Gay Rights
9:39 am
Mon February 10, 2014

Seattle Catholic Students Form Underground Clubs For LGBTQ Youth

Holy Names students Audrey Long and Theresa Edwards at a December rally outside the Archdiocese of Seattle in support of former Eastside Catholic Vice Principal Mark Zmuda.
Credit Courtesy of Audrey Long

Clarification 2/12/14: The text of this story has been edited to include a response from Audrey Long’s parents. They say they never attempted to take their daughter to a Christian gay conversion therapist.

Four years ago, as a freshman at Holy Names Academy, an all-girls Seattle Catholic school, Audrey Long came out to her family. It wasn’t a positive experience.

“I was kind of stupid and told my family on Christmas Day,” Long said. “At first they told me I was going through a phase, but it’s gotten to the point where they’ve taken me to Christian gay conversion therapists.” Long’s parents deny having taken her to such a therapist.

There are others also struggling with acceptance, so Catholic school students throughout the Seattle area are building a movement they hope will change the church from within.

Mark Zmuda’s forced resignation from Eastside Catholic in December — after the school discovered he had married his male partner — has been a lightning rod for the movement. Students have been protesting for the reinstatement of the former vice principal.

You might have the best peers ever that are straight, but they're just not going to understand in the same way.

Behind the scenes of these protests, a less visible movement has been growing in Catholic schools. Students are asking their schools to allow them to form Gay Straight Alliances, or GSAs, and are facing stiff resistance. Such groups are places where LGBTQ and straight students alike seek acceptance and support.

Long said she would have benefited from a group at school where she could talk about her coming-out experience. “You might have the best peers ever that are straight, but they’re just not going to understand in the same way” as gay-identified peers, Long said.

A recent Canadian study found that GSAs reduce the risk of suicide among teens of all sexual orientations. But at a lot of Catholic schools, GSAs aren’t allowed. 

The Underground Club

During her sophomore year, Long teamed up with two other students at Holy Names: Katie Niven and Zeena Rivera. The girls prepared a presentation for their vice principal of student life, Kim Dawson, to ask her if they could create a GSA.

According to Niven, Dawson said “no, flat out no,” but she seemed to want to help the students.

Niven said Dawson supported the students but told them that Holy Names would be open to backlash if the club was discovered by someone that disapproved of the concept. “We were all crying,” Niven said.

Katie Niven (pictured here at the Vatican) helped form an underground GSA at Holy Names Academy.
Credit Courtesy of Katie Niven

However, Niven said speaking with Dawson presented a workaround option: The students couldn’t be prevented from “getting a group of friends together and talking at lunch.” The group met underground — both literally and figuratively — in the school’s basement.

Dawson was approached multiple times for this story but declined to comment.

The next year, empowered by new students who had joined the underground GSA, the group decided to try again to become an official, school-sponsored club. They started a petition and got about 450 signatures from a school with about 700 students. Niven said parents also wrote letters to the school in support of the club.

The students delivered the signatures to Dawson’s office. This time, after more debate, Dawson agreed to let them meet in a classroom with a teacher-moderator, like other clubs. However, the group wouldn’t be allowed the advertisement that other clubs get.

Long said this made it hard to get the word out. “One of the main problems for us is we can’t just walk up to someone and say, ‘Hey, you look gay — do you want to join our group?’” she said. “It’s really difficult to reach out to some of the freshman who might be feeling lost at the school because we can’t use the traditional club means of posters or announcements or anything like that.”

The group decided to create another petition, this one on Change.org, to allow GSAs in Seattle Catholic schools.

The petition was set up so that every time someone signs it, Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain receives an email, along with the superintendent of the Seattle Archdiocese schools and every principal of a Catholic high school in Western Washington.

Catholic Officials 'Decline To Participate'

Students at two other Seattle Catholic schools, O’Dea and Bishop Blanchet, have also tried to create GSAs, without much success. To RadioActive’s knowledge, the only area Archdiocese school that has a GSA is Forest Ridge, an all-girls high school in Bellevue.

RadioActive contacted top administrators at all of the Catholic high schools in Seattle as well as Eastside Catholic. None of them were willing to talk on the record. However, one school administrator did explain that a GSA isn’t allowed at that school because the term is too politicized. The administrator also said the Archdiocese doesn’t have any requirements for school clubs.

A spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle said the Archdiocese declined to participate in this story.

Father John Whitney supports students who want GSAs at their Catholic schools.
Credit KUOW Photo/Rachel Lam

Seattle Priest: It's 'OK To Be Messy In the Church'

Father John Whitney is a priest at St. Joseph Parish on Capitol Hill. He regularly hosts Holy Names for mass and used to teach in local Catholic high schools. Despite church teachings that homosexual actions are "intrinsically disordered," Father Whitney has marched in Seattle Pride parades. He supports Catholic school students who want to form GSAs in their schools.

“The fundamental reason to have a GSA,” he said, “is to make sure that people have a place where they can have both safe and respectful dialogue. So often, high school students are told, be quiet. And I think it’s very important for their voices to be heard.”

Father Whitney urges church leaders to engage in dialogue about LGBTQ issues. “My great worry is when leadership in the church — the official church — doesn’t enter the dialogue. My hope is that we choose to enter into dialogue with people who may have conflicts with teachings of the church. If our teachings are true, we don’t need to worry about it, we can talk about them. And if they’re not true, we can learn from each other.”

“It’s OK to be a little messy in the church,” he added. “There are those who want the church to be quiet and neat, but that’s not where the church is supposed to be.”

A Growing Movement

Students at the Holy Names underground GSA created these ribbons for the Z Day protest on Jan. 31.
Credit Courtesy of Zeena Rivera

Long’s petition to allow GSAs in Catholic schools has almost a thousand signatures on the way to her goal of 10,000. She said she hopes that it will make Catholic school culture more open to every type of student.

GSAs are ubiquitous at local secular high schools, but Long has no interest in transferring, in part because Holy Names is one of the best high schools in the Seattle area. Long also said she wants to be somewhere that she believes needs some sort of change.

At a recent meeting of the underground Holy Names GSA, about 10 students were making decorations for a protest in support of Mark Zmuda. This protest movement has grown, in part, from this tiny underground club. These students hope it will change the face of the Catholic Church.

The reporters of this story: Nina Tran (left), Katherine Sims, and Rachel Lam.
Credit KUOW Photo/Jenny Asarnow

About This Story 

RadioActive youth producers Rachel Lam, Nina Tran and Katherine Sims reported this story over the course of six months. Additional reporting was contributed by KUOW's Jenny Asarnow. Katherine Sims is a graduate of Holy Names Academy (2013). Nina Tran also attended Holy Names. 

RadioActive is KUOW's program for high school students. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook.