A planned screening of the biopic chronicling the life of gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk was scrapped at the Catholic University of America Wednesday after administrators said showing the film violated a campus policy banning events that advocate for positions contrary to Catholic teaching.
“I was extremely disappointed that this was happening. I thought this was an incredibly asinine decision that the school made,” said Jackson Tovar, a member of the College Democrats, the group that was to host “Milk and Cookies.”
School officials said they postponed the event because they believed it failed to meet school standards, according to a statement sent to Crux by university spokesman Victor Nakas.
“When the request for approval had first been submitted by the College Democrats to the Office of Campus Activities there had been no indications that the program would be a kickoff to LGBT Awareness Month,” the statement said. “On September 30, the Office of the Dean of Students was made aware of the advertising. For University administrators it called into question whether the event had changed in nature from one of education to one of advocacy.”
The event was canceled the next morning, the day of the program.
According to event organizers, administrators at the university approved the event and its advertising last month. Students were invited to hear talks from John White, a politics professor at the university, and Kevin Walling, chair of the Montgomery Country Democrats, about the effect of the gay rights movement on the Democratic Party. After the talks, there was to be a showing of “Milk,” along with free milk and cookies.
A 2007 graduate of the university, Walling said he was “pretty disappointed” in his alma mater, “number one for how they treated their students, and number two, how they treated this topic.”
Walling, who is gay, said he wrote an educational talk about “the progress made in the Catholic Church, especially with the new path taken by our Holy Father. This seems like a regression.”
He said he didn’t plan to urge students to get involved in the fight for gay rights, but rather, “just talk about how much progress we’ve made as Catholics, as Democrats, on issues of equality and tolerance.”
Tovar, an organizer of the event, also rejected the notion that it was about advocacy.
“We’re not forcing gay rights, or forcing a belief in gay marriage, on anybody at our school,” said Tovar, a sophomore politics major from Ventura, Calif. “It was purely LGBT awareness month — awareness being the key word,”
Students say school officials told them to postpone the event also because of concerns over the size of a rainbow flag on the flyer, as well as the event’s description: “Kick Off LGBT Awareness Month!” Some LGBT activists designate October “LGBT History Month,” which the university does not recognize. The canceled event was based on a 2011 program held at the university that showed “Milk.”
A statement from College Democrats said the group was “disappointed that our event had to be canceled due to what is perceived to be a miscommunication concerning OCA [Office of Campus Activities]” and that they “had no intention of undermining the administration or holding an event that went against school policies.”
In 2012, the university, which holds a papal charter, rejected a bid from a group of LGBT students to form an official student group. The school said in a statement at the time that “there is a fine line, easily crossed, between a group dedicated to education and support of individuals who identify themselves as homosexuals and one that engages in advocacy on behalf of a homosexual lifestyle.”
Students, faculty, and staff are invited to take a “community pledge” that rejects discrimination against gays and lesbians. Those signing the statement promise to “reject and witness against bullying and violence toward women or men of any race, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status, or persons with disabilities.”
Students said the decision to cancel the event was emblematic of the school’s discomfort with LGBT issues.
“It’s sad that we can’t even have a mention of LGBT awareness on a flyer for an event,” said Conner Guyer, a senior politics major from Baldwinsville, N.Y. “It’s sad and couldn’t be more backwards.”
Steve Morris, a gay sophomore who is a member of the College Republicans, said the decision ““underscores the school’s discomfort and fashioned ideas about this issue.” He said most students he’s spoken with supported the event, and called the decision to cancel a “generational disconnect” between students and administrators.”
“I can’t help but think if Pope Francis — he of ‘Who am I to judge?’ — were making this decision, there wouldn’t have been an issue about it at all,” said Morris, a politics major from Springfield, Virginia.
Both the College Democrats and the university said they plan to reschedule the event for October. Walling, the alum who had been scheduled to speak, said he contacted university administrators for more information about why the event was canceled, but had not yet received a reply.
Still, he said he hopes to return to campus to give his talk if the event is rescheduled.
“The fact that the university canceled this event the day of is sparking an important conversation the university should have,” he said, “and hopefully some good will come out of this.”
The full statement from the Catholic University of America:
“At The Catholic University of America all student organizations are required to submit a written request to the Office of Campus Activities whenever they wish to organize a program that will feature a speaker or speakers who are not students, faculty, or staff. In mid-September, the University’s chapter of the College Democrats organization submitted a request for approval of an external speaker to participate in an educational program about the impact of the gay rights movement on the Democratic Party. The proposed program, Milk & Cookies, was to consist of an educational discussion followed by a movie screening. Following a review by an administrator in the Office of Campus Activities, the request was approved. A member of the Catholic University faculty and a Catholic University alumnus were scheduled to speak at the event.
“In late September, the College Democrats began to advertise the event as a kickoff to LGBT Awareness Month. When the request for approval had first been submitted by the College Democrats to the Office of Campus Activities there had been no indications that the program would be a kickoff to LGBT Awareness Month. On September 30, the Office of the Dean of Students was made aware of the advertising. For University administrators it called into question whether the event had changed in nature from one of education to one of advocacy.
“Given the confusion caused by the advertising, the Office of the Dean of Students contacted the College Democrats to postpone the event. The Director of Campus Activities is working with the College Democrats to review the program request to ensure that the program is presented as an educational event, as originally planned. It is our expectation that it will be rescheduled for later in October.”