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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane LGBTQ community has mixed feelings after pope’s support of same-sex civil unions

Pope Francis waves to faithful at the end of the weekly general audience in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.  (Gregorio Borgia)

When Katie Carter first heard Pope Francis’ statement in support of same-sex civil unions, she was shocked.

She thought back to growing up as a queer person attending Catholic school for almost her entire life.

Carter had known she was queer since she was 6, but experienced shame and fear throughout her childhood.

She saw teachers get fired because of their sexual orientation and was consistently told she was a sinner.

Carter, who is now the CEO of the Pride Foundation, didn’t come out until she was 25. Maybe if the pope had been more inclusive when she was growing up, she thinks now, she would’ve come out sooner.

“It’s not enough,” Carter said. “But I would’ve never thought the church would make this tiny step.”

Francis became the first to support same-sex civil unions in an interview for the documentary “Francesco,” which premiered Wednesday at the Rome Film Festival. In the film, Francis said homosexual people have the right to be in a family, according to the Associated Press.

“They are children of God,” he said. “You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”

It was a quote that shocked many in the community, both gay Catholics and strict conservatives who demand clarifications, given the church’s original teachings on gay marriage.

For the Spokane LGBTQ community, the statement brought out mixed feelings.

“This is progress,” said Robbi Katherine Anthony, founder of Solace, an app that provides resources to those transitioning. “But it’s a long fight.”

Anthony was the first transgender person to run for a major office in Spokane County when she entered the race for county commissioner in 2018. She grew up Catholic, graduating from Gonzaga Prep.

She left the church in college, but she said Francis’ statement may open a door for her to reengage with faith.

The statement doesn’t change much legally, as same-sex marriage has been legal in Washington since 2012.

It’s also important to recognize Francis did not change any law within the church, said Bryan Pham, attorney, Jesuit priest and Gonzaga Law School chaplain. He is only referring to that of civil law.

But for many in the LGBTQ community, it’s the first step in the right direction.

“It’s heartwarming for the pope to make a statement that homosexual people have the right to be in a family,” said Dean Lynch, former city councilman. He was the first openly gay person to serve in an elected office in Spokane city government.

Some members of the Catholic community weren’t surprised by Francis’ statement, given his record of speaking out about LGBTQ issues. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis endorsed civil unions as an alternate to same-sex marriages.

“He’s shown wonderful compassion in so many ways,” said Gail Hammer, Gonzaga law professor and faculty supervisor for the Lincoln LGBTQ+ Rights Clinic.

Hammer and Pham started the clinic of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at Gonzaga University. The clinic, which began in February, offers legal services that focus on issues facing the LGBTQ community, including government identification cards, family law, domestic violence and discrimination. It also provides education and outreach with the help of Gonzaga’s Lincoln LGBTQ+ Resource Center.

It is the first Jesuit university to have a clinic of this kind.

The goal is to help students gain real-world experience and engage in civil discourse surrounding LGBTQ issues, Pham said.

The clinic received pushback from the community when it first opened, including Bishop Thomas Daly, of the Spokane Catholic diocese. Daly said the clinic would be actively promoting values contrary to the Catholic faith and natural law. Daly declined to comment for this story.

Pham said he didn’t see the pushback as negative.

“The pushback is a way in which the community is growing and trying to understand,” Pham said.

LGBTQ people are disproportionately affected by discrimination and in the criminal justice system, Hammer said. It is important that students learn to respect those who are marginalized, something she said is in line with the core values of Catholicism – similar to Francis’ statement about civil unions.

While Lynch appreciated the statement, he said it still doesn’t change how the church feels about gay marriage, which can make it difficult for youth struggling with sexual identity and orientation.

“The policy still is, homosexuality is considered a sin,” he said.

Esteban Herevia did not grow up Catholic, but he grew up Evangelical and felt similar exclusion.

He went through conversion therapy, the controversial practice of attempting to change someone’s sexuality using psychological, physical or spiritual intervention.

“A lot of the motivation for using these practices were out of this understanding that LGBTQ has no place in the church,” he said.

Herevia, now the president of Spokane Pride, said it seems like Francis is accepting the importance of the LGBTQ community’s lives but still not saying they are equal.

Ian Sullivan, executive director at Odyssey Youth Movement in Spokane, agreed.

“The language used by Pope Francis still feels like an ‘othering’ of the LGBTQ+ community in that we are human enough to deserve legal protections, but not quite equal enough to deserve full marriage recognition and equality,” Sullivan wrote in an email.

Herevia said he doesn’t want to take away from the celebration, but instead understand what the statement means and who is saying it.

“I definitely think some folks are going to find healing in those words,” he said.

Anthony said she hopes parents who have LGBTQ kids look to Francis’ statement for guidance.

“It just reinforces on another level that we’re designed perfectly,” Anthony said. “Who you are is truly wonderful.”

Lynch said he is more interested in how the statement will affect the local Catholic community, including the bishop and diocese.

Sullivan said the bigger effect on the LGBTQ community is how the local community reacts to these statements. He said it can be exhausting to only receive “bread crumbs of support from community leaders.”

“LGBTQ+ youth need strong and unapologetic leaders in faith communities, government, and in every home,” he said.

The statement focuses on the importance of honoring and supporting family, regardless of who is in it, Pham said. His biggest hope is that local communities and parents listen to Francis’ words, especially those regarding respecting families. Francis made his statement globally, he said, but it’s another thing to hear it at the dining room table.

It’s something that resonates with Hammer, who pointed to the disproportionate amount of LGBTQ youth who are kicked out of their homes.

“I hope it’s taken to heart,” she said. “Things that happen in families have a profound effect on the rest of our lives.”

Carter, who is no longer Catholic, now works to make sure LGBTQ people who may be in a noninclusive faith community know there’s an entire community that supports them.

It’s not up to the church to decide who someone is, Carter said.

“Even if they’re not there yet, that doesn’t disaffirm who you are, or your value in the world,” she said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.