When 16-year-old Emma Houle was named Coming Home Princess at their school rally in early October, their classmates cheered from the stands. Some said they were crying.

Houle, who identifies as a fluent homosexual person and uses them / them pronouns, pulled a large pride flag out of his ivory pantsuit and covered it over his shoulders. They were probably the first openly gay person to be named Homecoming Princess at St. Francis High School, a Catholic school for girls in Sacramento.

But days later, Houle said he had been warned by school administrators that any further public manifestation of homosexuality would result in disciplinary action.

Katharine Smith, Houle’s mother, who was present at this meeting, said she let Houle and the administrators talk most of the time, but stepped in when the conversation got tense, and especially when felt her child’s sexuality was being questioned.

School administrators confirmed Houle waved the flag at the rally, but would not discuss the warnings given to Houle as they “cannot specifically comment on student conduct,” said Tina Tedesco, director of communications from school.

“They want to empower young women to change the world, but then they say, ‘Well, they’re underage, they don’t have the power to decide now (if they’re gay),” Smith said. “It is a poor show of leadership to say that minors cannot make decisions about their beliefs and their sexuality on their own. “

School administrators said the school has a long history of accepting gay and lesbian students.

“I can tell you that we have openly gay and lesbian students on campus, and we have a code of conduct that all parents agree to,” Tedesco said.

This was not the first time Houle had said they had been shunned by administrators at St. Francis School on issues relating to students who identify as LGBTQ.

When Houle and several friends attempted to start a Gay and Straight Alliance club, St. Francis administrators did not approve of the idea, pointing to an already existing group that serves LGBTQ students on campus: Inclusion 360.

The problem, Houle said, is that Inclusion 360 is a ministry, not a school club. Inclusion 360 allows gay, lesbian, queer students and their allies to come together on campus. But the students say it’s not advertised as a school club.

“(Inclusion 360) aren’t involved in the school press, we’re not on the school website or magazines, or anything,” Houle said.

Smith said the students, including Houle, feel hidden.

“Why do they need to be served? ” she asked. “It makes them feel subjugated and marginalized. ”

Students Defend LGBTQ Rights

School officials say they understand students and alumni want St. Francis to share a more visible stance on LGBTQ issues, but as a Catholic school there are limits.

“We hear that we need to do a better job to make every student feel valued, supported and loved at St. Francis High School,” a statement from the school read. “We continually strive to live up to the example of love and acceptance shown by Jesus and our Patron Saints, Saint Francis and Saint Clare. At the same time, we are a Catholic school which must respect and support the teachings of the Catholic Church. This sometimes puts our mission at odds with what many expect of us on this important social issue. Simply put, there are limits to what we can support or endorse while still staying in accord with the teachings of our church. Right now, we don’t think we can start an LGBTQ + club on campus for this reason. “

Smith said the school’s reasoning made no sense. There are clubs affiliated with religions for other denominations that do not correspond to Catholic teachings.

Houle said their goal was to be as respected as other students on campus.

“I’m frustrated and want to make sure queer students on campus feel seen,” they said.

Alumni recently took to Instagram and Facebook, sharing how difficult their stay at St. Francis was because they didn’t feel accepted. On Friday, dozens of St. Francis students held a rally in the schoolyard in support of Houle, carrying signs reading “Love Wins” and “We Won’t Be Quiet.”

In a newsletter after the rally, the principal of St. Francis School, Elias Mendoza, also said that as a diocesan Catholic school, it is not in a position to “support or approve an iconography or a political position contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church ”.

Mendoza encouraged parents to discuss the concept of legal separation of church and state with their daughters, and referred to the student-parent manual and code of conduct that “clearly expresses the expectations” for all students. and the parents : “A necessary condition for maintaining SFHS enrollment is that students behave in a manner, both on and off campus, that is consistent with SFHS principles and Christian philosophy.

Other Catholic high schools in the area have clubs that support LGBTQ students. Christian Brothers High School has a pride club. The Jesuit High School has an All Love Alliance, stating that “The Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirms the Church’s call to treat members of the LGBTQIA + community with respect, compassion and sensitivity, which the ALA aims to achieve. defend to the Jesuits. ”

Smith, Houle, and many current and former St. Francis students want to know why St. Francis won’t do the same.

This answer may lie in the functioning of the diocese.

Saint Francis is under the diocese. Its rules and code of conduct are governed by the Diocese of Sacramento. The parent and student manual, which includes a dress code, disciplinary guidelines and COVID-19 protocol, is under the direction of the bishop.

And while the Diocese of Sacramento has relationships with Jesuit and Christian brethren, the Jesuits operate under the Company of Jesus, or Jesuits. Christian Brothers operates under the De La Salle Christian Brothers.

Jesuit Catholics and Lasallian Catholics are generally more politically and socially liberal, and tend to focus more on social and economic justice than on doctrinal disputes.

But Houle and Smith said the Catholic Church has worked hard to include the LGBTQ community. Pope Francis has a warm acceptance towards the LGBTQ community. “We have to find a way to help this mother or father support their (LGBTQ) son or daughter,” he told a conservative newspaper in Argentina in 2014.

For Houle, a club does not mean that Catholic tenants or a code of conduct are broken.

“I have a lot of emotions about it,” Houle said. “The frustrations and confusions were up there. Catholic education does not necessarily discriminate against the queer community. All we ask is equal treatment and love of Saint Francis. We are not asking to be married in church or in Saint Francis. We are simply asking for equal opportunities.

This story was originally published October 13, 2021 5:00 a.m.

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Sawsan Morrar covers responsibility and school culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumnus of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, she was a freelance writer for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.