Monday, January 14, 2008

"A Valiant Effort"

“A valiant effort.” That’s how Virginia Wilkinson describes my attempts to “remain positive and hopeful” about the Roman Catholic Church one day “develop[ing] a more positive evaluation of homosexual activity.” (And given my longtime admiration for cartoonist Hal Foster’s noble and heroic creation, Prince Valiant, I couldn’t be happier with Wilkinson’s choice of words!)

Wilkinson’s observation is contained in her comprehensive summary and review of Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective (Harrington Park Press, 2007) – the book that I compiled, edited, and (in large part) wrote.

It’s also a book that
Archbishop Angelo Amato of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a letter last June to Archbishop Harry Flynn of the St. Paul/Minneapolis Archdiocese, declared “not suitable to be used in Catholic schools.” Why? Because it “calls into question the teaching of the Church on homosexuality.” (Heaven forbid we allow questioning within our Catholic educational system!)

Now, Archbishop Flynn made no secret of Amato’s letter (indeed, he had been instructed to share its contents with “those involved [locally] in Catholic education”). As a result, it wasn’t long before a copy found its way to me. I’m actually mentioned in this letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ensuring that it’s now framed and given pride of place in my office! After all, as a friend remarked: “If you’re pissing off the former Office of the Inquisition, you must be doing something right!” Hmm, I shudder to think, however, of what would have happened to me
500 years ago!)

Wilkinson’s review is the second I’ve discovered online. I’ve written about the first one here.

Following is Wilkinson’s review in its entirety. (It can also be viewed on the
Education Review website - though minus the cool Prince Valiant graphic.)


Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students:
A Catholic Schools Perspective
By Michael J. Bayly
Harrington Park Press, 2007
ISBN 1-56023-606-X

Reviewed by Virginia Wilkerson
University of South Florida
July 4, 2007

Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective, edited by Michael Bayly, is an attempt to address the concerns of educators placed in the inherently difficult position of wanting to nurture and protect the LGBT youth in their school populations while at the same time adhering to the tenets of the Catholic Church. Bayly’s work is intended as both a Safe Training handbook and a resource guide for Catholic school teachers and staff, and thus provides a comprehensive introduction to the diverse and complex issues surrounding the presence of LBGT persons in the church community and in associated schools.

The underlying philosophy espoused in the book is that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in Catholic schools (as in all schools) deserve the understanding and respect of their fellow students, and that it is the responsibility of educators to create safe and nurturing space for these all-too-often persecuted teens. From a Catholic schools perspective, there is an almost insurmountable dichotomy between the church’s traditional mandate to minister to those in need, including those marginalized by society, and the equally strong mandate to preserve and support official church doctrine. As an ongoing dialogue on the church’s position on LGBT issues continues, Catholic educators remain in the frontlines of the battleground for respect and acceptance of all the students they serve. As Bayly states in his Foreword [actually, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton wrote the Foreword], “ cultivating deeper understanding and compassion for others who are perceived to be different benefits us all – as individuals and as communities.”

The Preface of the text contains background information about the context within which the collection of strategies, resources, experiences and reflections contained in the book was compiled. The original impetus for Bayly’s specifically targeted effort grew in response to programs initiated in two public school [systems] in the Twin Cities area in the early-to-mid 1990’s: “Out for Equity” in St. Paul and “Out for Good” in Minneapolis. The Safe Staff framework and model was developed and used in these programs, and eventually adapted for use in area Catholic [high] schools. Similar training for educators and staff has since been widely implemented in other areas of the country, and has expanded to include higher education settings.

In developing this specific guidebook, Bayly points to the contribution of an informal group of teachers, counselors, administrators, parents, students, and alumnae who used their personal experiences and insights as a springboard for the compilation of the material contained in this text. Also cited is the pivotal role of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), a grassroots, nonprofit, independent coalition based in the Twin cities, which is referenced throughout the text. Added to the original material used for the experimental programs of the Safe Schools Initiative locally is additional material covering pastoral care issues as they relate to church teachings and boundary issues encountered in the context of ministering to students.

The initial training sessions conducted by the Safe Schools Initiative involved members of CPCSM planning and facilitating fourteen four-session sequences of training at seven area Catholic [high] schools, aimed at creating safe and nurturing environments for LGBT students. Empowered by this training, individual teachers and students spearheaded additional efforts to address the needs and concerns of LGBT students. However, Bayly does acknowledge the “backlash” resulting from the Safe Schools Initiative and training; unfortunately, some conservative members of the Catholic community responded to efforts to minister to LGBT students as training staff to promote the LGBT agenda (although it is never made completely clear what that agenda might be). As Bayly states, “this vocal minority has had a chilling effect on safe staff training initiatives within many schools;” still, the very presence of this text as a guidebook for continuing these efforts constitutes a ray of hope for those determined to meet the challenge.

The next section of the book introduces the training session materials and prepares session facilitators for embarking on the difficult task of enlightening training participants in a respectful and approachable manner. Again, it is emphasized that “the richness of our Roman Catholic tradition teaches that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God” (p. 1) and that LGBT students are included as children of God; yet it is also acknowledged that, in the language of the Vatican, persons with a homosexual orientation are “intrinsically disordered.” [Actually, the book notes that the Vatican teaches that the homosexual orientation is disordered, not the homosexual person.] Bayly emphasizes here as well that human sexuality is an integral part of human identity, and is much more than just specific sex acts. Readers of this text are asked to prepare for the journey on which this book will embark by reflecting on what it would be like to remove all pictures and other clues of one’s human connections from one’s work space, and to imagine a Monday morning office conversation in which everything that might reveal those human connections must be hidden. The realization that this is what closeted LGBT persons have to do every second of their lives is a powerful introduction to the remainder of the text, which contains the guidelines for Safe Staff training for Catholic educators.

The training materials are divided into five planned training sessions entitled: “Laying the Foundations,” “Defining Safe Staff,” “Coming Out,” “The LGBT Reality and the Catholic Church,” and “The Classroom Setting and Beyond.” Each section begins with a brief list of topics to be explored in that session, a list of equipment and resources, and a list of the handouts associated with that session. The handouts are provided at the end of each section, on separate pages in preparation for duplication. There is also a reading assignment at the end of each section of the text that is to be read by the participants before the next training session. Each section of the book also provides detailed sequential guidelines for the facilitator.

Section One, “Laying the Foundations,” introduces training participants to some basic information about human sexuality, including references to the work of Kinsey: sexual orientation is a fundamental part of human identity, and occurs along a continuum of heterosexual/homosexual preference. Instructions for the facilitator include a strong statement that “sexual identity is the manner in which people are in relation to everyone, that is, their manner of being in the world.”(p. 11). By understanding sexual orientation as an ontological reality and not a matter of choice, and being reminded that the Church is obligated to provide pastoral care to all within the church community, this first training session is designed to begin the process of preparing teachers and others in the educational setting with the tools they need to work with LGBT and questioning students. Somewhat uncomfortably, this first session introduces the reader (and the training participants) to the fundamental contradiction under which the entire text labors: the official teachings of the Catholic Church are virtually impossible to integrate with true acceptance of LGBT students as whole, functioning persons. Some key handouts provided in the context of Session One include a list of common fallacies and stereotypes about LGBT persons, a list of definitions about human sexuality, and some statistical information about LGBT youth in Catholic schools. The reading assignment to be distributed at the end of Session One is the transcript of a panel discussion led by three young LGBT Catholics at a CPCSM meeting in October of 2000, which highlights some of the real and ongoing issues facing these young people.

Session Two, “Defining Safe Staff,” explores homophobia and heterosexism in the context of what constitutes a safe and welcoming school environment for LGBT students. Handouts include information about how people react to difference in others, and how heterosexism is a part of the entrenched power structure that underlies Western culture. Many useful role-play scenarios are provided for discussion. Again, as in most of the training materials, the author is blocked in his effort to nurture and support LGBT students in the specific environment of the Catholic school because of the proscription of homosexual activity in official church doctrine. Would-be facilitators reading the text are reminded to “note that support and affirmations of LGBT students are not the same as promotion of homosexuality” (p. 42).

Session Three begins with the sentence: “in its broadest sense, the term ‘coming out’ is all about growing in awareness and acceptance of oneself”(p. 59). The material for this session includes a wealth of information and suggestions about pastoral care and sensitive support for questioning and newly self-identified LGBT youth. Session participants are introduced to the common stages of coming out that are experienced, and led through an in-depth exploration of possible boundary violations associated with helping young people deal with such personal and intimate life issues as sexuality and identity. This is probably the section of the text that is least restricted by the inherent contradiction of supporting LGBT persons while condemning them to a life without the fullness of an intimate, on-going relationship. There is no ambiguity encountered in role plays about supporting students as they decide how and when to come out, or discouraging students from dangerous behavior such as unsafe sex with strangers. One role play scenario, however, which begins with “you are a closeted LGBT teacher” (p. 61) could well be a point of crisis for a training participant actually in that situation.

Session Four is the point in the text and in the proposed training where the reader (and the training participant) really feel the depth of the dilemma in which Catholic educators and parents find themselves on the issue of helping the young people whom they love. The reading assignments to be distributed at the end of Session Three include: an address by an archbishop, a high school student’s letter entitled “Is God Homophobic?”, and a Catholic parent’s perspective on church teachings. Contained in this last reading is a statement which seems to touch the heart of the controversy in which Catholic educators seeking to nurture LGBT youth are embroiled: “What cannot be ignored is that most homosexual teens, like most heterosexual teens, anticipate loving, long-term relationships that involve sexual expression. The burden of the institutional Church’s insistence that homosexual relationships can never include a sexual dimension is so onerous that it must be challenged.” (p. 81)

Also quoted in this loving and insightful letter from parent Darlene White is a statement from psychologist and Franciscan nun, Fran Ferder, “The hallmark of sexual holiness is not sexual abstinence; it is reverence in relationships” (p. 81). It is easy to imagine that, having read the required materials before beginning Session Four of the training, participants would arrive for this session in a somewhat troubled frame of mind. Included in the list of topics for Session Four is a close look at what the Bible says about homosexuality, which is summed up by the statement, “All that one can say is that the biblical record does not rule out the possibility that the Church will develop a more positive evaluation of homosexual activity” (p. 88). At the present time, however, members of the Catholic community, including the teens with whom Catholic educators work, are directed to eschew homosexual activity in any context as preventing “one’s own fulfillment and happiness by acting contrary to the creative wisdom of God” (p. 89). In compiling the material contained in this most difficult section of the text, Bayly makes a valiant effort to remain positive and hopeful about future possibilities, while giving training participants accurate information about the reality for today’s LGBT Catholics. To his credit, readers and training participants end this section with a thorough familiarity with the conflicts with which they must cope in creating safe space for LGBT and questioning students in Catholic schools.

The final section of the text, entitled “The Classroom Setting and Beyond”, prepares teachers and staff to take practical steps to change the experience of gay and lesbian teens in the immediate future. In spite of the difficult position in which educators find themselves, this text provides usable information about classroom consciousness raising activities, guidelines for talking with parents, and suggestions for starting a support group or Gay Straight Alliance in the school setting. Ultimately, each educator is in control of his or her classroom, and it is hoped that many small efforts will somehow add up to a safer and more nurturing environment for sexual diversity.

A final note: throughout the text, the acronym “LGBT” is used, meaning “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.” Although it is recognized in places in the text that gender identity and sexual preference are not the same issue, the needs and problems of transgender persons, especially young people, can be very different from those of lesbian and gay persons. Perhaps Michael Bayly will, at some future time, apply his thorough research methods and engaging prose to the creation of a companion text addressing transgender and the Catholic perspective.

About the Reviewer: Virginia Wilkerson is a doctoral student in Literature at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She has a B.F.A. in Dance and a Master’s degree in English Education, and founded the first Gay Straight Alliance in Marion County, Florida.

Image: Prince Valiant by Hal Foster.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
“A Courageous Document”
Out and About - June 2007
Confronting Classroom Homophobia
A Catholic Bibliography on Gay Issues


Anonymous said...

Mick, you spare no effort on everything, everything is quality, researched and interesting to read! Your blog is a modern day piece of art. What isn't on there?

I hope you don't mind, but i used your wonderful picture of Prince Michael Valiant as my background.

Mick keep on doing what you do, as you're making this world a better place for all.



crystal said...

Well, you're in good company .... Ignatius of Loyola was thrown into prison by the Inquisition a couple of times and even Karl Rahner go the eye from the CDF :-)