The rainbow flag, to me, means safety. Last year, when I went to my first pride parade, I felt a little like crying with relief. There were big rainbow flags waving everywhere. The happiness and exuberance on display were the opposite of the shame I had felt. There was no need to hide who I was here. I benefited in many ways from my Catholic education, but I had lived for 13 years with the implication that my presence in Catholic institutions was to be merely tolerated.

Being Catholic, at its best, is about acceptance and empathy. The Christian groups who are blatantly homophobic are the loudest voices, but definitely not the only ones. Despite those who would rather pretend we don't exist, LGBTIQ students attend Catholic schools. While a rainbow flag sticker may seem like nothing, it can be the starting point to making a difference.


Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, LGBTIQ, rainbow flag, Catholic schools



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Existing comments

I support the motivations of the author, but I fear she is not aware of the situation regarding the Safe Schools Coalition. For over a decade, all school sectors have supported the anti-bullying material produced by a different body with a similar name, the Safe Schools Framework. This deals with bullying in all its forms, including sexuality, race, disability, etc. Only about 500 schools nationally have signed up to the Safe Schools Coalition. With over 9000 schools nationwide, ask yourself why thousands of government schools are refusing to sign on. The answer is evident when you go through the material. It is promoted as anti-bullying, but it's in fact sex education (politically charged, some might say), and thousands of public school principals have determined that it's inappropriate for their students. So we shouldn't single out Catholic schools for supposedly turning a blind eye.

Jim | 07 April 2017  

I do remember when the Catholic hierarchy did not want people attending the Palm Sunday Peace March - because Communists would be there. At the same time, protesting against a brothel in the neighbourhood was ok even though the majority of people were concerned only about their property values. Some kinds of 'contamination' are apparently ok - and others not! LGBTI people are treated as contaminants. It's ok if the contamination is invisible.

Malcolm McPherson | 07 April 2017  

With respect, there are far better ways to achieve your objective. Schools and society need to emphasise core values of courtesy, kindness, humility, givers not takers, social responsibility. You don’t have to like someone, but you do have to show courtesy, be polite and hopefully take it to the next level, kindness. These basics allow us all to live in an intelligent mature way and it should be the end of any prejudicial behaviour. There are many groups in the community who are “voiceless and invisible” and each needs to be treated with courtesy.

Jane | 07 April 2017  

The comment which the article attributes to Professor Celie Hammond (Vice-Chancellor of Notre Dame University Australia) is seriously troubling -- and not only because, by plainly qualifying her "disapproval" of the actions of the people (presumably students) who tore down rainbow-flag stickers from the Sydney office of its student association ("while they didn't approve the way the sticker had been taken down" as this essay summarises it), she gave potentially "coded" support to the actions of those students. It also raises serious questions about the extent to which university administrations should censor opinion on campuses. In fact, like most such administrators (in a way that brings bishops to mind), she seems to believe that SHE is the university when she said, "the university does not support all that has come to be associated with the rainbow flag". She is no more "the university" than the hierarchy are "the Church". Each group needs to recognise the limitations of their authority and not to abuse it, especially in ways which might damage the already vulnerable.

John CARMODY | 07 April 2017  

Invisibility, and the expectation that being born gay must always be swept under the carpet, is a particular hallmark of Catholic subcultural practice. In the 1990s an ACU chaplain, whose gayness added value to the role he discharged, was summarily dismissed for coming out. No rainbow flags here; just his honesty when asked and reminiscent of the kind of gum-excision that occurs as the result of something akin to boil-lancing. Its surreptitiousness and deceit is a measure of how 'institutional' Catholics treat those whom the Church has no answer for, especially in terms of their (our!) 'disordered' status. At best, this dishonesty extends to promoting 'respect' among students, while sweeping the rest under the carpet. I write to also commend the post here of Malcolm McPherson: one of the nails that was driven into Bishop Bill Morris's episcopal coffin by the temple police of Toowoomba, was that he declined to sign a letter objecting to the establishment of a legal brothel in his diocesan capital, explaining instead that, while he regretted the loss of morale such a service would cause, there were considerably more pressing issues for his (and my!) Church to concern itself with at the time.

Dr Michael Furtado | 07 April 2017  

Our catholic faith declares the dignity and respect due to each and all people. That being said it is important not to confuse disagreement with disrespect. God made us male and female and a good study of theology of the body will show how this expresses God's love for us and shows deeply that we are all made in God's image in ways that we don't fully understand. A lot of material in the Safe School's program actively teaches the concept of gender as a choice, not as a God-given fundamental part of our nature. Teaching gender as a choice is psychologically, morally, and theologically harmful to all people, and especially to young people in their developing years. Much of the sexual material in the safe schools program is extremely inappropriate for use with children, especially at the ages it is supposed to be used in. The catholic college I teach in does not use the Safe schools program, but definitely discourages bullying - of anybody by anybody.

David | 07 April 2017  

About 25 years ago, a young homosexual lad at a Catholic high school was being bullied unmercifully. That stopped when two of the female students stepped in, broke up the party and made the young bloke welcome in their group. His parents later wrote the Principal a letter thanking him for his support and for the support rendered by the two girls. There are, and always have been, people in the Catholic education system who rise to the occasion. The most effective interventions, however, come from the students themselves.

David Healy | 07 April 2017  

Thank you for this article, Neve. It is very important to accompany those in need around us. Whether as a parent or a teacher, love trumps all else.

Marianne | 07 April 2017  

I have to agree with David, April 7, regarding the concerns he raises about so called safe schools which also encourages the questioning of provable facts. I recently read an article recognising "... at least five biological sexes:  men (persons who have two testicles)/ women (persons who have two ovaries)/ hermaphrodites or herms (in which there are at the same time one testicle and one ovary)/ masculine hermaphrodites or merms (persons who have testicles, but present other feminine sexual characteristics)/ feminine hermaphrodites or ferms (persons with ovaries but with masculine sexual characteristics). This is sane and backed by science notwithstanding how this affects psychology but relying merely on psychological states to determine gender ignores a reasoned approach to the study of the experience and what conditions produce this. Also Neve, I appreciate the feel good notion that "Being Catholic, at its best, is about acceptance and empathy" but recognise this erroneously ignores that at it's core it is about Truth. Jesus loved the other, accepted where they were at but challenged them beyond - the woman at the well, the lawyer asked to give up everything, asking the woman protected from stoning to sin no more...the issue is not whether LGBTIQ are loved or accepted but what is promoted as the necessary outcome of identifying as such which is being challenged and confounded with the rainbow which BTW has it's own symbolism in our faith tradition.

Gordana Martinovich | 07 April 2017  

Beyond any bullying Catholic schools (primary / secondary) should not have to have a specific interest in LGBTI students as the students are not old enough to choose a lifestyle and understand the consequences of their choice.

Marcus L'Estrange | 07 April 2017  

Sack the Qphobe who did the headline! Mahoney is on the money. She is not mongering hate against Qs.

asfdfda | 07 April 2017  

I submit that beyond the normal anti bullying program and possible counselling catholic schools should not pay extra attention to LGBTI students (primary / secondary) because the students are too young to choose a lifestyle and understand the possible long term effects of choosing an alternative lifestyle. This should be pointed out in any counselling session.

Marcus L'Estrange | 07 April 2017  

Could we drop the "phobia" bit? Hardly anyone has an irrational fear of homosexuals etc. Bias, even bigotry, O.K.?

Lenore Crocker | 07 April 2017  

Ok article

Carl Smith | 07 April 2017  

The safe schools coalition responds to requests from Catholic Schools without requiring public membership. Working with families the coalition provides advice and support to youngsters. It is known that these youngsters need to be seen as at risk and requiring appropriate pastoral care. Some members of 'the Catholic community' know that schools to fly under the radar. I am fascinated that so many continue to be dominated by those who seem to promote and protect their narrow gates approach to salvation. These righteous few sit alongside those in the 'Corporate Church' who are unwilling to rock the boat. I take some consolation knowing the Gospel reminds us there is 'One' who can calm the waves. More waves required. Rock on..

Mary Stack | 07 April 2017  

The following is the full text of Professor Hammond's full statement, from which only a line was quoted in this article. I am writing to you in response to your email to me and our further conversation about the small rainbow flag stickers which have been stuck on two windows of the Student Association offices on the Fremantle Campus and the fact that they have been taken down twice in the last couple of months. We do not know who has taken the stickers down and we do not know their reasons for doing so. As I mentioned to you and the Vice President the other day, I am disappointed at the course of events and seriously concerned about the distress this is causing to a wide range of individuals within our Notre Dame community. I appreciate the reasons as to why the stickers were placed on the windows by the Student Association – namely, to show that the Student Association is a place of inclusion, support and of welcome for all. It was not intended to be divisive nor was it intended to be a political statement. Not only do I appreciate the reasons, I fully support these reasons. I also understand the legitimate concerns some people have about the rainbow sticker being placed on the windows of the Student Association offices, given the way this particular symbol has been used to represent a political statement or to advocate a particular social agenda, some of which is inconsistent with Catholic teachings. The concerns here are that the display of the politically charged stickers on the property of the University could be viewed as an endorsement by the University of matters which are inconsistent with Catholic teachings, and that those who are trying to live their lives consistent with those teachings may feel threatened and/or confused by this. I also recognise, with deep regret, that it is possible that we have people within our Notre Dame community who hold homophobic views, such views being inconsistent with our Catholic teachings. While I believe the symbol is divisive, and the University does not support all that has come to be associated with the Rainbow flag, the University does not condone the sticker being deliberately taken down in the way that it was. This only aggravates the situation and has the potential to cause additional distress. As you are aware the University is taking steps to develop our pastoral response in this important and sensitive area, and has recently received a recommendation paper from the Sexuality and Pastoral Care Working Party, which was established to consider more closely how we can best respond to anyone who has questions or is experiencing difficulties in relation to same-sex attraction, sexuality or gender identity. The Student Board of the University will be fully involved in the University’s continuing work in this over the weeks and months ahead. In seeking to respond to this current situation in an appropriately pastoral way at this point in time, and in advance of the further work we will be doing as a community, I am asking that all members of our community act with compassion, mercy and understanding. We do not want to cause any further distress to those members of our community who find the Rainbow flag to be representative of a divisive, political agenda, nor those LGBTQI members of our community (or others) for whom this represents a symbol of inclusion and welcome. To that end, while the University does not endorse the Rainbow flag, and does not approve it being displayed on any other parts of the University campus, the University is not seeking for it to be removed from the two windows of the Student Association Office at this time. My genuine hope is that, over the coming weeks and months, we work together to continue to develop the pastoral care and support we offer to all of our students.

UNDA | 08 April 2017  

I don't agree with the Safe Schools program either, but neither do I agree that gender and sexuality can simply be compounded into one big ideological conglomerate. Merely harking "theology" won't suffice. Whose theology and what theology? This is not a left/right debate, but one of survival against the odds, which is skewed by ignorance. If sexuality and gender are both positive and morally neutral human realities, why should it matter if they are pre-determined or if they are fluid? To be totally clear, I don't agree with Safe School's approach on this issue either - because I believe the psychological and spiritual welling of our children is far too important to relegate to ANY form of ideology...... whether 'theological' or political.

MARCUS AURELIUS | 09 April 2017  

And can I add in response to Professor Hammond's letter - if any Catholic insitution needs to establish a "working party' merely to decide how to respond to issues on sexuality, I'd say ou've already lost the plot and no vulnerable student in their right mind would submit themselves to such a convoluted, heartless approach. How about just starting with the fundamental Catholic teaching of dignity of the human person, and realise that LGBTIH (yes, H for heterosexual) are all human beings. And maybe add U for undecided.

M. AURELIUS | 10 April 2017  

Hello, Neve. I checked with a solicitor friend of mine and she thought that, given ACU's Status as a public university, there were good grounds for reporting the university administration's behaviour and expressed opinion to the Human Rights Commission. In her view there was a clear breach of students' rights in the case that you report. I trust that you are able to refer this matter to ACU's Student Union or take it up directly with HREOC yourself. Good Luck!

Dr Michael Furtado | 13 April 2017  

For Marcus L'Estrange. Marcus, LGBTIQ men and women do not 'choose a lifestyle'. They do not wake up one day and make a decision. It is a given, just as the colour of our eyes, hair, skin etc., is a given. The Safe Schools programme simply seeks to acknowledge these things and prepare all concerned with appropriate behaviour towards others. In the Judeo-Christian tradition: We are all children of God, made in God's image, to love one another as Christ loved us. And we leave the rest to God.

Thomas Anthony | 21 April 2017