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Groups continue to support homosexual students

Claire Heininger | Friday, March 19, 2004

“Gay? Fine by me.” reads the slogan of solidarity proclaimed on the more than 1,600 orange T-shirts saturating campus today.

But for the past 20 years, the relationship between gay and lesbian organizations and the University administration has been anything but smooth.

Ten years after the first gathering of students who formed Gay and Lesbian Students of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s (GLND/SMC) in 1985, a nationally publicized recognition dispute surfaced that led to the formation of the Ad Hoc and then the Standing Committee on Gay and Lesbian Student Needs in 1995 and 1996. The University’s Spirit of Inclusion statement, published in 1997, and the 1999 advertising ban that did now allow The Observer to publish ads from the Gay and Lesbian Alumni of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s (GALA) also caused clashes between the officials who defend Notre Dame’s Catholic identity and the homosexual students and alumni who have often felt pushed to the community’s sidelines because of it.

As the nation’s leading Catholic institution, Notre Dame’s stance on homosexual students and alumni faces a level of scrutiny that is uniquely acute. To examine the nuanced development of this stance over the last 20 years is not merely to understand the orange seen today – it is to realize the role the University plays in the Church of tomorrow.

Voices Emerge

In 1985, then-Notre Dame theology professor Bill Storey was invited to attend a meeting at an off-campus apartment – but unlike most first gatherings, the 20 graduate students and two professors who joined him there didn’t jump at the chance to make introductions. Instead, each shared only his or her first name – a clue, Storey said, that spoke plenty about both the national consciousness and Notre Dame perception of homosexuality at the time.

“I thought it was very revealing that people were just scared enough not to use their family name, that they were uneasy at Notre Dame, afraid of the repercussions,” he said.

While Storey was living openly with his partner at the time, he said that he was “not on a soapbox” for gay rights – “I was kind of out and in,” he explained.

Storey and the other attendees soon decided that the anxiety they felt could be turned into a positive, and GLND/SMC was formed.

“The tone of that first meeting was indicative of two things,” Storey said. “At first it was fear and trepidation, we didn’t know if we could do anything at [Notre Dame] … but then it became ‘well, let’s try.'”

GLND/SMC did not try, however, to immediately achieve officially recognized club status.

“We didn’t know what recognition we wanted,” Storey recalled. “We just wanted polite acceptance.”

A meeting was arranged with officials from the Office of Student Affairs to discuss the organization’s future, which Storey said was full of spirited and open conversation. However, GLND/SMC received a letter a week later that declined to grant them official status, but offered the group Campus Ministry resources.

Despite the decision that the club would remain unofficial, Storey said that it began to hold weekly meetings in the Counseling Center and was fairly successful over the next decade in its attempts to bring outside speakers to campus.

“We did the normal things that student societies do,” he said. “We wanted to see what we could get without causing too big of a ruckus. And we got a very good response from campus. We were not squashed. … The squash came when the administration realized we were well-organized on campus.”

Boiling Over

Through the fall of 1994, GLND/SMC continued to meet in the Counseling Center, and regularly placed advertisements in The Observer. However, the publicity had a caveat – neither the name of the organization nor the meeting place could be listed. John Blandford, co-chair of GLND/SMC, said he remembers publishing the letters in Greek script to evade punishment. He described the process as “a big game to pretend the group didn’t exist.”

When an ad ran with the meeting place clearly announced, the game was over. Blandford said he and co-chair Kelley Smith were called to a meeting in January 1995 with Father Peter Rocca, who spoke on behalf of the Office of Student Affairs. They were informed that GLND/SMC had been banned from meeting on campus.

The outcry was immediate. In first week of February alone, the rising conflict at Notre Dame appeared on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. The student protests of the decision coincided with Andrew Sullivan, gay and Catholic editor of The New Republic, coming to speak at the University.

“We mustered all of our forces,” Blandford said, adding that the decision upset many students’ “basic sense of justice.”

“They just felt that the University wasn’t playing fair,” he said.

The University responded to the turmoil on March 6, 1995 in the form of an open letter by Patricia O’Hara, then the vice president of Student Affairs. In the letter, O’Hara addressed a resolution put forth by the Campus Life Council on Feb. 20, 1995 that called for GLND/SMC’s official recognition. Citing the University’s policy that “a group’s purpose must be consistent with the mission of the University and the moral teachings of the Catholic Church,” O’Hara did not approve the resolution. Instead, she established the Ad Hoc Committee on Gay and Lesbian Student Needs to advise the administration. She wrote that she hoped the committee would help “move beyond the painful polemics that have characterized the discussion in recent weeks.”

For both sides, all that was left to do was wait.

Answers and Compromise

On Feb. 29, 1996, the Ad Hoc Committee published its final report, and by April 2, O’Hara had delivered another answer. Set within the framework of the “dual goals” of meeting gay and lesbian student needs and remaining faithful to the Church, O’Hara’s letter accepted all 12 of the committee’s recommendations, including granting it permanent standing committee status.

Two of these acceptances, however, stood out – the creation of a new University-sponsored group for gay and lesbian students facilitated by faculty and administrator advisors with a special relationship to the Office of Student Affairs and O’Hara’s promise to raise to University officers the issue of modifying the legal non-discrimination clause to include sexual orientation.

The former, a group named Notre Dame Gay and Lesbian Students – which Blandford described as a “paper tiger” to pacify, not replace GLND/SMC – was short-lived, folding after only a year of existence. The latter, the non-discrimination clause, became the next sustained source of friction.

In August of 1997, University President Father Edward Malloy wrote an open letter to the campus community that explained a new document and an intricate distinction. Although the University decided against the inclusion of sexual orientation in the legal clause, officials published “The Spirit of Inclusion of Notre Dame.”

“Institutional non-discrimination clauses are highly stylized statements which are legally binding,” Malloy wrote. “We choose not to change our legal non-discrimination clause, but we call ourselves to act in accordance with what we regard as a higher standard – Christ’s call to inclusiveness, coupled with the gospels’ call to live chaste lives.”

While the step was hailed as definite progress, Blandford and others questioned the decision.

“[The Spirit of Inclusion statement] was pretty words to mask an ugly policy,” Blandford said. “In short, it was smoke and mirrors – to run from the responsibility of a true compassion.”

Father David Garrick agreed. The Holy Cross priest and communication and theatre professor came out as a celibate homosexual to the University community in 1996 through a letter to the editor published in The Observer. Garrick resigned from the faculty on March 19, 1998, writing that “it is my intention that this resignation shall serve as a heart-felt protest against the refusal of the officers of the University to make a legal provision for the equal rights for gay persons at Notre Dame.”

“It is my hope,” the letter continued, “that this protest will stimulate informed and productive public exchanges here at Notre Dame on homosexual issues in general, and on social justice for gay persons in particular.”

Garrick got his wish. Over the next few years, the exchange would continue – this time with alumni on the front lines.

The Alumni Role

Like GLND/SMC years before, Gay and Lesbian Alumni of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s (GALA-ND/SMC) were banned in August of 1999 from advertising in The Observer. Chandra Johnson, assistant to the President, wrote a letter saying that GALA ads implied opposition to Catholic moral teachings and issued “a blanket statement against GALA.”

Blandford, who had by then become the chairman of GALA, loudly contested the claim that the alumni organization contradicted the teachings of the Church. Looking back, he said that the fact that many GALA members held powerful media positions was critical in reversing the decision.

“The one thing they would not put up with was censorship,” he said.

Another more emotional barrier for alumni to cross was the group’s first local reunion since its inception in the summer of 1993. Held in September of 2000 to coincide with the presentation of GALA’s annual Fr. Tom Dooley award to talk show host Phil Donahue – a 1957 alumnus and longtime GALA supporter – the reunion elicited mixed emotions.

“There were some people certainly at the 2000 reunion … who had not been back to campus since they graduated in the 1970s,” said Kevin Heffernan, a former GALA chairman and current GALA secretary. “There was some indifference, some resentment and anger.”

Blandford, who also attended the reunion, remembered similar reactions.

“[Some alumni] had such hard feelings they were on the verge of tears,” he said. “They loved it, but there was lots of pain associated with whether they could step back on campus again.”

Since then, GALA has continued to make its presence felt at Notre Dame. Gus Hinojosa, current chairman, said that the tailgate the group hosted last fall was particularly significant.

“It helped normalize the whole concept of being a gay alum,” he said. “You’re no less of an alumnus if you’re a gay or a lesbian.

“It’s our obligation to be more visible on campus, so students know there’s life beyond campus.”

GALA also provides funding for current unofficial student groups such as OUTReachND and the Gay/Straight Alliance, and helped sponsor the Queer Film Festival this February.

Hinojosa said that while on campus for the festival, several alumni met with University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh, and felt heartened by his words.

“He was very soulful, he gave us a blessing,” Hinojosa said. “He said we’re all God’s children, we all operate within the parameters we were born with.

“He was very encouraging that we proceed on the path we’re going.”