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Boston College faces pressure to open LGBTQ+ center

Boston College student Wells Arkins (second from right) on the college campus with other students with the GLBTQ + Leadership Council as they set up a table for Trans Day of Visibility on the campus.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Georgetown University opened a resource center for its LGBTQ students a full 15 years ago. Since then, several other Catholic universities and colleges have followed suit, including Marquette University and Santa Clara University. But not so at Boston College, where students say officials have rejected many requests to establish a space where they could seek support, programming, and other services.

Several students said that adding such resources on campus, including a dedicated staff person, would help queer students feel more comfortable and welcomed at the Catholic university. They expressed frustration with the school’s administration, saying it hasn’t made enough progress supporting diverse students.

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“It would show that BC is an ally, which they currently do not show,” said Wellington Arkins, a senior from Arkansas who heads a student government council focused on LGBTQ issues.

Jack Dunn, spokesperson for BC, did not confirm that the university had denied student government proposals for an LGBTQ center. He said in an an e-mail that “traditionally, Catholic universities, including Boston College, have supported LGBTQ+ students through support services and education.”

According to Shawna Cooper Whitehead, BC’s vice president for student affairs, the administration plans to add support for queer students through a “more holistic model,” that involves adding resources for students of color and LGBTQ students in the college’s Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center.

“The university has been engaged in active dialogue with students and student groups about increasing support and resources for LGBTQ+ students,” Cooper Whitehead said in an e-mail.

The tension over the resource center reflects efforts by the growing number of out LGBTQ and gender nonconforming students nationwide to navigate their identity and place within a campus culture, even as some states attempt to roll back the human rights of queer individuals. That process can be particularly fraught at traditionally conservative Catholic colleges and universities.

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Still, other Catholic schools have invested in LGBTQ resources.

Georgetown University, also a Jesuit institution, opened its LGBTQ Resource Center in 2008 following student advocacy and a hate crime “that galvanized the conscience of the entire community to take responsibility for all of its members,” the university wrote on its website.

“Indeed, to bring some clarity to the term ‘advocacy,’ at a Catholic and Jesuit university we most certainly can ‘advocate’ for LGBTQ students,” Georgetown president John J. DeGioia said at the time. “We can and must advocate for freedom from prejudice, exclusion, discrimination, and homophobia.”

Several students said BC has fallen behind peer institutions. Arkins added that he has not recommended BC to prospective queer students.

“It’s very disheartening for queer students and it’s just confusing why we don’t have [a center] when other Jesuit schools do,” Arkins said on the Chestnut Hill campus recently. “But it’s not necessarily surprising if you’re familiar with the culture at BC. It can be very white, conservative, Catholic, hetero-normal, and obviously queerness is against all of that.”

Some students are concerned that the plan to add LGBTQ resources to a multicultural center is insufficient.

“That’s a little bittersweet,” said Sam Moore, a BC graduate student who is also president of the Graduate Pride Alliance. “There’s a debate in the LGBTQ community over is it right for queer, white students to occupy spaces for students of color. It seems like one group is losing something so another can gain but we’re all losing in the end.”

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Some faculty members, including philosophy professor Marina McCoy, believe the administration is sincere in its efforts to increase resources for LGBTQ students, but she has seen students “struggle for a place to call their own” over the 25 years she’s been at BC.

“A person’s gender identity and sexual orientation is part of what God loves, as Pope Francis has made so clear in so many of his remarks,” McCoy said. “My hope is that the church, which has so often failed LGBTQIA people, will keep going in the direction of affirming God’s love for everyone, without bounds. Our LGBTQIA students deserve to know that they are loved and that their identities are affirmed at BC, too.”

Among some students who are not part of the LGBTQ community, there is a desire to see university leadership do more. Meghan Heckelman, a sophomore from Long Island, said her Catholic religion doesn’t prevent her from being an ally to her peers and friends who identify as queer or transgender.

“My faith teaches me to love and accept everybody,” said Heckelman, director of student initiatives for BC’s student government. “Just watching my peers and fellow student leaders get shot down year after year, it’s about messaging. It’s demoralizing and frustrating to keep hearing when you distill it that you don’t belong here. I can’t even imagine what that feels like.”

Campus cultures are an increasingly important factor that members of Generation Z are considering when selecting colleges, said Shane Mendez Windmeyer, executive director of the national nonprofit organization Campus Pride. Students are seeking places where they can “live their full, authentic selves,” he said.

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“I think Boston College is trying to have it both ways — they’re trying to placate their students, faculty, and staff into believing that they are fully supportive of the inclusion for LGBTQ+ people, but they don’t want to be visible,” Windmeyer said.

Earlier this semester, students tried to bring swimmer Schuyler Bailar, the first transgender athlete to compete on an NCAA Division I men’s team, to campus to speak about his experiences. The request was denied. Dunn confirmed the event was not approved, adding that it’s not unusual for speaker requests to be denied “given the volume of requests, limited funds, and interest in the topic among the wider campus community.”

For some students, the optics were hard to ignore. Last year, a conservative student group called the Network of Enlightened Women brought Jennifer Braceras, director of the Independent Women’s Law Center, to BC to speak about the importance of “sex segregation” in competitive sports.

“The favoritism toward other viewpoints is kind of shocking,” Arkins said.



Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.