This is a story about an evolving LGBTQ community at an evolving Boston College. It’s a story about what changes and what stays the same, and how, and why. It won’t always fit into neat narratives and assumptions—there are memories here of unthinkable bullying and broad acceptance, of frustrations with administrators and expanding institutional support, of rigid adherence to Catholic doctrine and chaplains and Jesuits acting as allies and resources. It’s a story that moves in cycles, slight shifts that follow bursts of activism that follow campus controversies that follow slight shifts. Students and alumni who have never met, who were here decades apart, have strikingly similar experiences. This story is theirs.
I. A Constant Battle
In November 2005, the Undergraduate Government of Boston College’s (UGBC) newly-formed GLBTQ Leadership Council (GLC) tried to hold a dance in the Rat. A fundraiser to benefit the Boston Living Center and mark the end of AIDS Awareness Week, the organizers initially wanted to call it “The GLC Diversity Ball: A Night in Gay Paris,” but after meetings with some administrators they agreed to rename it “AIDS Benefit Gala: A Celebration of Diversity – A Safe Zone Event” and add cosponsors. According to a December 2005 Heights article, these administrators expressed concern with the phrase “Gay Paris” and wanted “GLC” and “Diversity” to be separate in the title.
After the event was renamed and the BC Democrats, BC Hillel, and the AHANA Leadership Council (ALC) signed on as cosponsors, former Dean for Student Development Bob Sherwood and former Vice President of Student Affairs Cheryl Presley called a sudden meeting with members of GLC. The dance was being called off. University Spokesman Jack Dunn said at the time that BC could not sanction an event promoting a lifestyle that conflicted with Catholic values.
The news, which came amid two or three years of major policy achievements and increased resources for LGBTQ students at BC, dominated campus for weeks. Students organized a protest in response, and GLC held the dance anyway, unofficially, outside on a snowy Dustbowl.
John Hellman, BC ’06, who now works at the LGBT Community Center in New York City, was GLC’s chair at the time. He said they met with school officials on a weekly basis during the planning process, which was why the cancellation was such a surprise.
“I think the administrators were really caught in a hard position—it seemed like they were handing down a position that they didn’t believe in,” Hellman said. “I think at one point somebody said that the University doesn’t support homosexuality, as if we were trying to have an orgy or something. They tried to stay very vague.”
Hellman and Christian Cho, BC ’07, LGSOE ’09, told me that the dance had been cancelled because administrators were worried about media coverage. Just a week before, a “Sex Power God” dance hosted by Brown University’s Queer Alliance had landed on The O’Reilly Factor, which had sent a producer undercover to film it. Host Bill O’Reilly started off the segment by saying it wasn’t for kids.
“Either turn the thing off if the kids are there or chuck ’em out of the room,” he said.
The producer, Jesse Watters, said he’d seen gay students kissing and other attendees falling down drunk, and O’Reilly criticized the school’s decision to let the dance happen, saying Brown’s chancellor should answer for it. Hellman and Cho both think the story was the deciding factor in BC’s decision, and Hellman said that in meetings administrators brought up potential cross-dressing at the dance, which O’Reilly had also criticized, as a concern.
In an interview last month, Dunn denied that O’Reilly’s coverage influenced BC’s decision to cancel the dance. Presley and Sherwood did not respond to interview requests.
One of the central figures in any conversation about LGBTQ resources on campus, rightfully or not, is University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. Leahy became president in 1996, and he is perceived by some students and alumni as having been directly involved in much of the last two decades of LGBTQ history at BC. Cho speculated that as a fairly routine programming issue, the dance likely didn’t initially cross Leahy’s desk, but that he got wind of it and shut it down. Cho said that Presley and Sherwood, who several people told me were both very supportive of and helpful to GLC and LGBTQ students in general, acted as a “mouthpiece.”
Leahy’s office did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Cho did interact with Leahy while he was here, more, he said, than the average student, but he didn’t have direct access by any means. As an orientation leader, he got to have lunch with Leahy one summer, and according to Cho, at the lunch Leahy said that BC is welcoming of all identities, including those of different sexual orientations. Cho saw that as a lie, leading him to walk out. Leahy later requested to meet with him once the school year started, and asked Cho about his experience. They didn’t talk about sensitive issues, just his hometown, where he grew up, and what he did on campus. It was cordial, but the meeting frustrated him. To Cho, BC’s tone on social issues is set by Leahy, whom Cho still wants to be more engaged with students.
“He can sit there and nod his head and learn about who I am, but I don’t think he understood how important it was for me to feel a sense of belonging on campus,” Cho said.
And it’s personal. When he applied to BC, Cho wrote an essay about coming out, and when he was accepted he assumed being gay here wouldn’t be a problem, that the person who accepted him thought it wouldn’t be a problem. But it was more complicated.
“I would rather have been rejected from BC, to be honest, if I knew that that was the experience I was going to have, and if I knew I was going to struggle so much with my identity on campus,” he said. “Because I could have had an amazing experience somewhere else. … For me, it was a constant battle.”
II. Certain Molds
Most people who attended BC’s Commencement in 1986 remember it fondly. Lionel Richie, fresh off writing and producing “We Are The World,” was honored that year, and then-University President Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J., suggested that he lead Alumni Stadium in singing the massive charity hit to close out the ceremony.
It was a fitting and subtle response from Monan to something that had happened right before, something that made more than a few people pretty mad. 1986 saw some tension between BC and the Archdiocese of Boston, whose headquarters were what is now Brighton Campus. Starting in 1984, Cardinal Bernard F. Law delivered the closing benediction at Commencement for almost two decades. It was always a point of interest in what was otherwise a snooze fest, and in 1986, as The Boston Globe reported, Law took BC to task on what he saw as a move away from its Catholic values.
If BC “ever sees the secular university as its model, it forfeits its right to exist as a unique institution,” Law said. “My prayer is for a Boston College ever more clearly Catholic.”
He was responding to an ongoing controversy at the time over a proposed Vatican regulation endorsed by Pope John Paul II that wanted to give Church officials the authority to vet and license theology professors and, in extreme cases, declare that schools that didn’t meet standards were no longer Catholic. Monan, along with nearly every other president of a U.S. Catholic university, had opposed the regulations, resulting in some friction with Law.
It’s a moment that says a lot about the old relationship between BC and the Archdiocese—there’s a sense here of the older brother across the street, at the time still one of the city’s most powerful institutions, coming over every year to judge the University’s record, at the end of its biggest and most public celebration, no less. And it may indicate the kinds of considerations BC had to make whenever it dealt with complex social and religious issues.
For some who were there, Law’s words really stuck out. As an undergrad, David Brennan, BC ’86, GSSW ’07, was president of the Lesbian/Gay Coalition, also called the Lesbian and Gay Community at Boston College (LGBC), a social group that also did some campus activism. Brennan, who is now a professor of social work at the University of Toronto specializing in gay and bisexual men’s health, said in an interview this month that Law’s speech summed up the conflict many LGBTQ Catholics can feel in participating in a faith that questions their identities.
“When you’re a gay person, and you’re Catholic, and you’re coming out, that’s acutely on your mind, like … ‘How do I put these things together? Or do I? Do I have to leave the Church?’” he said. “It’s a very painful process.”
It also reinforced his frustration with a school that he often felt was unwelcoming to him and his friends. A month before the 1986 Commencement, Brennan wrote a Heights op-ed called “There Is Prejudice at BC.”
“I have learned a lot in my years here at BC,” he began. “My most critical lesson has been how oppressive to, ignorant about, and fearful of lesbians and gays Boston College really is.”
Earlier that school year, Brennan had led an effort to get the University to make LGBC a registered student organization, with full recognition and funding. The request was denied. The group was also told that year that Haley House, a BC-owned house on Hammond Street that served as a live-in community for the Social Justice Center and members of LGBC, would be taken over by the school, which said it needed the space for other projects. For Brennan, who lived in Haley House, it was a disappointing conclusion to a difficult four years.
Brennan came out near the end of high school at Fairfield Prep, an all-boys Jesuit school in Connecticut that he said preached values of tolerance and acceptance. Those values were the same at BC, but somehow the feel was different. LGBTQ visibility was very low and those who were out were ostracized. It wasn’t even all about religion—the most supportive people, he said, were the chaplains. It was about the sense of “other,” about feeling invisible.
But isolation made Brennan look for community, and it was while living at Haley House with other gay students and social justice activists that he found it. They were the “lefties” on campus, agitating against the Reagan administration and fighting for AIDS awareness. Haley House, like BC itself, was also the target of a lot of anti-gay jokes—some students called it Homo House or Haley’s Closet, much as some called BC Boston’s Closet. But for the students who lived there, it was the safest place on campus, particularly as they navigated their Catholic and LGBTQ identities and confronted the AIDS crisis.
Brennan thinks that the activism of the Haley House community, which wasn’t exclusively gay but was viewed that way, made administrators uncomfortable and led to its closing. They never got a clear answer from members of the administration about why it closed. Brennan lived in the area for a while after graduation, and he would sometimes walk by Haley House to check out his old home. Though he’d been told BC needed the house for space, Brennan said it sat vacant for years. Heights archives indicate it was turned into a preschool for employees’ children in September 1988, and it is now being used as offices.
When LGBC tried to get University recognition in 1985, the response was more direct: the group’s proposed constitution was incompatible with Church teaching. Administrators suggested establishing a gay-straight alliance, or a group with a different, less identity-focused name, but Brennan doubled down—he wouldn’t accept anything less than full recognition of a group with “gay and lesbian” in its title.
“The administration was trying to toe the line of what they were being told from up above, and here we were as students saying, ‘No, you have to recognize that gay people exist, that we’re human, that we deserve protection,’ and I don’t think they knew what to do with that,” he said.
After it was denied full recognition and funding, LGBC tried to get UGBC’s support. The Cabinet was behind it, but the senate wasn’t. So it had to toe a line there, too.
All of his activism senior year meant that Brennan was one of the most visible gay students on campus, making him a target for death threats and violent, homophobic messages left on his answering machine. BCPD had a record on him because it feared for his well-being. His friend had a brick thrown through his window.
Brennan’s roommate in college was a friend from high school who didn’t care that he was gay, but that year he wasn’t so lucky with the rest of his floor. One day, shortly before graduation, somebody slipped an invitation under his door—a kid down the hall was throwing a party, the invitation said, and everybody was invited. Except David, the “freak”—the invitation made that explicitly clear. Brennan has kept the invitation since then, though when I talked to him he was in the process of renovating his condo and was unsure of its exact location.
Being so viciously targeted disappointed him, but he didn’t care that much. He felt sad, more than anything, that the kids who did it were graduating and still acting like they were. In an effort to preserve some sense of identity, Brennan took his boyfriend to Commencement Ball. His friends, initially uninterested in going, came to look after them.
“Sure enough, we actually got in the middle of the dance floor and slow-danced, and there were people that were literally trying to get to us, to just scream and yell at us,” he said. His friends made a circle around them. Nobody got through.
Brennan came back to BC in 2002 to start a Ph.D. program at the School of Social Work. Some of the old stuff that had bothered him was still here. His dissertation was about the impact of childhood abuse on HIV risk behavior, and at one point, when he started a project looking into some intimate sexual activity among gay men, a senior faculty member told him not to make too big a deal of it. Brennan decided that after fighting with BC for so many years, he’d rather drop the project than have it be a problem.
“BC tends not to like a lot of things that stick out or don’t fit certain molds,” he said. “There’s just something about the culture that’s very, ‘We’d like everyone to look the same.’”
But progress inched. When he came back for grad school, Brennan told students about going to Commencement Ball with his boyfriend. The students weren’t shocked. People do that all the time now, they said.
“I ruined people’s nights because I was just there with my boyfriend, and now that doesn’t happen,” he said. “That’s amazing.”
As a junior, Brennan’s friend Denise Paquin, BC ’86, took on William F. Buckley.
The conservative icon and founder of National Review had been invited to give the opening talk in the Social Justice Lecture Series in October 1984. Paquin and Harlan Jones unfurled a banner behind Buckley that read “Paying $7,500 to an ultraconservative multi-millionaire is a social injustice.” Jones, an African-American Boston University student, was charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct, Paquin said, while she got off with no sanctions. Jones later countersued and settled with BC, whose police officers had reportedly wrestled him to the ground and cuffed him.
So like Brennan, Paquin was an activist—she worked on pressing the University to divest from South Africa at the height of apartheid, and she started a feminist group. For that, she won an award from BC for personal development, and she decided to come out as a lesbian in her acceptance speech.
It was good and bad. While she’d never been close with them, other lesbians on campus were now afraid to talk to her, shrouded, as she said they were, in secrecy and shame. She, too, found a second home with the students at Haley House—they cooked together and hung out, and while there she grew up and grappled with her identity. She’d always gone to Catholic school, but Paquin increasingly saw a tension between that upbringing and her need for self-expression, as she started to embrace her identity more and more.
“As a Catholic girl, you were taught not to be a sexual being, at least in those days,” she said. “It was a good education overall, and I cherish it, but I still have a lot of anger about the Catholic Church thinking gays and lesbians are going to hell, and there’s still a lot of that.”
After graduation, Paquin went to teach at Newton Country Day (NCDS), the elite, all-girls school next to Newton Campus. Rev. William Neenan, S.J., a former vice president at BC who passed away in 2014, was on the board of the school at the time. Paquin thinks that just after she started, Neenan told the principal of NCDS that she was a lesbian, and that she’d been a vocal and defiant activist as a student. At the start of her third week, she was called into a meeting. “We don’t want any of that here,” she was told. Paquin’s supervisor told her to shave her legs, saying that if she didn’t the students would assume she was a lesbian.
While it was an initial shock, and despite what she called near-constant harassment about how to act at NCDS, Paquin ended up loving the job and asked to stay on.
She was let go at the end of the year.
III. ‘A Symbol of Shame’
If you step back a bit from all that, and view this history as an evolutionary process, there are hints of the changes Brennan and Paquin wanted. From the early 1980s, BC Law had sexual orientation as a protected class in its non-discrimination clause, a move the whole University didn’t make until 2005. In the early ’90s, Vice President of Student Affairs Kevin Duffy created the Committee on Sexual Diversity and Personal and Community Development, and told the Globe that while many other schools hadn’t yet figured out how to approach identity politics, BC was going to try. Students promptly nicknamed the clunkily titled CSD-PCD “the Cassandra Packard Committee,” but the message was clear—LGBTQ issues on campus needed work, and BC knew it.
But then something happened. In 1985, Duffy had said LGBC couldn’t be recognized officially because it would reduce its members to their sexual orientations, and BC was above that. It’s an inconsistent argument considering specific groups and resources were available to AHANA students starting in the ’70s, implying that those students were reduced to their ethnicities—also just one part of their identities—by having their own organizations. Duffy’s statement was one of the first articulations of a general non-interventionist policy that administrators began to adopt—BC couldn’t expand LGBTQ support too far, not because it was aiming to discriminate, but because its students were more than gay or straight. Administrators also began to acknowledge a balancing act between support and advocacy, arguing that any programming or resources that actively encouraged LGBTQ students’ lifestyles crossed a line drawn by Catholic teaching. These issues continue to play out today in a somewhat behind-the-scenes way, but in 1995 they caused a stir.
After Brennan and Paquin graduated, LGBC operated more or less the same as a recognized student group—they had funding raised by Dean Sherwood, and office space. They still sought legitimacy, however. Something as simple as being included in the student guide, according to a statement from that year, would send the message that LGBTQ students were welcome at BC. In 1992, LGBC again requested recognition, which was denied. When they submitted another request three years later, they got a response from University President Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J., who wrote a letter to LGBC’s leaders in June. The letter wouldn’t get much reaction until September, when everybody returned to school.
“If students wish to communicate their orientation to others, and there is today an increasing willingness to do so, they should enjoy complete freedom to do so,” Monan wrote. “On the other hand, whatever the practice at other universities, Boston College does not consider it to be in the best interest of our students or of our community to establish structures that categorize students on the basis of characteristics as personal and private as their sexual orientation.”
The decision was condemned by LGBC and UGBC. Bill Lyons, UGBC’s president at the time and BC ’96, called the letter offensive at a rally on the Dustbowl. Warren Blumenthal, BC ’74, was there, too. He held up his diploma, tearing it as he spoke.
“I can no longer take pride in this document,” he said. “I am ashamed. I am outraged to be a graduate of a school that systematically oppresses a significant portion of the population. … This is a symbol of shame.”
LGBC grew somewhat defiant in response. It put on a drag show in O’Connell House that poked fun at Monan, and in October members hung meeting advertisements around campus, mistakenly approved by the Office of the Dean for Student Development, since renamed the Office of the Dean of Students, that read “Meet Ronald Reagan’s Male Lover!!” in big, bold font. The Observer, a self-described conservative, Catholic newspaper on campus that floated in and out of existence for years until it was rebranded as The Torch in 2013, published an article—more of a newsy op-ed—suggesting that LGBC could be sued by the former president for libel.
It was also around this time that BC started to attract some unwanted attention, which gradually expanded to a national reputation. Monan’s letter is mentioned in “Hostile Climate 1995,” a state-by-state report on anti-gay activity put together by People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. As sexual identity politics began to occupy a more and more prominent place in the American consciousness, BC came to be seen by some as generally anti-LGBTQ. That translated into some very negative publicity.
The show Boston Public ran for four seasons on FOX in the early 2000s, following teachers and students at the fictional Winslow High School. In the series’ third episode, aired in November 2000, one character, a closeted gay football player, expresses hesitation at going to BC to his coach because of its anti-gay reputation. BC immediately contacted legal counsel.
“It’s not like a newspaper, where you can demand a retraction,” Jack Dunn said at the time. “Those who know Boston College know that this fictitious theme is a completely inaccurate depiction of life at Boston College and at Jesuit colleges.”
The same year, The Princeton Review released a list of schools ranked on tolerance. BC came in second out of 345 colleges in the “Alternative lifestyle not an alternative” category, and stayed on the list for the next several years. Every year, upon their release, Dunn responded that the rankings were arbitrary and lacked merit. Maybe—but they played a major role in what came next.
IV. Twenty Years
Michael Resler’s office is tucked into a corner of the second floor of Lyons, down the short, cramped hallway that houses the German and Slavic studies departments. Its window, strangely huge and ornate, even for BC, overlooks Stokes Lawn.
He’d slip in bits of German as he spoke, analogizing and translating along the way, Bach and Mozart and Handel playing in the background.
Resler has taught here for some 40 years, and, like John McDargh and Paul Breines, two other longtime professors, his institutional memory is crucial for LGBTQ students. Like any long-term, negotiation-heavy process between students and administrators, things have historically gotten complicated by the fact that one side of the table leaves after four years (though, interestingly, several of the alumni interviewed for this piece came back to BC for grad school).
During the ’90s—as you can see, for example, by looking at changes over time in Heights letters to the editor—it became less and less acceptable to criticize any aspect of identity. There’s a discernible shift in tone. One negative letter would be met by a flurry of positive ones. Same thing with an instance of homophobic or racist vandalism.
There was no single event that broke the camel’s back, Resler said in reference to the changing attitude toward the LGBTQ community on campus. But maybe, he thinks, the clergy sex abuse scandal is a place to start. In 2002, after the Globe Spotlight Team uncovered the scandal in January, there was debate at BC over whether Cardinal Law should be invited to Commencement, considering his role in reassigning to other parishes priests who had been accused of assault. BC never invited him, and in April he released a statement saying he’d decided not to come. Law faced massive pressure to resign for nearly a year, and when he eventually did and left for Rome in December ’02, some said he was fleeing an almost certain indictment.
“The presence of the Church and the presence of the cardinal were very, very powerful, I think,” Brennan had said of Law’s influence in the ’80s, and combined with BC’s decidedly negative response—among students and from the school—to gay activism, “it was a chilling time.”
But now, 16 years after delivering a scolding at Commencement, Law wasn’t even invited. If BC was ever under pressure from the Archdiocese, at this point it was the opposite. Resler said that in some ways, the sex abuse scandal may have encouraged a reconsideration on campus of what sexuality and gender mean to identity, though it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly how. Whatever did it, all of a sudden, the cultural mindset shifted.
You can see how this played out on campus. One controversy in the early 2000s was over the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected class in BC’s Notice of Non-Discrimination, an HR document mostly related to employment that is also taken by many as a measure of an institution’s inclusivity. BC Law School had had sexual orientation in its Notice for almost 20 years at this point. BC had actually mistakenly included it in the University-wide version during the 1995-96 school year, but then had to retract the document as a printer error. In 1999, UGBC sponsored a referendum to measure student support for adding it—74 percent. The push picked up steam in 2005, when half of the student body participated in another referendum measuring 84 percent support. That’s a far cry from Brennan and LGBC’s lukewarm reception from UGBC in ’86.
From a numbers standpoint, it’s the best indication of change over time, and sexual orientation was officially included in the Notice that spring. But there’s a more important story from that period.
One afternoon in 2003, Paquin was in Honolulu when she got an email about a new group called Allies.
When LGBC first applied for University recognition in 1986, Brennan had rejected “Allies” as a possible name for a compromise group because it seemed to defeat the group’s purpose. But by the time Adam Baker, former UGBC president and BC ’03, BC Law ’08, started his term in 2002, having some kind of official organization was seen more than ever as a pressing need. To student leaders of the time, BC had to prove it didn’t deserve its Princeton Review ranking.
Baker thinks he might have been the first openly gay UGBC president, though there are no records to prove that one way or the other. While he said that BC wasn’t the most welcoming place for all LGBTQ students, he personally never felt that way. He thinks the vast majority of students and administrators were supportive, especially Dean Sherwood. His and other students’ goal became to combat the school’s external reputation—the University needed to fully fund some type of group and put it in a prominent place on its website.
The concern that was generally expressed was that the group needed to focus on education and support and not advocacy, a stance that had been articulated since at least the mid-’80s and is still the framework for these conversations.
“I did not think that the meetings were contentious, it was really rather collaborative,” Baker said.
Allies was approved in April 2003. Its constitution specifies that it must respect BC’s Jesuit, Catholic values and that it won’t stage protests or host events that administrators deem contrary to those values. Baker said he worked with Dunn to facilitate media coverage of the announcement. The sense was that Allies was an effective PR campaign for BC. In that way it served a very specific purpose, but for Baker, Allies’s biggest impact is that it got the ball rolling on what came after, particularly the non-discrimination clause.
The movement was pretty quick—the idea was pitched in meetings with administrators in spring 2002, and within a calendar year it was done.
Paquin, reading the announcement in Hawaii, cried and cried.
“It was like, ‘20 years later, it only took 20 years,’” she said. “And I just cried. It was tears of joy, but also tears of frustration—why did it have to take so long?”
Seeing students’ successes inspired faculty, too. In 2003, right after the creation of Allies, John McDargh and a group of colleagues created the remarkably clunky Lesbian and Gay Faculty, Staff, and Administrators Association at Boston College—now just [email protected]—largely in response to students’ efforts to expand their own resources. McDargh presented a paper on its formation in 2005, in which he quoted an anonymous administrator’s initial concerns with joining.
“In my role as an administrator, I was concerned that I might be jeopardizing my career at Boston College by attending what some on campus would perceive as an ‘activist’ gay group meeting,” he or she wrote. “I decided of course that I wasn’t going to let that concern hold me back … But I recognized (believed) that me and my colleagues were taking a risk to attend a meeting on campus.”
According to McDargh, the concerns were largely unfounded—the only outright negative response was an Observer editorial, which said the faculty had “betrayed” BC students by failing to uphold the University’s mission.
Throughout the early 2000s, UGBC operated with a director of GLBT issues. In April 2005, it passed a resolution to establish the GLBTQ Leadership Council, giving it semi-autonomous status and funding, just like the AHANA Leadership Council. John Hellman took over right after, and GLC became the focal point for LGBTQ activism on campus.
V. Disco Ball
Ever since she can remember, even as a little girl in Washington State, Kelsey Gasseling, BC ’11, BC Law ’18, wanted to join the Peace Corps. Queerness dominated her college experience, she said, so when she graduated she tried to get away from that a little and explore other aspects of herself. Except the Peace Corps doesn’t really give you options, so when she ended up in Guinea in West Africa—where, though largely unenforced, homosexuality is technically illegal, and being gay is at best considered a “U.S.” or “white-person thing”—she knew it wasn’t going to work out that way. Instead, she spent two years in the closet, her secret at the back of her mind the whole time. It was weird for her to suddenly never discuss her identity, to never connect with people as deeply as she could, considering she’d more or less done the opposite here. She’s now in law school specifically to work on international law and protection of LGBTQ communities.
Gasseling is a former two-year chair of GLC who Joon Park, MCAS ’18, described as an icon for LGBTQ students on campus. GLC’s desk in the UGBC office in Carney has as its most prominent decoration a page from a May 2011 Heights issue that features her as Person of the Year.
Her experience is a critical moment for LGBTQ students at BC, a couple of years after GLC started up, and a couple years before the giant and rapid cultural shift that ushered in nationwide same-sex marriage, helped along by widespread LGBTQ visibility in movies and on TV.
Step back from this story again, make the past 15 years or so about a work in progress, a two-act play. The early 2000s were the first part—an acknowledgment stage, a willingness to talk. Gasseling was here for the start of the second half—the normalization stage, when things that used to be big asks became non-negotiables.
Gasseling’s tenure in GLC followed Celso Perez’s, another two-year chair who she described as the turning point where GLC, previously somewhat militant and vocal, started to develop a systematic approach to expanding its programming and resource opportunities.
It marked a shift away, specifically, from the style demonstrated in a minor but telling controversy in 2007. In February of that year, GLC had met with administrators about holding a Gay History Celebration, but it called the event off in April in pretty confrontational fashion.
“[Our planning] has once again been disregarded by an administration wielding an uninformed faith and political agenda, leaving us, unfortunately, with no other choice,” GLC wrote in a letter to the editor in The Heights.
Interim Dean for Students Paul Chebator responded with a letter of his own, writing that GLC’s “disrespectful tone” suggested the group wasn’t interested in dialogue. He added that while administrators respected students’ feelings of being marginalized, BC had a duty to uphold its Catholic faith.
By the time Gasseling took over in 2009, GLC had adopted a different style. It’s not that GLC’s complaints before then were unfounded. Gasseling told me that in 2006, an Observer reporter planted a book that contained pictures of naked men in an office in Maloney that served at the time as an unofficial LGBTQ resource center. It allegedly got shut down when administrators found out about the book. But GLC became less publicly confrontational, though it remained just as direct as before.
After the dance cancellation in 2005, the idea never went away. GLC worked on it for a couple of years after, and in 2009 struck something of a compromise deal with administrators. Toeing that support-advocacy line, BC said it couldn’t have a dance explicitly—it had to have some kind of educational component, with a speaker, and food had to be served—but GLC could hold a “gala,” so that first year it rented out the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End. It became an annual thing. Gasseling always liked the speakers anyway, and if a little dancing happened after dinner, so be it.
They had to jump through some hoops with their advertising. For the first couple of years it went relatively smoothly, but when Gasseling was a senior, she said it got “petty.” GLC wanted to put a disco ball on its gala flier, but somebody in the Dean of Students Office rejected the poster because the disco ball implied there’d be dancing. As retaliation, GLC’s graphic designer covered the flier with tiny disco balls, so small nobody could tell what they were for sure. Another flier they made had a naked baby wearing a sash sitting on a horse. It was approved.
“We were trying to be respectful but … that sort of highlighted the ridiculousness, or the arbitrariness, of the decisions on how to talk about the event,” she said.
The off-campus requirement for the gala was also expensive. A venue cost about $8,000 and catering easily topped $10,000, out of a total annual GLC budget of around $30,000. The numbers are similar today, and Gasseling said she always felt like the money could be spent on other initiatives.
Despite some frustrations, Gasseling said one of the biggest changes while she was an undergrad was the shift in perception of GLC. By the time she was a junior and senior, you were no longer automatically gay for going to an LGBTQ-themed event—you were just an ally. And a couple years later, in 2013, the office of Lambda, the Law School’s LGBTQ group, was vandalized over Winter Break. The Observer, which had been an inflammatory voice on campus for so long, issued an editorial condemning the vandalization and effectively ending its contrarian streak.
“This newspaper has a regrettably contentious relationship with the GLBTQ community on the Boston College campus, in no small part due to past editorials which were lacking not only in tact, but also in Christian charity,” they wrote. “For this, we truly apologize.”
Over time, Gasseling said, GLC also developed a better understanding of how BC operates, just by keeping a running dialogue open. In February 2010, Gasseling presented a 10-year plan called “Reaching New Heights” at a general meeting attended by then-Vice President of Student Affairs Patrick Rombalski. The plan was ambitious, calling for an LGBTQ resource center and institutionalized mentorship programs, and people paid attention to it and respected it.
“At least my freshman year, it was more of an ‘Ugh, the administration’s doing this, they’re so stupid,’” she said. “[This dialogue] made students realize it wasn’t a faceless admin shutting us down, it’s so-and-so in this office and so-and-so in that office who really want to help, but their hands are tied by all the politics that goes into funding BC, and donations from alums, and appeasing the board, whoever the board is.”
If there’s anything consistently challenging about LGBTQ history at BC, it’s trying to figure out if Catholic identity is all that influences the school’s decision-making process—in other words, just who “the board” is, and what, if anything, it wants.
VI. For Here All Are One
Scott Chamberlain, BC ’15, was an RA when he was here. When he was a sophomore, he said his RD, Elizabeth Teurlay, approached him about putting on an educational show called “That’s So Gay: The Play,” which was written by her friend Kristo Gobin. So they went through the planning process, working out the logistics. But one day, Chamberlain said, Teurlay called him into her office—the play was cancelled, she reportedly told him, because administrators had deemed the program too controversial.
Teurlay said in an email that she couldn’t remember planning the play with Chamberlain specifically, but that it was possible because she’s given Gobin’s contact information to people several times. Asked again, Chamberlain reiterated that Teurlay had initiated the planning process, and Teurlay said that while she’d always hoped to eventually bring the play to campus, she couldn’t remember the context of why it had never happened.
“A lot of students encountered instances like that where we weren’t overtly told, ‘No, you can’t have this because it’s gay,’ but things would get swept under the rug or mysteriously lose funding,” Chamberlain said. “It was just a lot of build-up of incidences like that.”
Eddie Byrne, MCAS ’18, didn’t come out until he got to BC. In high school, he said, being gay wasn’t an option for him. People always say to him that BC is the most conservative place they’ve been, but even though it’s not perfect, for Byrne it’s actually the most liberal. Dealing with coming out as a freshman was hard, though—he had to cope with shaping his identity while adjusting to college life, and he used the same language as David Brennan, years later, to describe what fitting in at BC entails.
“It’s not difficult to be gay, I’d say there’s a mold you have to fit at BC and if you don’t really conform to that too much, you’re not the typical BC girl or guy who everyone wants to be,” he said. “There’s a definite dominating mold, and not everyone conforms to it, but being a guy and being gay … I’m definitely not living up to any specific standard.”
That year, Nanci Fiore-Chettiar, former UGBC president and BC ’15, helped start a campaign with other graduating seniors called “For Here All Are One.” It was a reaction to several problems GLC had encountered that year—students were told that Queer Peers, an educational program, would no longer be happening, and that BC couldn’t host IgnatianQ, an LGBTQ conference between Jesuit colleges that BC had won the bid for. Queer Peers has since been rebranded as Pride Peers and institutionalized under the Office of the Dean of Students.
As part of the campaign, outgoing seniors and alumni wrote an open letter to Leahy in which they pledged not to donate to BC until it had established an official LGBTQ resource center on campus. Fiore-Chettiar said in an interview that the letter was meant as a statement of solidarity with alumni who have never donated and feel like BC was not their home. Brennan, for example, told me he has never donated and won’t until a resource center is opened.
To Byrne, it’s about BC’s priorities.
“I just felt like, if we’re going to talk about the men and women for others thing, why wouldn’t we want to care for these people and welcome these people on your campus?” he said.
Fiore-Chettiar said that in a meeting, Leahy asked her about her concerns. When she brought up IgnatianQ, he told her BC would never host the conference while he was president.
In an interview in October, Vice President of Student Affairs Barb Jones, Dean of Students Thomas Mogan, and Jack Dunn discussed BC’s past and current experiences with expanding LGBTQ resources.
“From our perspective, there has always been a loving, welcoming, fully embracing relationship with our LGBTQ students,” Dunn said. “The tensions are often perceived on the student end more than they are on the administrative end. … There is absolutely no distinction made regarding issues of sexual orientation.”
Dunn said that if BC is true to its calling as a Jesuit institution, it’s embracing ‘cura personalis’—care for the whole person—and that there is no antagonism toward LGBTQ students among faculty or administrators. Jones echoed that.
“There’s always the room for the conversation and the room for the dialogue, and understanding what students are thinking and feeling, and understanding the support and the education that we can provide,” Jones said.
As for the letter, Fiore-Chettiar thinks it surprised some administrators, who weren’t briefed on its contents before it was released, and potentially damaged some relationships. The University did not issue a public response to the letter. As UGBC president, she often felt like she needed to censor herself to work with administrators, but so close to graduation, Fiore-Chettiar wanted to express her most honest opinions. The letter was not relaunched last year because current UGBC leaders feel like they need to repair those relationships, she said, but she and some alumni have plans to rerelease it themselves later this year with a website.
Fiore-Chettiar said that most current administrators are highly supportive on an individual basis, though because many decisions are ultimately made by higher-ups, they can’t always be as supportive as they’d like. One outcome of the letter has been GLC’s discovery of a designated account that alumni can donate to, the existence of which had previously not been well communicated to UGBC leaders, though Fiore-Chettiar doesn’t think it was intentionally withheld.
VII. Silver Lining
As a freshman in Courage to Know, Tom Reid, MCAS ’17, heard a simple but important story. An old man came out as gay three years before he died, and on his deathbed, he said those were the only three years he’d ever lived.
“That just hit me like a rock,” Reid said. “I started to think about it more, and I would tell myself, ‘Maybe this is something I could finally tell someone.’ And then I’d just smack myself in the side of the head and say, ‘That is ridiculous, nobody can ever find out about this, this is your deepest secret.’”
This story is familiar to anybody who went to Orientation in 2015, when as an OL, Reid stood on stage in Robsham and told it to over 2,000 incoming students over the course of the summer. He went to an all-boys high school in Memphis, where he put on a lax bro persona, and generally avoided confronting his sexuality. Reid thought coming out would change how he looked in other people’s eyes, make him less well-liked. But then he went on Appa, the first time he’d ever seen a group of near-strangers be so vulnerable with each other and still be loved for it. He decided it was a community where he could finally share his deepest secret.
As the guy on stage, Reid became a main contact for any new student, out and not, who wondered about life at BC for LGBTQ people. And he’s remembered for it—last year, at a talk by Gregg Cassin, BC ’80, organized by GLC, a baseball player Reid didn’t know stood up and more or less called him out as having made a huge impact on students who saw him at Orientation.
“I consider myself to be a very relaxed person most of the time, but when all eyes are on me and I have to talk about something so personal, it’s definitely nerve-wracking,” he said. “That was the moment I decided everything I did that summer was so worth it.”
It’s a moment in this evolution when things seem to come full circle. David Brennan said that among his colleagues, spread out all over North America, BC is seen as a homophobic place. Reid has had a different experience, with nothing but support. For a lot of students, it’s closer to the supportive end than the other, but it still isn’t perfect.
I just feel like, if we're going to talk about the men and women for others thing, why wouldn't we want to care for these people and welcome these people on your campus? Eddie Byrne
Mark D’Angelo, a Ph.D. student in Lynch and the grad assistant for LGBTQ outreach and support in the Office of the Dean of Students, is the first person to have his job. And it’s a big job, as, together with Caroline Davis, assistant dean for student outreach and support, he serves as one of the main administrative points of contact for LGBTQ students.
In the last few years, BC has institutionalized some key resources, including the creation this year of Pride Peers, a program that combines an educational program called Queer Peers, previously a UGBC initiative, with the GLBTQ Undergraduate Society’s mentorship system. That’s gone a long way for LGBTQ visibility at BC, giving students a sense of the value the University places on their identities. Jones highlighted the Mosaic program that was added to Welcome Week in 2015 to give students a sense of the diversity at BC, as well as a new diversity webpage that includes an LGBTQ section.
D’Angelo said that although these resources have been expanded, and he and Davis have their positions, he isn’t a full-time employee and she has LGBTQ issues as just one part of her job description—students’ and his goal right now is hiring a full-time staff member focused on queer students. Having a physical center would be great, he said, but a space only maximizes its potential if it has the personnel.
D’Angelo went to Rutgers as an undergrad, a place with tens of thousands of students that can be lonely, but also has vibrant diversity. BC is much more homogenous, he said—like Byrne and Brennan, many students have a sense that they have to fit a certain vision of the ideal Boston College student.
“There’s a very specific way you’re supposed to be a guy on campus here and a very specific way you’re supposed to be a girl on campus here, and that privileges a lot of identities and oppresses a lot of people,” D’Angelo said. “If anyone wants to express a piece of their identity that blurs the lines a little bit or doesn’t perfectly fit in a box, it’s tough.”
This difficulty in carving out a genuine personal space on campus may then fall especially hard on LGBTQ students, and it isn’t new. In 1974, a Heights article said that between 1966 and ’74, a local mental health center saw 4,500 BC students, 900 of whom expressed difficulty coming to terms with their sexual identities. Sara Towsley, a psychologist in University Counseling Services from 2012 to 2014, said that in her year and a half here she saw a large number of LGBTQ students who felt isolated and alone.
While these problems exist on most college campuses, D’Angelo said they’re heightened here because BC is a little smaller, situated in its own little bubble. One of the biggest issues is “fag discourse,” hyper-masculine “locker room talk” that uses “fag” as a sort of buzzword to express rejection of the feminine or overtly emotional—sometimes it plays out in very visible ways. This fall, campus conversation on LGBTQ issues was renewed by the vandalism of a parking lot sign to read “No Fags.” To D’Angelo, there’s an educative piece that’s missing in how students are taught to address social hierarchies.
“Too many times our work on campus has involved a conversation where someone’s saying, ‘This is the first time we’ve talked about this,’” he said.
South Africa has some crazy student activism. They set stuff on fire. They go on massive strikes that last for weeks. After Tt King, MCAS ’18, spent her summer there, she knew she had to up her game. It reads like a quasi-tongue-in-cheek statement, but King was dead serious.
After the parking sign vandalism this September, she helped organize a solidarity march for marginalized populations called “Silence is Violence,” which was meant in part to protest the University’s perceived lack of a response to the incident and to some students’ expressed needs in general. King saw the lack of conversation about the vandalism as a problem, particularly when she tried to view it from the perspective of a theoretical, newly-arrived, closeted freshman, walking around feeling scared or unwelcome after seeing “No Fags” written on a public sign three weeks into college.
“When I first came out, I was convinced I was the only lesbian on campus,” she said. “Which now I laugh about because it’s so ridiculous, but it’s hard, it’s not like everybody wears a sign.”
So King gathered the AHANA Leadership Council, GLC, Eradicate BC Racism, the Graduate Pride Alliance, and others, and in six days it all came together. Participants walked in silence from McElroy down to Lower Campus, where some student leaders gave speeches. King’s stuck out—she thanked whoever vandalized the sign for giving her the silver lining of the march, for making something beautiful, she said, come out of something hateful.
In part, the silence the march sought to address specifically was the lack of an official, University-wide response from upper-level administrators about the incident, which the Graduate Pride Alliance wrote about in an open letter to Leahy, calling his silence on the matter evidence that he didn’t care about students’ concerns. For Nanci Fiore-Chettiar, the vandalism was a perfect example of why BC needs an LGBTQ resource center—students deserve a space, she thinks, to talk about an attack on their identity. Anne Williams, chair of GLC and MCAS ’17, said after the sign incident that it’s unacceptable that she has to be involved with student government to feel like she has an LGBTQ community on campus, and the resource center remains, now more than ever, GLC’s primary objective.
In the interview last month, Jones, Mogan, and Dunn responded to those criticisms. Dunn said that after the incident, Leahy authorized Mogan to write a letter and publish it in The Heights as an official University response. Some students later told administrators that they don’t read The Heights and hadn’t seen it, so Dunn said going forward they may rethink how they communicate with students. He added that BC considers itself a welcoming community to all its members, and that to any extent that some feel unwelcome, he and other administrators are committed to working to change that.
Dunn also said that Leahy, who maintains a busy fundraising and University advancement schedule that often sees him traveling, should not be expected to personally respond to every instance of injustice on campus—it would be logistically impossible. An overriding principle of Leahy’s leadership philosophy, Dunn added, is that BC is not interested in teaching students what to think, but how.
“[Leahy’s] belief is that students should discern for themselves what’s right and wrong and formulate their own opinions, and that they’re best suited to do that independent of comments, statements, or letters from faculty, staff, and administrators,” Dunn said. “We have every faith that our students can make their appropriate judgments. … We’re not an elementary school where the principal can send a note home.”
In the past year, Mogan’s office has established an advisory council of LGBTQ students that aims to gauge the campus climate and provide a forum for conversation between students and administrators. Mogan, a fixture at student demonstrations and campus events, actually had to leave the solidarity march a little early to go to a meeting for it. Jones and Mogan also said they meet regularly with GLC and UGBC, and that two students have been added to HR’s diversity steering committee to add perspective on campus climate and potential steps to take in meeting students’ goals.
Jones added that the resources provided are in line with what would be found at an official resource center, and that space considerations also come into play. BC currently doesn’t have enough space in the Career Center, for example. She said other schools will often put their LGBTQ resource centers in an AHANA resource center, which isn’t always a good fit.
“I think there’s also the sense that if you created the center, oftentimes it’s easy to just rely on that center as the only place students are going to feel that type of support,” Mogan said. He said later that he hopes students don’t judge BC’s commitment to LGBTQ issues based on whether it has a resource center, and Dunn said it’s not a panacea.
Not everyone agrees. Reid, for example, said he thinks more prospective LGBTQ students would come to BC if they saw it had a resource center, and after the incident Williams said people who were affected could gather for discussion in her room in lieu of an official space. Christian Cho said he thinks the school is selective in how it uses its religious identity, invoking it in when helpful but downplaying it when it’s not.
Dunn said that while BC is fully committed to meeting its students’ need, it, like all Catholic institutions, is still obligated to uphold tenets of its faith.
“Sometimes those commitments can be unpopular and seem greatly out of touch with the times,” Dunn said. “As with any Catholic university in the United States, we grapple with how best to meet those dual obligations.”
VIII. Forty Years
At orientation, Sabel Flynn, CSON ’19, thought it was weird that BC’s motto, “men and women for others,” was binary. Flynn, who is genderqueer and uses ze, hir, and hirs as pronouns, thought it’d be more inclusive to acknowledge gender as a spectrum. Hir OL told Flynn to be happy that “women” was even included.
“I was like, ‘Ok, this is where I am now,’” Flynn said.
One of the first LGBTQ promos Flynn saw after deciding to go to BC was a video of straight people saying they were “coming out” as allies.
“I was like ‘No, this is terrible, what have I done?’” Flynn said. “I didn’t think it was the right message to send. Allies are great, but that video should’ve been about what it’s about … about the people really going through it.”
Flynn is grateful for the resources in the Dean of Students Office, because of people like D’Angelo and Caroline Davis. But last year Flynn went to IgnatianQ in Seattle, where a trans rights panel made hir see that there is space at BC for more aggressive student activism. Right now, Flynn said, the trans movement is about terms and getting people to use the right language, getting up to speed with the cause. But Stonewall in the late ’60s, for example, was a very different type of activism.
“Yeah, it was a riot, but it got stuff done,” Flynn said. “I definitely think those are the two spheres I’m trying to balance right now.”
One of GLC’s current goals is to add gender identity as a protected class in BC’s Notice of Non-Discrimination, a move that generally requires precedent in local, state, or federal law. A trans community exists here, and Flynn has a family on campus that vibes with hir activist bent and also sees gender as performative. But trans students might be less likely to apply to BC, and even as change happens, Flynn is still referred to as a woman all the time, and people still refer to hir nursing classes as having only women. So there’s not quite the consciousness Flynn is looking for. Yet, anyway.
[Leahy's] belief is that students should discern for themselves what's right and wrong and formulate their own opinions, and that they're best suited to do that independent of comments, statements, or letters from faculty, staff, and administrators. We have every faith that our students can make their appropriate judgments. … We’re not an elementary school where the principal can send a note home. Jack Dunn
Near the end of our meeting, Michael Resler told a story about when he first started at BC, in the late ’70s, and was asked to fill out an information form for new employees. When he had to put down an emergency contact, his obvious choice was Charlie, now his husband, who he has been with for more than 40 years. In addition to the contact info, the form asked for Charlie’s relation to Resler. Not sure what to do, he put “family friend.”
“There was no word in the English language—partner, kind of, but I wouldn’t have dared to put partner, I wouldn’t have dared to put spouse,” he said. “I remember so clearly thinking, ‘Man, this is a lie,’ but you had to lie back then.”
That story has a few long pauses. You could almost hear him thinking about it, how sad it made him, and you could see the tears in his eyes. But then he told another story. Two years ago, Charlie, a German professor who’s retired from Harvard, was walking back to their house in Brookline from a lecture in Cambridge—a clean 7 miles round trip—when he was hit by a car. In addition to broken bones, he suffered a severe brain injury that kept him in the hospital for months. Charlie has since made a full recovery, but Resler spent that time, he said, on autopilot, coming into BC to work and then leaving to go back to the hospital.
One day, he ran into Rev. Ronald Tacelli, S.J., a former faculty adviser to The Observer who has written and advocated for Catholic values at BC for decades. Back in 2002, Tacelli wrote a letter to the editor in The Heights responding to an article about an event he led with the St. Thomas More Society called “Speak Out on Homosexuality.”
“Homosexual persons are persons and therefore need both to give and to receive love—just as all persons do,” Tacelli wrote. “They need to be supported in their loneliness and alienation—just as all persons do. But homosexuals bear a particularly heavy burden. Their sexual desires lead them to act in ways that result almost inexorably in further alienation and loneliness, in violence, sickness, despair and untimely death. Is it really ‘close-mindedness’ or ‘shallow intolerance’ to warn people of that?”
So when Resler told Tacelli about his husband’s accident, the response surprised him—Tacelli said he would pray for Charlie at a Mass, and invited Resler, who isn’t Catholic, to attend. Reluctant to spend much time away from the hospital, Resler said he’d try to come, and they parted ways. Later that day, he got an email that made him cry—actually, Tacelli wanted to say a Mass for Charlie, and asked Resler to do a reading.
He decided that doing a reading might be too difficult, but he went, accompanied by two people from his department. His colleagues grumbled a little when Tacelli referred to Charlie as Resler’s “companion,” but he brushed it off—no worries. For Tacelli to say that, here, meant a lot. And for Resler, that’s what matters.
“You know, this is a good place,” he said, and paused. “We have not led. But fortunately we have followed.”
Correction: this article was updated to reflect the fact that Nanci Fiore-Chettiar created the “For Here All Are One” campaign with other students, and that President Leahy said that IgnatianQ would not happen at BC.
Featured Image by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Staff