Redefining Deviance: The Gay Assault on Franciscan University

The success that the gay community has achieved in shedding the “deviant” label has relied upon convincing the heterosexual world that homosexual behavior is perfectly normal. The recent uproar over a social work course titled “Deviant Behavior” at Franciscan University of Steubenville—which lists homosexuality as a form of deviant behavior—demonstrates just how vigilant the gay community remains in confronting anyone who might suggest that homosexual behavior could be anything but normal. It also shows how difficult it is for faithful Catholic institutions to teach students what the Church says about the nature of homosexual acts.

The dispute at the Steubenville, Ohio university emerged when two graduates —both members of the Franciscan Gay Alumni and Allies Facebook group—issued a press release complaining about the course description, which lists homosexuality as a form of deviant behavior. The group has demanded that the university revise its course descriptions “to stop contributing to the culture of hate and ignorance.” According to press reports, the alumni also encouraged other Facebook group members to contact the social work accrediting agency to investigate the matter and to contact the university. In an interview with National Public Radio, Stephen Holloway, the director of the office of accreditation at the Council on Social Work Education, said the course description was a matter of concern. “The fact that homosexuality was identified in the course description as deviant behavior raises a flag,” said Holloway. “Understanding diversity and difference and their dynamics in society [are] critical for social workers to be effective in working with diverse populations.” The Council’s Commission for Diversity and Social and Economic Justice houses a council on sexual orientation and gender identity which works for the “full participation of individuals who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or two-spirit in social work education.” Further, the Council requires that social work education “advance human rights and social and economic justice.”

For any social work program—especially a social work program at a faithful Catholic college like Franciscan—there is a challenge in defining “social justice” for individuals who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or two-spirit. For those outside the Church, social justice may demand access to marriage for same-sex couples. But, for faithful Catholics, social justice demands that the teachings of the Church be followed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church requires that homosexual persons be treated with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (2358). Yet Catholic teachings also maintain that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” (2357).  Whether that teaching will be viewed as a violation of the rights of homosexual persons by the accrediting council remains to be seen.

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Still, the accreditors must know that a course in deviance is primarily concerned with any behavior that is “outside the norm.” Sociologists who study and teach about deviance are not really concerned with what they would call “absolutist teachings” that are contained in how the Catechism defines homosexuality. Rather, most sociologists are concerned with how individuals come to define a behavior as “deviant” or “normal.” Acknowledging that such definitions are not static, the content of a course in deviance often focuses upon the ways in which behaviors become defined and redefined over time. Students analyze topics ranging from promiscuity and cheating on exams to addiction, pedophilia, deviant subcultures, organized crime, and serial murder in an effort to understand how deviant behavior is defined and shaped by society. For example, there is an ongoing movement within some sub-cultures to redefine pedophilia as the more innocuous “intergenerational intimacy.” But the general public has rejected that movement—and so the “deviant” label remains for pedophilia. Homosexual behavior is indeed a behavior that has been redefined—and this makes it a most appropriate topic for a course in deviance on any college campus. In fact, most courses on deviance on secular as well as religious campuses study homosexuality, and in most textbooks on deviance (including the textbook used in the Franciscan social work course), “homosexuality” is the title of one of the chapters.

Of course, we must acknowledge that some may view Franciscan University itself as “deviant” for even offering a course on deviant behavior. While in the 1960s and 70s such classes would be among the most popular offered, many colleges and universities today no longer offer courses on deviance. More than 30 years ago, many sociologists began to abandon teaching about what was once viewed as foundational to the discipline of sociology as courses were gradually deleted from the catalogues on many campuses. For today’s postmodern sociologists, conceptions of deviance cannot exist in a society that has been so dramatically changed by shifts in values, politics, and social relations. The commitment to egalitarianism, along with a growing reluctance to judge the behavior of others, has made discussions of deviance obsolete. No wonder most sociologists, in the face of this juggernaut, have been disinclined even to speak of the concept of deviance anymore. To do so would require a willingness to discuss behavior like homosexuality in relation to standards of acceptable conduct. And defining by consensus what is acceptable is exactly what has disappeared over the last 30 years. In the aftermath of the radical egalitarianism of the 1960s, merely to label a behavior as deviant came to be viewed as rejecting the equality—perhaps the very humanity—of those engaging in it.

Yet, in the past, courses on deviant behavior had been among the most popular on college campuses because of the fascinating—and occasionally racy—subject matter: the violation of cultural norms. Courses on deviance offered an opportunity to explore how the concepts of “normal” and “deviant” evolved over time in different societies and cultures, and how notions of conformity and deviance can affect the ways we live.

Students were fascinated to learn about the ways in which the label “deviant” is “defined down” when society no longer believes a behavior to be “outside the norm,” and conversely, how other behaviors are “defined up,” as in the case of smoking or drunk driving. Society increasingly deems these behaviors to be deviant. Students study the advocacy groups—groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)—who have marketed a new definition of the deviance of driving while impaired and have saved lives. Homosexuality is one of those behaviors that have been “defined down” from a form of deviance to behavior that is now celebrated by many beyond the gay community.

How homosexuality was defined down
An influential book written at the close of the disastrous AIDS-afflicted decade of the 1980s provides an understanding of how the gay community succeeded in its effort to escape the label of deviance that threatened to attach itself even more firmly at the onset of the epidemic.  After the Ball: How America Will Conquer its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the ‘90s, by Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, demanded that gays realize how they were presenting themselves was the most important structural impediment to acceptance. Applying a marketplace metaphor to defining deviance, savvy salesmen Kirk and Madsen showed how the “deviants” of the past could be repackaged as the “victims” of the present.  They provided gay activists with a blueprint for what they called a “conversion of the average American’s emotions, mind, and will, through a planned psychological attack.” To change public opinion, Kirk and Madsen suggested three important tactics of persuasion: desensitization, jamming, and conversion.

Desensitization required that the gay community inundate the heterosexual world with a “continuous flood of gay-related advertising,” themed television programs, movies and stories that would convince the consumer that homosexuals are perfectly normal. Learning from the success of Black History Month, Kirk and Madsen suggested that if the heterosexual community knew more about the valuable contributions that have been made by gays and lesbians, they would appreciate the gay community more. Now on many college campuses—including Catholic college campuses—there are “gay appreciation” months to celebrate the valuable contributions of gays and lesbians.

The technique of jamming is to use operant conditioning procedures to move people to a different opinion about homosexuality. The “trick” of jamming, according to Kirk and Madsen, is “to make the homophobe feel a sense of shame whenever his homo-hatred surfaces.” In this redefinition of deviance, anyone—including the Catholic Church—who dares to question the morality of gay sexual behavior is labeled a homophobe. Conversion occurs when techniques of associative conditioning “subvert the mechanism of prejudice.” For Kirk and Madsen, tolerance is not enough—rather, conversion techniques move heterosexuals into viewing homosexual behavior as normal.

These techniques have been so successful in converting the hearts and minds of heterosexuals that it is now the teachings of the Catholic Church that seem deviant to many—including many of those in the Franciscan Gay Alumni and Allies Facebook group.  Elizabeth Vermilyea, one of the leaders of the group, graduated from Franciscan University in 1991 with a psychology degree and told an interviewer for National Public Radio, “As a lesbian and as a psychological professional, I found a couple of things offensive.… The state of the art in science on homosexuality is not that it’s deviant.  The DSM—Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—has removed it…as an illness.”

Vermilyea is correct about the American Psychiatric Association’s revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Responding to political pressure in the early 1970s, homosexuality was indeed removed as a mental illness from the DSM. But that did little to remove the label of deviance in the minds of most within the heterosexual world. It took the major marketing campaign proposed by Kirk and Madsen to do that.

The definition of “deviance” in the minds of individuals cannot be removed by the stroke of the American Psychiatric Association’s pen.  For example, in 1994, with little or no public outcry, the APA revised the DSM so that neither pedophilia nor child molestation would necessarily be indicative of psychological disorder. To qualify as disordered, molesters must feel “anxious” about the acts or be “impaired in their work or social relationships.”  Despite the “progressive” actions of the APA in attempting to remove the “deviance” label by no longer classifying the behavior as a mental illness, few non-pedophiles believe that pedophilia is “normal.”

Vermilyea was joined by Gregory Gronbacher in the press release complaining about the teaching of what they called “pseudo-science.” Demanding that “the University aligns itself with the truth of this matter,” the press release added that “despite more than 25 years of solid mainstream scholarship in the fields of psychology, social work, and mental health demonstrating the psychological health of gay and lesbian individuals, Franciscan University continues to teach otherwise.” Yet, despite the harsh rhetoric contained in the complaint, Gronbacher has many kind things to say about his alma mater. In an interview for Catholic World Report, Gronbacher, a 1990 graduate, recalls Franciscan as a “powerful, creative, intense place of immense blessings…I continue to believe I received a solid, quality education. I have since changed my thinking on certain theological and philosophical issues, but this has not resulted in my viewing the university any differently.” Although Gronbacher has left the Catholic Church, he remains grateful for the mentoring he received from “many sincere and kind and talented professors…Stephen Krason, James Harold and Michael Brees, and others were all excellent educators.”

When asked if he had been open about his sexual orientation during his years at Franciscan, Gronbacher said: “Yes, with many students and friends and a few clergy members. The issue of my orientation did not play a role in my classroom experiences and was not mentioned.” Still, Gronbacher is “concerned for gay and lesbian students who may currently be on campus and may encounter this course and description and have it added to the possible and unnecessary shame or alienation they may experience.”

When asked why he chose to “go public” with his concerns, Gronbacher responded that “contrary to the university’s assertions, we tried to contact them prior to sending the press release. Several of our members phoned [and] emailed, and two even visited campus. No one would speak with us. Our emails bounced. We then created the press release, to which I was willing to attach my name as a contact person, and sent that to the university. This prompted no reply to the issue but did result in the university attorney threatening us with legal action if we used the university name or logo.” LifeSiteNews reported that Franciscan University officials said that the university was never contacted by the alumni in advance regarding this matter.

Meeting the challenge to remain faithful to Catholic teaching
Some, like Dr. Michael Brown—host of the nationally syndicated radio program “The Line of Fire”—have framed the controversy at Franciscan University as yet another attack on religious freedom. In an interview with LifeSiteNews, Brown predicted that the “day may come when religious institutions will have to seek out their own accrediting associations because of the continuing encroachment of political correctness.”

However, it might be more helpful to try to enlist the accrediting institutions themselves as allies in affirming the mission of each Catholic college and universities. When national accrediting teams make campus visits, they are charged with determining whether or not students are getting what the institution has promised them. One of the standards that colleges and universities are being judged by is whether they are faithful to their missions. Perhaps it is time that national accrediting teams actually determine whether Catholic schools are true to their Catholic identity. If Franciscan was being judged by its accreditors on whether it is fulfilling its mission, it is likely that such an assessment would reveal that the school is indeed one of the few dozen faithful Catholic colleges in the country, one of a small number of Catholic colleges that have fully implemented Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Accrediting commissions should be noting that fact.  Instead, accreditation teams are much more focused on trendy issues like sustainability, globalization, environmentalism, and of course, diversity.

Perhaps it is time that accreditors investigated whether Catholic colleges are actually Catholic.

This essay first appeared September 27, 2012 at Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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