The Catholic church, which includes 1.2 billion people worldwide and about half a million in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, has largely not accepted LGBTQ+ people.

Some reformers within the church, including Pope Francis, have in recent years tried to strike a friendlier tone. According to national polls, Catholics have slowly become more accepting of LGBTQ+ people, and individual Catholic parishes have welcomed LGBTQ+ members. But the church’s official doctrine, as spelled out in a “universal law” document called the Catechism, still posits that homosexuality is “intrinsically immoral and contrary to the natural law,” and that queer people are “objectively disordered….”

East Bay Catholic schools are seen by many as having more progressive cultures than Catholic schools in other parts of the country. Schools like Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School, for example, have had openly LGBTQ+ staff for decades. Pride flags have been flown in classrooms at least as far back as the mid-1990s. One LGBTQ+ club has existed for at least 10 years at St. Joe’s, according to teachers at the school. At O’Dowd there has been an LGBTQ+ club for more than 25 years. Gay rights pioneers have been celebrated during spirit weeks at both schools. And in some Bay Area Catholic schools, like St. Joseph Notre Dame High School in Alameda and Bishop O’Dowd, LGBTQ+ faculty and students have long been viewed, and even welcomed, as part of the human tapestry, just as non-Catholic students like Jews and atheists are.

We spoke to nearly a dozen St. Joseph’s students for this story. They told us they’re worried that guidance that East Bay Catholic leaders have been considering would amount to a setback for their school communities, abandoning some of the progress that’s been made in the Bay Area around acceptance of LGBTQ+ people….

“We never felt directly excluded,” one current St. Joseph’s student who identifies as a member of the school’s LGBTQ+ community told us. They said that there were never any worries about displaying a pride flag on campus before this year.

“It was not a big deal,” another St. Joe’s student who has friends in the school’s LGBTQ+ community said in an interview over Zoom.

“Using they or them pronouns is really common,” a younger student told us. “Even though teachers don’t ask all the time, they sometimes will use the right pronouns. We have some gender-neutral bathrooms [too].”

Another student, who spoke to us outside the school alongside his mother, told us that the school always appeared to be a learning environment first and foremost, and not a place for cultural battles to be fought. Restrictive gender guidance, he said, “has nothing to do with education.”

According to the students we spoke with, the tone at St. Joseph’s started to around the time Mario Rizzo took over as the head priest at the campus church in 2020. Earlier this year, when rumors began to swirl about new guidance on gender and sex that the Oakland Diocese was considering, the climate became much more tense.

From the Oaklandside