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Students called to recognize equality

Gary Zebrun | Tuesday, March 23, 2004

In 1973, down the hall from my student union office was a room where a guy answered the campus gay hotline. He always looked tired – a sad puppy dog face covered with acne. He wore Coke-bottle lens glasses. He was strangely handsome. Once we passed in the stairway, and he nodded. Terrified, I thought, “He knows.” If I were 19 and on those stairs today, when all of the talk from San Francisco to Boston is about men hitching up with men, I wonder if I’d think, “I could marry this guy.” Not, I guess, even now, at Notre Dame.That year the Sophomore Literary Festival, which I directed, was dedicated to W.H. Auden, who had accepted an invitation to participate a few months before he died. Stephen Spender and John Hollander agreed to open the week-long event with a tribute to the great English poet: Gay Auden.The very private poet with one huge public fact out there for everyone to know. I’d even read he had a longtime partner, a dentist – jeez, how wonderfully ordinary. And me, deep inside the closet I would inhabit until about seven years ago. It was a closet, like the corner room of the gay hotline, that Notre Dame was perfectly happy for me and other gays to stay in. The closet isn’t much different from the “spirit of inclusion” that the institution later offered gays on campus who began realizing it might just be okay to love whoever they want to love.For years, before I came out, I had a recurring dream. I’d be in the student union and hear the gay hotline ring endlessly until I walked down the hall and answered it. On the other end was Auden’s voice reading the opening of one of his great poems, “Musee des Beaux Arts”: “About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters: how well they understood/Its human position; how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Then the phone line went dead. Back then, it was hard to imagine even a hint of gay marriage (certainly no civil-union celebrations in the Sunday New York Times) or the flurry of attention America would bring to being gay in the past two decades: AIDS appeared and Rock Hudson came out. Gay pride days and parades proliferated the big cities. Poor Matthew Shepard became a martyr. Ellen DeGeneres got her own TV show. Jerry Falwell tried to ban the Teletubby Tinky Winky. Philadelphia and The Hours raked in the gold at Academy Awards ceremonies. Sodomy won the nod of the Supreme Court. Episcopalians elected a gay bishop. Cable TV’s Queer Eye guys turned heads all over America.It seems that all the while Notre Dame, among the elites who like to be seen as almost sacred learning places, has been alone in the dark ages, deep inside the closet itself, on the issue of equal rights for gay men and women. When I was a student at Notre Dame, there was enormous pride in the lead the University community took in civil rights.We just never believed those rights could apply to gays. We liked to think that Father Hesburgh was our very own Martin Luther King, Jr. But gay men and women? Forget about them. They were, at best, students to be “tolerated.” Students to invite, much later, into a circle of “inclusion.” And today, when colleges all over America embrace sexual diversity, nothing defines the freefall of Notre Dame’s moral character more clearly than the institution’s intolerance for the gaysYes, I’m enormously cheered by the Queer Film Festival and the sea of orange T-shirted students that the event apparently has spawned, giving so many people, including me, the courage to stand up and tell the University, “Hurry up, it’s time to understand gay men and women are no different from anyone else on the planet.”But it will take more that 1,500 orange T-shirted people of good heart and will to satisfy gay men and women on campus or those who have long passed from it. It will take more than old Father Hesburgh’s hand on a gay alumnus’ arm and his expression of compassion and understanding. It will take the University, in no uncertain terms, telling gays on campus: You are as free as anyone here by our lake in Indiana. You are who you are and the university respects you in the same way we respect everyone else here – black, white, Hispanic, Asian; tall, short, fat, skinny; male, female. You don’t have to be some lonely guy with Coke-bottle glasses answering an anguished hotline and then walking down a stairway averting your eyes when another guy looks back and thinks, “He’s cute.” Anything short of real civil rights won’t be enough at Notre Dame anymore. Gay students deserve University-sponsored clubs and unqualified recognition from the administration.The “spirit of inclusion?” The phrase stinks. Sorry. You can have it. Gays at Notre Dame want to be free to be themselves and they want that freedom yesterday.

Gary Zebrunclass of 1976March 23