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Everything but equality

Sarah Mervosh | Monday, April 30, 2012

The rising call for the expansion of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) students, faculty and staff hit a speed bump last week when the University announced it would not add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination clause.

In a press release, Notre Dame stated it would not change the wording of the nondiscrimination clause, but would take other steps to help LGBTQ individuals feel more included on campus.

However, three gay professors who shared their stories with The Observer said the University’s latest step toward inclusion was not enough. They say the administration’s current nondiscrimination policy sends a clear message to LGBTQ students, faculty and staff – they are second-class citizens, and there is reason to be afraid.

It was because of this message that one professor asked not to be recorded during The Observer’s interview. In addition, these professors said this same message has caused other LGBTQ professors to leave the University and stopped some prospective students from enrolling.

However, these professors, who have collectively been teaching at the University for nearly 70 years, were willing to share their experiences in light of the student body’s recent push for expanded LGBTQ rights at Notre Dame.

In the words of one, “The students have got the courage to sort of go and advocate for this stuff. We have to be willing to stand up and support them.”

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In Susan Cannon Harris’ office in Decio Hall hangs a colorful drawing created with a child’s scribbling enthusiasm. To “mommy,” it reads. Next to it is a photo of Cannon Harris and her 4-year-old – the daughter she raises with her wife of nearly 24 years.

Cannon Harris is not hiding who she is.

The English and Irish studies professor is out to her colleagues in the English department, her students and even University President Fr. John Jenkins.

“I have not made any attempt to conceal it,” she said.

Though she feels accepted by her colleagues and students, Cannon Harris said the University’s official policies – particularly the nondiscrimination clause – make it difficult to feel completely comfortable as a lesbian faculty member.

“The fact that they refuse again and again to put [sexual orientation] in the nondiscrimination clause sends us the message that they want to preserve the option of discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation,” Cannon Harris said. “It is hard to feel as if we are equal members of the community.”

While Cannon Harris was grateful that last week’s press release recognized the University’s need to improve inclusion of LGBTQ individuals, she said being “included” and “tolerated” as members of the Notre Dame community is not enough.

“Those things are both different from having equality, which is, you have rights and we cannot infringe them,” she said. “I do wonder why they’re willing to give us everything but equality.”

Cannon Harris said the absence of sexual orientation from the nondiscrimination clause has a psychological effect on LGBTQ faculty.  

For example, when coming up for tenure, professors typically ask themselves whether they have done enough research or met the standard in the classroom.

“I, because of Notre Dame’s special situation, also had to ask the question, is all of that going to matter? Are they going to deny me tenure just because I’m a lesbian?” she said. “Even though I mostly didn’t think that they would, it was in the back of my mind. And that is very destructive.”

Since Cannon Harris received tenure in 2004, she has had to worry a bit less. She now feels safe telling her students she is a lesbian on the first day of the semester, and is able to more openly discuss literature with gay content.

Still, the anxiety lingers, and Cannon Harris simply wants to be given equal rights by the University she has given so much to.  

“I have been working here for 13 years. It’s the only academic job I’ve ever had,” she said. “I have been very loyal to the institution … All the other gay faculty here have done the same, and the staff too. We deserve for the institution to recognize that and treat us the way we deserve to be treated.”

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While Spanish professor Carlos Jerez-Farrán has never experienced overt discrimination during his 26 years teaching at Notre Dame, he said there is a different type of discrimination here – one that is unseen, but equally destructive.

“The invisible discrimination that tells people inaudibly and invisibly, ‘Don’t appear if you do not want to disappear,'” he said. “In other words, don’t make yourself too audible or too visible [or you will be silenced.]”

Jerez-Farrán said he felt this type of discrimination when he put up posters about LGBTQ issues on his office door, and later found they had been taken down. It can also be felt by the University’s unwillingness to promote LGBTQ research, he said.

While he has received funding in recent years to conduct research on LGBTQ issues, he said the University is unlikely to promote it.

“You may publish a book on politics or music, and chances are that it will be granted some recognition on the web page of the University,” he said. “I haven’t been featured by the University for my work on LGBTQ issues for obvious reasons. I don’t expect to be either, no matter how innovating my research may be.”

Jerez-Farrán said the University might not not publicize his books because it considers them incompatible with Catholic values, but he said he could make the same argument about some scientific research, such as that done in the radiation lab.

However, Jerez-Farrán said linking someone’s sexuality with their academic contribution seems like an outdated way of thinking.

“As if what people chose to do with their genitals had anything to do with what they chose to do with their intellect,” he said. “It is this pre-modern attitude adopted by a pre-modern institution that can make promising scholars and students think twice before coming to Notre Dame.”

While Jerez-Farrán said he does not discuss his own sexuality in the classroom, the first course he offered after receiving tenure was one on gay and lesbian literature.  In other classes, he will teach a few texts and films by gay writers and directors to show how art can stem from the gay experience.

“It is the most effective way to combat homophobia, through education,” he said. “Ironically, it is one of the components of the courses I teach which often seems to be enjoyed most.”

Despite the challenges of teaching at a university that he considers quite closeted, Jerez-Farrán has stayed at Notre Dame for a quarter of a century. He enjoys his students and with Chicago nearby, he can take advantage of cultural opportunities.  

“I prefer to be positive and look for the virtues and advantages of a given institution rather than its phobias,” he said. “Homosexuality, after all, is a problem heterosexuals have. We, gays, just want to be left alone.”

***

While art history professor Robert Coleman’s own experience as a gay faculty member has generally been positive, he has watched LGBTQ students suffer during his 30 years at the University.

“Coming here, I didn’t expect to find such a wall, barrier,” he said. “One basically lives quietly.”

In the mid-80s, Coleman served as an unofficial advisor to a gay student group seeking official recognition from the University. In that role, he said students would come to him in tears as they struggled to come to grips with their sexual orientation.

“I heard a story from a young man whose mother told him if she had known he had been gay, she would have had an abortion,” Coleman said. “Even now, I kind of tear up when I think about that young man’s story.”

It was around that time that Coleman decided he could not continue investing himself in a cause that was met with such resistance from the administration.  

“Emotionally, I had to pull myself back,” he said. “I became too depressed by the whole situation.”

However, Coleman has not completely detached himself from the issue and occasionally chooses to make his voice known. For example, Coleman came out to Fr. Edward “Monk” Malloy when he was University president.  

“I said, ‘You know, as one of your gay faculty, I really must protest the way in which the administration views the GLBT issue here,'” Coleman said. “It was not easy to say that … but I felt it was my responsibility.”

Coleman said Malloy was receptive to his point of view, and he has never experienced any form of discrimination or harassment during his time at the University. He also said he has never felt any limits on his academic freedom to discuss LGBTQ issues when appropriate in the classroom.

However, he said the University’s policy on LGBTQ issues gives the impression that Notre Dame does not embrace everyone equally. For example, last week’s press release did not include the term transgender, which is traditionally represented by the T in LGBTQ.

“They left out the ‘T’ on the LGBT, so where are they?” Coleman said. “You’re not being acknowledged as being a whole person here.”

While he said some steps the University mentioned in the press release are important, they do not change the fact that Notre Dame has not given equal rights to LGBTQ members of its community.

“In light of this more recent press release, it’s just a lot of florid language … I don’t really see much of a difference here, frankly,” he said. “If a person doesn’t feel comfortable and have the same rights as everyone else, then they are second-class citizens. It’s as simple as that.”

Coleman said he knows of students who turned down the University because of its stance on LGBTQ issues. While he is not aware of any faculty who were denied tenure or fired because of their sexual orientation, Coleman has seen LGBTQ faculty leave because they did not feel comfortable.  

“I know plenty of people who have upped and left,” he said. “Some people have decided that this wasn’t the place for them.”

While Coleman understands the argument that adding sexual orientation to the nondiscrimination clause goes against Church teaching, this has not stopped other religious universities from giving LGBTQ individuals equal rights, he said.

“We know of other Catholic institutions in this country where it’s not a problem, so why is it a problem here?” he said. “It makes you begin to wonder who runs this place.”