Fordham president Tania Tetlow to LGBTQ people: “I am here to tell you that you are loved.”

Views Tania Tetlow / July 21, 2023 Print this:
Tania Tetlow, the first lay and first woman president of Fordham University, speaks at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, in New York City, on June 16, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Cristobal Spielmann/America Media)

The following is the text of a keynote address delivered by Fordham University president Tania Tetlow at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, in New York City, during the 2023 Outreach conference.

I am here to tell you that you are loved, bathed in the overwhelming love and acceptance of God. The love of Jesus, who made it a central tenet of our faith to avoid the sin of marginalizing people—defining them as other, treating them as less worthy. To marginalize is a sin. To love is our command. 

You are loved by the church made up of the People of God—the church we claim, the church we fight for because we know it must constantly strive to better live up to the Gospels. 

And you are loved by Fordham University, and a growing tide of Catholic institutions who realize it is not enough to love you in a passive “we love everyone” way. We love you, we respect you, we value you. And we run our universities with and for you.   

You are loved by the church made up of the People of God—the church we claim, the church we fight for because we know it must constantly strive to better live up to the Gospels. 

I am in awe of your courage, of the depth of your loving commitments that have required such courage. I wish that the world did not demand such strength from you.  But you are, nonetheless, fiercely strong because you’ve had no choice. And, I imagine, you are often seriously exhausted. 

In the activism I have done in my life—around domestic violence and sexual assault, in fighting racism in the criminal justice system—I often think: two steps forward, two steps back. Because progress—visible, shining progress—gets met with a moment of real self-congratulations in this country. (Aren’t we so virtuous? Don’t feel good about ourselves?) And then begins the vicious blowback. There are so many examples of that cycle in the last few years. 

A shift in attitudes

After a decade of yelling into the wind, #MeToo created a moment I never thought I’d see: a country suddenly facing the scourge of rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment. And then we elected a president caught bragging about sexual assault.    

After the summer of Black Lives Matter marches across the country, a time of serious moral reckoning, we now suffer through a wave of states attempting to literally rewrite history and to ban diversity and equity training. (By the way, I’m seriously curious if you’re still allowed to mention the Declaration of Independence and “all men are created equal” in certain states, or if it’s verboten.)

And after a remarkable transformation in attitudes and understanding of LGBTQ issues, and a new willingness to acknowledge and celebrate the complexity of gender and gender identity, we see a vicious opposition. Waves of hostile legislation. Violence, including mass shootings. We see the terrible toll on our students’ mental health, on their sense of safety and belonging. I imagine that many of you are exhausted, and afraid.   

What I pray, fervently, is that it is the seismic force of the progress that creates the flailing, terrible backlash. We cannot forget that progress. Those eager to scare us now want us to despair, to lose our greatest weapon, which is hope. And so we celebrate the progress, and the sea change in attitudes in this country, on sexuality and all of the intersecting issues of race and gender, nationality, religion and disability. We celebrate the progress because we can never, ever forget the heroes who got us here. And there are so very many millions of heroes of this movement.  

This is your collective power: the ministry of reconciliation. To find the strength to forgive ignorance. To know that love might not be enough to conquer fear and hate, but to find the courage to try.  

When my courageous sister came out

I remember well the week in the mid-1990s when my sister found the unbelievable courage to come out to our family and friends. She told me how worried she was about the stupid things they might say and how much that would wound her. She worried that some of our extended family would walk away from her altogether.  

She started with our parents, talking to them by phone so she at least wouldn’t have to witness facial expressions. My dad, a psychologist, insisted quite proudly that he knew all along. My mom managed to say all the right things. My sister never did tell the conservative extended relatives, though I watched them over time work through denial of the obvious truth to overt acceptance, in their way. 

My favorite reaction was the dear friend, a little younger than us, whom I saw right after my sister called to tell her. She said, and I quote, “Well, if Sonia is gay, then it must be fine!” And then, “I feel so cosmopolitan!”

I cannot quite fathom the magnitude of courage shown, from the beginning of history. It is a courage that gathered speed and snowballed and changed the world. I wish I could know each of your stories, and what happened. Who were you terrified to tell who surprised you? Who broke your heart?  

This is your collective power: the ministry of reconciliation. To find the strength to forgive ignorance. To know that love might not be enough to conquer fear and hate, but to find the courage to try.  

Our response to pushback and hatred

As a nation, as a world, the distance we have traveled has been remarkable, but so is the pushback. Why is it so strong? I don’t have any answers. 

When I study the history of race in this country, the creation of an elaborate and fierce caste system, I see the importance of the binary to support that system. American law created a racial binary with an absolutism unknown elsewhere. The “one-drop” rule protected the hierarchy and made segregation possible.  

It is an even older system, wrapped up in the fundamentalist version of so many of the world’s religions, to divide humanity into two absolutes of gender—subordinate women and dominant men. And those who would blur those lines, or leap across those lines or love someone they are forbidden to love, they challenge everything.  

Because in many ways, societal contempt for lesbians has always been rooted in their taking on the trappings and confidence and power of men. Societal contempt for gay men has been rooted in their rejection of toxic masculinity, their inexplicable willingness to relinquish their power as swaggering men. 

Our fierce attachment to gender as binary, as absolute, as moral and political imperative, makes the presence of LGB (and especially trans) people anathema. In this fundamentalist world, you exist as a challenge to everything held dear.  

Because we represent a church whose doctrines make many of those same students feel rejected and judged, exiled and condemned, silent approval will not be nearly good enough. 

I was raised in a different worldview. My mom is a biblical scholar who taught me to look for clues in Gospels. That Jesus preached outside rather than in synagogues, because that’s where men and women both could gather. That the resurrection was first revealed to the women.  

My father was a Jesuit for 17 years before he left to have a family. He impressed upon us constantly the central message of the Gospels: love, courage, sacrifice, gratitude. He used to mock those who claimed to read the Bible literally, but then contorted it beyond recognition. “They think Jesus was just kidding!” he’d say.

My father was also a clinical psychologist. He taught my sisters and me that it is almost impossible to know what biological differences are created by sex because we are so steeped in the social norms of gender. As a point of pride, and perhaps in part because he had no sons to treat differently, he pushed his daughters to embrace our ambition and intellect.  

And when his middle daughter found the courage to come out to him, he responded not just with mere tolerance, but with utter respect for her courage and happiness that she found love.   

And that is the most extraordinary part of the progress we should celebrate, that move beyond mere tolerance to respect and admiration. To me, that came from the move to legalize gay marriage and to embed it as a constitutional right. The fight for marriage reminded Americans of the most profound shared values, of what it means to commit your heart and life to someone through sickness and health. The loyalty and love. The work and effort.  

My sister and her wife have been utterly devoted to each other for 24 years.  They have lived with abundant joy and they have comforted each other through terrible suffering. They support each other with equality that remains far rarer in heterosexual marriages.   

Walking the tightrope

But the reason I imagine that I’m here is to answer the harder question. How do I walk the tightrope of leading a Catholic institution given my own struggles with some of the church’s teachings? 

How do I walk the tightrope of leading a Catholic institution given my own struggles with some of the church’s teachings? 

Well, there are certain absolutes. Before I took the job at Loyola University New Orleans, and before I took the job at Fordham, I made very clear that I will never say anything in any setting that I wouldn’t say in front of my sister.  Ever. There are hard questions about how and whether you can make a difference being at the table.  

When I ran a domestic violence clinic, I spent a fair amount of time turning up the heat on the failings of the legal system. I went to the press and made sure I got embarrassing coverage of those who had failed us. But I also found, sometimes, that I could persuade. Not always, not even usually, but sometimes. When you get people’s wholehearted conversion, it matters so much more than forcing their hand.  

My favorite example was a female judge who routinely denied protective orders to desperate petitioners, saying things in her out-loud voice like, “You don’t know what’s normal in our community.” The activist community fumed and railed in private. But we ultimately decided to try one last thing before going nuclear: we asked the judge to give us a training in domestic violence best practices. 

It was a “hail Mary” but somehow it worked. Her ego led her to say yes, and then she had to actually read the best practices. She ended up standing before us in tears, realizing the suffering she had caused, the lives she put in danger.  

Jesus always found delightful ways to evade the trick question. He refused to judge the excluded. He leaned into love as the core governing principle.

This is the ministry of reconciliation that so many of you have been doing your whole lives. Those moments of grace that interrupt the endless disappointments, those moments of grace that give us hope. 

So I find myself at the table in Catholic higher education, a place my mother, who has fought the good fight to push the church that she loves, never imagined her daughter would be. I have no notion of whether that may matter, on the margins, in tiny interactions and big ones. But it’s worth a try.  

But how to navigate these waters? How to avoid waving a red flag to a bull and inviting attacks, usually from outside of our communities, that make our students feel less safe?  

This is what I wrote for Outreach last year:

I do not know whether the church will change its stance on issues of sexuality, as it has on other subjects. For now, we walk a fine line between respect for the church’s current teachings and the requirement to support our students. But if any and all outreach to our LGBTQ students courts controversy, then attempting to avoid controversy in this regard is pointless. We should just focus on doing the right thing.  

The Gospels tell several stories of religious authorities challenging Jesus with questions on doctrinal matters, demanding that he either acknowledge obedience to the rules or risk a public stance condemning them. Jesus always found delightful ways to evade the trick question. He refused to judge the excluded. He leaned into love as the core governing principle.

The essential role of universities

Universities cannot be passive. It is not enough to pride ourselves at Catholic colleges on generally supporting our students, hoping that LGBTQ students feel the love of God because we proclaim it to all. Because we represent a church whose doctrines make many of those same students feel rejected and judged, exiled and condemned, silent approval will not be nearly good enough. 

We look at the data around suicide and despair, fear, lack of belonging and we know we have to do more. (I would also add, from an extensive Title IX study we did at Tulane, the vulnerability to extraordinary rates of sexual assault.)   

As we know from countless parables, it is not enough to offer a false equality that is not equity. We give our students what they each need, not just what we offer everyone else. We meet students where they are. We care about the whole person.  

That requires the variety of services that you know well: the special outreach and support, student groups, robust community and counseling. It requires treating students with respect in how we design housing policy and campus records. It requires really hiring for mission—because those who would add to the suffering of our LGBTQ students are not acting as true Catholics and not following church teachings. They cannot do their jobs properly at a university.  

As we know from countless parables, it is not enough to offer a false equality that is not equity. We give our students what they each need, not just what we offer everyone else.

It means listening to our communities intensely, asking them what they need and how we can help. Most of all, as the church under Francis has begun to make clear, and as the Gospels have always made clear, we need to proclaim God’s love for our LGBT brothers and sisters and siblings. We need to proclaim our love, too.  

I have this haunting memory from college, 30 years ago, of seeing a trans student from a distance, seeing her obvious despair as she navigated the campus, worrying about her. But never reaching out. I should have reached out. Now, I will reach out. 

My uncle Joe, a 92-year-old Jesuit and expert in Ignatian spirituality, presided at my Missioning Mass at Loyola New Orleans. He ended his homily with this, which made my sister feel so good and then made everyone laugh:

In God, there is no man or woman, no slave or free, no black or white, no gay or straight and even (dare I say?) no democrat or republican.

Thank you so much my friends. I am so happy and proud to be here with you.  

Tania Tetlow

Tania Tetlow is the president of Fordham University. A former assistant U.S. attorney, she graduated from Harvard Law School in 1995 and led Loyola University New Orleans until 2022.

All articles by Tania Tetlow

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4 Comments
  1. What a wonderful essay. I have a grandson who is trans and he told me a few weeks ago that he was worried about all the anger around LGBTQ people. He is only 15 yet my heart aches thinking about what he might have to face in his lifetime. May the perfect love of God shine through.

  2. Your insights are so valuable, well stated and moving. You are giving hope to so many at the margins, lovingly inviting them into the room with you, where grace can seep into every pore of all those at the various tables where you sit. You are a sign of that grace and another reason why women should be heard in every room. Lead long and prosper!

  3. Thank you. We need the catholic congregation to embrace not only Jesus’ words but his actions. We need all of humanity to live by the example Jesus shared, love. Love of those shunned by everyone. We need you, your love, your caring and your actions. Again, I say thank you.

  4. Tania is a prophet and a heroine. Such bravery and truthfulness we don’t see or hear from those in her position. This article made my day in so many wayd