Diversity and Democracy

"In Dreams Begins Responsibility": LGBTQ Work in Jesuit Higher Education

Editor's note: This article originated in an address delivered at the Expanding the Circle conference on March 5, 2011, in San Francisco, California.

Georgetown University
Georgetown University

"In dreams begins responsibility," a phrase from an old Irish Catholic play, is something of a touchstone for doing the work of LGBTQ inclusion on Jesuit campuses. Many LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff have long dreamed of having space, value, and belonging at Georgetown University and other Jesuit institutions. Yet no dreams are possible without an individual and collective sense of responsibility for creating a community that gives expression to the full range of each person's humanity and dignity—a fundamental Jesuit principle.

Nationally, educators are increasingly called to address the importance of religious identity in students' intellectual and emotional development. We are inattentive to students' spirituality at our own risk. This lesson has particular salience at the delicate intersections of LGBTQ work in a Jesuit school. For some, the mere existence of an LGBTQ Center at a Catholic institution is a miracle; for others, it is a source of continued skepticism. Both perspectives are right and true. Holding such incommensurables in creative tension is necessary to LGBTQ work in higher education and to the work of higher education itself.

The Contradictions of Identity-Based Centers

The history of Georgetown's LGTBQ Center is complex and layered, but its creation was precipitated by a hate crime that went unreported on campus, spurring students to organize in 2007. Georgetown eventually recognized these students' collective vision of their interconnected lives and journeys by creating the LGBTQ Center in 2008.

LGBTQ centers are the latest entrants in a long line of "identity-based" centers in US higher education. Many of these centers have drawn validation, authority, and credence from inter- and counter-disciplinary inquiries that challenge traditional disciplinary formations, and their work has proven deeply empowering. But their existence can also posit members of identity groups as "problems" (following W. E. B. DuBois's famous formulation) (1969, 43). Once so defined, it is easier to argue that we are to be fixed, diminished, or eradicated, and that our centers serve that purpose.

Indeed, the archetypal "coming out" story positions LGBTQ individuals as "wounded people." The trope of "I was in the closet, and now I am out; I was in darkness, and now there is light" has the classic hallmarks of conversion narrative and carries as its palimpsest the subtext of colonial history. James Alison has characterized "coming out" as a "penitential moment," and there is power in that truth (2001, xi): coming out is about bearing witness among those who "bore the cross" before us. The coming out process ossifies LGBTQ communities: it is our moment of origin. It is also our liminal space and our narrative end.

These formulations can be inimical to higher education's purpose of working with the "whole student." Using them, the LGBTQ Center's work can become about crisis management, not knowledge production; about working with gay students rather than all students. This limits the scope of our programs, role, and advocacy.

(Re)Framing through the Ignatian Prism

How can we move beyond cross-cultural collaboration across discrete centers to educate what Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach calls "whole persons of solidarity" (2000)? What would happen if we reframed LGBTQ issues within the Ignatian paradigm of moving from woundedness to wholeness—a journey all people, not just some of us, share? The Ignatian concepts of flourishing, discernment, and imagination can offer an alternative narrative for educating students to their fullest range as sentient human beings.


Current discourses in higher education focus on excellence as tied to certain measurable outcomes: recruitment, retention, learning, graduation rates. Excellence is about providing programs that address students' social, emotional, intellectual, and developmental needs. It is about collaborating across units to help students grow and find integration between their academic and personal lives, between on-campus and off-campus communities.

What if we took excellence a step farther and focused on flourishing: in the Ignatian paradigm, the fundamental purpose of God's creation. Flourishing is about nurturing life in its multidimensional splendor as a reflection of the Creator; as the Jesuit poet Hopkins states, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God" (1986, 1581). It charges us as a community to create spaces that will foster the growth of inner life, both for individuals and for the community. It requires us to intentionally make time, space, and effort for students to reflect on their lived experiences, realize complexity, and recognize paradox.


To understand the Jesuit concept of discernment, one must fully grasp the place of desire in our ethical lives. Members of LGBTQ communities are often held up as purveyors of disordered desire. But according to theologian Sebastian Moore, in the Ignatian tradition, "The blazing truth is that fear of desire [rather than desire itself] creates a ‘moral' world, of good people (who keep the fear going) and bad people (who dangerously relax it). Jesus is free of the fear of desi...and seeks to awaken this freedom in people so that desire can be in them what it really is: love trying to happen" (2008, 143).

Correctly discerned, then, desire leads to the flourishing that God wants for us. As Father Mark Thibodeaux articulates it, "We fall into sin when we are ignorant of [God's] desires beneath [our] desires [....] We sin, not because we are in touch with our desires but precisely because we are not in touch with them" (n.d.). Thus desire is about the rights and obligations each human has to be deeply connected to the full range of our own humanity.

In the Jesuit tradition, discernment is knowing God's desires for us and locating God's presence in our lives and work. I am calling here not for the presence of a particular God or conceptualization of spirituality—and most certainly not of a particular religious organization—in our lives. Instead, I am asking that educators give ourselves and our students a chance for education that addresses our spirits, however we may experience them. Discernment helps us do that, and therefore permits us to make informed choices and shape ethical lives.


According to Father Adolfo Nicolas, "Imagination grasps reality. Depth of thought and imagination involves a profound engagement with the real, a refusal to let go until one goes beneath the surface" (2010). Here, imagination is not an escape, but rather a continuous, consistent discernment that allows us to hold reality's paradoxes in place. With imagination, our ambivalences and binaries need not be resolved, but can exist in tension. Without imagination, we cannot build community, which is not an erasure of differences but rather a grappling with what is real.

The more we as educators are able to instill in students a capacious imagination that can move them beyond binaries—from tension and contradiction to a deep appreciation of paradox and mystery—the better we are able to offer them transformative educational experiences. Faith, like poetry, can give us frameworks for reimagining possibilities for our paradoxical lives.

Final Thoughts

Liberal education asks us to consider who we are and why we are here. It is incomplete if it does not also include a profound engagement with the question of spirituality's presence or absence in our intellectual and emotional lives. With such engagement, our campuses can become more whole communities not only for LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff, but for all of us.


Alison, James. 2001. Faith beyond Resentment: Fragments for a Gay Catholic Living. NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

DuBois, W. E. B. 1969. "Of Our Spiritual Strivings." The Souls of Black Folk. New York: New American Library.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. 1986. In The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th ed. edited by M.H. Abrams, vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Kolvenbach, Peter-Hans. 2000. "The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education." Address presented at the Commitment Conference, Santa Clara, CA.

Moore, Sebastian. 2008. The Contagion of Jesus. New York: Orbis Books.

Nicolas, Adolfo. 2010. "Depth, Universality, and Learned Ministry: Challenges to Jesuit Higher Education Today." Keynote delivered at Networking Jesuit Higher Education: Shaping the Future for a Humane, Just, Sustainable Globe, Mexico City, April 23. http://www.ajcunet.edu.

Thibodeaux, Mark E., S.J. N.d. "Praydreaming: Key to Discernment." Catholic Update. http://www.americancatholic.org/

Sivagami Subbaraman is the director of the LGBTQ Resource Center, Georgetown University.


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