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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Minnesota's Sean Simonsen: Transforming Catholic Hearts and Minds on Gay Rights

By Michael A. Jones -

Earlier this year, a high school student in Minnesota penned a heartfelt and deeply moving missive, "Life as a Gay Teen," in his Catholic school's newspaper. In the piece, Simonsen confronted the homophobic work of many bishops in Minnesota, who actually spent nearly a million dollars this year sending out a DVD to Catholic families blasting same-sex couples. Simonsen, talking about the reality of being gay in a Catholic community, noted that homophobic messages like this directly lead to LGBT youth feeling immoral, wrong, or out of place in society.
"Every day you hear someone use your sexuality -- a part of you that, no matter how desperately you try, you cannot change -- as a negative adjective. That hurts," Simonsen wrote in the piece. "Politicians are allowed to debate your right to marry the person you love or your right to be protected from hate crimes under the law. Your faith preaches your exclusion -- or damnation."
Simonsen's school originally ran the piece in the online version of the school newspaper. But as Maia Spotts wrote here last month, it didn't stay up for very long. School administrators pulled the piece down, and as a result seemed to silence the powerful voice of a young LGBT Catholic. Sure, the piece eventually turned up in other outlets, but it was no longer allowed to be featured at Simonsen's school.
So how does this story turn out? Surprisingly, really well.
Simonsen and his mother spoke to Minnesota Public Radio this week, one month after the incident, and noted that despite some worries, the piece actually spurred some amazing conversations in their school, their community, and their family and friends.
"I got one handwritten letter left for me in the main office from a teacher. And then I got like three or four emails from teachers basically saying they support me," Sean Simonsen said. "It was teachers I wasn't close to and so that kind of surprised me." He added that more teachers told him the whole fracas was worth it, because the school will emerge stronger and more inclusive.
Sean's mother, Ann, said that though she was initially worried that her son might become a target for bullies, she was overwhelmed by the level of support that came in from their friends, neighbors and acquaintances.
"I even had to take a couple days off just to respond to the all the emails and phone calls I'd received from friends," she said. "It was just ringing off the hook. It was quite amazing. You find out who your friends are, that's for sure."
And then comes the best part of the whole story. Sean's classmates? Earlier this month, they voted Sean to be Grand Knight (which is equivalent to prom king) for the high school winter formal. That's right, Catholic students all voted for the gay guy to represent them, and this despite the institutional Catholic Church's continued insistence that gay people are less than their straight peers.
Now that's what you call justice.
Meanwhile, even though the school newspaper never republished Sean's article, they did institute a new policy that should prevent them from having to take down articles in the future.
Kudos to Minnesota, for showing in so many ways that Catholics in the pews believe that equal rights for LGBT people can be consistent with their faith.


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