the voice and vision of a new generation
Image Credit: Dominic Conover

Indianapolis teen Dominic Conover wants you to write a letter to the Catholic Church

August 13, 2019

In a space where children and adolescents should be encouraged to embrace the values of inclusion, diversity and acceptance, schools with anti-LGBTQ policies continue to make some LGBTQ students and those of other marginalized identities feel unsafe and unwelcome.

On July 30, The Advocate published a powerful op-ed by gay teen Dominic Conover titled ‘I Won't Let the Catholic Church Silence Any More LGBTQ Students.’ Conover, a 2019 graduate of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, recalls a horrific experience during his senior year when Shelly Fitzgerald, the school’s long-time guidance counsellor, was fired when the school administration learned of her same-sex marriage. To Conover and the other LGBTQ students at Roncalli High School, Fitzgerald’s firing was representative of the fact that their school was no longer a safe space for them to be who they are.

However, Conover and his peers refused to be silent. Shortly after Fitzgerald’s firing, students founded Shelly's Voice Advocacy Group​ to bring attention to Fitzgerald's situation and advocate for deeper sense of belonging for and understanding of LGBTQ individuals in the Catholic community. The group’s efforts quickly gained traction on a large scale, reaching numerous media outlets and even leading to an appearance on The Ellen Show. The group aimed to send the message to LGBTQ students in communities everywhere that they were not alone.

Conover’s advocacy was not free from backlash, especially within his own school community. In the op-ed, Conover describes how standing in solidarity with LGBTQ students at Roncalli High School put his own future in jeopardy, with the school administration threatening to not let him graduate if he continued his advocacy efforts. By creating a culture of fear, Conover was forced to remain silent for the rest of the school year in order to receive his diploma. Once again, Conover was reminded that his school community was far from a safe place for LGBTQ students.

Schools with similar anti-LGBTQ policies to Roncalli High School continue to foster toxic environments where homophobia and discrimination become more prevalent and harmful for LGBTQ students. In the latest National School Climate Survey by GLSEN, 59.5% of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, 70.1% of LGBTQ students experienced verbal harassment at school based on sexual orientation, and 62.2% reported experiencing LGBTQ-related discriminatory policies or practices at school. Additionally, only 12.6% of students reported that their school had a comprehensive anti-bullying/harassment policy that protected students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

These numbers remain unsurprising when faced with the reality that less than half of U.S. states have anti-discrimination or anti-bullying laws that explicitly protect LGBTQ students. That’s why Dominic Conover’s story is more important than ever, especially for changing hearts and minds in the Catholic community. In his own words, Conover mentioned that “For 12 years, [he] was taught in the Catholic school system to stand up for what’s right, love all, and treat everyone equally.” However, what Conover’s senior year experience showcases is that these teachings are not universal to all people. In spite of discouragement and adversity, Conover has continued to embrace these learned values to advocate for inclusion, diversity and acceptance on a greater scale.

Upon graduation, Conover made a commitment to make his voice heard. On July 30, GLAAD Board Member and LGBTQ activist Ariadne Getty was honored as Variety's Philanthropist of the Year in Los Angeles, and Conover was asked to be the keynote speaker at the event. In front of a room filled with Hollywood creators and leaders such as GLAAD President & CEO Sarah Kate Ellis, LGBTQ advocate and producer Raymond Braun, actress Trace Lysette, author and model Gigi Gorgeous, and Ariadne Getty herself, Conover shared his story and expressed the role that the Ariadne Getty Foundation has played in helping him continue his advocacy efforts. Once silenced, Conover’s story and voice is now being heard by some of the most powerful people in the industry, highlighting how he has become part of a new generation of advocates fighting to accelerate acceptance for LGBTQ people.

In addition to garnering news coverage in local Indiana media, Conover spoke with The Advocate about his work with Shelly’s Voice and the importance of LGBTQ inclusion. As part of this advocacy, Conover and Shelly’s Voice are calling on individuals in the Catholic community to reach out to their Church leaders to express why LGBTQ inclusion is important and necessary. By encouraging young people to share their own personal experiences of being LGBTQ within the Catholic community, Conover aims to show how the power of storytelling can help to change hearts and minds and accelerate acceptance for the LGBTQ community.

You can help Conover & Shelly’s Voice by writing a letter to your Church leader in support of LGBTQ people. For more information on the initiative, click here.

Spencer Harvey is the Communications Coordinator at GLAAD. He assists with media relations and press outreach for GLAAD's programs, initiatives, and events. Spencer received his Bachelor's Degree in Political Science and Law from the University of Ottawa, and his Master's Degree in Global Affairs from New York University.

the voice and vision of a new generation