If elected president of the Georgetown University Student Association, GUSA senate Speaker NateTisa (SFS ’14) would be only the second openly gay student body president at any major Jesuit university in the United States.
“It is a little lonely to think that for schools around the country, the Catholic and Jesuit identity means the student body is not willing or able to elect an openly gay individual to office. You just figure the statistics would be a little more favorable, but they’re not,” Tisa said.
While there has only been one other openly gay student body president at a major Jesuit university — Carlos Menchaca was elected president of the student association at the University of San Francisco in 2003 — other prominent non-Jesuit Catholic schools have elected gay student leaders.
Ryan Fecteau, the current and first openly gay speaker of the Student Association General Assembly at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., agreed the statistics indicate inadequate support for LGBTQ students at Catholic institutions.
“I think that the number of openly gay student body presidents at Catholic institutions speaks to the realities of those campuses,” Fecteau said. “Many have not made sufficient progress in truly welcoming LGBT students. Many have excluded LGBT from non-discrimination clauses. We have a lot of work to do at Catholic institutions across the country to fully welcome in a most Christian way everyone regardless of sexuality.”
Tisa, however, recalled that it was not the Catholic heritage of the university but the dominance of straight males in Georgetown’s student government that delayed his coming out of the closet until his second year in the GUSA senate.
“When I came into the senate freshman year, I was in the closet. I came out in November of that year, but came out in GUSA almost a year after that [because] GUSA was controlled by kind of an all-boys club, all-straight boys club. I felt like if I came out as gay I’d be marginalized, that they wouldn’t take me seriously,” Tisa said.
However, Tisa praised current GUSA President Clara Gustafson (SFS ’13) and Vice President Vail Kohnert-Yount (SFS ’13) for opening up discussions on diversity and sexuality when the two advocated for inclusion of an LGBTQ checkbox on freshmen housing questionnaires last year.
Despite the changing atmosphere in GUSA, Tisa said his sexual orientation has occasionally become a point of target when he advocated for LGBTQ issues.
“When advocating for gay issues like gender-neutral housing, sometimes people will go against and just say things like, ‘I know you feel about this strongly personally, but it’s not important to your office,’” he said. “People want to marginalize those issues and make the LGBTQ community invisible on campus, not necessarily because they’re anti-gay, but because they just don’t view those voices as deserving respect.”
Fecteau has been active in pushing for official university recognition of CUAllies, a gay-straight alliance at Catholic, and described his narrow victory over a member of the Knights of Columbus in the 2012 student body speaker election as indicative of his university’s increasing acceptance of plurality.
“This outspokenness on LGBT issues did not hinder my viability as a candidate; in fact, I think it made it stronger. I think that the progress made of having been entrusted, regardless of sexual orientation, by the student body with this leadership position normalizes what is absolutely normal, but not common on a Catholic campus,” Fecteau said.
Student votes, however, did not directly translate into university support for Fecteau and the LGBTQ community.
“The administration did not have a blatant reaction to my election. I speculate that they were surprised and likely not impressed. However, I think that I earned their respect as someone not willing to yell about issues but rather sit down and have substantive conversation,” Fecteau said.
Anthony Alfano, who in 2011 was elected the first openly gay student body president at DePaul University, the largest Catholic university in the United States, recalled a different experience from Fecteau and Tisa when running for student government and his time at office.
Alfano, despite being out to close family and friends, did not make his sexual orientation or his involvement in the LGBTQ community part of his platform.
“I was out to family, friends and peers before and while I was running for student body president, and I didn’t make it a platform point because I felt it was a non-issue,” Alfano said.
A few months after he was elected to office, Alfano, recognizing that he had to power to encourage others in the LGBTQ community, decided to come out to the entire university through the university’s student newspaper.
“I decided to come out because I realized the significance it could have for the LGBTQ community. At the largest Catholic university in the country I felt that I had a platform to reach out to members of the community and more specifically LGBTQ youth that they didn’t have to hide who they were to strive for better in life,” Alfano recounted. “[I emphasized] that ‘it does get better’ and you don’t have to live a lie. I felt it was my responsibility to do so; I owed it to the generations before me and those who will come after me to share my story.”
Founder of Catholic Association of Students for Equality Thomas Lloyd (SFS ’15) agreed that the election of an LGBT student to the presidency of the student government would assure LGBTQ students that they are respected by their peers
“All gay issues benefit from visibility. When someone comes to Georgetown, they have to make the decision if they want to come out [and] acknowledge their sexual orientation,” Lloyd said. “Having someone as the president of the student government to be openly gay sets Georgetown as an exceptional case where the vast majority of the student body is not just OK with seeing that person on campus, but also elect him to the top of the student office.”
GU Pride president Meghan Ferguson (COL ’15) agreed.
“It’s good for us to know we have additional support behind us for things we want to accomplish,” Ferguson said.
GU Pride has endorsed Tisa in this GUSA race.
According to Alfano, his coming out, which drew significant media attention in Chicago, effectively increased recognition and opportunities for the LGBTQ community at DePaul.
“I think [coming out to the university] definitely did open up a lot of conversation and people were definitely talking more about LGBTQ issues on campus, whether it was in regard to sexual health or an LGBTQ office full-time coordinator that we finally got, or the career center that reached out to the LGBTQ group to show the career outlooks and life after college,” Alfano said.
Tisa said his struggles to reconcile his Catholic identity and his sexuality at the personal level inspired him to advocate for LGBTQ issues at the university level.
“Because of that experience in my personal life, I’ve had to extrapolate it to GUSA,” he said. “Trying to frame issues of social justice and issues of acceptance and tolerance in a way that is coherent to the Catholic identity is something that I’ve had to do every day, and that enables me to do it in GUSA instinctively.”
Lloyd agreed with Tisa that Jesuit values and sexuality should not conflict.
“When you look at gender-neutral housing, people claim that it’s against our Jesuit values to have men and women live in the same place. People always whip out Jesuit values when they want to knock something Pride wants to do down,” Lloyd said.
Despite different levels of struggle, advocacy for LGBTQ issues and acceptance of LGBTQ identities at the DePaul, Catholic and Georgetown, having openly gay representatives in the student government transcends these individual institutions.
“This is about more than just Georgetown. As the first openly gay student body president at Georgetown — at a major Jesuit university — we have the ability the change the way that the Catholic identity is interpreted. We can partner with other Catholic institutions to bring our identity into the 21st century once and for all,” Tisa said.