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Approval of Straight and Gay Alliance raises questions

Megan O'Neil | Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Board of Governance’s (BOG) approval of the Straight and Gay Alliance (SAGA) Monday grants the group official club status at Saint Mary’s and makes it eligible for student government funding.

The decision, however, came after hours of group deliberation and a week of BOG members’ individual research.

At the forefront of board members’ concerns was whether recognition of a gay-straight alliance would contradict the official position of the Catholic Church on homosexuality and, therefore, violate the Saint Mary’s Mission Statement.

In a letter of support distributed at yesterday’s meeting, Sr. Kathleen Dolphin, director of the Center for Spirituality at the College, said she did not feel granting the group club status would violate Saint Mary’s Mission. Dolphin cited a letter, “Always Our Children,” published on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Web site, which advocates human rights for homosexuals.

“SAGA’s intent is to foster such communication among members of the College community regarding issues related to sexuality and gender,” Dolphin wrote. “This fits with the College’s mission.”

Dolphin added questions of sexuality “rank rather high” among the “complex needs and challenges” the Mission statement promises to address.

“Providing opportunities for people to address these challenges within a faith based institution seems not only reasonable but necessary,” Dolphin wrote.

Freshman Maggie Harrigan attended the meeting wearing an orange ‘Gay? Fine by me’ T-shirt and described the 14-3 vote as in line with Catholic tradition of acceptance.

“I think this a great day for Saint Mary’s,” Harrigan said. “I’m really proud that [the board] finally stood up and did something that is right. I am glad that they are showing people that we are really Catholic because we are loving and supporting our members.”

Women’s studies coordinator Astrid Henry also addressed a letter to BOG urging them to approve SAGA’s petition. Henry said sexual orientation was added to the college’s non-discrimination policy in 2003 and wrote that “if SAGA is denied club status merely because of its focus on lesbian and bisexual students, this denial may be a violation of the college’s own anti-discrimination policy.”

SAGA founder and president Megan Schaeffer, who attended both meetings to answer officers’ questions about the purpose of the club, grinned as the board’s decision was announced at the end of the meeting.

“I’m very pleased and very excited,” Schaeffer said after. “I can’t say it came as a huge surprise, but you never know which way things are going to go.”

Schaeffer said while she was affronted by the repetitiveness of some of the questions poised to her, such as whether the club would promote “homosexual acts,” she said she was simply thankful they chose to go ahead and vote.

“It’s a big decision for people to make,” Schaeffer said. “When people are presented with an issue such as this for the first time, it is stressful.”

SAGA treasurer Sara Nielsen said she doubted whether other clubs would have received the same scrutiny but said she understood officers’ concerns.

“I’m just so glad that they voted yes because there really is a need for a club on campus,” Nielsen said. “I don’t know many gay students on campus besides myself, but I think straight students, especially straight students, will benefit.”

Public relations director Melanie McDonald said the College was unable to comment on the BOG decision at this time.

SAGA is not the first gay and lesbian group to be recognized by Saint Mary’s, nor is the surrounding debate the first controversy at the College concerning sexuality.

On March 3, 1997, The Alliance of Lesbian, Bisexual, Straight and Questioning Women of Saint Mary’s College (ALBSQ), led by Saint Mary’s student Carol Jones, applied for club status. After researching the need for such a group on campus, BOG approved the petition on April 7.

A week later, then College President Bill Hickey deferred the vote and promised to make a decision by the end of the academic year. Hickey, however, retired at the end of May without addressing the issue and left it to his successor president Marilou Eldred.

Nearly a year after Alliance members submitted their original request for recognition, Eldred denied the group club status on Feb. 27, 1998. Eldred’s decision spurred major student protests. Supporters of the gay-straight group covered their mouths with duct tape and camped out in Le Mans Hall outside of Eldred’s office for as many as eight hours at a time.

Shortly thereafter, student leaders renamed the group The Feminist Collective, rewrote their constitution and reapplied to BOG. They were approved unanimously on March 5 and held their first meeting on March 19.

A few years later, however, after failing to properly file paper work with student activities, The Feminist Collective dissolved.

Currently, other groups on campus, such as Feminist United, aim to address a wide variety of women’s issues, but none specifically are intended for gay students.

Monday’s vote once again established such a club at Saint Mary’s.

“I just think that this vote goes along with Saint Mary’s including all women and educating on diversity issues,” said student diversity board president Adriana Puente.

Student body president Sarah Catherine White said it is unclear whether the College administration has the power to veto BOG’s decision such as what occurred in 1997 but expressed doubt that such action would be taken.