This is the first in a four-part investigative series about the forced resignation of an LGBTQ+ student and the role of religious institutions on Western’s campus. Parts two, three and four will be published over the following days.
When Leah Adams decided to tell her employer about her sexual orientation, after months of keeping it hidden, she was presented with a choice: Break up with your girlfriend or quit your job.
In tears, she chose to resign.
Western has a reputation as a progressive school, with an administration that is vocally supportive of LGBTQ+ rights, but religious nonprofit clubs that operate on campus are not necessarily bound by the same principles. According to Adams and several other former members, the WWU Catholic Newman Center forced the resignation of Adams after she came out as lesbian to Emma Fisher, the center’s director.
“I definitely feel like the Western campus doesn’t believe it’s happening, and doesn’t believe that these Christian organizations are like this,” Adams said. “I feel like people are like, ‘Oh it’s Western; I’m sure the campus clubs are really pro-gay,’ but no.”
Living a double life
The WWU Catholic Newman Center is a student organization that has been active at Western since the ’60s. It is one of over 2,000 Newman Centers at other colleges across the country. The organization’s website doesn’t provide data on the number of students directly involved in the center, but estimates that there are 2,700 Catholics at Western.
The Newman Center has a strong presence on and off campus. Its offices are adjacent to the WWU Alumni House and, prior to the pandemic, the center hosted weekly Mass in the Viking Union Multipurpose room and placed promotional material in campus dining halls.
Adams became involved in the Newman Center shortly after arriving at Western in the fall of 2017. She was raised Catholic and said she was excited to make friends and get involved with Catholicism on campus. Throughout her first year at Western, she attended weekly Mass and got to know people in the community.
In any given year, the Newman Center employs around six Western students in various administrative roles. Toward the end of her first year, a friend suggested Adams apply for a job as Peer Events Coordinator. Adams said the job didn’t entail any religious responsibilities, mainly just organizing barbecues, game nights and other community events.
The job application Adams was presented with lists several qualifications, including that applicants love Jesus, can share their love of Jesus with others, pray 20 minutes or more a day and be practicing Catholics in good standing. Adams said she doesn’t remember any language regarding homosexuality in any of the application papers she looked at.
One former Newman Center employee, who asked to remain anonymous because they are still close with several people in the community, remembered signing a document that said they would follow church policies, but said it didn’t go into detail about what those policies entailed.
“That whole thing wasn’t paid attention to when you’re getting hired. It was like, ‘Make sure you sign your W4s and whatever.’ It was just kind of there. I don’t think they made a big deal about them,” the former employee said.
As a part of the Catholic Church, the Newman Center and its employees fall under the jurisdiction of the Seattle Archdiocese. The Parish Employee Policy guide prohibits harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation, but does not make any other reference to homosexuality.
When she accepted the job, Adams said she was beginning to realize she was attracted to women, but hoped it wouldn’t be an issue.
“‘I’m usually pretty pessimistic about my dating skills so I was like, ‘It’s probably fine that I’m queer. It's not a part of my job. I plan events and I don’t have a girlfriend, so why should I worry about it?’” Adams said.
But then, as Adams began her second year at Western and officially assumed her role at the Newman Center, she started dating another woman.
Throughout fall quarter, Adams hid her relationship from her coworkers. At work she would talk with them about dates with boys and plans for marriage, but after work she would have drinks with her girlfriend, hold hands, take walks on the beach — “stupid romantic stuff like that,” she laughed.
“I feel like I was kind of living a double life sometimes, because I was trying to portray this perfect Catholic purity that is expected of you as a Catholic woman like, ‘I’m straight as heck, I want the perfect man to take care of me, I want to find a man in college and take care of him,’ while also going home every day and loving my girlfriend and wanting to take care of her,” Adams said.
Hiding her girlfriend from her coworkers and friends at the Newman Center took a toll on Adam’s mental health. She said she was frequently stressed and overwhelmed.
As winter quarter began, Adams’ peers still didn’t know about her girlfriend. In early January 2019, Adams and roughly 30 other members of the Newman Center traveled to an event in Indianapolis called SEEK. At the conference, Adams saw a speech from a woman who talked about how she would suppress her lesbian urges in order to live a good Catholic lifestyle.
“It made me so mad to see her talk about stuff like this when she still doesn’t have her own stuff figured out and is obviously unhappy with her own lifestyle,” Adams said.
Upon returning to Bellingham, Adams became determined to tell her boss, Fisher. The two met on Jan. 13, 2019, in the Newman Center offices one block away from the main entrance to campus. In a document she wrote two and a half weeks later to help remember what happened, Adams said she was overwhelmed with fear, and unable to tell Fisher about her girlfriend. Instead, Adams told her that she was having problems regarding the church and its teachings.
According to Adams, Fisher replied by saying they would have to talk about Adams’ employment at the Newman Center if she was doing anything against church teaching. Also according to Adams, Fisher also said she had a right to Adams’ personal life because, in order to work for Newman, she would need to follow church teaching outside of work.
In the document, Adams wrote that her boss insisted on meeting again in a week, and that Adams would have to tell her exactly what was going on.
The two met again on Jan. 20. This time, Adams opened up to Fisher, telling her that she was lesbian and in a relationship with a woman. According to Adams, Fisher said Adams would either have to break up with her girlfriend or quit her job.
“And I’m of course like horribly sobbing, and in a horrible position,” Adams said. “Because I love my girlfriend and I was so happy being in a relationship with someone, finally feeling like myself, feeling my love for another woman, coming into my queerness. God, it was f---ing horrible.”
In the document she wrote after the incident, Adams said Fisher told her she can no longer volunteer at Mass, and that Adams might not be able to receive communion unless she talked to the Newman Center’s priest.
Adams refused to break up with her girlfriend and resigned from the position.
Fisher declined to be interviewed for this article but provided a brief statement:
“One key element that must be clarified is that working as an employee of the Church and volunteering for the club on campus are two very different things,” Fisher said. “We would never turn away a student who wants to participate in our events. Everyone is welcome."
Fisher directed questions to Helen McClenahan, managing director of communications for the Seattle Archdiocese.
“While we don’t comment on the specifics of personnel issues per our policy, it’s clear that this individual voluntarily resigned her position,” McClenahan said in an email.
McClenahan said every Seattle Archdiocese employee signs a code of conduct wherein they agree to uphold the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The morals clause in the contract applies to all employees, even those who aren’t in religious roles. McClenahan said that even if someone is living a lifestyle that isn’t compatible with Catholic teachings, they would still be welcome to participate in events and volunteer for the church.
McClenahan did not respond to a May 14 request to clarify if being in a same-sex relationship would violate the employee code of conduct.
Nate Sanford is the editor-in-chief of The Western Front and a fourth-year news/editorial journalism major. His reporting focuses on the environment, local politics, urban policy and anything else that matters. His writing has appeared in Crosscut, the Inlander, Whatcom Watch and at least one desk in Haggard Hall. You can find him on Twitter @sanford_nate and at firstname.lastname@example.org.