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Gay ND student honored

Justin Tardiff | Tuesday, August 30, 2005

There’s a celebrity of sorts on Notre Dame’s campus.

He is featured in Time magazine next month and is the subject of a feature story in a major metropolitan newspaper.

His name is Brett Janecek. He’s a sophomore. He’s gay. And he just received a prestigious – and large – scholarship from The Point Foundation, a national organization aimed at providing support for students who have been marginalized because of their sexual orientation.

The scholarship is unprecedented at Notre Dame – recently ranked the No. 2 college in the country in The Princteon Review’s “Alternative Lifestyles Not an Alternative” category, after two years at No. 1.

Janecek, along with the 19 other gay finalists, was selected from a pool of more than 2,000 applicants. The application process was competitive and lengthy, Janecek said.

He wrote three essays, answered questions over the phone and flew to San Francisco to sit before the Point Foundation’s Board of Trustees before being awarded the scholarship in early May.

“The scholarship is about being an activist,” Janecek said. “I’m here. I’m gay. And people are recognizing me for my leadership and academic achievements and for what I’ve gone through.”

He said he has had no support – emotional, financial or otherwise – from his parents. His experience as a gay male at Notre Dame is what set him apart from the droves of other applicants who applied, said Vance Lancaster, executive director of The Point Foundation.

“The fact that Brett decided to go to Notre Dame and is attending a university that doesn’t recognize the gay and lesbian organization on campus and is not supportive of gay issues on campus is something we support,” Lancaster said.

In recent years, Notre Dame has denied requests to recognize AllianceND, a campus gay-straight alliance, as an official student organization. The University also does not include sexual orientation in its legal non-discrimination clause.

However, the University has published a statement, “The Spirit of Inclusion of Notre Dame,” that supports gay and lesbian members of the University community. Notre Dame’s Standing Committee on Gay and Lesbian Student Needs also strives to make homosexual students feel welcome.

Sister Mary Louise Gude, chair of the Standing Committee and Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs, is thrilled for Janecek.

“Notre Dame is a top 20 school, and we have lots and lots of very smart and gifted people that go here,” Gude said. “So it’s no surprise at all that one of our gay or lesbian students would receive this [award]. They are a very talented group.”

Janecek’s sexual orientation has been an extra burden on him since childhood. He spent his high school years trying to please his parents by ignoring his passion for the arts. He says he does not have a working relationship with his parents – who learned of his homosexuality last October.

“The scholarship gives me emotional backing and acknowledgment of who I am which I just don’t receive from this school or at home,” Janecek said. “It gives me this inner strength and affirmation to stand up and show my strength that I always have had but was just been too afraid to show.”

Janecek’s scholarship is renewable for the duration of his undergraduate education. He estimates he will receive $57,000 total. In addition, he will be paired up with one of 51 professional Point Foundation mentors who will serve as a coach, confidant and friend.

“The mentor is responsible for shepherding the student through the college and graduate school period,” Lancaster said. “A lot of the students have been disowned by their parents, so the mentors are there for things like parents’ weekend and for holidays.”

Lancaster noted that more than 40 percent of homeless teenagers are gay or lesbian and The Point Foundation seeks to reach out to them. The organization has experienced tremendous growth since its inception in 2001. The majority of its funding comes from private donations, and the non-profit organization has ballooned to be worth over $2.5 million with a $1 million endowment fund, he said.

Lancaster attributes its growth to the large number of students in the U.S. who have been “disowned” from their parents. The number is so great, he said, that the foundation cannot help them all.

“This year we had more than 2,000 people open up applications – which indicates the scope of the problem,” he said. “There is a tremendous need out there because having the right to an education is the birthright of every young person. Unfortunately, a lot of gay and lesbian kids don’t have the opportunity.”

Janecek must maintain a 3.5 grade point average in order to continue receiving the scholarship money. He is also required to design and implement a community service project. Janecek’s project is still in the works.

“I’m just standing up and being the example that can help other gay men be happy with themselves,” Janecek said. “I want to show people that it’s OK to be gay, it’s not a terrible lifestyle. It’s who I am. It’s who God made me to be.”