As part of his doctoral research in the education program at St. Louis University in the 1990s, Michael Maher studied the attitudes toward student homosexuality in Catholic high schools. He was shocked by the silence about this topic. When he met with four experienced Catholic school counselors, with over 50 years of counseling experience among them, they told him only one student had ever come to them to discuss the topic of homosexuality. Some of the things he reported in his book Being Gay and Lesbian in a Catholic High School: Beyond the Uniform included the following:
Why Catholic high schools? What is so important about this issue in Catholic schools? The American bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family sent a very important pastoral message to their communities in 1997 with Always Our Children. The committee told parents of gay and lesbian people that they must love their children. However, orientation itself is not sinful.
The focus of the book is a study I conducted in 1995 and 1996. I interviewed twenty-five (thirteen male and twelve female) gay and lesbian adults who had attended Catholic high schools in the 1980s and 1990s. On average, I spent about two hours listening to each person. I chose adults rather than current high school students for a few reasons. First, I didn't think that I could find many openly gay and lesbian students in Catholic high schools to interview. In fact, very few of the people I interviewed were open about their sexuality while in high school...In addition to this study, I conducted two other studies...one included 124 Confirmation candidates and another was with incoming freshman at a Catholic University.
These studies, when combined with Maher's knowledge of over two decades as a teacher, campus minister and researcher (now at Loyola Univeristy of Chicago) offer important insight on a neglected subject. So have things have changed in Catholic high schools during the past two decades? I recently asked Maher what he has observed:
Things have improved, most definitely. Another study done in 2003 in Chicago indicated that there isn't a culture of silence in most Catholic high schools today regarding homosexuality. This is not a complete change, but other research showed that youngsters are now more comfortable in bringing their homosexual concerns to professional staff in Catholic schools. The silence has been breaking, and I think we are continuing on this same positive trajectory.
A major difference between Catholic and public schools is that themes of social justice and community--so vital in Catholic educational philosophy--are creating an environment with greater tolerance for sexual minority youth in Catholic high schools. Statistical research has shown graduates from Catholic high schools display more tolerance than their public school peers.
There are findings worth noting from all male Catholic high schools. There is increased joking and innuendo in these environments, particularly in the intense environment of locker rooms and competitive sports, where feelings of emerging sexuality may become blurred; anxiety becomes expressed as a "homophobic" response. One researcher from Australia, D. Plummer, in One of the Boys: Masculinity, Homophobia, and Modern Manhood views this "homophobic" bullying as a ritual rite of passage, of young men trying to overcome the "feminine" within themselves. Since our society lacks formal rituals, we ostracize and bully someone who doesn't fit in.
What does Maher think of the relationship between bullying and homosexuality? "We saw a great deal of emphasis on bullying per se after Columbine. It's important to keep in mind the value of community in Catholic education--schools, youth projects, CCD--these all give us an advantage on what it means to be a community. Having a strong community is a great antidote to bullying."
Maher offers these other helpful thoughts relevant to Catholic educators: "It's bad enough to be bullied by peers, but it's worse when it is tolerated by teachers or others who should know better. We also need to be careful in villianizing bullying 'perpetrators.' We need to see bullying events as a community issue--not just as what one individual or one group of people does to another. How do we make an entire community that doesn't promote bullying behavior?"
William Van Ornum