School or Closet?

Xavier College Preparatory is an award winning institution. An all girls Catholic high school in the heart of Phoenix, Arizona, Xavier has won 117 athletic State Championships, 47 State Runners-­up, 179 Regional Championships, and even two National Championships. That’s quite a resumé. Xavier is an extremely well respected school, they’ve got three Blue Ribbon School honors to back that up.

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Xavier touts this “tolerance and respect” as intrinsic to the foundation of the school, it says it right in Appendix K of the Xavier Student Handbook, but upon closer inspection, it doesn’t seem that tolerance and respect extend to the entire student body. Overwhelmingly, LGBTQ* students and alumni of Xavier agree that tolerance and respect were hard to come by while attending the renowned institution. This project seeks to expose and examine Xavier College Preparatory’s treatment of LGBTQ* students, and its effects, as well as offer solutions to this very serious issue.

A call for interview subjects of LGBTQ* students and alumni of Xavier for this project yielded 15 responses within 2 hours. After conducting thorough interviews regarding treatment and perceived discrimination while attending Xavier, it became immediately apparent that LGBTQ* experiences at Xavier were very much contradictory to policies in the Student Handbook detailing the school’s stance on bullying, harassment, and the creation of unsafe or discriminatory environments. The Pquote 1hilosophy in Appendix A.3 (Harassment Policy and Procedures) of the Handbook states: “The Diocese of Phoenix affirms the dignity of EVERY man, woman, and child, and is committed to an environment in which all individuals are treated with respect and dignity. Each individual has the right to work or learn in an atmosphere that is free from discriminatory practices.”

This atmosphere “free from discriminatory practices,” is not something that many LGBTQ* Xavier students and alumni would say exists. When it comes to a safe environment, it seems that LGBTQ* students feel safer in the closet, and according to studies, this isn’t safe either. Research conducted by the ​Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) at Louis H. Lafontaine Hospital, affiliated with the University of Montreal, found that lesbians, gays and bisexuals who are not out to others have higher stress hormone levels and more symptoms of anxiety, depression, and burnout (2013). One graduate recalls the feeling of needing to keep her identity a secret playing a significant role in her severe depression and anxiety. Others felt similar pressure and subsequent psychological effects.

All interview participants recall hearing extreme anti­ LGBTQ* sentiments from religion teachers during their time at Xavier. “​I had a theology class in which the teacher talked about gender and taught the class that being transgender is a psychological disorder (it’s not) and equated wanting gender affirming surgery and Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 10.09.53 AMhormones to people that want to cut off their limbs. I heard this lesson twice,” says one trans student. Another student also mentioned this lesson in their ​interview. Several recall religion teachers comparing LGBTQ* identities to pedophilia and/or beastiality. Xavier is a private Catholic institution, and it’s no secret that the Catholic Church does not agree with LGBTQ* identities, however, even the Catechism of the Catholic Church discourages this kind of teaching, paragraph 2358 states, “The number of men and women who have deep­-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible… They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (Catechism of the Catholic Church). Comparing LGBTQ* students to pedophiles hardly seems true to this attitude of “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”

With an academic environment that creates a climate that has been said to feel extremely unsafe for LGBTQ* students, where is there for these students to turn? Many would suggest the school’s counseling department. However, one graduate detailed a time where she visited the guidance counselor and disclosed her identity as a lesbian, “I had come out to her and she told me that the school had actually instructed her to tell the school priest about any students who have told her they were gay or transgender or anything.” The Xavier Handbook details confidentiality policies in Appendix C:

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The referral to the priest must apparently fall under circumstance five, but priests are not counseling professionals, they are ​religious counseling ​professionals. The guidance counselor is employed to offer support outside of religious issues if students need it, the priest is ​not. ​Divorce is an issue that the Catholic Church does not agree with, however, students who come to the counselor regarding their parents getting a divorce are not referred to the priest. So why the double standard?

This lack of confidentiality and close connection to the religious administration of the school, makes the guidance counseling department yet another unsafe space for LGBTQ* students at Xavier. So what about finding support from peers? Is this not a way for these students to feel relatively safe in their identities? Several interviewees recalled other LGBTQ* peers being their only outlet for support, while others experienced negative attention, discrimination, and even outright bullying from fellow students. “While I was able to form valued friendships at this school, it was in no way comparable to the amount of ​torment and Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 2.39.56 PMdiscrimination​I, as well as a number of other LGBT students, faced until our eventual graduation. The blatant harassment and discrimination was not only perpetuated by fellow students but by staff as well. Bullying came in many forms from gossiping, hallway confrontations and numerous anti­LGBT slurs thrown around without any sort of involvement from Xavier staff,” one trans graduate states.

Xavier Handbook policies regarding harassment explicitly state that “The Diocese strongly opposes and prohibits all forms of harassment (e.g. harassment based on an individual’s race, color, age, [appearance, behavior,] religion, sex, marital or veteran status, sexual orient, national origin, ancestry, and disability), whether verbal, physical, or environmental. Any employee who violates this policy will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.” This policy is apparently not being upheld, the aforementioned trans student continues, “Xavier College Preparatory not only tolerated but also ​blatantly ignored the bullying that ensued​ while having the nerve to preach that they are a loving community. The only loving community I was able to find was in the safety and support of fellow queer students and the hope that one day I would be able to live freely and happily.” Where were the harassment policies and philosophy when this trans student was deeply suffering?

Faculty did eventually get involved in this students’ affairs, but not to intervene on their behalf, “My personal information and LGBT involvement was disclosed to my family as soon as I was confronted by the deans/principal. In one day my home life had been flipped upside down without any rhyme or reason. I no longer felt safe neither in school nor at home. My home life changed drastically once I had been outed to my family and I was not prepared for the kind of verbal and emotional abuse that followed.” This action taken by Xavier administration is directly in violation of the Handbook’s Definition of Harassment: “Harassment is verbal or physical conduct that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual because of his/her race, color, age, sex, marital or veteran status, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, or disability, or that of his/her relatives, friends or associates, and that: has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.”

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This discrimination and maltreatment of LGBTQ* students is not without consequence. Studies have shown that discrimination amongst LGBTQ* populations significantly increases odds of having psychiatric disorders such as depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. A study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry contends that mental health differences amongst sexual minority groups are not determined solely by individual factors, but are “socially patterned and determined by circumstances in the environment and the complex interplay between individual factors and the sociocultural context within which individuals reside.” This study found that it is this “​excess ​stress associated with stigma and discrimination” that plays such a significant role in the higher rates of mental health disorders found in sexual minority populations (Bostwick et al. 2014).

By partaking in these discriminatory practices, Xavier is endangering a percentage of its students psychologically. A study conducted by the Centre for Social Research in Health at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, finds that LGBTQ* youth had significantly elevated depressive symptoms as well as double the odds of reporting suicidal ideation and triple the odds of reporting a suicide attempt (Lea et al. 2014). Much of these symptoms and suicidality have significant connections to minority stressors Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 2.11.43 PMfrom “discrimination in the form of extreme events to daily hassles in the form of heterosexist events.” The study published in the Journal of Orthopsychiatry found that both ends of this discrimination spectrum “negatively affect mental health among lesbian, gay, and bisexual groups, resulting in depression and posttraumatic stress symptoms or increased anxiety and anger” (Bostwick et al. 2014).

Xavier’s Handbook quotes Article 2, entitled Value of a Safe Environment, of the Prevention and Education section of the Diocesan Policy and Procedure for the Protection of Minors: “The Diocese of Phoenix is committed to providing a safe environment where we value and honor every individual as created in the image and likeness of God. Ideally no minor will ever be abused; these policies are intended to ensure this ideal. The Diocese of Phoenix is dedicated to upholding a culture of safety and protection of all of God’s children from abuse.” How can this “culture of safety and protection” come to fruition if Xavier refuses to protect or offer safety to its LGBTQ* students?

Even Pope Francis has called for families to stand by their gay children. In an interview with the Argentine daily La Nación, Francis stated, “We come across this reality all the time in the confessional: a father and a mother whose son or daughter is in that situation. This happened to me several times in Buenos Aires…. We have to find a way to help that father or that mother to stand by their son or daughter” (Moftah, 2014). If the head of the Catholic Church can advocate for greater LGBTQ* acceptance, why can’t Xavier?

So what ​is ​the best course of action? How can Xavier create a safer environment for LGBTQ* students without compromising their Catholic beliefs? Offering support and safe spaces for LGBTQ* students does not equal abandonment of Catholic ideals. Xavier accepts girls of all religions into their school, this does not mean that they agree with these girls’ religions, but generally these students are still treated with respect and these religions are even taught about in a World Religions course. Xavier has a club called Unity in Diversity specifically for exploring and celebrating cultural diversity. Can’t they extend this respect and tolerance to their LGBTQ* students? GSAs (Gay Straight Alliances) are a groups used in thousands of schools across the country, and their benefit is proven. LGBTQ* students in schools with support groups like GSAs reported lower rates of victimization and suicide attempts (Goodenow, Szalacha & Westheimer 2006). A study presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association found that “academic performance improved as a result of being involved in the GSA, GSA involvement positively affected relationships, students felt more comfortable in their sexual identity as a result of participating in the GSA, and students felt safer and felt they were not harassed as much as a result of being involved in a GSA” (Lee 2001). More supportive school environments (schools with GSAs, anti­bullying and anti­-discrimination policies) have been proven to correlate with fewer suicide attempts and higher grade point averages (Hatzenbuehler 2011). The creation of a group where these students can convene to discuss shared experiences and offer each other support, isn’t just a good compromise, its a proven investment in student success and mental health. Xavier would obviously be under no obligation to teach anything contrary to the Catechism, but sticking to the Catechism’s motto of respect and compassion instead of using hateful teachings like comparisons to pedophilia, self ­mutilation, and bestiality, would be an absolute must.

In the scheme of things, these requests are relatively minute. More than anything, most LGBTQ* students just want to be able to feel safe at school, and if Xavier adhered to the fine print in their own handbook, they would want that for these students as well.

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