August 3, 2020

SHEPARD: Challenging More than a Few Mindsets

posted on: Thursday November 8, 2001

by Tylea Richard

Providence College saw the millennium come and go, remembering the Civil Rights movement and women’s liberation, and still sat twiddling their thumbs about the possibility of a gay-straight alliance on campus. In fact, when a group of determined students began obtaining signatures last year for a petition aimed at developing such a club, signers frequently offered a pat on the back or words of encouragement, noting the monstrous task ahead. Yet, regardless of the struggle, SHEPARD has finally been given a place at PC. The initiative, headed by Paige Parks ’03 and Liz Hansen ’02, was unanimously passed by Student Congress at the end of October. A memorial to Matthew Shepard, the gay student who was victimized by a brutal hate crime, it is also an acronym for Stopping Homophobia, Eliminating Prejudice, and Restoring Dignity. Although they were accepted into the community of PC, instead of a warm embrace and an apple pie, SHEPARD’s welcoming committee promised a watchful eye and a gentle warning.Why all the ambiguity? Well, maybe the administration had confused SHEPARD with groups like the Law Society or the Social Work Club. The latter organizations, which are typical on college campuses, provide support and practical advice for members seeking to be lawyers or social workers in the future. As well as networking with other pre-law students or social workers in the field, the organizations might theoretically also recruit other curious students to join the meetings. Though they may not admit it, the administration was similarly wary that SHEPARD might promote homosexuality amongst the student body the way other groups might encourage careers like law or social work. Only after Rev. J. Stuart McPhail, O.P.’s (Vice President of Student Services) revisions and rewording of the constitution over the summer, was the club finally understood as an organization committed to the qualities heralded in the title, and not to the molding of curious students into homosexuals. According to the mission statement, “SHEPARD will assist gay, lesbian, and bisexual students to feel secure and included in the Providence College family.”Months of challenging the traditional Church comfort zone involving homosexuality, and the school’s obligation to uphold the Catholic tradition while benefiting students, undoubtedly provided a tense atmosphere on the subject. Hopefully, the club will be able to dispel rumors about the alleged “pro-homosexual” movement seeping into mainstream society, refuting claims that by encouraging tolerance one must be encouraging participation. Much of the apprehension about homosexual issues still revolves around the assumption that homosexuality is inherently disordered. Heavily circulated in the ’80s and early ’90s, with the explosion of HIV and AIDS is the belief that gay individuals are sex-crazed and overall immoral people. This notion is disgustingly outdated and must be wholeheartedly rejected. There are an equal number of homosexuals engaging in indulgent and passion-driven behaviors as any other group in the world, including straight Christians. The action is only specific to humans in general, not particular bodies of people. Clearly, Providence College does not want to feel as though it is promoting sexuality-regardless of orientation. Chastity is encouraged by the Church for all, homosexual or not. Premarital sex in college is equally forbidden by Church teaching for students who are gay, straight, cross-gender, or transsexual. Yet the references to homosexual behavior and homosexual tendencies are unfair and unfounded. When the administration cautioned against turning the club into a dating service, they most likely envisioned a room full of horny gay and lesbian students who had finally found each other without supervision. And thus enters SHEPARD. The club recognizes that homosexuality is not universally accepted in the Church community and they have been warned about contradicting Church teaching. As long as the club holds fast to dispelling discrimination instead of promoting “skewed” ethics, so it says between the lines of its revised constitution, the group will stay active. And just in case there should be any problems, Rev. Brendan Murphy, O.P., the College Chaplain, was appointed faculty advisor to the club by Fr. McPhail. Luckily, Providence College does also appreciate the importance of respecting human life and protecting the rights of all persons, hopefully making progress towards a tolerance that does not stop at sexual orientation. Only to this effect did SHEPARD launch its first year as a PC club. Through time, it is hoped that the club will improve the lives of all students and faculty by clearing up the presuppositions that plague common thought on this subject. One would hope they could tell the members of SHEPARD there is no pressure, but clearly the struggle is far from over.

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