Words LGBTQ+ Students Need to Hear: Reflections from a Theology Professor

David Palmieri

Today’s post is from guest contributor David Palmieri. David is a professor of theology at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, MA. He is the founder of Without Exception, a local network of high school educators dedicated to discerning the art of accompanying LGBTQ+ students in Catholic high schools.

“It’s hard to be happy to express yourself when the way you were raised tells you that you are basically a walking sin. Peers and teachers have repeatedly told me that I cannot be proud of who I am because it makes the school look bad.

These words were shared by a high school student who graduated last May. They reveal a sad truth: our Catholic high schools are not equipped to meet or support LGBTQ+ students, families and friends. Of course, this is a minority population, and some church leaders rightly want to ensure that our Catholic faith is taught in its fullness. But our faith also means embracing the fullness of our baptismal anointing as priests, prophets and royalty in the one Body of Christ.

Over the past two years, I have done extensive research on supporting LGBTQ+ students in Catholic schools. After discovering a lack of resources, I started a network of secondary Catholic educators dedicated to discerning “the art of accompaniment” for these young people. The network is called Without exceptiona name taken from Catechism entry that says the Sacred Heart of Jesus loves all human beings without exception (CCC 478). Through a commitment to faithful dialogue and peer-to-peer collaboration among teachers and others in related areas of ministry, we seek to understand what “without exception” means for each person in a Catholic school.

In a few weeks we will be back in school across the country. I’ve been in a classroom every year of my life since kindergarten (I’ve been a teacher for over 20 years now), and I always get this feeling in the days before the first day of school. It’s a feeling beset by the drama of anticipation and uncertainty, filled with dreams of student mutinies and classroom mayhem. But these are imaginative fears, not realities.

I discovered something, however. For some students, the return to school is filled with dread and fear, not imaginary but very real. Particularly for some LGBTQ+ children, they are subjected to a terrible form of trauma: the violence of words. Physical wounds heal; they get stitches, scabs, and end up leaving scars that could tell some good stories. Emotional wounds are different; they stay raw and bleed forever.

Over the past school year, I have collected these words from LGBTQ+ students, who have been told:

  • “It’s gay.”
  • “Don’t be such a fag.”
  • “Why do they need the whole alphabet? »
  • “I support you, but I can’t support the community.”
  • “Transgender people have a mental illness.”
  • “I identify as an attack helicopter.”
  • “An apple a day keeps the gay away.”
  • “The only place I want to be with them is in a gas chamber.”

Then there are the adults, who said:

  • “Lesbians are so scary.”
  • “A Gay Straight Alliance should not be in a Catholic school.”
  • “I think you’re straight.”
  • “Being non-binary is not real.”
  • “What gender do you choose to be today? »

Children are sometimes taught this singsong response: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Frankly, that’s nonsense. 2022 data from the Trevor Project shows that 50% of LGBTQ+ high school students have seriously considered suicide in the past year, and 18% have actually attempted it. That’s compared to 2019 Centers for Disease Control data suggesting those numbers are 20% and 9% for the entire high school population. There is a measurable impact on LGBTQ+ students in unsupportive environments, and this correlates with an increased risk of self-harming behaviors. “Just be tough” is not the right pastoral response. I once knew a teenager who was tough enough to shoot himself and kill himself.

Want to know what I’m hoping for this school year? It is that the students of our Catholic schools and parishes are beginning to hear a different word, the kind of word the centurion wanted: “Lord, I am not worthy that you come under my roof, but just say a word and my soul will be healed. (Mt 8:8). The words of Jesus Christ, which is the Word of God himself, have life. This Word became flesh and dwells among us (Jn 1:14). If we really believe in it, then we should act. The Catholic faith is not just about believing; it is to live.

What students really need to hear are words like these:

  • “Don’t worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself” (Mt 6:34).
  • “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).
  • “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them” (Mt 19:14).
  • “Do not weep” (Lk 7:13).
  • “I give you my peace… May your hearts not be troubled or dismayed” (Jn 14:27).

The reason is quite simple: so that we may all be one in the Body of Christ (Jn 17:21). In the words of another Catholic high school graduate:

“When I was young, my favorite game was to play hide and seek. In the woods behind my house, my neighbors and I used to spread out and hide among the brambles, praying for survival from a somehow to the keen gaze of the seeker. In the end, we would all inevitably be found. We all laughed and the game began again. There was one more chance of winning…one more chance of getting it right .

“I found out that being gay at school isn’t that different from my favorite childhood game. For the past four years, I’ve been playing the ultimate game of hide and seek. This time though, my thicket is in full view. I go to school with you all. I take the same classes; I play the same sports. Yet I leave parts of me covered under the bushes, hidden, forever seen. In the dining room, I hear the slurs and conversations that aren’t heard in class. “God, it’s basically a girl. ‘Burn in hell.’ “It’s so gay.”

“I know that for some of you, what I’m saying today sounds like a joke, something you can complain about to your friends later. For me though, these comments dig deep; it’s more than a laugh. It’s my life. It’s my heart. Please don’t break it. In the end, my time at school is almost over. But please, for the sake of the other kids still crouching in the woods, think before you act, choose your words and be a friend.

My wish is simple. Be the next to respond to the call “Go and do the same” (Lk 10:37).

David Palmieri,

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