LGBTQ Faculty at DePaul: Conflict vs Conversation

“What does it mean to be openly gay faculty at a Catholic School?”

What does it mean to be openly gay faculty at a Catholic school? How do you survive, much less thrive, in an environment where church hierarchy has condemned your lifestyle? What if Catholicism explicitly or implicitly prevents your school from discussing views other than its non-negotiable stands on the “pelvic issues” of abortion, contraception, gay marriage and premarital sex?

Today the Vatican has become more outspoken against homosexuality than ever before. Pope Benedict XVI denounces the homosexual lifestyle, even in the form of a loving, committed relationship. It’s easier to escape to a secular school, but some LGBTQ people choose to work at a Catholic school because of its emphasis on social justice.

Out There: The Second National Conference of Scholars and Student Affairs Personnel Involved in LGBTQ Issues on Catholic Campuses conference held at DePaul University in Chicago in October, featured a panel of five openly gay faculty from DePaul. They explained negotiating the conflicts and contradictions of teaching at a Catholic school. All five grew up Catholic; some have retained their faith while others have left the church.

  • Dr. Ann Russo is an associate professor and director of the women’s and gender studies program.
  • Dr. Lourdes Torres is also an associate professor in the Latin American and Latino Studies department.
  • Dr. Darrell Moore is an associate professor in philosophy and African and Black Diaspora studies.
  • Dr. Tom Drexler is an adjunct professor of religious studies at the school’s Loop campus.
  • Dr. Paul Jaskot is an associate professor and chair of the department of art and art history.

By hosting the conference, DePaul appears to be an incredibly open place for LGBTQ students, faculty and staff. Perhaps its motto, which translates as “I will show you the way to wisdom,” has something to do with it.

Roots of their Catholicism

There’s no denying that their backgrounds, gender, relationships and Catholic faith shape these scholars’ approach to social issues. After 20 years of Catholic education, Drexler found it a positive experience and chose to stay in it as a career. “I have a gentle acceptance,” he said. “The same Catholicism that caused pain also nourished my relationship with God, the God that I believe made me, a gay male, in his image.”

Coming from the South Bronx, Torres attended a Catholic school out of safety. She became a “rabid” Catholic when her mother was sick and the nuns helped take care of the family. “Catholic school was wonderful,” she recalled. “The nuns were loving and caring.” But when she realized she was gay, Torres began questioning the church’s ideology—specifically on reproductive rights and homosexuality—and left the church in high school.

Growing up in a very conservative Catholic family in Central Illinois, Russo loved going to church and praying. But church became a problem when it collided with a series of issues, specifically corporal punishment, racial segregation and limbo, the old teaching that babies who died unbaptized wouldn’t go to heaven. Jaskot was the last of five children; although his siblings had a strong Catholic identity, for him it was more of an ethnicity issue. “Rejection of the institution was a teenage response,” he admitted.

Despite having a grandfather who was a Methodist minister and an atheist father, Moore followed his mother, who raised him Catholic. While attending a small, Catholic liberal arts college, he became a questioner interested in possibilities and texts that opened up discussions about what faith can teach about sexuality.

Being gay faculty at a Catholic school

When asked how working in Catholic higher education has changed their relationship with religion, Torres noted that when she took the job, she began rethinking Catholicism and her understanding of institutional religion. But it was two service learning trips—one to El Salvador and another to the Mexican border—that opened her eyes. In El Salvador, Torres ran into a loving faith community led by four “renegade” nuns. On the trip to Mexico she saw others working in social justice. “This kind of work has changed my reading of Catholicism as something that tries to regulate lives,” she said. “Catholics can be many different things.”

For Moore, being in urban Chicago with opportunities to serve the poor and to provide service through institutional resources is a positive thing. As a philosophy teacher, he’s used to analyzing things from different viewpoints. In negative situations, he goes through a process of recasting and clarifying whether the issue is Vincentian (the order of religious priests and brothers founded by St. Vincent de Paul, well known for helping the poor) or Catholic. In his classroom Catholics from many different backgrounds – Eastern European, Mexican, Irish, Italian – bring a slightly different per-spective based on their ethnicity. “I see it played out regularly in topics like abortion,” he said.

For Jaskot, joining DePaul definitely changed his view of religion and church issues. “I couldn’t understand why they’d hire a Marxist gay guy,” he admitted. Seeing the issues of outreach and service learning through the Vincentian lens has changed his notion of what it means to be Catholic.

Before coming to DePaul, Drexler spent five years at Creighton University in Nebraska, a big, homogenous, safe school, distinctly different from DePaul. Drexler has refused to let the Vatican define his Catholicism or his mission, to experience a well-lived life by helping others. The opportunity to be out and to do social justice work is incredibly freeing for him. While Drexler admits he’s pained about the tension between the Vatican edicts and his sexual orientation, it has made questioning and learning a good thing.

Russo was amazed to come to a Catholic school as a lesbian feminist and find that it welcomed her sexuality. “It’s a campus with a small ‘c’ (Catholicism),” she said, “pluralistic and open.” The openness made her rethink her values and her youthful decisions. “When we pushed for LGBTQ, they used the Vincentian focus to identify what’s important,” she said. But looking at the same issue from the lens of church, she said, “They want to see us dead and excommunicated.”

Catholicism vs. their sexuality

Addressing their own conflicts with Catholicism and their sexuality, Russo and the others see DePaul moving toward the “big C” of Catholicism, based on incidents such as Planned Parenthood not being invited to a campus nonprofit fair or rescinding an offer to a commencement speaker based on her position on reproduction. By making a conscious choice to surround himself with people of similar values, Drexler addresses the conflict. “I need a community of faith,” he said. “I need to speak from my heart, not the official dogma. I need to talk about the loving God who made me.”

For Jaskot, his anger against the church relates to the institutional authority and the ways Catholics are told to do things. But the anger is secular and only against the “institutional” church. He has done his best to unpack it by questioning all the accepted norms and seeking the plurality of mission. “I can take my anger to a new identity, a more accepting one,” he said.

DePaul’s relative openness to discussing controversial topics plays out in the area of liberation theology. This theology opened a space in which one could still fight and discuss issues, said Moore. “I am amazed that gays and lesbians can be open and work here,” Torres said speaking about the apparent contradiction between social justice and the big C issues. There are spaces to be open, but there has to be the possibility of discussion of conflicts.

One area of conflict is in partner benefits. Moore has participated in discussions and email exchanges over the issue. “We use the words/rhetoric of the institution,” he said about the discussions. Jaskot wants to negotiate the issue by bringing personal stories out in the open. Change can be connected with real lives and political solutions can be addressed with strategic planning. Resistance can be addressed through discussions on religious orthodoxy versus the liberal arts.

But Drexler sees the issue differently. “I don’t know if I want to negotiate with the church,” he said. “You want a place at the table, not to negotiate.” Russo takes the stance that they’re working for a university, not the church, and reminds administrators of that.

Negotiating benefits is one thing. What about negotiating between their sexuality and the church that takes place in and out of class? Jaskot explains that getting students to look at the church as a living, breathing institution is one way of opening the discussions. Drexler addresses his conflicts by pointing to the school’s mission and values. When controversies come up he focuses on having conversational, not confrontational discussions. Russo also attempts to have conversations rather than argue with a student. She points out that the church has had multiple positions on many issues. For example, it’s only been against abortion the last 150 years.

Torres, slammed for being “too gay” in the classroom, was adamant about including all voices in the Latino/a discussions. Latino students are very resistant in thinking of their culture as containing gays. But discussions and readings can provide different perspectives.

By their openness and willingness to dialog, these faculty have shown various ways of “doing” and “being” church. And they are role models for other schools interested in creating a more inclusionary space for LGBTQs on campus. 

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