On March 21, an article published in Washington High School’s newspaper, The Surveyor, split the Cedar Rapids community in two. “The Fight for LGBTQ Rights” by Sarah Altemeier and Quinn Wilcox centered around an open letter written by former Xavier High School student Landon Santel.
Santel transferred to Washington for his junior year after “facing social hostility” at Xavier, a Catholic private school, for being openly gay. In the letter, Santel describes Xavier theology teachers who bemoaned the legalization of same-sex marriage as “a tragedy to society”; the school’s policy banning same-sex couples from attending dances together; plays with sections whited out to eliminate gay characters; and other microaggressions against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.
While Xavier has made some concessions in the name of tolerance, the Cedar Rapids school struggles to balance Catholic doctrine with a culture of acceptance for LGBTQ students.
Tom Keating has been the principal of Xavier for 15 years. At the top of his agenda is safety, something he wanted to make known during his interview with me.
“It’s a fragile time in regards to where your life is going, and I don’t want to harm that,” Keating said, addressing the fact LGBTQ youth are almost five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. “We can’t be in denial there are LGBTQ students at Xavier, but at the same time we can’t be in denial of what Catholic teaching says and our responsibility to the Catholic church as a Catholic school. That’s the challenge.”
Finding how to make teachers and students happy has been hard for Keating. In May 2016, a Xavier student, Mitchell Anderson, received the Matthew Shepard Scholarship from the Eychaner foundation, a local non-profit dedicated to encouraging tolerance and non-discrimination in the LGBTQ community.
“Student’s [sic] made comments like ‘I wish I could get a scholarship for being straight’ or ‘is this even allowed,’” Santel wrote in his letter.
After Keating permitted the foundation to deliver the award at senior night, he said he experienced a wave of backlash from parents.
That same month, Liam Jameson, a senior at Dowling, a Catholic high school in West Des Moines, went unrecognized at his senior awards ceremony for receiving the Matthew Shepard scholarship. Jameson was honored by Eychaner for staging a student walk-out after an openly gay Dowling teacher was fired and removed as track coach. Jameson also fought to form an LGBTQ safe space and discussion group at Dowling, citing the fact 40 percent of LGBTQ youth attempt suicide. But his school’s policies would have prevented Eychaner from awarding the $40,000 scholarship.
“Failure to permit scholarship presentation at your school’s program will remove the applicant from consideration. This has always been the stance of the Matthew Shepard scholarship,” Santel explained to me. “Going to schools is a fundamental core of why they exist and speaking in the community is so important for them.”
In an open letter posted on the Eychaner Foundation’s page, Jameson spoke out against Dowling’s policies and praised “other Catholic Schools in Iowa” — presumably Xavier — for allowing the Shepard committee to give scholarships. Jameson received nearly 7,000 signers to his Change.org petition asking the Dowling president, principal and Des Moines area bishop to allow him to receive his scholarship, and won.
There was precedent — Keaton Fuller, an openly gay student at Prince of Peace Catholic High School in Clinton, Iowa, successfully petitioned the diocese and administration to receive his Matthew Shepard scholarship in 2012. But in December 2016, Archbishop Michael Jackels updated section 1252 of the Archdiocesan Catholic School Board policy manual to “insure [sic] any award/scholarship description is in accord with Catholic teachings,” effectively blocking Eychaner from presenting the Shepard award at schools within the Archdiocese of Dubuque (which also includes Cedar Rapids) in the future.
When asked to comment, the archdiocese refused.
Matthew Lieser, a Chicago psychologist who specializes in adolescents and LGBTQ clients, said that even if students avoid or overcome suicidal thoughts, they may carry trauma into adulthood.
“[Being brought up in strictly structured schooling] can be very detrimental to sense of identity. If it’s extreme, it can result in a fractured identity. You lose part of yourself and you don’t know how to integrate that part of yourself as an adult,” Lieser said. “It can impact your ability to have healthy relationships later in life.”
According to an article by Sylvia Clubb in Xavier’s school newspaper, the Xavier Xpress, sexual education classes at the school — branded as “Theology of the Body” — teach abstinence and neglect to discuss issues such as birth control and sexually transmitted infections. The end goal in relationships, they teach, is marriage between a man and a woman.
Even if you wanted to talk about sexuality in the LGBTQ community, you’d have nowhere to start. Xavier currently employs no openly LGBTQ faculty and does not condone a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) group, a student-led, community-based organization that aims to provide safe spaces to LGBTQ youth worldwide.
Santel managed to start his own chapter of the more general human rights organization Amnesty International, but after he left Xavier, the group was short-lived.
“The administration recommended they dissolve the chapter because of parent concerns and that fired me up,” Santel said. “I created Amnesty International, I know the current leader and I helped transfer the club over to new students. I thought that was progress at Xavier.”
Rules outside parochial schools foster this discrimination. In July 2007, The Iowa Civil Rights Act (Iowa Code Chapter 216) added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes. However, with religion, that rule only extends so far.
Per the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, “places of worship (e.g. churches, synagogues, etc.) are generally exempt from Iowa law’s prohibition of discrimination unless the place of worship engages in non-religious activities which are open to the public.” So, although workplace discrimination against LGBTQ people is illegal in the state of Iowa, religious organizations — including private religious schools — are exempt.
On Xavier High School’s admissions page, their nondiscrimination policy mentions nothing about sexual identity. The overall attitude taken by current administration is addressing issues by not recognizing them.
“We have parents and pastors we have to answer to,” Keating said. “Parishes give us $1.6 million a year. We must be true to Catholicism. What students, parents, pastors and I think it means is different for all of us.”
Keating also questioned the validity of a GSA and any student group focused on identity.
“Where I’ve tried to go with this is zoom out and not make this an LGBTQ issue. Can we make this an inclusion issue? I’ve had students say, ‘Can we do a Gay-Straight Alliance at Xavier?’ I’ve said, ‘How about a group promoting inclusion of all?’ Because if we start an LGBTQ group then if I’m African American at Xavier, I say, ‘Well, shouldn’t we have a group that says be open to African Americans, [since] there’s not many of us here?’ How about a non-Catholic student at Xavier? Should we just say we’re going to be open and inclusive to LGBTQ but not these other people? I believe if you become a culture passionate about all people, then there may not be a reason for a ‘be nice to Italians’ club. I think you should start bigger than one group. At Xavier, you’re seen as Xavier.”
Keating’s philosophy may be well-meaning, but “zooming out” from specific issues facing the LGBTQ community often leads to invisibility and misinformation, according to Santel.
“One teacher went on at length about how homosexuality is tragic to society and said, ‘Don’t be surprised if you see bestiality being legalized since morally, it’s the same exact thing,’” Santel said.
Feelings of shame and isolation follow Xavier alumni. One graduate, who wished to remain anonymous, discussed with me for 35 minutes the various degrees of bullying they experienced at Xavier. They later sent a follow-up message saying how mentally exhausting it was re-processing it.
“It made me constantly afraid. I never felt secure in myself, which still has a huge impact on me,” they said. “I have a lot of social anxiety and paranoia. I struggled with it for a long time. It takes a lot of work and has to do with completely disconnecting yourself from that environment to get perspective on it, and kids shouldn’t have to. They should feel secure within their home.”
“Conservative churches cause a lot of detriment to gay members who grew up in the system,” Leiser said. “I see clients now in their late 20s, early 30s who struggle with obesity, low self-esteem, high blood pressure, high stress tolerance, sweating and panic attacks.”
Further reading: Sexuality, gossip, confusion and Catholic school
Keating wants what’s best for his students. It’s apparent in the tour he gave me, pointing out trophies from classes prior. It’s apparent in every student he stopped for a conversation as he made his way down the hall. It’s apparent in the way he looked at me, eyes resolute, never breaking contact.
“None of these accomplishments mean a thing to me if the people who go to Xavier don’t have an experience they can look back on and say, ‘That place helped shaped me into the person I am today,’” he said.
“I am finally publicizing the LGBTQ inequity at Xavier after exhausting all other private methods of addressing this issue with the administration,” Santel wrote in his open letter. “In the latest meeting with Principal Tom Keating, my concerns were ‘appreciated,’ but nothing is changing.”
After Santel shared the letter on Twitter, he found he had been blocked by Keating’s account.
Meggie Gates is a Xavier alumnus born and raised in Cedar Rapids. She is a comedian and writer currently based in Chicago. If you’re ever in the city looking for her, she’s probably dancing in the Lincoln Park Zoo. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 245.