Ah, first love!
Remember being 14 years old and holding hands with your girlfriend or boyfriend for the first time? Maybe trying an awkward kiss? Remember how golden and gorgeous the universe felt? How you couldn’t stop smiling?
How would you have felt if your school’s dean of discipline summoned you to his office and accused you of breaking school rules? What if he told you he would out you to your parents as gay if you didn’t attend weekly ‘therapy’ sessions with the school psychologist?
The school experimented on her in the name of religious faith, against her will and without her parents’ knowledge.
What if for the next three years, school staff forbade you to eat lunch with your girlfriend or to socialize with her between classes or at school activities? What if teachers followed you around to make sure you complied, and what if one of them even warned that you were going to hell?
Sound like a crazy scenario out of the unenlightened past?
No, it’s been going in for the past three years in a prestigious California Catholic high school that claims to “provide a supportive and inclusive learning environment for all students, irrespective of their sexual orientation.”
Magali Rodriguez enrolled at Bishop Amat Memorial High School in La Puente, California 3 years ago. She met her girlfriend at the beginning of the academic year and says they were the only “out” couple at the school. She says her classmates were mostly supportive, and she didn’t expect any problems.
She told Claudia Koerner of Buzzfeed News that she didn’t kiss her girlfriend at school or engage in even ordinary public displays of affection that straight students indulged in all the time. “I was surrounding myself with people that were really involved in their religion, but still accepting, so I never thought there was anything bad about it.”
She knew it wasn’t against the rules to be gay; she checked the student handbook. She didn’t expect school staff to single her out for her sexuality. But that’s exactly what they did, according to Magali and to many other Bishop Amant students, some 200 of whom walked out of class last Friday in protest, as reported in Out Magazine.
The girls agreed to the restrictions out of fear
Magali walked out of that meeting with the Dean of Discipline in tears. She felt she had to agree to the dean’s restrictions; she wasn’t out to her parents. She says she was terrified the dean would carry out his threat to out her if she didn’t comply.
Years of painful surveillance followed
Magali remembers a class outing where straight students were kissing openly, while a teacher pointedly stared at her and her girlfriend. She says she saw straight couples “making out or showing public displays of affection and not once did I see them get in trouble for that.” When Magali dared to merely sit next to her girlfriend at lunch, a staff member approached and stood about an inch away.
Years of psychological counseling followed
Magali had to see the school psychologist once a week, on the apparent assumption that being a 14-year-old lesbian is inherently pathological. The Catholic Church has traditionally distanced itself from conversion therapy to change sexual orientation, although in some American dioceses that has been changing, the Church partnering with an organization that promises to turn same-sex-attracted youth into “healthy straight adults.” More on Catholic sexual orientation change therapies in a moment.
The school denies mistreating the girls
In a letter to parents broadcast publicly via Twitter, the high school’s president and principal assert that they treat all students equally, providing a safe, supportive learning environment. While they don’t get into specifics, they imply that Magali violated school rules about “excessive displays of affection.”
The school’s denials ring false
School administrators have not replied to Buzzfeeds’s or my own inquiries for clarification, but the letter they published doesn’t make sense on its face. If Magali had simply violated rules about public displays of affection, then it’s hard to imagine why her punishment lasted almost three years. Surely a period of detention and a reminder not to kiss in the halls (which she denies ever doing) would have done the trick. It’s even harder to imagine why the school blackmailed her into weekly sessions with a psychologist.
Magali finally went to her parents, who confronted the school
She says she was afraid to come out at home, but she was so traumatized by her hostile school environment that she couldn’t take it anymore. She wrote a letter telling her mom and dad everything.
Her father told a Los Angeles NBC News affiliate that, “We took action right away. I read that and I broke down because it kind of — it kind of sounded like a suicide letter.”
Magali’s parents went to Bishop Amat to confront administrators. “Yes, Rodriguez says,” I get it’s a Catholic school, but not everybody there is Catholic, and not everybody there is straight.”
After a meeting with the school, during which administrators denied singling Magali out, the family pulled her from the school and enrolled her elsewhere. Magali’s father says he’s speaking out because he’s angry and afraid for other students. “We want anybody, whatever they are, to be safe in that environment or to feel free. You know, that’s high school, they’re still kids.”
The family considered working with the school in a home-schooling situation, just long enough for Magali to graduate. She rejected the idea, saying she doesn’t want the Bishop Amat name on her diploma.
Parents must carefully evaluate religious schools
Families often choose private religious schools for their children for the opportunity of a better education. Bishop Amat has a reputation for delivering an outstanding education and getting kids into prestigious universities. With tuition alone running about 10,000.00 a year, it’s not cheap.
The Rodriguez family chose the school for academic excellence, like many families choose private schools. They had no idea that they’d be subjecting their daughter to years of torture over her sexual orientation. They’re furious she was subjected to psychological counseling that they knew nothing about.
Bishop Amat’s non-discrimination statement looks good on its face
Many progressive parents are comfortable with Catholic schools given that the majority of Catholics in the United States accept and affirm LGBTQ people. What some people don’t stop to think about is that the Catholic clergy often differ dramatically from their congregations with respect to LGBTQ equality.
Parents may also not stop to carefully parse equality statements or to ask probing questions. Bishop Amat’s equality statement looks fine on a casual reading. Parsed carefully, it’s full of loopholes that allowed the school to shame and stigmatize LGBTQ students.
This situation is analogous to seeking an affirming church
As Emily Swan and Ken Wilson write in an article for Solus Jesus, LGBTQ people often suffer trauma attending churches that stigmatize. Searching for a truly LGBTQ-affirming church, however, is often hampered by slippery statements that make a church LOOK healthy for members of gender and sexual minorities when it really isn’t.
Ken and Emily recommend asking a series of tough questions when considering a new church. Such a series of questions would surely benefit parents choosing schools. Some good questions to ask might include:
- Will the school teach my child that LGBTQ people are mentally or spiritually unhealthy?
- Will the school teach my child that LGBTQ people must remain celibate for life if they are to enjoy full equality under the law?
- Will the school shame or stigmatize my child if they form a romantic relationship with a person of the same sex?
- Will the school shame or stigmatize my child if they express gender outside of binary norms?
- Will the school teach my child that same-sex attraction can be a transitory problem during adolescence?
Transitory problems and deeply-seated homosexual tendencies
That fifth item on my list is extremely important. While Catholic leaders usually claim to disavow conversion therapy, Church teachings contain a barn-door exception big enough to drive a team of mules through.
Catholic theologians and mental health professionals claim (as evidenced here, here, and here) that many young people who identify as gay are experiencing ‘Transitory Same-Sex Attraction’, a phenomenon they claim manifests often in adolescents and young adults.
Some Catholic psychologists and psychiatrists claim that they can work with youngsters to identify ‘transitory’ tendencies and then provide therapy to encourage opposite-sex attraction. They claim this isn’t conversion therapy because their patients never experienced ‘deeply-seated homosexual tendencies” in the first place.
In practice, of course, conversion therapy is exactly what Catholic counselors are offering queer youth. The idea that same-sex attraction is a phase that teenagers go through was debunked with solid evidence decades ago. And as so many lesbians and gay men attest every day, we didn’t choose to be attracted to people of the same sex when we were teenagers. We ARE attracted to people of the same sex, and that isn’t going to change.
Schools have no right to psychologically experiment on students
The bottom line here is that Magali Rodriguez’s Catholic school forced her to attend psychological counseling that all credible mental health professional associations reject as ineffective and damaging. The school experimented on her in the name of religious faith, against her will and without her parents’ knowledge.
Are you a parent who sends your children to Catholic schools? Have you thought about what they teach students about sexual orientation and gender identity? Have you asked probing questions? Isn’t it about time to start?
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.