The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Gay? Fine by me’ shirts sprinkle campus

Mary Kate Malone | Wednesday, October 11, 2006

“Gay” might be fine by the students and faculty sporting bright orange shirts today, but more than two years after the “Gay? Fine by me” slogan first flooded campus, homosexual student groups are still not officially recognized by the University – a fact that troubles gay activists both inside and outside Notre Dame.

The first “Gay? Fine by me” T-shirt day was organized by then-senior Joe Dickmann in March 2004 to dispute a Princeton Review ranking that put Notre Dame at the top of the “Alternative Lifestyles not an Alternative” list. He wanted to prove that Notre Dame students were “gay-friendly,” and he hoped the shirts would push the University to rethink its stance on gay and lesbian student groups.

The 2,400 orange shirts dotting campus that day brought national media attention in what history professor Gail Bederman called a “breathtaking” example of student acceptance.

Dickmann graduated two months later, but he said Tuesday from St. Louis that more work must be done. The shirts might have made students realize “there were allies on campus,” but its statement has failed to penetrate the University’s policy of not recognizing gay and lesbian student organizations, he said.

“I want the [Notre Dame] environment to be a place where gays come on purpose instead of by accident,” Dickmann said. “I want the shirt program to be even bigger and I want it run by an official club sanctioned by Student Activities.”

Despite Dickmann’s sentiments, this year’s “Gay? Fine by me” shirt organizers are striving for student awareness and acceptance, not necessarily University policy changes.

Stacey Williams is leading the project this year – ordering about 200 orange T-shirts for today (though there is a “stockpile” of leftover shirts from previous years as well). The goal of the shirts is not to change minds, but to raise awareness that gay students are not alone, said AllianceND president Aine Richards.

“I think there’s a large group of students here that are welcoming and accepting and if you find those students, it can be a very great place to be,” Richards said.

But she noted that many AllianceND members wearing the shirts today are hoping their efforts won’t go unnoticed by the Office of Student Affairs.

The Observer could not reach Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Sister Susan Dunn for comment Tuesday. Dunn is co-chair of the Core Council for Gay and Lesbian Students, a 12-member group of faculty, staff, administrators and students that advises Vice President of Student Affairs Father Mark Poorman about gay and lesbian student needs.

Dickmann agrees that the student body is generally accepting of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning students but there is a disconnect, he said, between students and the University’s administration. The University’s policy casts a shadow over the progress that has been made so far on campus, he said.

“The word ‘gay’ itself is so taboo at Notre Dame’s campus and the administration evokes that by not allowing a gay student group,” said Dickmann, who currently serves on the Board of Directors for Fine by Me, Inc., a non-profit company that trademarked the “Gay? Fine by me” logo and has distributed 60,000 of the T-shirts to colleges, businesses and small communities since January 2005.

“Particularly in a conservative community, people are often surprised with how many others agree with them,” said Lucas Schaefer, Fine by Me’s executive director. “The program can be empowering in terms of showing that support you have.

“I think [the T-shirt] can start to move a campus in a different direction and it certainly sends a signal to the people who make policy that homophobia is not tolerated by a huge percentage of the campus.”

Bederman has witnessed that movement. She recalled teaching a history class about 15 years ago examining gender in the United States since 1942. When she tried to devote one class to examining gay life during the time period, she found her students speechless. She asked if they had done the reading.

“They said ‘Oh no, professor, we did the reading. But we’ve never talked about homosexuality in public before and we just don’t know what to say.'”

Bederman said she “can’t imagine” Notre Dame students in 2006 feeling the way her students did in the early 90s. That’s progress that can be partly attributed to the T-shirts, she said.

“The shirt does a lot to say on an ongoing basis that we welcome the student of whatever sexuality,” said Bederman. She also said the Core Council is also largely responsible for the change in student attitude toward homosexuality.

Regardless of University policy, Williams said the effectiveness of the shirts around campus today can be measured one student at a time.

“There are members of this community who have open arms to all persons, regardless of sexual orientation,” Williams said. “If only one student realizes that he or she is welcome here, the shirt campaign has fulfilled its purpose in my mind.”

But is the repetition of the T-shirts season after season dulling its effect?

“That is something we talk about a lot,” Richards said. “But every time we do it we get tons of people asking for shirts. … The repetition is a way to show people that we’re here for good and we’re not going away.”