Love the Sinner
The first time Alana McCoy was labeled a dyke, the sophomore was walking back to her car in a Regis University parking lot. From a distance, she could see that a word had been scratched -- in large, crooked letters -- twice into the hood of her early-model Accord: D-I-K-E.
It was after ten on a spring night in 2004, and the only people around were fellow students on their way home. She called Campus Safety, and a school security officer soon arrived to take photos while McCoy filled out a report.
She never got around to making an appointment at an auto-body shop to have the word removed. A nineteen-year-old art major with a penchant for sarcasm, she could appreciate the irony of the misspelling. And as a lesbian attending Colorado's largest Catholic university, she realized that just allowing the marks to remain could, in a way, subvert the hateful intent of the word. Nazis had used a pink triangle to identify homosexuals; now it's an international symbol of the gay-rights movement. So the derogatory message stayed on her car as she drove around town that summer, and even when classes resumed at Regis that fall.
The second time McCoy was labeled a dyke, in the fall of 2004, someone smashed up her windshield and left a note under her wipers that read: "Fuck You Dyke." The security officer who responded to her call noted that the fifteen blows to the windshield had likely been made with a small hammer.
McCoy had no idea who would target her. At least a dozen other openly gay and lesbian students attended the liberal arts college, and none of them had reported any recent instances of harassment. With no witnesses or suspects, all the security officer could suggest was that she park in view of the school's surveillance cameras and have the previous vandalism buffed out of her hood as soon as possible.
If similar incidents were to occur at the University of Colorado at Boulder -- where two CU students were recently arrested for the off-campus assault of a gay 21-year-old -- they would have prompted an outcry from activists, perhaps a concerned press release from administrators, at least a candlelight vigil sponsored by the Women's Studies Department. But at Regis, the response was more measured; balancing intellectual tolerance with church doctrine can be tricky. Like Catholic higher-education institutions around the country, the Jesuit school has been slowly adapting to an academic environment where gay and lesbian students and faculty are becoming more visible and outspoken.
But McCoy thinks Regis has been adapting too slowly. And after the third time she was labeled a dyke, her complaint to the Denver Police Department ultimately led to a fellow student's being charged with a hate crime.
The Regis University campus is small and picturesque, with century-old buildings surrounded by unremarkable World War II housing developments and trailer parks. But mingling with the meek and needy has long been an institutional ideology. A sculpture mounted above the Student Center depicts the university's namesake, Saint John Francis Regis, surrounded by six gaunt women, whom a plaque identifies as prostitutes that the seventeenth-century Jesuit assisted in the mountains of Southern France. Though the university has expanded to several other campuses across Denver, including Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, the college still maintains a strong social-justice mission. As evidenced in the fliers posted on classroom hallways and included in faculty newsletters, this mission includes prison reform, immigrant rights, universal health care, fighting Third World poverty and other progressive political causes.
That's one reason McCoy wanted to attend Regis after she graduated from Westminster High School in 2002. That summer, she announced to friends and family that she was a lesbian, revealing an orientation she'd sensed at a very young age. Given the church's stance on homosexuality, her friends asked why she'd want to go to a Catholic school.
"I guess I just had a lot of good feelings about Regis," she says now. Her older sister attended Regis, and the northwest Denver school was close to her home in Westminster. It's also highly ranked nationally, regularly earning top-twenty distinctions among similar-sized schools. And even though basic Catholic doctrine still considers acting on homosexual urges a sin, from the start of her freshman year, McCoy found that the campus was a relatively comfortable place for gay and lesbian students.
University president Father Michael Sheeran doesn't see this as a contradiction, but as an extension of the Catholic mission. "We protect all our community as far as we can from intolerance and harassment," he says. In the 1920s, he points out, students at the school stood guard with baseball bats to protect local Italian and Irish immigrants from the KKK. And ever since the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, was founded in the fifteenth century, the religious order has had a reputation for challenging orthodoxy through education and dialogue. ("If you put two Jesuits in a room together, you'll end up with three opinions," goes a classic joke relayed by one faculty member.)
The same year that Alana enrolled at Regis, the school extended its diversity policy to officially ban discrimination of students or faculty based on sexual orientation. Not long after, Regis created an administrative position, Associate to the Provost for Diversity, whose sole task was to promote dialogue on race, class and gender issues. While at secular universities the doctrine of multiculturalism can often seem as didactic as any religious text, Sandra Michel, who took the post, says it was time for Regis to change.
"We try to make students understand that our goal is an inclusive campus," says the diversity administrator. "That doesn't mean that you like everyone or that you agree 100 percent with everyone. But you respect the rights of that person to be a part of that community just as equally as you are."
In 2003, that community elected its first gay student-body president, Scott Shields. The vote rated a story in The Advocate, a national gay magazine.
Father Sheeran expected that article to prompt angry calls or letters. "But none came," he recalls. "And there were no questions raised by anybody at the archdiocese, and I'm sure they knew about that article and they knew about Scott. The thing that I was proud of was that the level of prejudice on campus was so low, that a guy could be publicly gay and it just wasn't a big deal. And that said something."
Shields, who's since graduated and now works in Denver, remembers it differently. Although he wasn't harassed on campus, there was significant blowback from outside of Regis. "When my Advocate article came out, it caused a lot of problems," he says. "Not for students, but higher up, as far as alumni and parents, donors and the diocese." He even talked about it with Father Sheeran.
"And I don't know if I was asked or not, but I kind of walked away from one meeting where they were kind of hoping I would step down," Shields adds. "It was more, 'Is this going to be a problem for us?' He was more worried about his own self and the reputation of the school."
In the fall of 2005, her senior year, Alana McCoy was chosen to serve as an RA in one of Regis's residence halls. Part of an RA's duties includes creating a bulletin-board display in the dorm's hallway; the subject matter can range from current events to musicians, says Michael Uhrig, the assistant hall director who supervised RAs that year. In honor of national "Coming Out Day" in mid-October, Alana decided to post several stories she'd found on the Internet written by young gays, lesbians and transsexuals about their experience making their sexual orientation public.
The day after her bulletin board went up, a typed note was slipped under the doors of several RAs and also sent via e-mail to various administrators. McCoy's display was inappropriate for Regis as a Catholic university, the message charged, also singling out another gay RA for "flirting and expressing other sexual advances toward his homosexual partner." Signed only by "Very Concern Students," the letter warned that "if the wall is not dismantled within 48 hours, me, and many other students who have witnessed this highly vulgar board, will take serious action."
Uhrig got a copy of the message. "When I read that, I guess I was very confused by that line," he says. "What are they going to do, really? But the tone of it was very threatening."
The next day, the board was ripped down. McCoy and other students repaired it, but that night it was ripped down again. McCoy took up the matter with Marie Humphrey, director of residence life, who suggested that she put the board up again, but this time include a printout of "Always Our Children," a document created by Catholic bishops in 1997 as way for parents of gay children to approach the topic. "Always Our Children" has been used by many Catholic schools as a way to interpret church doctrine in modern times; while still calling homosexuality a sin in the eyes of God, it urges Catholics to treat gays and lesbians with love and respect.
This time the board stayed up. And it wasn't long before the students behind the letter and the earlier destruction were identified. By tracing the e-mail address, Campus Safety was able to determine that Zachary Dong, a sophomore from Evergreen, had written the note. And the student who'd ripped down the display was fingered as Alexander Robinson, a freshman.
Both Robinson and Dong declined to comment for this story. According to Robinson's MySpace page, the now-twenty-year-old graduated from Mullen High School, a Catholic college prep school in Denver, and is majoring in international business and finance at Regis.
After the culprits were revealed, Humphrey issued a memo to all student residents reinforcing Regis's commitment to diversity. The school held a public dialogue titled "Gay, Lesbian, Regis, the Church: Dealing With Difficult Issues." The school newspaper, The Highlander, wrote about the incident and published a short editorial by Father Sheeran quoting from "Always Our Children" and reinforcing Catholic doctrine with this: "Regis is committed to Catholic teachings that human sexuality is a gift from God and that sexual activity belongs within the context of marriage between a man and a woman."
Dong and Robinson were called before the school's J-board, a disciplinary panel made up of student peers, to decide if they had violated any of the school code. The confidential hearings continued through several sessions, including one at which McCoy testified. But ultimately, it was decided that their transgressions were not significant enough to warrant expulsion or suspension.
On November 11, 2005, the night that decision was handed down, McCoy discovered the word "DIKE" written on her dorm-room door in permanent ink.
She called campus security. In his report, the officer noted the J-board connection -- but no one ever questioned Dong or Robinson about this act of vandalism. Instead, they placed a small security camera outside McCoy's door. When no more acts of vandalism occurred, the camera was removed.
McCoy considered appealing the J-board decision, but an administrator convinced her to instead go through a faculty-led mediation with Dong, which she describes as mostly "Zach and I arguing." Dong defended his protest of the "Coming Out Day" display by citing statements made by Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, an outspoken critic of American Catholics who remain neutral or silent when church teachings on abortion or gay marriage are contradicted in the political sphere.
After the mediation, McCoy tried to follow up with administrators to determine her options, but she says e-mails and phone messages were not returned. "Basically, I was left out of the case," she says. "I got no information after that, and I still haven't."
Fearing that Regis would not take strong enough action, she'd also reported the door vandalism to the Denver Police Department, along with the earlier damage that the vandals had done to her car. "It seemed they were getting more and more aggressive," McCoy says. "They went from scratching it into the paint to hammering my windshield. I was afraid, but I wasn't sure how to get the word out there. I felt very alone in it, and I felt that the university didn't really want to talk to people about it. I felt like it was up to me if people were going to know about this. But I just wasn't really prepared to do it. I was afraid of retaliation if these people know who I am."
The complaint sat in a District 1 officer's file for more than a year until last month, when DPD officer Karl Roller took over the case. After discovering that McCoy's complaint had "fallen through the cracks," he contacted her and asked if she still wanted to press charges. McCoy, who'd graduated in 2006 but now works in the Regis library, said that she did.
Roller's next step was to contact Regis Campus Safety. When he learned that neither Dong nor Robinson had been questioned regarding the door-vandalism incident, he asked them to meet him at the Campus Safety office. "The night that these two gentlemen were issued their school punishment was the same night that her door got vandalized," says Roller. "Call me stupid, but that kind of points me in that direction."
Robinson quickly confessed to writing the derogatory statement on McCoy's door and said that Dong had been there, too, along with a few other friends. But since it's not illegal to witness an act of vandalism, only Robinson was issued a summons to appear in Denver County Court on charges of criminal mischief and a bias-motivated crime, which falls under the city's hate-crime statute.
Lynn Kimbrough, spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney's Office, says that statute can apply when it can be proven that an individual "knowingly causes damage to or destruction of the property of another person" with intent to intimidate or harass because of race, color, religion or sexual orientation. But such intent is often difficult to prove to a jury, she says, and prosecutors must rely on such things as past crimes or statements that the accused made to friends.
Scrawled on a door, though, the word "dyke" -- even if it's misspelled -- speaks volumes.
"It wouldn't be difficult for us to prove that she certainly felt intimidated," says Kimbrough. "I don't think it would be hard for a deputy to show that the word 'dyke' is never used in a complimentary manner."
In his confession, Robinson said he was upset about the J-board process: "I felt like a victim for being subjected to the material, and after the verdict, the quick moment by her door felt like it was a good idea to write what I did."
That idea got him a date in Denver County Court on April 4; if convicted, Robinson could be sentenced to as much as a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
The whole issue of homosexuality has risen to being probably the biggest controversy at Catholic colleges and universities," says Patrick Reily, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative Catholic group. "Whereas there may have been a legitimate frustration among gay and lesbian students about their inability to be open about what their orientation might be, especially in a Catholic environment, there is now an increasing and very legitimate frustration among many of the students who find that Catholic colleges and universities are afraid to enforce truly Catholic culture."
Reily has noticed that trend growing over the past five years. It used to be that gays and lesbians were often unlikely to attend Catholic universities -- or at least to keep their sexual identities hidden if they did. "But given the increasing openness of many Catholic universities to gays and lesbians, it's going to become even bigger, frankly, because there's going to be more of these students coming to these campuses," he says.
Often the greatest openness -- and the most controversy -- is on the larger campuses or at Jesuit universities. Notre Dame leaders caught criticism over a gay film festival. In Chicago, some Catholics protested the decision by De Paul University to allow students to minor in queer studies. And the debate was heated at Pennsylvania's Duquesne University after school officials refused to allow the formation of a gay student group in 2005.
As an attempt to bridge these tensions, in 1998 the Regis campus ministry encouraged the formation of a group where students could discuss some instances of intimidation against gays that had occurred on campus. Regis philosophy professor Karen Adkins was one of the first faculty advisors; she says it took some time before the group's leaders felt comfortable enough to register their names as officers with Student Activities. "And I don't think they would've been oppressed because of it," she says. "But it spoke to why we needed the group that there was a real climate of not talking about it."
The group was later formally recognized as the Gay/Straight Alliance.
Father Sheeran has always been supportive of the Alliance's mission to increase dialogue and understanding among students, which he identifies as the core mission of a Jesuit education. "The people can talk to each other and understand how things look from another's point of view," he says. "We just found that it was very important for the gays to be heard and the straight students to understand. Because there's an awful lot of just plain lack of understanding for people, especially boys, who are eighteen years old coming here."
But he's careful to point out that the group's mission is philosophical only. "It's not an advocacy group where it's only gays and lesbians who are together not only to support each other but also to have dances, to be advocating the gay lifestyle," Father Sheeran explains. "It is not a social group in that sense; it's a discussion group. It's designed so that people can walk in each other's moccasins. That's different from the kind of thing that you would find has been controversial on campus.
"It is saying no, we don't approve of the gay lifestyle. We think that's bad even for the people who are practicing it. But don't anybody go out there and start harassing them or being disrespectful toward their rights. And especially if they disagree with church teaching, then that's something we presume is with great integrity and that's to be respected."
Last December, an online user posting under the name Zachary Dong wrote a response to a Catholic news website's article about the Knights of Columbus losing support from the University of Wisconsin. "What's worse, I believe, is when Catholic schools fail to uphold the values of their mission statements and seem to be more and more secular," he wrote. "For example, at Regis University I got in trouble for speaking out against a board in my dormitory hallway that was promoting and saying it's acceptable to get a sex change. The catechism clearly prohibits this practice."
Although a Campus Safety officer was present when Robinson confessed to Officer Roller, Regis didn't start any disciplinary proceedings against him until nearly a month later, when McCoy supplied a school administrator with the DPD complaint documents. Robinson has a university hearing on the matter next week.
McCoy still sees Robinson and Dong on campus almost daily. She wonders if it's possible for all of their worldviews to coexist under the same roof -- if tolerance is truly a lesson that can be taught. "I still have a big sense of pride about Regis," she says. "This is my school, too. I want very much to be a part of things that I have so much respect for. But the church doctrine's approach to homosexuality makes it difficult for everybody to reconcile why I'm here or why any gays are here. There are so many issues they pursue that are so noble. I just don't want to disappear from that."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.