Dismayed by the negative messages L.G.B.T. Catholics often face regarding their place in the church—firings of L.G.B.T. workers by Catholic institutions and the negative comments about gay people from some church leaders—Greg Bourke and Michael De Leon decided to take action. The couple, who were plaintiffs in the 2015 Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage in the United States, recently announced the creation of an endowed scholarship at the University of Louisville that will support Catholic students or graduates of Catholic high schools who identify as L.G.B.T.
“We’ve had so many talks about what we can do to encourage L.G.B.T.Q. youth to stay in the Catholic faith, to remain rather than walk away, and we had this revelation,” Mr. Bourke told America.
The scholarship, which Mr. Bourke said he believes is the first of its kind in the nation, will be awarded next month. The University of Louisville, a public institution with nearly 16,000 undergraduate students, offers six other scholarships aimed at L.G.B.T. students. All the same, Mr. Bourke said he was initially worried the creation of the award might generate controversy given the church’s teaching on homosexuality. But he said he has been heartened by the response of the community. Several of the couple’s fellow parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes parish have donated to the endowment, he said.
“We think that L.G.B.T.Q. young people today don’t get enough encouragement to stay in the faith,” said Mr. Bourke.
“We think that L.G.B.T.Q. young people today don’t get enough encouragement to stay in the faith,” said Mr. Bourke, a 1979 graduate of the University of Louisville. “They get too easily discouraged when they read about the discrimination that’s taking place.”
By way of example, he pointed to news that a local Catholic high school recently fired a guidance counselor after a parent complained to the school she was married to another woman. The counselor, Alison King, wrote in The Courier-Journal on Mar. 21 that even though she had kept her private life under wraps during her 11-year tenure working for the school, she was fired after being confronted by school administrators.
“They see these things happening with the church—discriminating against L.G.B.T.Q. people—and they think, ‘Why should I stay?’” Mr. Bourke said.
Mr. De Leon agrees.
“Greg and I often say, ‘If we leave, they win. We feel we can change things by practicing the faith we love and by helping others do the same.”
“So many L.G.B.T.Q. people feel that their faith and their sexuality is an ‘either/or’ situation,” he said. “We feel that even though the Catholic Church does not make it easy, young people need to be encouraged to keep the faith in which they have grown up and hopefully love.”
“Greg and I often say, ‘If we leave, they win,’” he added. “We feel we can change things by practicing the faith we love and by helping others do the same.”
Mr. Bourke and Mr. De Leon married in Ontario in 2004, but their union was not recognized in their home state of Kentucky. In 2013, with same-sex marriage already legal in several U.S. states, they agreed to be part of a lawsuit against Kentucky, seeking in federal court the right to have their marriage recognized.
While a judge ruled in their favor in 2014, saying Kentucky must recognize marriages conducted in other jurisdictions, that decision was later overturned by an appeals court. A group of plaintiffs that included Mr. Bourke and Mr. De Leon appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2015 cleared the way for same-sex marriage nationwide. (Mr. Bourke said he felt “relief” when the court ruled that states must recognize same-sex marriages because it meant that both he and Mr. De Leon could apply to be jointly recognized as the legal parents of their two children.)
The pair are both lifelong Catholics and are not shy about discussing their faith.
Mr. Bourke said he long ago chose to remain part of the church and he does not plan to walk away anytime soon.
In 2015, they were named Persons of the Year by the National Catholic Reporter; their two children attended Catholic schools, and the family volunteers at church together. In a 2015 interview with The Huffington Post, the pastor of their church, the Rev. Scott Wimsett, said that Mr. Bourke and Mr. De Leon are “loved and respected” at the parish, adding: “They’re just good people. And that’s kind of what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
Lisa Gunterman, who is also Catholic, has known Mr. Bourke and Mr. De Leon for decades through their mutual work fighting for L.G.B.T. nondiscrimination protections in Louisville, a law that passed 20 years ago. The director of the L.G.B.T. center at the University of Louisville Belknap Campus called Mr. Bourke and Mr. De Leon “great role models for our students,” who, thanks to the scholarship, will “know you don’t have to give up part of your identity just because of who you are. You can be L.G.B.T., and you can be Catholic.”
While Mr. Bourke prefers to focus on the positive, he said that he and his husband, both of whom are graduates of Catholic schools, have experienced homophobia in the church over the years.
When the Boy Scouts of America lifted its ban on gay scout leaders in 2015, Mr. Bourke reapplied to lead his son’s troop, a position he previously held until he stepped down in 2012. But the Archdiocese of Louisville said that it would continue to ban openly gay men from serving as leaders.
“If something is really important to you, you really need to fight for it,” Mr. Bourke said.
Then in 2016, the archdiocese rejected a proposed design for a tombstone the couple created for their side-by-side burial plots in a Catholic cemetery that featured an inscription of wedding bands and a drawing of the Supreme Court. (Other grave markers at the Catholic cemetery include images related to sports, colleges and even horse racing, The Courier-Journal reported.)
Despite the occasional challenges, Mr. Bourke said he long ago chose to remain part of the church and he does not plan to walk away anytime soon.
“If something is really important to you, you really need to fight for it,” Mr. Bourke said, adding that he and his husband feel compelled to speak publicly about their lives in order “to change people’s hearts and minds.”
To that end, Mr. Bourke participates in the unofficial L.G.B.T. alumni group of the University of Notre Dame, where he graduated with a masters degree in 1982. He and Mr. De Leon joined Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case that ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, for a talk at the university’s law school on Mar. 27.
In November 2016, Mr. Bourke led a “Pilgrimage of Mercy” for about 80 L.G.B.T. Catholics and their allies in New York. Most recently, he urged a woman who reached out to him for advice to stay involved at her parish even though she was upset about the firing of Ms. King from her guidance counselor post.
Mr. Bourke said that when it comes to L.G.B.T. Catholics, the situation has improved over recent decades—progress he hopes will be aided by the scholarship.
“When I was younger, being L.G.B.T.Q. was something that was certainly just not ever discussed,” he said. “There’s more of a discussion now and there are more places for L.G.B.T.Q. people to find acceptance and to find homes in the church.”