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LGBTQ students discuss campus relationships

Sarah Mervosh | Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment in a 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 senior Rocky Stroud II, meeting up with other gay men on campus is not as simple as getting coffee or hanging out in a dorm room. With other gay students sometimes still in the closet, it often takes planning, and a bit of secrecy.

“[Some guys don’t] want the same guy who has been labeled or somewhat seems like he’s gay to keep coming in and out of his room,” Stroud said. “People will then either suspect or know or figure out that he is not coming over to just watch the game.”

So when Stroud spends time with a male student who is not out to the Notre Dame community, the pair will go off campus for dinner, wait until late at night to see each other or sometimes, look for obscure places to hook up.

“There are rooms on campus that students have used,” he said. “The Jordan science lab was one of them.”

At a Catholic university that has not recognized a gay-straight alliance or added sexual orientation to its non-discrimination clause, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community has formed an underground network that helps them find friendship, love or simply a hook up.

Sophomore Mia Lillis said this network is particularly important at Notre Dame — not only for meeting potential romantic partners, but also for finding support.

“In an environment like this, a community is necessary because we still feel discriminated against by the official standpoint of the University,” Lillis said. “So we all connect to each other so we can have that haven.”

Running underground

Students said the underground network is particularly strong among gay men on campus, who meet each other through word of mouth, unofficial student clubs and technology.

For those students that use the network to hook up, Stroud said there is often a mutual understanding of secrecy.

“It was always kind of like an understanding,” he said. “You won’t tell. I won’t tell. No one will know sort of thing.”

However, when the underground nature of the network is accidentally brought to the surface of social circles, things can get messy. For example, Stroud once had a closeted student contact him asking to get together.

When someone later saw Stroud calling him, it resulted in accidentally outing the student.

“It’s always walking on thin ice and there’s a lot of room for hurting people unintentionally,” he said.

Despite the challenges of connecting with other gay men on campus, Stroud said he feels the pool is larger than many straight students might think.

“I personally have found it to be enough of people to choose from,” he said. “There are definitely categories to pick from.”

However, Lillis said the underground network is less connected among lesbian students because gender stereotypes allow women to stay in the closet if they choose to do so.

“Girls will come out to their close friends and then they don’t really feel the need to get connected to the community,” she said. “It’s very possible that there is an equal amount of gay guys and gay girls on campus, it’s just that the girls are not as networked in as the guys.”

Another difference between the gay and lesbian communities on campus is the amount of sexual activity among members, which Lillis said is typical of the LGBTQ population in general.

“A few [girl] have hooked up, but a very minimal amount,” she said. “I think we are very wary about hooking up with someone or even starting a relationship with someone simply because we do not want to jeopardize friendships.”

Without a University recognized gay-straight alliance and only a few sanctioned get-togethers a month through Core Council, senior Jason G’Sell said students use invite-only Facebook groups, websites and cell phone applications to connect.

On one popular cell phone app, Grindr, gay men create profiles and the app sorts users by distance, he said.

“It shows you headshots of people based on location. So this guy is the closest to me. He is 558 feet away,” G’Sell said. “You can guess by their age and how close they are [if they are a student.] Some people will say on their profile that they are a student at Notre Dame or a grad student or something.”

G’Sell said students can chat on Grindr and choose to meet in person. While he said the original purpose of the app was to find people to hook up with, most students do not use it for that purpose.

“On campus, it’s more of a social networking tool than a hook up tool,” he said.

Lillis said lesbian students do not use websites or apps to meet each other, and mostly meet by chance.

“A lot of it is just heresay,” she said. “I’ll come out to someone and they’ll be like, ‘oh, I know a lesbian.'”

A key component of the underground network is OutreachND, a student organization solely for LGBTQ students that does not apply for club status at the University, G’Sell said.

“It’s totally underground. By going there you’re not outing yourself,” he said. “It’s only through word of mouth that people would hear about them.”

The group puts on parties once a month and has a private Facebook group that students must be added to in order to see.

“We just hang out and play silly games and stuff,” Lillis said. “It’s just for fun.”

‘The gay loophole’

Despite the challenges to identifying as LGBTQ at Notre Dame, students have found one clear advantage — parietals don’t apply when they want to sleep over with members of the same gender.

“It’s the gay loophole,” G’Sell said. “We joke about it all the time. It’s like, if the University is going to screw us over in every other dimension, at least we get this one thing. We get the gay loophole.”

When G’Sell was dating his ex-boyfriend, he said he spent the night more than once.

“I slept over in his room,” G’Sell said. “No one cares. Again, there is still the rule against having sex and that applies to everyone.”

According to the student handbook, du Lac, one reason parietals exist is to respond to the privacy needs of students sharing common living space.

“It’s kind of awkward then if someone is gay because how are you supposed to enforce that? Would it make my roommates more uncomfortable if I had a gay guy over or if I had my girlfriend over to sleep over?” Lillis said. “Because one of them the University doesn’t approve of, but the other one the University has nothing to say about.”

Stroud, who lives off campus now, said he never ran into a problem when he had male students sleep over in the dorm. However, he said he was often cautious so he did not out a closeted student by accident.

“Yes, parietals and the RA couldn’t get me in trouble, but running into another guy could get him in trouble,” he said.

A range of relationship experiences

G’Sell said once LGBTQ students enter a relationship, the degree to which couples are “public” varies.

However, these students said they have been able to engage in typical Notre Dame dating experiences — from SYR’s to dining hall dates.

When G’Sell was dating his ex-boyfriend, he said “everyone” in their dorms knew they were together.

“He came to Duncan’s dance with me. I knew his rector and he knew my rector,” he said. “There was no doubt about it. I mean, we would hold hands all the time and kiss in public.”

Stroud said he has had “all sorts of experiences” in the dating world, from relationships to hook ups to dining hall dates.

“Just like a normal couple would,” he said.

Stroud said his first Notre Dame gay experience was at a party his sophomore year, before he was out to the campus community.

“This guy was just kind of looking at me funny, differently than a straight guy would look at you,” he said. “I kind of let it happen.”

After that, Stroud hooked up with him for the next week or two. He said in an underground network that often relies on immediacy and secrecy, a relationship that lasts even a few weeks can seem more serious than it is.

“It makes relationships be the extreme,” he said. “It’s either a one night stand, maybe twice, or monogamy is going to start happening to where it is serious after a week. There is no room to ‘date’ because of the underground culture just perpetuates easy access, convenience and no strings attached.”

However, Stroud has now been dating another student for the past three months, and said their relationship is fairly public.

“It’s a very open, kiss you goodbye, hold your hand type of relationship,” he said. “Everyone can pretty much tell when we’re walking down the quad that we’re dating.”

When Lillis came to Notre Dame, she assumed she would be single her entire college experience. But as a freshman, she met an alumna who lives in the area and they began dating.

Though Lillis has been out since middle school, she sometimes felt uncomfortable expressing affection in public at Notre Dame.

“We would hold hands on campus sometimes and I was so wary of who was around and who was looking at us,” she said.

Without sexual orientation in the University’s non-discrimination clause, Lillis feared she would receive backlash at work if a co-worker saw her with another girl because she works at an organization that values Catholic tradition.

“I feared that my orientation was a conflict of interest at the job,” she said.

However, she said she didn’t experience any overt negative reactions from the campus community when the couple was affectionate in public. She said current students seem to be progressive when it comes to gay men and women expressing themselves romantically on campus.

“I think a large part of the problem here is not at all the student body,” Lillis said. “I think the student body is majority on board with granting the gay students on this campus what they are asking for, but I think a large part of it is the administration and the alumni that are holding this University back.”