CONTENT WARNING: The following contains stories that may be triggering for some readers. If you, or someone you know, are in need of support, please contact Trans Lifeline Hotline (877-565-8860), The LGBT National Help Center (800-246-7743), or any of the other resources listed at the bottom of this article.
It goes without saying that high school is hard. Many high schoolers attempt to blend in, while hoping that one day they will find people who accept them for who they truly are. Many fear the day of coveted social acceptance will never arrive. For LGBTQ+ students in religious schools, this is their daily reality.
When discussing equity and inclusion for students in Kentucky schools, the conversation is incomplete without considering realities of students who attend schools—often not on their own accord— that have a history of suppressing their identities. This is especially true for queer students within Louisville’s private Catholic schools. According to privateschoolreview.com, 9% of Kentucky students in grades K-12 attend private schools, and in Louisville alone, 23% of K-12 students attend one of the 92 private schools located in the area. Out of those 92 private schools, 36 are a part of the Archdiocese of Louisville— the city’s local Catholic community.
The topic of LGBTQ+ inclusion has been considered controversial for many years in religious conversations within the Archdiocese. The current Archbishop of the Archdiocese, Archbishop Fabre, has been blunt about his stance, having signed on to a letter published by several deacons and bishops across America condemning President Biden’s efforts to extend federal LGBTQ+ non-discrimination protections. The archdiocese's official stance on the LGBTQ+ community is that “they do not condone aggression of any kind towards homosexual people'' and the Archbishop is willing to “to meet and to listen” to queer Catholics. However, this stance often does not align with the actions and ideologies students encounter inside the classrooms of the archdiocese’s schools.
Charlie and Ben
In order to understand students’ experience, I spoke to two current Louisville high school students to learn more about their experiences attending religious schools as members of the LGBTQ+ community. One is a transgender male student who attends a Catholic girls’ school and the other is a gay, nonbinary student, at a Catholic boys’ school, who uses he/him and they/them pronouns interchangeably. For the sake of the students’ privacy, they’ll be referenced by pseudonyms: Charlie and Ben, respectively.
Both of these students have attended local Catholic schools since kindergarten, “When I was young I never saw my school as a place of harm,” Charlie said. To this point, Ben added, "I agree with that, but as I grew up, the underlying issues started to reveal themselves.”
Once they became more open about their queer identity, both Charlie and Ben said they felt “shunned” by their peers, and additionally experienced complications in their religious journeys. “I sort of went through this ‘teen angst’ phase where I blocked out all religion from my life” Ben explained. “Religion had caused me so much pain and confusion that I felt it would be best to create as much distance as I could—but this ended up causing more harm than good for me.”
Charlie had a different experience navigating religion. Growing up atheist, he never had much of a connection to Christianity. “The only exposure I ever had to it was in the classroom or at weekly all-school mass,” he said. Despite lacking a personal religious affiliation, when he realized he was transgender, he struggled with the weight of others' expectations. “I felt like I wasn’t the daughter my parents had always wanted.”
For both Charlie and Ben, becoming more open about their identities resulted in intense bullying from their peers. Ben recalls being young and his peers calling him gay behind his back because he mostly surrounded himself with female peers and behaved in a “feminine way.” The bullying continued in high school, where both students say they currently encounter the use of derogatory language as well as slurs expressed directly to their face, and where they feel they can never quite escape their aggressors. Charlie told me he “never knows who to trust at school,” and Ben added that they are insecure about their existence there: “Sometimes I feel like everyone is staring at me. I am constantly uncomfortable.”
These students are not alone. Experiences like theirs are common for LGBTQ+ students in Kentucky schools. According to the GSLEN 2019 National School Climate Survey, 73% of queer students in America have faced verbal harassment in their schools because of their sexual orientation. In addition, in Kentucky schools, more than half of transgender students are unable to use the school bathroom aligned with their gender. Furthermore, 23% of transgender students and a quarter of LGBTQ+ students were prevented from using their chosen name and/or pronouns.
These statistics went far beyond a graph for ex-teacher of Montgomery County High School, Willie Carver. Shortly after receiving the Kentucky Teacher of the Year Award in 2022, he resigned due to the induction of harmful LGBTQ+ policies by the school’s administration, and administration’s failure to respond to harassment against Carver and LGBTQ students.The policies included removal of “books written by LGBTQ authors from the school’s curriculum, defended students who were accused of tearing down rainbow Pride posters from school walls and shut down a student-led poll that aimed to gather insight about the school’s climate for LGBTQ inclusion” according to NBC News.
Some argue that the challenges students and teachers face stem from homophobic indoctrination on behalf of religious institutions—both schools and churches. While the Catholic Church outwardly opposes the acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, they also claim to oppose discrimination against homosexual people. For example, the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville are public supporters of LGBTQ+ rights within Christian life. According to their website, the Ursulines signed a statement in 2021 that announced they “respect the intrinsic dignity of all human life, including the lives of the LGBT,” as “LGBT youth are children of God, created by God and loved by God.”
But, in fact, homophobic ideologies are often forced upon young people. This was seen last year at the Christian Academy of Louisville (CAL). In May 2022, an article in the Courier Journal garnered national attention as it brought to light an assignment given to CAL’s students. The homework instructed middle schoolers to write a fake letter to a friend “struggling with homosexuality,” encouraging them to reject homosexuality and persuading them to follow “the goodness of God’s design for them.” The news of this assignment was upsetting to parents of students, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and others within Louisville and beyond. However, the school, which is attended by over 3,000 students, has not backed down from its decisions, stating that they teach content “with a biblical worldview.”
National and Local Legislation Causing Additional Harm
More broadly, legislation that targets the wellbeing of queer students is being introduced in waves across the nation. In 2022, Florida’s house Republicans introduced new legislation called the “Stop Sexualization of Children Act”, that soon became regarded by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Opponents of the bill told NPR the bill would “make life harder for LGBTQ youth, who already face a higher rate of bullying and a higher risk of suicide than their straight, cisgender peers.” More recently, legislation such as House Bill 173, Senate Bill 102, and Senate Bill 150 have been introduced within the Kentucky legislature by Republican lawmakers. The legislation utilizes strikingly similar jargon that proposes the dismantling of current protocols for navigating student mental health, sexual orientation, and gender expression in schools, and sex-ed curriculum. In early March, House Bill 470 passed the full House, and, as reported by the Courier Journal, “would prevent trans youth from receiving life-saving gender-affirming treatments.” As of March 16, SB 150 passed through the legislature and is now sitting on Governor Andy Beshear’s desk to either be passed or vetoed; if vetoed by Beshear, the republican-led legislature has until March 29 and 30 to override.
These bills threaten the safety and autonomy of students, most notably seen in Senate Bill 150, which would, among other aspects, let teachers decide whether to use a student’s pronouns if they “do not conform to that student’s biological sex.”
“Knowing that someone is out there who is against me feeling safe and comfortable in my school is really damaging for my queer identity,” Louisville high schooler Abby Crady said about the impact this stands to have on her. She added that the new actions within Kentucky’s legislature will make queer students feel “uneasy about their school environments,” as she sees them having long lasting, negative impacts on queer youth.
When discussing these examples of homophobia, Ben indicated that he is unsurprised as they have encountered homophobic ideology since elementary school. “I remember flipping through a theology textbook in grade school, and there was a part about the sin of homosexuality. It was definitely striking,” he said. “Especially as I was trying to cope with realizing I was not like everyone else.”
We Must Do Better
For many like Ben and Charlie who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community, prejudice, exclusion, and hatred are subjects they know all too well. However, no matter the affiliation of the school, one should not feel ostracized in an environment created to educate and promote free-thought. It is imperative that all Kentucky schools show empathy to students of all backgrounds and identities. It is also necessary that the youth are given space to voice their ideas, thoughts and opinions on the protection of themselves and their classmates.
Because after all, high school should be about finding yourself, not hiding yourself.
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