Gay-straight alliance asks University for official recognition
Sarah Mervosh | Sunday, March 4, 2012
Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a three-part series about the experience of LGBTQ students at Notre Dame in light of recent requests that the University grant club status to a gay-straight alliance.
For more than 25 years, Notre Dame students have asked the University to formally recognize a student organization that addresses the needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community on campus.
The requests have come in many forms, including student government resolutions, a report to the Board of Trustees and applications from student organizations requesting to be officially recognized as a club by the Student Activities Office (SAO).
Each time, the University rejected the request, but also affirmed its commitment to meeting the needs of LGBTQ students in ways other than a student-to-student group, according to rejection letters. The University has historically cited a conflict with Catholic teaching as a reason for rejecting the clubs.
Last week, students submitted the most recent application asking that SAO recognize a gay-straight alliance (GSA). It was the fourth application for a GSA in the last six years, Peggy Hnatusko, director of student activities for programming, said.
Hnatusko said the proposed GSA is under review, but also said the current structures the University offers best meet the needs of LGBTQ students.
“It remains the viewpoint of the Student Activities Office that due to the sufficiently complex nature of the issue, the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning students can best be met through the structures that are currently in place,” she said.
Student body president Pat McCormick said the University has made significant progress on addressing the needs of LGBTQ students over the years, but students have come to him asking for the next step.
“Students are asking and seeking a peer-to-peer kind of group where gay and straight students can come together and have their own kind of independent group,” he said. “The core element that we’re trying to seek is whether we can make some kind of progress in trying to advance the spirit of inclusion further in ways that are consistent with Catholic teaching.”
A long history
The names and specific objectives of the groups have changed over the years, but since the 1980s, unofficial student groups for LGBTQ students have sought official University recognition.
“There have been a number of applications received by the Student Activities Office whose purposes cover a wide array of gay and lesbian student issues,” Hnatusko said. “These proposals have ranged from providing a support group to establishing a gay- straight alliance.”
Hnatusko and representatives from Student Affairs were unable to provide the exact number of times a student group serving the needs of LGBTQ students has requested club status and been denied.
Based on interviews and copies of rejection letters obtained through student government records, The Observer verified seven requests. Senior Sam Costanzo, who submitted this year’s application for a GSA, puts it at around 15 times. University representatives could not confirm or deny this number,
The first request on record dates back to 1986, when a group called Gays and Lesbians at Notre Dame/Saint Mary’s College (GLND/SMC) asked for club status. Student Affairs denied the request, according to rejection letters.
“It is our judgment that formal recognition of GLND/SMC carries with it an implicit sanction for a homosexual lifestyle which is not in keeping with the values of the University or the teachings of the Church,” according to an excerpt from the 1986 letter.
The next request came in 1992, when SAO denied GLND/SMC club status based on the 1986 decision, according to a copy of the rejection letter. That decision was appealed, and then-Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia O’Hara upheld the rejection.
“And then it blew up,” Costanzo said. “In 1993 and 1994 this became like the Viewpoint war. And then 1995 was when it really reached fever pitch.”
In 1995, student government’s Campus Life Council (CLC) passed a resolution asking the University to recognize GLND/SMC. The bylaws of CLC required O’Hara to publicly respond to its request.
In an open letter to the Notre Dame community, O’Hara denied the request because the University did not think granting GLND/SMC club status was the “appropriate means to the agreed upon end of building a supportive environment for our gay and lesbian students.”
Instead, O’Hara created an ad hoc committee to advise her on how, apart from recognizing a student organization, the University could do a better job serving LGBTQ students. In 1996, this committee’s recommendations led to a standing committee comprised of faculty, administration members and students to advise the Vice President of Student Affairs on how to address LGBTQ student needs.
In 1997, the University added a Spirit of Inclusion to its student handbook, du Lac. It states that Notre Dame welcomes LGBTQ students and seeks to create an environment of “in which none are strangers and all may flourish.”
“We value gay and lesbian members of this community as we value all members of this community,” it states. “We condemn harassment of any kind, and University policies proscribe it.”
By 2006, the standing committee morphed into the Core Council, which is the University sanctioned structure in place today, Hnatusko said.
Most recently, applications for club status have been for a GSA, rather than a group for LGBTQ students alone. Hnatusko said since she took her position in 2007, there have been four applications for a GSA.
Room to work together
Over the years, the University has expressed a desire to meet the needs of LGBTQ students, but in a way that is consistent with Church teaching. Core Council has become the University’s primary resource to do so.
As an advisory board for the Vice President of Student Affairs, Core Council is comprised of four administrators and eight students, the majority of whom must identify as LGTBQ, said co-chair Sr. Sue Dunn.
“We’re not a club, and that’s a great distinction to make, because we answer directly to, as an advisory group if you will, to the Vice President for Student Affairs,” Dunn said.
Core Council works with organizations across campus to raise awareness and educate the community about LGBTQ issues. It also hosts a monthly coffee where students can get together to be social and monthly discussion groups regarding LGBTQ issues, Dunn said.
This year, Core Council was given its own space in LaFortune, and it now hosts Safe Space hours several nights a week, where students can come in to talk or simply hang out.
“We’re definitely in a good position of growth phase now,” Dunn said.
Dunn said Core Council differs from a GSA in its composition and nature.
“Some of the more pastoral needs are met by the Core Council’s structure,” she said. “Sometimes there is an ebb and flow to student groups that are only run by students … Part of the reasoning in coming up with this sort of structure is that there would be some stability.”
Senior Jason G’Sell, who serves as co-chair with Dunn, said from the perspective of a gay student, the Core Council does not eliminate the need for a GSA.
“Frequently, they say the Core Council is doing what the GSA is doing. We could have a thousand Core Councils and that wouldn’t be enough,” he said. “There will never be enough [safe] space.”
G’Sell said a GSA could provide an option for students who do not like Core Council events, as well as appeal to students who are less comfortable with their sexuality.
“There’s a conception that if you walk into our events, it’s like you’re going to have a rainbow flag stamped onto your forehead, [that] you’re outing yourself to the world and everyone’s going to know, and that’s scary for people who aren’t really comfortable with their identity,” he said. “[In a GSA], identity is less important because it’s for LGBT people, and questioning people and allies. You can perhaps choose which one you want to identify as.
“And I would say at Notre Dame, that is particularly important.”
This year’s application for a GSA comes from an unofficial club, AllianceND, which meets biweekly, Costanzo said.
The application comes after Student Senate passed a resolution last month asking the University to give club status to a GSA and in the wake of a video released last week by the 4 to 5 Movement, which advocates for an improved environment of inclusion for LGBTQ students, faculty and staff.
“There is just a lot of energy and excitement in how we can continue the remarkable progress that’s been made in expanding inclusion at Notre Dame,” McCormick, student body president, said.
Costanzo said the current proposal strived to work within the standards of the University and Church teaching.
“There’s been this long standing perception or misunderstanding that we are a certain type of group of students and that we are seeking to get this approved for it to be like a locus of sinful interaction between students,” he said. “We’re going to be subject to the same standards and scrutiny as every other student club if we’re approved … We’re trying to make it clear that we’ll work within the boundaries [of Church teaching.]“
Costanzo said if approved, AllianceND would not seek to usurp the responsibilities of Core Council. Rather, it would complement the structures already in place.
He said Core Council is “a static hub of support,” whereas a GSA would be “peer to peer, not tied down to an institutionalized office.”
Hnatusko, who is responsible for making the final decision regarding prospective clubs, said the GSA application is one of 22 applications for new clubs SAO received by the deadline last week.
As the first step in the approval process, Hnatusko said she will review each proposed club and look at a number of factors related to the club’s purpose, proposed activities and feasibility. The club must also be consistent with the University’s mission and Catholic teaching, according to du Lac.
“That’s usually where it’s been killed,” Costanzo said.
Hnatusko said this process can take several weeks, but if the club meets University standards for recognition, it is sent to a branch of student government for approval.
She said SAO will send letters regarding the status of proposed student clubs after all 22 have been reviewed, which must be finished by the end of next semester.
If approved, Costanzo said AllianceND would be like any other student club.
“We could flier. We could have our own events … We were kind of thinking of having a service component to the GSA too,” he said. “We could get out into the campus to change the culture. So in that sense, it’s proactive, but it’s not activist-y.”
McCormick said the time is right to approve a GSA.
“There is no better time. We’ve had progress for so many years now,” he said. “Why not continue that? Why not continue this march forward?”