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Thrown to the Lions

A bigoted email prompts the question: Is the Jesuit administration at SCU doing enough to protect gay students?

By Allie Gottlieb

TWO DAYS before Thanksgiving, a poorly written email appeared in the mailboxes of five Santa Clara University students. "Being a gay is a disease not something to be proud of, thought as cool, hip, or even funny," the email began. "If Hitler were here he would genocide all you motherfuckers. I know if I had kids who were gay, I would deny I ever created such a beast. God doesn't acknowledge you and will continue to deny your existence as a whole. You create these faggot-nigger clubs on campus to increase your representation here on earth, because you know you have no representation in heaven. ... You are sick in head [sic], to think it is ok, to stick dick in anal cavities."

Nobody knows who sent the email or why. It supposedly originated from the Hotmail account of a Santa Clara student, who has denied sending the message and has closed the account. All five students who received the email were members of the SCU support group the Gay and Lesbian Alliance.

Whatever the intentions of the author, the email has generated a flood of sympathy from SCU faculty and administration on this palm-tree-lined campus, though feelings of vulnerability remain. Noel Fonseca, a 22-year-old marketing major who received the email, forwarded it along with a three-page reaction to faculty members. "After I received the letter, I was stunned, scared and then angry," he wrote. "My sense of security that I have had for the past three and a half years was gone, taken away in just one afternoon."

Fonseca's response to the email rallied support from students who aren't members of the alliance. Some wore purple armbands to indicate their solidarity. The student newspaper, The Santa Clara, ran a Jan. 22 editorial demanding that "something be done" to identify and punish the emailer and to promote more talk about campus diversity.

Jesus Saves

The same misguided chorus that blames victims for rape might also ask what gays and lesbians expected from Santa Clara University, which for 153 years has been run by Catholic priests, who are not known for tolerant views of homosexuality. Students' answers naturally showcase their individuality, but in a broader sense, also betray a fundamental divide between socially progressive Catholics and the Catholic Church.

"If anything, I felt safer coming to a Jesuit University," student Manuel Perez said. Perez heads SCU's Multicultural Center and belongs to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance. He grew up in a close-knit, acutely Catholic, Mexican household. "How can you be gay and a Catholic?" he repeats a question he's heard before. "Si Dios quere," he says. "If God will allow it. Anything will happen if God so wills it. That kind of frees you. If you feel like you're falling short. ... God will provide for you. When it's beyond your control, God will help you out."

Josh Crosson, the 19-year-old alliance spokesperson whose Jesus-fish ankle tattoo is colored in with a gay-pride rainbow, was doubly targeted by the email: He's GALA's only black member. Crosson is a sharp, outgoing sophomore majoring in religious studies and political science. He says he applied only to Jesuit colleges in part because he's working the system from the inside.

"I like a challenge," he confesses. "It's one thing to go to a liberal campus like UC-Berkeley." He prefers to confront anti-gay interpretations of the faith, Catholic to Catholic. Crosson talks about using religion not only as a spiritual framework but also "as ammo." He means that he can hold his own in a verse-by-verse Biblical debate over the sinfulness of homosexuality. "There's not one place in the Bible where Jesus said that homosexuality is wrong," he declares.

Radical Religious Left

Crosson, though, doesn't appear to have many people to argue with at SCU. By various accounts, the Jesuits who run Santa Clara are known as intellectuals and scholars, rather than moral dictators. Jesuits schools generally don't provide a home base for Bible-thumpers enthralled by Leviticus 18:22 ("You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination").

"We don't get fundamentalist Christians at Santa Clara for the most part," says professor Nancy Unger. Unger teaches a popular class at the school called "Gay Men and Lesbians in U.S. History." Since she introduced the course in 2002, she's heard only one complaint. "The big deal to me," she says, "is that it's not a big deal."

Nevertheless, at one point the parent of a prospective student complained to the university president alleging that Unger's course was inappropriately "celebrating" homosexuality, since reading gay literature lends "an implication of support for their lifestyle."

Unger responded to the parent coolly. "I would like to reassure this person that no history course at Santa Clara University seeks celebration as its goal," Unger replied to the parent. "The discipline of history seeks to understand the past and in so doing develop the crucial skills of critical thinking, particularly the ability to prepare and communicate well-supported arguments and interpretations. A course on the Holocaust, for example, would not be offered to celebrate genocide but to understand why and how such unspeakable acts could be carried out against fellow human beings."

In the last three years, SCU has put five gay studies classes and a drag show into rotation. According to GALA's research, at least three of the 28 Jesuit universities in the country offer gay studies courses and 21 host gay student organizations. Rev. Charles Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, says Jesuit schools try to balance the church's anti-gay position while discouraging homophobia.

"Most of our schools at one time or another have had to confront racism or homophobia," Currie concedes. "It's so counter to what any university or college should be when one individual attacks another."

Email to Male

But not everyone is pleased with the way SCU has handled this confrontation. Last week, as the quarter wound down, Fonseca stood on the steps of the campus mission and expressed his frustration with SCU's limited response to the email. He had a three-hour conversation with Provost Denise Carmody days before, which he described as "heated." "We wanted the president to do something about it," Fonseca said, while Crosson and Perez stood by and nodded. "It's important because people don't think it's important," Fonseca concludes.

The students, however, applaud SCU for being one of the most liberal Jesuit universities. Fonseca boasts that SCU was the country's second Jesuit school, after San Francisco University, to permit students to form a Gay and Lesbian Alliance at the campus.

University President Paul Locatelli addressed the email, albeit with a vague reference, in his Dec. 3 Christmas message. "We cannot tolerate such words and actions toward any other members of our community," he wrote.

But Father Locatelli undercut his tolerant message, sending a second note two days later attempting to curtail the chatter. "I ask that people stop forwarding the email, as doing so only perpetuates bigotry and could identify targeted individuals who may wish to remain anonymous."

Quiet Protest

That request for silence irked alliance members. "I think about it as the bigger picture," Fonseca says. "What didn't [the administration] do when five of their students were threatened basically in their own home?"

Father Locatelli met with Fonseca for a long talk about the hate mail. Jeanne Rosenberger, SCU dean for student life, issued a statement in January: "If information is found that suggests a student is involved in the incident he/she will be brought through the judicial process through the Office of Student Life." The penalty would range from a warning to expulsion.

But Fonseca, Crosson and Perez want more than an ongoing investigation. The students want faculty and the president to basically come out of their own closet and speak loudly about campus discrimination. Fonseca notes that other anti-gay incidents have occurred at the school since his arrival. A vandal wrote homophobic and anti-Semitic messages in library books and someone spray-painted "war is gay" around the campus. The incidents received less attention than the email. "So much education has been done within our group," Crosson says. Yet when it comes to the administration pushing for equality, says Crosson, "we have to hold their hands."

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From the March 24-31, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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