Catholic LGBT group disbands after nine years

By Julia Jones

AUSTIN — With only a week left in her senior year of high school in Pasadena, Christiana Denno took a seat at First Baptist Christian Academy’s senior banquet next to her then-girlfriend. The next morning, they both received a call from the principal, threatening expulsion.

“Basically, high school was rough and homophobic,” she said. “That was why I wanted to come to Austin: because it’s probably the bluest city in Texas, which meant I would never have to face that fear of homophobic staff kicking me out of a school simply because I exist.”

When Christiana got to UT, she searched for a student organization where she could speak about her Catholic faith and her sexual orientation. What she found was Prism, the University Catholic Center’s LGBT organization of which she later became president.

“For me, it was definitely a learning space, mostly when it came to official church business about the LGBT community,” Denno said. “For the most part, it was a space to de-stress and talk about issues that affected us in the past and in the church today.”

Christiana became president of Prism until it disbanded after the 2017 Spring semester due to lack of participation among the incoming freshmen and transfer students. The group, according to the UCC’s website, sought “to create a safe and accepting environment for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and straight Catholic students, to discuss issues of sexuality in light of the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Father Larry Rice, director of the UCC, stated that he hopes the group disbanded because they felt more included in the congregation and that they wouldn’t be discriminated against.

“Prism served its purpose for a number of years for the people who needed it, but I think over time there just wasn’t a lot of interest,” Rice said. “I hope that’s because our LGBT brothers and sisters know that they are welcome at everything we do and that we don’t discriminate against people.”

Joe Zaghrini, president of Longhorn Catholic Council, stated that it is common for organizations to end because they require a lot of work from dedicated people to keep them running. As for the end of Prism, he said that the local community is accepting of all people for the simple reason that they are people.

“I think the fact that we have LGBT individuals in our community, and that people know them by their names and not their orientation is proof enough that sexual orientation, just like race, socioeconomic status, major, ability, religion or any other man-made category is always second to our status as children of God,” he said.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, while condemning homosexual acts and calling all LGBT individuals to a lifetime of chastity, doesn’t allow for disrespect of the LGBT community. The text states that they should be treated “with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

The problem with the negative way many people in the church treat LGBT individuals stems from misconceptions and misunderstandings of church teaching, according to Father Rice.

“We’ve got to be more explicit in our welcome of people,” Rice said. “I think that there is sometimes an unfortunate attitude that somehow sexual sins are worse than other sins, and there is no theological basis for saying that. There’s no scriptural basis for saying that.”

Chelsea Griffo started Prism in 2008 as a support group for Catholics who were coming to terms with their sexuality. She stated that she wanted to bring attention to sections of the church’s doctrine that didn’t represent the LGBT community properly and discuss them with like-minded students.

“I was very involved at the UCC and had a great community but wasn’t out to anyone there,” Griffo said. “I wanted to find other supportive Catholic peers that I could talk to and also create a safe space for others to do the same.”

Since same-sex couples cannot marry within the church, any sexual act between them will always be premarital and thus a sin according to the church. Many of the members of Prism disagreed with this aspect of church teaching and have found defenses in scripture, a large part of what the group sought to do for the LGBT community.

“I absolutely disagree that we are disordered, that gay sex is disordered, and that we should be lifelong virgins,” Denno said. “I think that we should fall in love and marry our soulmates too. And I hope I see the day where I could get married in the Catholic Church. But I honestly don’t think I’ll see that day.”

Julia Jones is a sophomore journalism major at the University of Texas at Austin. You can follow her on Twitter @gubrooke.