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Out for change (continued)

‘Hey hey! Ho ho! This faulty policy’s got to go!’

BC students and faculty turn out in droves for strike and rally

most Boston College professors didn’t cancel classes for last Friday’s campus-wide strike (it had been postponed for a week in deference to the pope’s funeral), but many were sympathetic to its aims. One prof, whose seminar convenes on Thursdays, wished aloud that it took place on Friday just so she could cancel it. Another said he’d be "delighted" if his afternoon class didn’t show up.

Students took them at their word. There were roughly 1000 people gathered at noon in the Dustbowl (BC’s green and sun-dappled campus common), most wearing their blue GAY? FINE BY ME T-shirts, a few sporting their BC Screaming Eagles shirts overlaid with STRIKE FOR EQUALITY stencils. A number of professors were there too, looking on approvingly as speaker after speaker made the case for changing the university’s nondiscrimination policy. Nick Salter, director of domestic affairs for BC’s undergraduate government, reminded the sea of waving placards that "at a Jesuit school, we are told that we can’t be complacent when we see injustice." Burnell Holland, vice-president of the undergrad government, spoke of the need to "reconcile Catholic teachings with human dignity," holding that "we cannot and will not stand for this disrespect to people we love." He confessed that he was missing a close friend’s funeral to be on campus for the strike. "My heart’s in two different places right now," he said through tears, "but I chose to stay here because of the good that can come out of today."

Theresa Hammond, chair of the accounting department, knew that her students, colleagues, and superiors didn’t care that she was a lesbian. But she saw the school’s refusal to amend the policy as the sort of "petty, gratuitous indignity that has always made me feel like a second-class citizen here." Paul Lewis said that as an English professor, he teaches "clear writing and logical argument." Which is why the "evasive and guarded rhetoric" in one of President Leahy’s explanatory letters to the Heights so disappointed him. He reminded the crowd of George Orwell’s admonition that "political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible." Boston College’s position, Lewis said, "is indefensible. It’s embarrassing. And it’s wrong."

As the rally morphed into a march around BC’s majestic, Gothic-spired grounds, the crowd grew as more students joined the jubilant, vociferous throng. Over the next hour, it snaked through the heart of campus: past the O’Neill library, past students sitting Indian-style as they took class outside, past a small group of pissed-off looking campus conservatives. As it wended its way around BC’s modular apartments, some bleary-eyed jocks looked on, banging a domed grill cover with a spatula in solidarity.

Things got a little testy when — chanting "Out of the school and into the streets!" — the crowd tried to snake out onto Comm Ave. BC security guards and Newton police blocked them with their motorcycles. ("Everything’s gonna go down the toilet!" a campus cop screamed at an organizer.) Knowing not to push their luck, people re-entered campus en masse and reconvened noisily but peacefully, on the quad. "The rally may be over, but this will not end the negotiations," one man hollered into two megaphones at once. "When we want something, we get it."

— MM

BOSTON COLLEGE’S arguments against changing its policy come down to issues of autonomy. Salter says administration officials fear that they’d be compelled to allow married residential directors to live in the dorms with same-sex spouses, and that BC chapels would be used for gay marriage. They fear they’d be forced to recognize gay-advocacy groups that run counter to the Church.

"They’re missing the point of what we’re asking for, by coming up with these ridiculous arguments," Salter argues. "In other schools, it’s just not a big deal."

Father John Howard, SJ, an instructor in the college’s Honors Program, seems to agree, offering as an example the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, a divinity school in Cambridge, which includes sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination policy. (The school is also discussing a possible merger with Boston College.) "It’s entirely under the control of the Jesuits, so the exclusion of the phrase ‘sexual orientation’ cannot be justified on the basis of its incompatibility with Jesuit and Catholic teaching," Howard writes in an e-mail. In a phone conversation later, he points out that some BC policies do indeed run counter to Church teachings. "We hire people who are divorced and remarried. Some of them have fairly high positions. That’s explicitly forbidden by the Bible. Right in the book of Genesis!"

And there are other inconsistencies. Last fall, students protested the presence of Raytheon at a BC career fair, questioning the propriety of allowing a defense contractor to recruit at a Catholic school. (The late pope, after all, said that "war is always a defeat for humanity.") And a few weeks ago, there was a minor uproar when the BC hockey team competed on Good Friday.

Then there’s the academic argument for amending the school’s nondiscrimination policy. Salter points to the controversy surrounding efforts to fill the Thomas F. Rattigan Chair, a prestigious endowed position in the English department that’s been vacant for years. Last April, the appointments committee submitted the names of four well-known, qualified candidates to President Leahy for approval. The committee’s top two choices were gay men. Leahy indicated his desire to hire a third candidate instead. The English department accepted his decision, but asked Leahy to create a back-up list, in case his first choice declined the job. He didn’t respond. The search was called off, and the position remains unfilled.

Professor Michael Resler, chair of the German-studies department, has been at BC for more than 25 years, and as a gay man, he admits that he was "kind of frightened" when he first arrived on campus. Now, he says, "it’s a more welcoming place than it was when I came. There’s no question about that." Still, the administration’s stance on the nondiscrimination policy has left him cold. "Let’s put it this way. If I was a prospective faculty member and had two offers in the Boston area, I’d take the other one." He’s convinced that students, too, are staying away from BC because of qualms about its tolerance. "I have no doubt in my mind that we’re losing at least some number of prospective students, people saying, ‘I don’t belong there.’ "

Resler is perplexed as to why the administration is so adamant about keeping the nondiscrimination policy as is, especially in the face of such broad student support. "I don’t think [the administration is] intent on being evil," he says. "I just don’t think they quite get it."

"I don’t think Father Leahy’s evil," echoes Chris Young. "I think he’s trying to find a balance between keeping people who donate money to the school happy and keeping students happy. I think he knows where the problem lies. I think he sees the inequalities. And I think he realizes that something’s got to change, because the students want change."

Salter remembers having dinner with Leahy, accompanied by other members of the student government, and noticing a sort of symbolic parallel. "Jesus used to have dinner with the outcast and the marginalized. It was revolutionary at the time: how dare God sit down with these people? So here we are at dinner with Father Leahy, and it turned out to be pretty emotional, for me, at least. There was only one other gay student in the room. It was a small, closed meeting. I basically said to [Leahy] what I say to a lot of people — and I don’t know why I got emotional, it just overtook me. I basically said that my parents had worked very hard to save the money to send me to the school of my choice, and I’m choosing to come to Boston College. And [BC] wants to maintain the right to discriminate against a characteristic of my identity. I think he was very moved as a priest. He asked me if I wanted to continue, and I said yes. I wanted him to know the pain that I was experiencing. And I think he did."

Salter feels it’s incumbent on BC as a Catholic institution to make all students feel welcome and wanted. After all, the same Catechism that calls gays "objectively disordered" says in the very next sentence that "They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided." Says Salter, looking ahead to a day when the policy is changed, "When people are writing letters saying, ‘I can’t believe my Catholic school did this,’ I want BC to say, ‘Because we’re Catholic, we did this.’ "

page 4  page 5 

Issue Date: April 22 - 28, 2005
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