Indiana Catholic Schools Gag LGBTQ Students
One brave student dares to challenge ’unjust discrimination’
Charles Thompson, the Archbishop of Indianapolis, has declared war on LGBTQ Catholics, first ordering the firing of all LGBTQ staff in archdiocese schools, then threatening to expel students who speak up publicly against the policy. A student who graduated this past June is speaking out now, working for change in the Church he says he loves, fighting for LGBTQ inclusion and respect. But the archdiocese has just doubled down, inserting language into anti-bullying policy that amounts to a gag order for future students advocating LGBTQ equality.
A brief sketch of the facts
The archdiocese of Indianapolis sponsors more than 70 schools in central Indiana, including Cathedral High School, which resisted Thompson’s orders for 22 months before finally giving in this June and firing a gay teacher.
Thompson took away the Catholic identity of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School after they refused to fire another gay teacher, coincidentally married to the fired teacher at Cathedral. Brebeuf criticized Thompson’s move as “unprecedented overstepping of authority,” saying that employment matters are usually not subject to the archdiocese’s jurisdiction.
Last year, Shelly Fitzgerald, a guidance counselor for 15 years at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, was placed on administrative leave when someone found her marriage certificate that showed that she was married to a woman. She was later fired as part of Thompson’s multi-school purge of gay and lesbian faculty.
Students fought back
Former Roncalli student Dominic Conover is exposing the strong-arm tactics Roncalli and arcdiocesan officials took after he and six other students founded Shelly’s Voice to protest the firing of their guidance counselor.
Dominic’s own words
Dominic explained the motivation behind the student advocacy in a powerful op-ed published in The Advocate:
At the beginning of the 2018–2019 school year, I was horrified by the way my school treated Shelly Fitzgerald, a guidance counselor of 15 years and alumna of Roncalli High School. She was stripped of her career and banished from the place we all used to call home. I felt compelled to combat this act of hatred because other LGBTQ+ students were afraid …
A few weeks after the news got out, Shelly’s Voice Advocacy Group was founded by six high school students from Roncalli High School who saw a great need for social reform in the Catholic Church and, frankly, in Indianapolis citywide.
Shelly’s Voice advocacy made an impact
The group quickly gained traction as they reached out to local and national media outlets, even landing an appearance on The Ellen Show. They say they wanted to reach LGBTQ students in communities everywhere and let them know that they were not alone.
Dominic began to feel targeted and harassed by school staff
He says that after his advocacy began, he “no longer felt comfortable being part of the LGBTQ+ community in my school.” The school’s president emailed him to say that same-sex marriage is “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.” A teacher he describes as a former friend and mentor complained to him that he was “leading people away from Christ.”
The archdiocese reacted with an iron fist
Dominic was called into “multiple meetings” with school administrators where he was counseled to quiet his advocacy, but he refused. Until last February. He was summoned to one final meeting that included the superintendent of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. He says the officials threatened to expel him just months before his graduation unless he stopped speaking publicly.
He backed down.
In that very moment, I was terrified. My diploma. My college education. My hard work. That is what they were willing to dangle over my head in order to hear nothing but silence from me. I felt defeated when I looked down at the table and said, “I will be silent in order to graduate from this school.” They ended the meeting shortly after. The closing remark still rings in my ear: “Well Dominic, this seems to have been a very productive meeting.” They finally got what they wanted and, at that very moment, my heart finally broke as I realized I fell in love with a church that did not approve of who I was.
Catholic LGBTQ people and allies push back
According to the Pew Research Center, a large majority of American Catholics support same-sex marriage. An overwhelming majority oppose discrimination against LGBTQ people. The Archbishop’s actions have been very unpopular in Indianapolis. Across the US, Catholics are calling for equality and respect.
Robert Shine, associate editor for the pro-LGBTQ Catholic New Ways Ministries describes Dominic’s treatment as “quite alarming.” He wrote in an op-ed that, “Threatening a student’s educational path goes against all Catholic education values.” He added that speaking up for oppressed people is a positive Catholic value, writing that, “Roncalli officials should be lauding students like Dominic Conover for enacting the Catholic values which they have learned when it matters most.”
Shine joins a chorus of other Catholic voices in pointing out that Archbishop Thompson has not mandated the enforcement of church teachings to target divorced teachers, janitors who use birth control or condoms, or any staff member who has had an abortion or uses birth control. No one is pressing teachers of child-bearing years to explain why they don’t have large families.
Shine and others claim that by targeting LGBTQ people particularly, the archbishop is guilty of “unjust discrimination.”
As for Dominic, he says Shelly’s Voice is grounded in Catholic teachings he learned at school:
Shelly’s Voice Advocacy Group was created to organize and mobilize our generation’s great amount of passion to stand up for what is right… We continue to stand up for the LGBTQ+ community because we believe in equality and acceptance. We believe there is inconsistency between the current Church policy and Church doctrine and we will continue until there is coherence in the Church’s teaching of universal acceptance and the policy they ask their employees to abide by.
Shelly’s Voice is growing and expanding
According to Spencer Harvey, communications coordinator for GLAAD, Dominic has now redoubled his efforts to to speak up for LGBTQ youth. Harvey calls such advocacy crucial, writing that, “In a space where children and adolescents should be encouraged to embrace the values of inclusion, diversity and acceptance, schools with anti-LGBTQ policies continue to make some LGBTQ students and those of other marginalized identities feel unsafe and unwelcome.”
Harvey adds that Dominic and Shelly’s Voice are organizing a national letter-writing campaign, calling on Catholics to reach out to Church leaders to express why LGBTQ inclusion is important and necessary. Dominic is urging young people to share their own personal stories of being LGBTQ and Catholic. He believes the power of storytelling can help to change hearts and minds.
Roncalli High School is fighting to keep students silent
The school has just announced (ironically) a new archdiocese bullying and harassment policy that critics note could be used to stifle pro-LGBTQ speech off campus.
Each student is expected to treat the good name and reputation of other students, school employees, volunteers and the school with dignity and respect and not engage in any activity or conduct, either on campus or off campus, that is in opposition to this guideline and/or inconsistent with the Catholic Christian principles of the school, as determined by the school in its discretion. Any derogatory, slanderous, hostile or threatening remarks or actions directed toward any of the above by a student will be seen as a violation of this policy and will be viewed as a serious matter.
The Culture Wars continue as LGBTQ people struggle for humanity and decency
Students like Dominic Conover deserve to feel safe and respected at school. Teachers and other staff deserve to be free from discrimination. The Catholic Church in the person of Archbishop Charles Thompson is teaching children and adolescents that LGBTQ people are not fit to work in schools and that they deserve to be fired.
He’s teaching kids that homophobia is OK.
Some schools, like Brebeuf and Cathedral, are fighting this toxic message. Others, like Roncalli, are actively cooperating, even fighting to stop public outcry against the harm their messages are causing.
Students like Dominic represent hope for the future.