A gay Memphis, Tennessee high school senior named Lance Sanderson has apparently been told by school administrators that he won’t be allowed to attend a homecoming dance with his (male) date, and has started a petition on www.change.org appealing to the administrators to reverse their decision.
This particular issue—gay students being banned from bringing their same-sex partners to school dances—has been a subject of contention in U.S. schools for a few decades now. The ACLU even has a ready-made letter on their website that can be mailed to school superintendents/principals whenever this issue arises, reminding them that “[a]ny policy excluding same-sex couples from proms or school dances violates the right to free expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” and that the rulings of two federal court cases have upheld this.
Of course, there’s one crucial element in this particular case in Memphis that throws a wrench into things: Lance attends a private Catholic high school (Christian Brothers High School). In short, this gives the school legal carte blanche to discriminate however they wish, in this case or in any other one where they’d like to ensure that students’ behavior conforms to their religious and ideological guidelines.¹
That being said, in so doing, the school went about this in a less-than-forthright fashion: they’ve apparently justified their decision to ban Lance from taking his date by appealing to the pedantry that boys from high schools other than Christian Brothers are not allowed to attend. But, surely, the rule here is only intended to prevent this from becoming an event that’s basically open to the public in general (or at least to any high schooler who’d want to go). And surely we could imagine that girls who are not dates of boys from Christian Brothers would also be prevented from attending.
I’m writing about this in particular because I happen to live in Memphis, and even attended the high school in question for a year. Most of all, though, I think it’s important to put a real face to these issues.
As an atheist and avid supporter of LGBT rights, I absolutely stand with Lance. Most cynically, though, I don’t think anyone will come of this petition on the smaller scale of things. Perhaps, at most, if this story were to get enough attention, there would be a tremendous circus—surely death threats would enter the picture soon enough—and Christian Brothers High School’s homecoming would be cancelled. More likely though, I think Lance will be given some sort of ultimatum, and asked to back down or perhaps risk being suspended or even expelled.
But that’s just on the small scale of things. I don’t know if you’ll ever read this, Lance, but forgive me if I switch to second-person for a second: I think you’ve already done a tremendous thing here. You write, in your petition,
It’s been a tough four years for me at Christian Brothers High School and I’ve experienced a lot of homophobia. One time in class we were watching a movie, and a classmate kept referring to one of the main characters as a “fag” at least 17 times in front me. But now it’s not classmates causing the issue — it’s administrators. School officials who should be looking out for students like me, not targeting us with discrimination.
A few days ago, in a blog post here, I quoted a scene from The West Wing where a Jewish rabbi talks about the traditional harsh Old Testament attitude toward homosexuality: he admits “For all I know, that thinking reflected the best wisdom of its time—but it’s just plain wrong, by any modern standard.” The Catholic attitude toward homosexuality is a vestige of this same ancient discrimination, channeled through medieval philosophy. But we know it’s wrong.
I think one of the most important aspects of stories like yours is that it forces those who sympathize with traditional Catholic ethics to really confront the modern world—one where many nations and societies are leaving this traditional ethics beyond, while still retaining their moral integrity.
The Catholic Church changes, too. This happens at glacial pace; but slowly but surely, we first see rationalizations that Church teaching isn’t being “changed,” but rather “reinterpreted.” Eventually, however, things do change. The Catholic Church is powerful; but it’s not powerful enough to crush the human spirit, nor is it even immune to larger social trends.
This is the larger scheme of things—the one where your actions are really going to have an effect.
It’s your last year of high school. Your life is just getting started. And if you care about the wider world of LGBT discrimination as much as I suspect you do, then the fight is just beginning, too. But I think there’s no better place to have started it than from within the Catholic system: one of the main strongholds of traditional discriminatory ethics.
Again, whenever faced with issues like these, Catholicism must face the modern world, and the discordance between its position and (the increasingly common one of) others. Even more though, I think that, here, Catholics must confront the fact that the Church is comprised of human beings. When our sons or fathers or daughters or friends or classmates are gay—or even when the most we can do is put a face to a name—we’re no longer in the abstract here.
Traditional authorities in the Church can attempt to defend discrimination by appealing to Sacred tradition itself, and the slippery slope that would be created if this were to be disregarded. Further, they can defer the blame by saying that they don’t even have the authority to change dogma codified in tradition. But the idea that human beings are bound to some system of morality that’s somehow independent of human interests and well-being in the first place is absurd.
In trying to understand (what I take to be) the sort of meta-objection that Catholicism has to all this, I agree that there’s a certain sense in which it would tragic if one of the most prominent institutions in human history had been misguided on this issue all along—that God did not “protect” the Church from centuries of error. But is this any less tragic than someone who binds their hands with rope and then declares that their hands are tied?
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 I’ve moved my comment on this here.