- Contradiction and Paradox: Attempting to Change the Culture of Sexual Orientation at a Small Catholic College
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual college students are faced with oppressive, hateful, homophobic climates—cultures in which they are made to feel invisible and isolated (Love, 1993; Norris, 1992; Rhoads, 1994). Many of the students leave (Evans & Wall, 1991). Others contemplate, attempt, or commit suicide (Gibson, 1989; Saunders & Valente, 1987). Some stay and struggle to develop into whole, functioning human beings, despite the lack of a supportive environment. Religiously affiliated institutions (RAIs) are typically even less friendly places for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (D’Emilio, 1992). However, despite assumptions to the contrary, lesbian, gay, and bisexual peopledo attend, teach, and work at RAIs.
Religiously affiliated colleges vary widely. Lumping them together masks as much diversity as lumping together all liberal arts colleges. This is especially [End Page 381] the case when looking at the issue of sexual orientation. At one extreme are institutions, such as Bible colleges and fundamentalist schools, which explicitly enunciate a very clear and consistent belief about homosexuality: It is a choice, it is wrong, it is immoral, and the Bible specifies homosexuality to be a sin (Maret, 1984). At the other end of this continuum are institutions, such as some of those founded in the Friends (or Quaker) tradition, that tend to be more open to, and accepting of, individual diversity; they tend to see sexual orientation as one element of that diversity. Of course, many institutions, no doubt the bulk of RAIs in the United States, fall between the extremes.
It is important to recognize that, no matter what position they take on this issue, RAIs—indeed all colleges and universities—exist within a societal culture that is homophobic and heterosexist; thus, all institutions struggle in some way with issues related to sexual orientation. Finally, an important reason to study issues of sexual orientation at RAIs is that many of the suggestions in the current literature for working with lesbian, gay, and bisexual college students (e.g., conducting orientation activities for gay and lesbian students, and distributing literature to prospective students about gay and lesbian organization [Wall & Evans, 1991]) may be culturally inappropriate on many of these campuses. Therefore, it is important to discover what professionals can do within the cultural constraints of their campus, while attempting to change those cultures. This is especially important given a recent study of student affairs professionals at Catholic colleges (Estanek, 1996) which found that issues of sexuality and sexual orientation were the most challenging parts of their jobs.
Personnel at Catholic colleges and universities, perhaps more than other RAIs, face significant environmental constraints in addressing the needs of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. The formal teachings of the church, while rejecting homosexuality, do not reject the individual homosexual; however, the culture of Catholicism is often significantly more homophobic and rejecting (Nugent & Gramick, 1989). This culture, which exists both on campus and in the larger community among alumni, local churches and congregations, and church leaders, significantly constrains actions on campus. While this larger culture cannot be ignored, the focus of this study was the internal culture of one campus.
This study reports on the culture related to sexual orientation—and attempts to change it—at St. James College (a pseudonym), an RAI that falls between the two aforementioned extremes. The questions that guided this study were: “What is the culture of the institution as it relates to sexual orientation?” and “What can we learn about changing the culture of sexual orientation at RAIs from the experiences of the individuals who participated in this study?” [End Page 382]
The focus of this study—culture—is a complex concept and a powerful, invisible influence in the community of any college or university. Culture can be imagined as a fabric that is continually created and recreated by members of the community. In daily activities, members weave together their values, beliefs, and assumptions with those of others in the institution. The fabric includes patterns of interpretations related to the history, traditions, and mission of the institution and subgroups within the institution. These patterns, values, beliefs, and assumptions guide the behavior of individuals...