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(USA TODAY) -- Nate Tisa became the first gay president of Georgetown University Student Association (GSA) on March 17.
Tisa, 20, is the third openly gay man to lead student government at a Catholic college. DePaul University elected the first, Anthony Alfano, 22, in 2011; Catholic University of America junior Ryan Fecteau, 20, was the second last year.
At greater rates than older generations, young Catholics have distanced themselves from the Vatican's anti-LGBT rights stance, Alfano said. But strict piety remains at the core of these Catholic schools, making some of Tisa's plans more difficult - particularly issues such as gender neutral housing, which will involve Georgetown donors and administrators, Tisa said.
"My Catholic faith helps me look at the good parts of the Catholic religion and push through the bad," Tisa said. "The dogma is right, but there's a tradition that's built up that's pretty bigoted."
Georgetown broke with Roman Catholic Church straight male leadership tradition last year, too, by electing their first female GUSA president, Clara Gustafson.
Both are significant, but neither gender nor sexual orientation should define these presidents' actions, GUSA vice president Adam Ramadan, 20, said. While personal connections to Georgetown's LGBT community have some influence, Nate Tisa said his agenda represents all students.
Though there have been signs of acceptance towards LGBT individuals at these Catholic campuses, levels of resistance remain.
"There are still some people who say they're okay with anything, but once it's in front of their face it's another story," Tisa said.
Catholic University, also in Washington, D.C., removed sexual orientation from its non-discrimination clause in 2006, though failed to create a gay-straight alliance due to not enough student support and votes. An unofficial one, CUAllies, began in 2009.
"It's a sense of not knowing if you are welcomed at the university," Fecteau said. "I don't think Jesus would have had me attend another university because I'm gay, but I don't know if all others at the school agree."
University of Notre Dame started its first gay-straight alliance Dec. 5, 2012. It is considered a safe space for students to talk about their sexual orientation in relation to Catholicism, said Notre Dame junior Alex Coccia, 21, who helped found this club.
"It's recognizing that the gay individual is not some other or outsider," Coccia said. "Our generation is just becoming more and more accustomed to that. These people are people and should be respected as such."
Yet discussion of sexual activity between two men or women could be problematic.
Coccia said he is not sure how those conversations would be handled in GSA discussions as Catholicism bans these sexual relations. Tisa said he has grappled with how to present his personal life, as elements of his sexuality could make other students uncomfortable. During his campaign, he said he received a few "hateful emails" from peers.
At this point, no openly lesbian women have led student government organizations at religious universities, although a lesbian woman is the president of Georgetown University Pride.
With an exception in Romans, the Bible only references male homosexuality. Yet gender norms in politics, not scripture, is likely why these women have not won their college elections, Ryan Fecteau said.
"Like our LGBT youth are told that they're not good enough, we also have a society where most of the power is run by men," said Anthony Alfano, who graduated in 2012. "Aspiring to a position of leadership is hard when you don't see another person like you."
More visible now, these Catholic LGBT student government leaders have set new, inclusive standards for involvement in their university and religion, Tisa said.
"I hope more people will feel comfortable in their skin," he said. "I'm hoping at other Catholic and Jesuit colleges, it'll help to empower their student bodies to have change."
By Stephanie Haven
Stephanie Haven is a Spring 2013 USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent. Learn more about her here.