Education

Newman starts group to support LGBTQ students after years of effort

Newman University student Ruben Lerma gave a speech his junior year about some of the challenges of being a gay student at Newman that turned the tide on campus and, finally, just as he is about to graduate, Newman is starting a club to support gay students. (April 26, 2017)
Newman University student Ruben Lerma gave a speech his junior year about some of the challenges of being a gay student at Newman that turned the tide on campus and, finally, just as he is about to graduate, Newman is starting a club to support gay students. (April 26, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

Ruben Lerma had a 4.0 grade point average and scored more than a 30 on his ACT, he said, but, because he wasn’t a citizen, he didn’t qualify for all of the financial aid available at public universities.

Newman University didn’t care that he was an immigrant, he said, and offered him nearly a full tuition scholarship every semester; he would have to pay only $2,000 of his $23,000 bill.

So he decided to go to Newman even though he was a little worried about attending a Catholic University and being “that gay student.” Lerma had struggled with depression as a gay student at North High School but learned to overcome his depression, in part with the support of a Gay/Straight Alliance.

But Newman didn’t have a similar support group and wasn’t always a safe space for Lerma, he said. He overheard other students on campus talk about how gay people should go to hell, he said, and how the legalization of gay marriage would lead gays to want to get married to animals. Some of his friends would point out other students on campus who, he was told, hated gay people.

At a public forum his junior year, he finally spoke up.

“I’m not the only gay person here, I’m not going to be the only gay person here, there will be more,” Lerma remembers saying. “If for their sake, if not mine, you should make it more amiable, make the environment better.”

Support group

Lerma’s speech was just part of a growing interest among new students to recognize diversity on campus. The university restarted the Black Student Union and added a club to support Asian students last year after students showed renewed interest. And as the student body has become more diverse, the university hired a diversity coordinator last year.

Lauren Spencer spoke to administrators at a town hall event about the need to better support LGBTQ students and was told, she said, that there hadn’t been much interest.

Alumni had tried unsuccessfully to create an LGBTQ group in the past, but after Lerma’s speech and a lengthy follow-up article in the student newspaper, administrators organized a committee to figure out how to better support LGBTQ students.

A concern for the dignity of all students has always been part of the school’s mission, according to Clark Shafer, the director of University Relations, but the events in 2016 made some on campus more aware of the need to make LGBTQ students feel more welcome.

The committee – which included nuns, priests, students, faculty and administrators – worked over the summer and fall of 2016 and agreed on a plan modeled after the University of Notre Dame.

Before making the “Pastoral Plan” public, Newman reached out to an important alumnus and donor, whom the university would not name, who approved of how the group was rooted in the school’s Catholic values, Shafer said.

The Notre Dame-type model included language that emphasizes that the club cannot contradict the Catholic view that LGBTQ students should be “chaste,” because sex is condoned only in marriage between a man and a woman.

“The University exhorts all to hear and live the Church’s teaching that ‘the deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage (between man and woman) is essentially contrary to its purpose’ and is considered gravely sinful,” the plan reads.

The Notre Dame model was the best fit for Newman, according to Levi Esses, the dean of Student Affairs who is helping to shepherd the group into existence.

“It seemed to resonate with us, with what the students were wanting,” he said. “It recognized them as people and their sexual identity but also provided a very supportive atmosphere and stayed true to the Catholic mission of chastity and not having sex before marriage.”

Compromise

The group will focus on holding supportive meetings and putting on events that recognize LGBTQ students. The idea is to signal to incoming students, like Lerma, that Newman welcomes students like him and to provide a safe space for freshmen learning to navigate college.

Kevin Clack, who will be the group’s first student leader, said he doesn’t think the language in the pastoral plan means the group won’t be able to talk about dating and romance. But LGBTQ students have a lot of concerns, and Clack said he doesn’t expect the group to focus on sexuality more than any other group on campus, including the Black Student Union, of which he is also a member.

Clack doesn’t agree with the language about what constitutes a true marriage but thinks compromise was necessary to get the group started.

“We’re being allowed to have this organization, but at the same time, it’s a Catholic institution and we have to be aware of that, there are still rules, there are still certain things we have to be aware of and follow by, whether or not we agree with it or approve, it’s all about respect,” Clack said.

Lerma had previously thought of devout Christians as “crazy people who blindly follow the same thing.” The fact that the university is starting an LGBTQ support group is just “icing on the cake” of his changed view of Catholics, he said.

Ami Larrea, a student adviser at Newman, has reached out to alumni who tried to advocate for a similar organization over the past 12 years, and she said they are excited and plan on being involved with the new organization.

Although interested students and faculty are already laying the groundwork, the group plans to officially launch next school year. About 10 showed up for the first meeting, where they decided on the name “Kaleidoscope.”

“A kaleidoscope has all these different colors and shapes, but they somehow come together to make this really awesome picture and it’s beautiful even though it’s all different,” said Clack, who proposed the name. “That was important for us. We are LGBTQ, but we are different colors, different shapes and sizes, and it all looks great.”

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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