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.)