She knows it may surprise you, but Samantha Motto always wanted to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville.
“I was the university’s number one fan,” Motto said. “I was obsessed with it. I drank the Kool-Aid.”
The surprising part comes at the end of the story: while receiving her graduate degree at Franciscan’s commencement ceremony on May 13, Motto wore two small flags on her wrists — an LGBTQ+ rainbow one and a bisexual one.
The university responded by cutting her name and image from the official commencement video.
From Youth Conferences to Enrollment
To really understand Motto’s story, you have to look back more than a decade, tracing her complicated relationship with this Catholic university located on the eastern border of Ohio, roughly 30 miles west of Pittsburgh.
Originally from San Diego, Motto was raised Catholic and began attending youth conferences sponsored by Franciscan University when she was 15 years old. She said the gatherings were designed to spread the word about the university and yield admissions applications.
“They rented out the whole arena at San Diego State University,” Motto said. “Guys and girls were split up and there were Catholic masses, speakers, chastity talks. Everything you would expect.”
When it came time to choose a college, Motto didn’t bother to apply anywhere else.
When she arrived for her first year at Franciscan in the fall of 2009, she immediately felt at home. She found Franciscan University to be populated by like-minded people in a small town where people knew each other and cared for their neighbors.
“I fit in right away,” she said.
Motto spent her freshman year getting involved: daily mass, co-curricular activities, and affiliation with a household, described as “a Spirit empowered, Christ-led group of Franciscan students.”
Her household was focused on humility and neatness.
She also found friendship with her freshman year roommate, who eventually came out to her as an LGBTQ+ person. Motto said she felt honored, even calling it a blessing.
“Despite a conservative religious upbringing, I was raised in a family of LGBTQ+ allies,” Motto said. “I promised her that nothing was going to change between us.”
Assault and Response
However, things did change between the two when Motto’s roommate initiated physical advances toward her during the Spring semester. When Motto she refused the advances, her roommate sexually assaulted her.
“I didn’t report it at first, because I didn’t want to out her under any circumstances,” Motto said. “But when I finally did get up the courage to report [the assault]to Franciscan University officials, they did not take it seriously.”
After the assault, Motto requested a different room assignment for the remainder of that semester and for the following year, as she had already signed up to live with that roommate for her sophomore year.
“They said, ‘We think you’re a lesbian and you’re just ashamed,’” Motto recalled of the response from university administrators. “They made me keep rooming with her and they said I couldn’t switch for the following year.”
The Buckeye Flame reached out to Franciscan University of Steubenville multiple times — including a specific request for comment on Motto’s case. The university did not respond to requests for comment.
Ultimately, Motto’s roommate withdrew from the university and Motto began networking with other survivors on campus. She was stunned to hear multiple narratives of how others were mistreated and invalidated by university officials after they reported their own experiences with assault.
“I actually got off easy,” Motto said.
Motto met her husband during her sophomore year and dated him throughout the rest of her undergraduate career. They got married after she received her undergraduate degree and quickly had three children, all of which Motto describes as “traumatic births.”
While undergoing EMDR therapy to address severe postpartum depression, she was able to confront unexamined feelings about her sexuality.
“I think I always knew I was bi but it was like that classic struggle where I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be like that person or if I wanted to make out with them,” Motto said.
She came out to her husband as bisexual. Initially she was fearful of his reaction, but she said he was “wonderful,” quickly affirming his love for her.
She also got involved in mental health advocacy, to help support mothers whose needs were not being met by the Catholic church.
Back to Franciscan
To further her professional goals, Motto decided to pursue a graduate degree.
Despite her undergraduate experience at Franciscan University, she enrolled in their graduate program in clinical mental health counseling.
Because she and her family lived near campus — and her husband worked for the university, making the tuition a spousal benefit — Franciscan seemed like the best option.
Motto enjoyed the program, with the exception of one professor.
“She was awful,” Motto said. “She would regularly say homophobic things in a course that was supposed to be focused on supporting human sexuality.”
As a result of the professor’s inappropriate behavior, Motto began networking with a number of LGBTQ+ students enrolled in the program. They commiserated with each other and offered support.
Motto says that group chat was a stark reminder of the precarious place LGBTQ+ students occupy at the university.
“Franciscan doesn’t think that LGBTQ+ students exist there,” Motto said. “That’s bullshit.”
LGBTQ+ students need support
In 2021, Franciscan University was named to the 2021 Worst List of the 180 “absolute worst, most unsafe campuses for LGBTQ+ youth.” Just last month, Father David Paul Pivonka, president of Franciscan, took aim at trans athletes and trans identity in a national syndicated op-ed.
But advocates say that the difficulties faced by LGBTQ+ students are far from confined to this one faith-based university.
The plight of LGBTQ+ students at Christian colleges has come sharply into focus this past year as recent research reveals that 1 in 5 (22%) gender minority students report being bullied during their Christian college experience, and the majority (73%) of these students report that the bullying comes from someone at their college.
Paul Southwick is the Director of Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) — an organization dedicated to empowering LGBTQ+ students at more than 200 taxpayer-funded religious schools that actively discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.
“It is a brave but dangerous thing to be visibly LGBTQ+ in many parts of our country, and especially at a place like Franciscan University of Steubenville,” Southwick said. “We need allies from the faculty, staff and alumni to come out in support so that these students know they are not alone.”
To display that critical support, Motto wanted to make a statement to increase the visibility of her unrecognized LGBTQ+ classmates. She thought her commencement ceremony would be the perfect place to do it.
To comply with dress code restrictions given to the graduates for the commencement ceremonies, Motto opted to sew two small flags onto a bracelet that she could wear when she received her diploma on stage.
Still, she wasn’t sure if she should actually wear it.
Then the commencement speaker took to the podium.
Dr. Peter Kereft — professor of philosophy at Boston College and the author of more than 80 books on Christian philosophy — delivered a scattershot speech that took aim at as many different secular parts of secular society as it could hit.
The theme for Kereft’s address was “Uncomfortable Truths,” an umbrella he used to call Bill Gates a “partner in sadism” and address unfounded concerns that The Electric Company’s theme song has inspired people to commit mass murders.
However, it was this line that hit Motto hard:
“Hobbits cannot become wizards, only better or worse hobbits. Men cannot become women, only better or badder men.”
Motto said all the fear and nervousness left her body.
“You want uncomfortable truth? It’s about to come at you right now,” Motto remembered thinking.
Donning the bracelets with rainbow flags, she walked on stage at the appointed time and received her diploma.
Friends who watched a live-stream of the video of the ceremony captured images of Motto receiving her diploma. But when the video of her specific ceremony was released of her specific days later — as opposed to the other Franciscan graduation ceremonies, which were released the same day — she was notably absent. A fellow graduate of hers who had also worn rainbow paraphernalia was similarly cut from the video.
Franciscan University did not confirm Motto’s deletion, but did release the following statement:
“We are happy to include any student in it who abides by our policies. However, the University retains the right to edit any video we produce, and those who decide to violate our policies and use commencement exercises as a forum to express their personal or political views lose the privilege of being portrayed in University videos.”
With her degree in hand, Motto is now employed as a psychotherapist in Pittsburgh.
While she said she’s amused that Franciscan University did not confirm her deletion from the ceremony video, she noted that the response from other graduates has been overwhelmingly positive.
“So many women came up to me after the ceremony to thank me,” Motto said. “A lot of beautiful people have come into my life because I was willing to take a risk.”
When asked if LGBTQ+ students should consider enrolling at Franciscan University, Motto hesitates. She says a big part of her wants to just tell them to not attend her alma mater.
But she also says the risk could prove worth it.
“I have been able to find genuine, authentic friendships because I lived in the truth of who I am and what I stand for,” Motto said. “All the homophobia and negative comments were worth it to me if it helps others feel seen and heard.” 🔥
- From REAP: REAP works with students who are advocating for change in the hopes that schools like FUS will become more safe and affirming places for LGBTQ+ students. And if students are mistreated, harassed, disciplined or expelled, they can turn to REAP for support. Visit their website for more info.