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Queer Film Festival is examined

Maddie Hanna | Tuesday, December 6, 2005

After hosting the Queer Film Festival for the past two years – prompting campus debate over academic freedom and the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality – Notre Dame is now holding discussions with the Film, Television and Theatre Department about potential changes to the event’s third installment, officials said.

The February festival, which features films by gay and lesbian artists intended to stimulate dialogue, has in recent weeks been the subject of talks between members of the FTT Department and a committee on academic freedom created by University President Father John Jenkins, University spokesman Matt Storin said Monday.

While Storin said discussions are occurring with the presumption the event will go on – “It’s not my impression there is any discussion of canceling,” he said – one issue he said administrators have addressed directly is the event’s title.

“I think [the committee believes] the title in use, particularly in part ‘festival,’ may lead [to confusion over] the difference between academic examination of gay and lesbian films as opposed to taking a position on what is a controversial [topic] on campus … or within the Catholic Church,” Storin said. “I think there’s a feeling there should be some care exercised.”

FTT Department chair Peter Holland did not return several calls seeking comment for this article. Several FTT professors declined to comment or did not return calls seeking comment.

Graduate student Harry Karahalios, one of this year’s Queer Film Festival organizers, said it was “too early” to predict the results of the discussion.

“All parties are in communication,” Karahalios said. “It’s a very delicate situation.”

It’s not clear what stage the discussions have reached, Storin said.

“I’ve heard nothing to believe there’s any intentional delay” to the event on the part of administrators, Storin said.

He said he believed the University would try to resolve the discussion “sooner rather than later.”

Storin said the committee’s creation was not a surprise.

“As Father Jenkins has said, he named a committee … to study the issue of having controversial topics examined at the University under the umbrella of academic freedom, without creating a needless controversy,” Storin said.

Storin said he was not certain which administrators sit on the committee, but said he was “pretty sure” Dean of Arts and Letters Mark Roche is a committee member.

The Observer was unable to reach Roche for comment Monday.

Students who heard rumors of other proposed changes to the festival expressed confusion over what was actually happening.

Junior theatre major Krysta Dennis said some FTT students thought the University was trying to increase its control over FTT productions in a “goofy and disrespectful” way.

“I haven’t talked to anyone who thinks it’s a good idea,” Dennis said, referring to the potential the University would change certain parts of the Queer Film Festival.

Dennis said while everything she knew was by word of mouth, she believed that “for the moment” the University had not proposed changes to the event’s content.

“But who knows what’s going on behind closed doors,” she said.

A female junior enrolled in FTT classes who spoke on the condition of anonymity said students had been kept in the dark about the discussions.

“They were not really eager to let us know what’s going on … [I’m] not sure what’s true anymore,” she said. “Even a lot of faculty don’t know what’s going on.”

When the rumors of administrative intervention first hit, the junior said FTT students predicted an increase in University censorship of FTT productions.

The most recent news, she said, is that the University and the FTT Department are compromising with each other.

The Queer Film Festival began three years ago in what co-founder Liam Dacey, a Notre Dame graduate and then-senior FTT major, said was an effort to promote awareness of Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual and Queer [GLTBQ] issues and combat stereotypes perpetuated by Notre Dame’s then-No. 1 rank in the Princeton Review’s “Alternative Lifestyles Not an Alternative” category.

“We want to create an awareness that the gay members of the Notre Dame community are members like anyone else,” Dacey told The Observer in February 2004. “We also wanted to exhibit a lot of different films by gay artists that you wouldn’t normally see.”

While it was a first for the University, Storin compared the Queer Film Festival to a “[range] of classes, seminars and conferences” and said the event was an issue of academic freedom.

“The film festival is being co-sponsored by a number of academic departments,” he told The Observer in February 2004. “I think the fact that faculty and students of the University expressed interest [in this] is not exactly ‘stop the presses’ news. It doesn’t carry any message of endorsement or disparagement … by the University.”

But one year later, the Festival attracted more press and sparked heated debate.

Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop John D’Arcy sent a letter to the South Bend Tribune on Feb. 10 calling Notre Dame’s willingness to host the event “an abuse of academic freedom.”

The administration has countered this argument by explaining that the event is not University-sponsored but housed under specific academic departments. Last year, the Festival was sponsored by the FTT Department, the Gay and Lesbian Alumni/ae of the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College (GALA ND/SMC), the English Department, the Anthropology Department, the History Department, the Counseling Center and the Gender Studies Program. Films were shown in the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts.

“There are people who object to it and we respect those opinions,” Storin told The Observer last February. “But if we attempted to stop the culture of the United States of America in the year 2005 at the gate on Notre Dame Avenue and on Juniper Road, not only would that be a fruitless exercise, but we really wouldn’t be preparing our students for the world they’re going to enter into.”

Anna Gomberg, graduate student and co-coordinator of the unrecognized gay/straight student group AllianceND said Monday that the issue of academic freedom at Notre Dame made her “a little nervous.”

Notre Dame’s definition of academic freedom “should be consistent with [that of] other universities,” Gomberg said.

While AllianceND is not an official sponsor of the Queer Film Festival, Gomberg said the group has traditionally supported event.

“I think the Queer Film Festival is well within the boundaries of academic freedom and is a huge asset to the University and the community at large,” Gomberg said.

History professor Gail Bederman said according to American Association of University Professors (AAUP) guidelines, performances and film showings for students are covered under academic freedom.

While Bederman said she did not know about the specifics of this year’s Queer Film Festival or the discussions, she said Monday that these film showings would be no except to the AAUP’s Statement on Profession Ethics, which reads: “As citizens engaged in a profession that depends upon freedom for its health and integrity, professors have a particular obligation to promote conditions of free inquiry and to further public understanding of academic freedom.”

The AAUP’s guidelines are not regulations, so Notre Dame is not required to stand by this generalization.

But controversy surrounding the Queer Film Festival raises questions about Notre Dame’s own guidelines, she said.

“It certainly is an issue of academic freedom,” Bederman said.