Queer alumni speak up in search of good faith at STM

Cait Marshall
Cait Marshall felt like a target as a queer student at St. Thomas More Photo by Travis Gauthier

Editor’s Note: This story contains harsh language and stories that may be distressing to some readers.

At 16 years old, Cait Marshall felt like a target. At St. Thomas More Catholic High School, teachers required students to take stands on abortion, the death penalty, assisted suicide and gay marriage — literally. Students were directed to either side of a classroom, declaring their opinions visibly. Marshall stood out. 

“Everyone in that class knew I was gay. Everyone in that class knew that I was being targeted,” Marshall says.

Their [Marshall uses they/them pronouns] experience is typical of LGBT students at St. Thomas More, many of whom have begun to speak out about their time at the prominent Catholic school. Responding to a policy outlining the school’s and Catholic Church’s position on gender and sexual identity, queer alumni have come forward to put a face on the people it affects.

The collective, named We Demand More, has gathered more than 100 testimonies of alumni and is working toward a dialogue with the school and the diocese to repeal the policy. 

Now prominently displayed in the student handbook, and those of other local Catholic schools, the policy codifies that any expression of gender or sexuality “inconsistent with [Roman Catholic] principles” among students and faculty is prohibited. 

The policy isn’t new. For the alumni who have rallied around We Demand More, it verbalizes a culture that stifled and even traumatized them. 

“The worst treatment I received for being gay came from the ages of 14 to 18 years old — at STM,” Marshall says. 

Representatives of STM and the Diocese of Lafayette did not respond to requests for comment. 

“Our focus is on children in the schools following what the church teaches,” diocese spokeswoman Blue Rolfes told The Advocate in August. 

When Marshall arrived in 2010, they found a cliquish school that glorified athletes, leaving little room for anyone who didn’t conform to that ideal. While “nerds” or “stoner types” could float by, the isolation was particularly hard for LGBT students. 

“The culture was, if you were not a male athlete, you kind of just breezed under the radar for the most part, unless you were gay. Yeah. That was the one difference that you couldn’t just breeze,” Marshall says.  

STM’s culture remained largely the same by the time Ellis Clay stepped foot on campus in 2017.

“If you’re queer, you’re ostracized every single second out of the day,” he says. It was with these patterns of discrimination in mind that Clay felt compelled to act when a current STM student made contact with him. 

Ellis Clay
Ellis Clay has continued to pursue faith, even as his time at STM made him question it. Photo by Travis Gauthier

In July, Ellis sent a call to action to a group chat with members of his graduating class: band with him to voice their concerns to STM. In the coming weeks those alumni would grow to include students from as far back as 1993.

The group has emphasized storytelling to highlight queer students’ struggles at STM that they say this policy will exacerbate. We Demand More’s Instagram page attracted a big following quickly, publishing first-person stories that resonated with alumni near and far:

“I had to shrug off when one of my religion teachers equated homosexuality to pedophilia, and tried not to cry when another told us how AIDS and prostate cancer was God’s punishment for gay people, and if they died they deserved it. I learned that God’s love was for everyone, unless you were gay.” — Sydney Hemphill (she/her), Class of 2020

“My opinion of Catholicism diminished in an extreme way as I watched the same bullies who called me a faggot in the hallways lead praise and workshop during mass and received accolades from the administration.” — Justin Zuschlag (he/him), STM 1999-2000

“My time at STM was the worst four years of my life. When I was 15, the band director told my mom to drive across town for a private meeting with him. He had had seen me ‘rough housing’ with another girl after practice, so he told my mom that I must be gay. He also told the story to an entire class of my peers while substituting the next day.” — Zay Stansbury (she/her), Class of 2009

Whether it came from students or faculty, Marshall and Clay went through STM bracing for antagonism. Marshall managed to find solace in their softball team, where coaches were some of the only adults who advocated for them and their teammates were relatively tolerant. Ellis excelled in the comfort of Speech and Debate and went on to compete at the national level. Despite the camaraderie, they still feared repercussions as potentially the only “out” person in their grade.

“I would get dressed facing my locker,” Marshall says. “And then I would sit down. I would kind of like, look around. I’d only like make eye contact. I’m talking and making eye contact because God forbid, somebody said that I was doing something inappropriate in the locker room. It was a fear. It was a fear. I was scared.”

Aside from the peace they experienced within the bubble of student sports and activities, respite was rare and humiliation all too common. 

Annual “Morality Weeks” were particularly trying, especially for Marshall. During a Morality Week section on sexuality, Marshall’s teacher made an example of them. 

After a week’s lecture demonizing homosexuality, the teacher singled out Marshall, telling them she would not accept her own daughter if she were gay. 

“If I had a daughter who told me that she was a lesbian, I’d never forgive her,” Marshall recalls the teacher saying. “I would tell her to pray. I would tell her to repent and hope God saves her, but I could not accept her how she is. Gay people are damned to hell. And I don’t want to have a kid that is damned to hell.” 

“Five or six girls were on the side of the wall with me,” Marshall says, a minority of the class. As if it weren’t already obvious, their teacher made her position very clear — she stood on the opposite side of the classroom. 

Opposition from faculty felt especially malicious, even when it came with some compassion. Ellis recalls tension with his religious teacher, a family friend. He struggled to square his teacher’s views with his own sexuality. 

His relationship with faith fraying, Ellis pushed forward with participating in Kairos, a two-day retreat for upperclassmen meant for students wishing to grow deeper in faith and in their relationship with God. Reconciling his spirituality with the rhetoric of STM’s faculty and staff proved difficult, but Ellis hasn’t given up. 

“I could never confess being gay because I didn’t think it was wrong,” Clay says of the Catholic practice of reconciliation. “Going to Kairos … it’s the thing you do, and I went. And I figured this was it for me and God. Now, my second year of college, I’m still trying to build a relationship with God, wanting to believe that is a possibility. That school fucks you up, especially if you don’t agree.”

Beyond statements in the press, neither STM nor the diocese have agreed to the dialogue sought by We Demand More. The silence speaks volumes, Clay and Marshall say. 

“It’s really concerning that STM is not providing a public or a private response, especially for those current queer students there,” Ellis says. “There are steps STM can take to change their culture right now that they’re not willing to do. If we can have an open dialogue with them in good faith, we can make those changes together.”