Letter to the Editor from April 25

by Emma Strempfer on March 20, 2024


Letters to the Editor


March 18, 2024

An open letter to Fr. Sicard,

We, the undersigned departments, faculty, staff, and students of Providence College, are writing this letter to express our collective anger at the hypocrisy toward and systemic oppression of LGBTQ+ people at PC, and to demand LGBTQ+ equity on campus. We offer here a timeline of student advocacy throughout the college’s history, aimed at both cultural and legal equity for queer people, and offer recent examples of the College’s continued, flagrant failure to protect and support its LGBTQ+ members–down to prohibiting pride flags and indeed, even the use of the word “pride” or its variants in connection with gender and sexuality. While promising shifts in the past seemed to back up the College’s professed commitment to inclusion, virtually all progress has been swiftly dismantled under the current administration. The latest example of this repression is the systematic silencing and marginalization of our colleague E Corry Kole. E was hired as Resource Coordinator focused on LGBTQ+ inclusion in 2020, promoted to Director of DEI Education and Professional Development in 2022, and as of March 8, 2024, resigned after senior leadership at the College thwarted their efforts to fulfill their job description. 

As shown in the timeline below, throughout the school’s history, we see a dynamic of cultural and campus progress in tension with open discrimination. The College explicitly prioritizes inclusion at the level of discourse, declaring that, “we should not rest until every member of our community feels […] love and dignity” and despite taking steps toward implementing this vision, for instance, adding sexuality and gender identity into the college’s non-discrimination policy, there is an escalating and alarming record of homophobic and transphobic practices toward LGBTQ+ communities within and affiliated with the College which we deem to be anti-Catholic in nature.

We end this document with a list of demands, many of which are common-sense minimums for supporting LGBTQ+ people on this campus, including equitable healthcare, hiring, and programming. These demands are commonplace at other colleges and universities, including ones grounded in the Catholic faith. PC claims it wishes to include and support the queer people among its ranks, and to continue admitting and hiring queer students and faculty–it quite simply could not survive as an institution otherwise. We invite this administration to prove the truth of these claims by realizing the tangible forms of support we lay out below.

Timeline of LGBTQ+ Inclusion and Struggle at PC

1935-1973

Even before the famous 1969 Stonewall Riot that forcefully brought LGBTQ+ concerns to national attention, Providence College students and faculty were working to make campus a much more hospitable space for its LGBTQ+ members. In 1968, the Student-Faculty Board moved to create an interdisciplinary course–a hallmark of Providence College’s pedagogical approach–that examined sexuality alongside other pertinent social topics, such as racism and poverty.​​ Editorials and articles in The Cowl also suggest that the College was willing to serve as a vital space for dialogue–in 1961, Judge John M. Murtagh gave a talk that pushed against imprisoning people for homosexuality, while one student’s review of a theater production applauded a bold, powerful performance that featured a gay character despite “provincial” audiences who left the theater in shock; in 1973, a letter to the editor assertively denounced an act of violence against a fellow student based on his sexuality. Moments and coalitions such as these were at risk of being drowned out–by the offhand use of slurs, the relegation of queer identities to a joke, or acts of violence–if not for the continued advocacy of students and faculty, LGBTQ+-identified and ally alike. Wedged between calls for a peaceful end to the Vietnam War and student demands for a more active say in college administration, attention to LGBTQ+ issues and concerns was undoubtedly present at Providence College amid powerful cultural, social, and political changes in the 1960s and only grew increasingly stronger, more vocal, and undeniable through the remainder of the twentieth century. 

1974-2010 

The period of 1974 through 2010 at PC coincided with the development of a national LGBTQ+ civil rights movement, the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the beginning of the movement for marriage equality. On campus, a math professor named Hubert Kennedy became the first faculty to come out as gay in 1975, following growing LGBTQ civil rights movements nationally and in Rhode Island. This initiated a time in which PC students, staff, and faculty began to reckon with whether or not to accept LGBTQ+ people as members of the PC community. In the early 1990s, two students wrote anonymous letters to The Cowl explaining that they identified as gay. These acts in and of themselves–for LGBTQ+ people on campus to express and own their identities–became highly politicized. While some preferred to believe that LGBTQ+ people did not exist, others regarded LGBTQ+ identity as a sin, and yet others felt it was aligned with Catholic teachings to accept and nurture a diverse, beloved community. As the 1990s wore on, more students wrote to The Cowl, either expressing their identity as LGBTQ+ or as an ally, critiquing the homophobia present on campus. As more and more students came out, they experienced harassment, isolation, slurs, and alienation on campus, which caused many to transfer or seek to spend as little time on campus as possible. 

Seeing the establishment of LGBTQ+-affirming student groups on other campuses, such as the College of the Holy Cross, students began to advocate for a student group that could provide a haven and sanctuary for LGBTQ+ students. In 2002, PC Student Congress unanimously voted to approve the formation of SHEPARD, PC’s student LGBTQ+ advocacy group, an effort led by queer students, Paige Parks and Elizabeth Hansen. SHEPARD stands for Stopping Homophobia, Eliminating Prejudice, and Restoring Dignity. SHEPARD was and has been restricted by the College regarding what it can say (SHEPARD still cannot use the word “Pride” in its materials) and do, yet they managed to do a lot with a short rope. SHEPARD established a Day of Silence to raise awareness of prejudice on campus, invited Judy Shepard (mother of Matthew Shepard, a college student brutally murdered for his sexuality in Wyoming) to PC’s campus, and held candle vigils for World AIDS Day.  

2010-2020

By the end of its first decade, SHEPARD had grown from a small group of dedicated students to a vibrant club of more than 30 members in 2013 that created a student support network and educated and organized more broadly for LGBTQ+ equity and inclusion. Student activists continued to build a more inclusive PC community in the second decade of the 21st century. Student organizations, led by SHEPARD, educated the campus and advocated for LGBTQ+ inclusion through safe space trainings, guest speakers, vigils, Days of Silence, Annual Days of Trans Remembrance, marches, and community gatherings.  

Student groups at PC successfully advocated for changes to policies and institutional structures. Student Congress updated its constitution’s preamble in April 2013 to include sexual orientation and gender identity in its non-discrimination policy. In addition, Student Congress passed legislation (i.e., SCRC-63-15) in Spring 2013 to include sexual orientation in the College’s notice of non-discrimination related to students. SHEPARD and Student Congress also began to advocate for a similar change in faculty/staff non-discrimination policy. Due to organizing by students, the College updated its non-discrimination policies to include sexual orientation and gender identity for students in Fall 2013/Winter 2014, and for faculty/staff by January 2017.

Students also organized around policy changes at the state level at a time when marriage equality legislation was under consideration in Rhode Island. Between 2012-2014, students joined in marches and protests, organized talks, and had campus events and conversations around same-sex marriage. This continued even as the College sought to limit students’ ability to organize on campus. Students organized the Embrace March on the perimeter of campus in April 2013, after they were prohibited from marching on campus in support of marriage equality. In Fall 2013, the administration canceled an event organized by Prof. Chris Arroyo to bring a national expert on same-sex marriage and Catholic Church teaching to campus —just five days before the scheduled event. Wide-spread student organizing (which also involved extensive alum support and attracted national attention), ensured that the event took place the following semester to a fully-packed audience. Following the victory for LGBTQ advocates at Providence College, an attempt was made to host a speaker on campus who endorsed and practiced “reparative therapy” or conversion therapy—a pseudoscientific therapeutic model widely condemned for its attempts to “cure” or change queer sexualities and genders to conform to heterosexual and cisgender norms. Despite the College’s assertion that the Catholic Church held “no official teaching” on what many consider to be medical malpractice against queer people (the practice was outlawed in Rhode Island in 2017), campus advocates successfully prevented the event from taking place through sustained pressure and organizing efforts.

As nationwide protests erupted in support of Black lives and challenging police misconduct and other forms of state-sanctioned violence against Black, brown, queer, and other targeted communities in 2014-2015, PC students organized in parallel with college students across the country. Students grew frustrated with the “hush-hush” nature of investigations into racialized gendered violence, which buried the systemic nature of the problem and protected perpetrators of harm. Students demanded widespread changes at the institutional level. Numerous student groups collaborated to hold the administration accountable and their activism led to a series of public promises by President Fr. Shanley to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus. This wave of student organizing beginning in 2015, along with a subsequent wave in the aftermath of what became known as the “bulletin board incident’ in March 2018, led student activists to push the administration to hire a full-time staff member to support LGBTQ+ inclusion (which was realized in Fall 2020). The Board of Programmers (BOP) and SHEPARD also organized the first “PC Proud” week in April 2018. While SHEPARD and other student groups sought to repeat PC Proud in Spring 2019 and subsequent years, the administration refused to allow them to use the word ‘proud’ citing that it was too close to ‘pride,’ which is positively associated with the LGBTQ+ community—including organizing for the legalization of same-sex marriage, which the Catholic Church opposes. The college administration also objected to the president of Rhode Island Pride speaking on campus in April 2019 during “Open Hearts” week (i.e., the alternative name for “PC Proud”’ week). 

2020-Present 

In 2020, Providence College, under the leadership of Father Kenneth Sicard, positioned itself to bridge many of the gaps between itself and the LGBTQ+ Community–an unprecedented goal in an unprecedented year. At the forefront of this effort stood the introduction of the Resource Coordinator for LGBTQ+ Inclusion role at Providence College, culminating from decades of student activism and taken as one of the final acts by Father Shanley before his departure. The College hired E Corry Kole as the first individual in this new, groundbreaking position. With a deep connection to and understanding of Christian ministry, E simultaneously embraced the opportunity for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion through the Catholic & Dominican Mission while focusing on and working to repair the harms done by the Church to LGBTQ+-identifying individuals.

From 2020 to 2024, E attempted to organize and catalyze inclusion efforts for LGBTQ+ members of the Friar Family. In a good faith effort to fulfill their job description, E collected and reported testimony from students, faculty, staff, and alumni, facilitated Safe Space Training for student and faculty groups, and positioned themself as a safe resource for all community members. Instead of supporting this trailblazing work toward practical solutions to problems students, staff and faculty had voiced, the College responded by stonewalling E and attempted to snuff out their efforts. Moreover, the College refused to adopt these solutions without theological grounds. In response to the 2020 Student Demands and ongoing student advocacy, Fr. Sicard, in collaboration with IDEI and Mission & Ministry, announced they would develop documents to clarify Providence College’s theological stance regarding human sexuality and gender identity. The College added that no further action on LGBTQ+ inclusion would be made until these documents were complete. It has been four years, and these documents have still not been released to the college campus community. This administrative stalling not only held E and their collaborators’ work at a standstill but limited Providence College’s ability to improve inclusion for LGBTQ+ identifying individuals. 

However, during this four-year period, the general sentiment surrounding LGBTQ+ identity has improved at the student level. More and more students, staff, and faculty members openly express their LGBTQ+ identities with less pushback from their peers and colleagues. In October 2020, Pope Francis made history by publicly expressing support for same-sex civil unions. This Fall, the Pope continued to institute LGBTQ+ inclusion within Church teachings by allowing Pastoral Blessings for same-sex relationships. The world changed, but PC did not.

In 2020, Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin dissented with Pope Francis, writing, “The Pope’s statement clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the Church about same-sex unions. The Church cannot support the acceptance of objectively immoral relationships.” In response to the College’s lack of clear stance and the Bishop’s comments, student demands were published in the October 2020 issue of The Cowl.

Since then, tensions have grown between the College and the members it is obliged to protect as a Catholic institution. Every year, the title and programming of SHEPARD and BOP’s “LGBTQ+ Awareness Week” stands at the center of controversy. SHEPARD faces closer administrative scrutiny in planning their events, enduring stricter guidelines than other clubs, and after a Title IX investigation alleging unfair discrimination was rejected by the College, it took filing a federal civil rights complaint before SHEPARD was allowed to use the word “lavender” to promote its annual student dance.

Over the past few weeks, faculty working on LGBTQ+ material or with community partners who support the LGBTQ+ community have experienced delays or surveillance by the administration that infringes upon their academic freedom. In response to increased monitoring, the sustained experience of a toxic work environment, and the barriers enacted to delay or prohibit them from fulfilling their role at the College, E has resigned. Invisible to the College, many LGBTQ+ Friars continue to face separation at a minimum while many others endure discrimination, harassment, and fears of removal because of their natural identities. We have reviewed these moments across our existence as a College to demonstrate the ongoing struggle for just and loving treatment of LGBTQ+ members as well as support of their research and careers both at PC and after they leave. We believe it is in alignment with the Catholic faith to truly address and repair this history from the heart.

Catholic Theology and LGBTQ+ Life

From our community’s founding in 1917, Providence College has always positioned itself as a home for society’s most marginalized. Our articles of incorporation are explicitly inclusive, explaining that, “No person shall be refused admission to said college as a student, nor shall any person be denied any of the privileges, honors, or degrees of said college on account of the religious opinions he may entertain.”

The injustice of Providence College’s practices regarding members of the LGBTQ+ community and the harm that those practices have caused is exacerbated by the hypocrisy of the institution and in tension with genuine progress we have made as a community. Providence College claims that its practices with respect to members of the LGBTQ+ community are dictated by its Catholic and Dominican mission. Still, nothing about that mission requires the College to treat queer people as second-class citizens who are less than their straight, cisgender counterparts. In fact, Catholic teaching condemns such oppression and marginalization as immoral. Though The Catechism of the Catholic Church condemns all sexual activity outside of marriage, the Catechism also goes out of its way to state that merely being gay is not a sin (#2357). It likewise requires that LGBTQ+ people “be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (#2358). Hundreds of Catholic colleges in the United States—including some Dominican Catholic colleges—welcome and affirm members of the LGBTQ+ community as such. If they can do so while remaining faithful to their Catholic missions, so can Providence College. The oppressive and discriminatory practices of Providence College towards members of the LGBTQ+ community have nothing to do with genuine Catholic faith.

Our Demands: 

Our demands are rooted in our common value of creating a Beloved Community rooted in Catholic and Dominican traditions and values. 

1. Truth. If members of the LGBTQ+ community are truly welcome on campus, then a pride flag must be allowed to be shown in a visible and respectable public location. If the flag can’t be displayed, it suggests that the College’s otherwise public messaging on inclusivity is not genuine. Pride flags hang at Catholic institutions of higher learning across New England and the country, from the University of Notre Dame to Salve Regina University to the College of the Holy Cross. 

2. Friendship. To engage with each other in a mutually respectful way, our pronouns must be respected and college policy should reflect this for all interactions among students, staff, faculty, and clergy.

3. Grace. We commit to accepting and loving one another as we are; all people are valid, created in the image of G-d, and that includes individuals who are transgender, transexual, non-binary, or gender non-conforming. Actions, speech, or demonstrations that would deny the validity or sanctity of these individuals should be treated as a serious violation of adherence to our Catholic & Dominican mission and the statement that, “How we treat one another and especially the least among us, what we profess and hold to be true, how we pray and worship, the questions we ask, and the careers we pursue are no mere accidents nor matters of insignificance. They are rather measures of the grace we have been given…”

4. Prayer. We demand respectful prayers to remember members of the LGBTQ+ community who have been lost as a result of anti-LGBTQ+ hate, and we demand space to be held in Campus Ministry and the CCDS for the intentional and safe inclusion and welcoming of members of the LGBTQ+ community. We invite the college to hire a chaplain specifically to serve members of the LGBTQ+ community. There are LGBTQ+ Catholics who want to pursue their faith but feel detached from it through the College.

5. Dialogue. To hold an annual lecture series devoted to the intersecting Catholic and LGBTQ+ communities. Relatedly, to cease censorship of LGBTQ+ speakers that faculty or student groups invite to campus to share their research.

6. Care. Commitment to supporting gender-affirming healthcare for all people, including transgender individuals of the Providence College community. Recognizing that insurance already covers medical interventions such as hormonal treatments and surgeries for cisgender individuals, it is inconsistent and unjust to not provide necessary gender-affirming care for transgender individuals as well. This distinction not only contradicts the medical necessity and ethical imperative of providing care to all but also undermines the Catholic values of compassion and respect for the dignity of every person. 

7. Respect. As is commonplace with the change of names for Dominican Friars as well as cisgender women who want to change their last names, name changes should be available for students and all employees of the College on all official materials, particularly IDs. Pronoun changes on all official documents must also be an available and clear process. 

8. Support. Hiring and continued support for the role of a campus-wide LGBTQ+ community coordinator and an additional staff charged with visibly supporting the LGBTQ+ community within the Division of Student Affairs.

9. Community. Formal recognition of alumni who identify with the LGBTQ+ community and choose to organize and develop programming as such, as well as the publication of same-sex marriages alongside their peers, as has been a longstanding tradition in Providence College Magazine.

10. Faith and reason. We ask the College to commit to its Dominican roots in embracing rational dialog as a means of bridging divides; students, staff, and faculty should be free to express themselves in any capacity (by their dress, decorations, statements, etc.) and acknowledge that by doing so, they invite dialogue and respectful disagreement rooted in rational argument. 

11. Representation. Re-evaluation of the Humanities Forum. We demand that if the Humanities Forum is to continue (and students are incentivized and/or required to participate), the speaker selection committee be structured to include representation from across the College’s many humanities-related programs and departments.

12. Accountability. Re-evaluation of progress and failures associated with the demands made by students in 2015 (Racism and Anti-Blackness at Providence College: Demands for Redress) and 2020, with specific attention to the college’s ability to retain and promote recruited faculty and staff. 

13. Recognition. Support the creation of PC-branded merchandise featuring elements of the pride logo. If the colors black and white of the Dominican habit specifically refer to the “join[ing] together apparent opposites in a greater unity,” then the rainbow and torch can also be presented and branded together.   

14. Safety. Students must be made consistently aware that they can access free/confidential STI screening on campus. These resources should be made available in an accessible, shame- and guilt-free manner. 

15. Goodness and beauty. Grant all student clubs and organizations the liberty to organize events using the word “Pride” and its derivatives. 

16. Reflection. Support the facilitation of campus-wide Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion training, building towards improved allyship for those of all identities in a manner that centers the lived experiences and identities of LGBTQ+ people. 

Conclusion:

If Providence College desires to be a respectable accredited university known for equal treatment of all students, staff, and faculty, it must reckon with its discriminatory practices toward its LGBTQ+ community members. There is no “Veritas” in preaching inclusivity while simultaneously discriminating against the very people the college invites onto campus, as partners in our collective mission.

As members of the Providence College community (past and present), we strive to ensure that all feel welcome and supported to thrive on our campus, and, in keeping with the College’s professed values, urge you to put an end to the discriminatory policies and practices that continue to deny this possibility to members of our beloved LGBTQ+ community. The time has come to repair the harm done by these wrongs and to forge a future in which Providence College is a respectable accredited university known and celebrated for its equal and compassionate treatment of all students, staff, and faculty, not in spite of our mission but beautifully and in harmony with it, a vision we can all be proud of. 

Signed,

A collective of Students, Staff, Alumni, and Faculty