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Flags displayed across University campus show LGBT support

| Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Last weekend, LGBT alumni from Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame walked around campus for the GALA-ND/SMC reunion and were greeted with a show of support that many of them had not experienced when they were students at Notre Dame: Rainbow pride flags hung out of windows across campus, ranging from dorms to Geddes Hall, Nieuwland Hall of Science and Hesburgh Library.

This show of support for the LGBT community of Notre Dame was partly out of protest of the choice of Vice President Mike Pence as the 2017 Commencement speaker.

“Students and alumni came together and said ‘we’re frustrated with the invitation of Mike Pence as the Commencement speaker on many fronts certainly,” Bryan Ricketts, a fifth-year student who was involved in the flag distribution, said. “Dealing with LGBT issues dealing with funding for conversion therapy, his passage of a restrictive [law] that didn’t include a civil rights exemption when it was first written [and] at one point his professed intent to enshrine marriage between one man and one woman as a constitutional amendment.”

Pride flags hang from the windows of Nieuwland Hall. The flags, distributed by student groups, are being displayed as a sign of protest against this year's Commencement speaker, Vice President Mike Pence. Michael Yu | The Observer

Pride flags hang from the windows of Nieuwland Hall. The flags, distributed by student groups, are being displayed as a sign of protest against this year’s Commencement speaker, Vice President Mike Pence.

Last week, the student group We Stand For distributed almost 500 flags to students and faculty. Funded in part by student and alumni donations, the group bought a second round of pride flags after more alumni heard about the event on social media or read about it in  an article published April 21 and wanted to help, Ricketts said.

“[The LGBT alumni wished] there could have been this overt expression of support of LGBT students when they were here,” Ricketts said. “Now that they have the opportunity to do that and show that … there is a community in the Notre Dame family who cares very deeply about the LGBT student body population.”

Ricketts, who distributed some of the flags, said allies, as well as LGBT students and faculty, took flags to fly in support of a friend, roommate or family member back home.

Given the number of flags currently displayed on campus, as well as the existence of student organizations such as We Stand For and PRISM, it is tempting to assume that Notre Dame is and has always been extremely accepting, when in fact, PRISM was only formed four years ago, Ricketts said.

“This perception of ND as LGBT friendly has arisen in some cases so we forget that there are still large pockets of people on campus who don’t see things that way,” Ricketts said. “We’ve come a long way, certainly, but we’re still not by any means a campus that’s uniformly welcoming and inclusive towards LGBT students.”

This was made clear by some negative responses both students and faculty received for flying pride flags.

Junior Nicholas Furnari helped distribute flags out of the College Democrats office last week. Since then, five students who were told by either their rectors or hall staff to remove the flags from their windows have contacted Furnari to seek advice.

“I talked to five different students that represent three different dorms all [on] North Quad, that just happens to be where they live,” Furnari said. “Two were told by their hall staff, by their RAs, to take them down … and the rest were told by their rectors to take them out of the window.

“I don’t think it was anyone in student affairs who told them to do that. I think it was just their own personal political ideology which is upsetting because when you’re working a job with residential life, as a person with some authority, you have a responsibility to try to separate your personal beliefs from the work that you’re doing with students. Student affairs and the administrative office have always been supportive to the extent that they can be.”

Furnari told the students to do nothing, and to his knowledge, none of the flags have been removed.

“Very few places and buildings and dorms have actually taken them down, but it’s a little disappointing [that] in the face of what has been mostly viewed as good student organization that there’s been some animosity,” he said. “I feel like that’s not the appropriate response. When you see students rallying around a cause, you should let them do that because that’s their right as individual students.”

Additionally, two graduate physics students, Devin Whitten and Kaitlin Rasmussen, were recently contacted by the secretary of Nieuland Hall of Science and told to remove the pride flag that was hanging from the window of their third floor office.

“We put this flag up for Ally week and left it up during the weekend,” Rasmussen said. “I think we both got an email from someone in the main office that said ‘we got a complaint about this flag, you need to take it down.’”

The email told them that it was urgent they take the flag down, as it violated University policy. This seemed strange to the graduate students who had seen flags all over campus, Rasmussen and Whitten said.

“The department secretary had been told that someone who was not associated with our department, but apparently works on campus, was walking outside, saw the flag and was apparently offended enough that they felt like they needed to go inside and inform the office that it was against University policy to have a flag up in general,” Whitten said. “Supposedly it wasn’t a reaction to the fact that it was an LGBT flag, just flags in general, although I’m not sold on that.”

About a week after they had taken their flag down, Whitten and Rasmussen said that they noticed flags appearing in the windows of tenured faculty of Nieuland for the flag drop.

Jessica Baron, the outreach and communications coordinator for the Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values, whose office is located in Geddes Hall, decided to participate in the flag drop as an ally to show support for a student. A few days after hanging the flag, Baron was contacted with a complaint.

“I was informed that a faculty member from theology who works on the fourth floor was personally offended by it because he thought it presumed to speak on behalf of the whole building. That didn’t seem like a compelling reason to take it down, considering our spirit of inclusion statement,” Baron said.

Baron contacted human resources to ask if she should take it down, and they told her she did not have to. Despite this, the faculty member is still calling for the flag’s removal, Baron said.

“I appreciate that I work for a private, Catholic institution and that I won’t be in agreement on social issues 100 percent of the time, but it seems to me that we’ve made great strides to make our LGBTQ community feel safe and accepted,”  Barons said.“The flag hanging from my office window has nothing to do with anyone else on our floor or with Geddes in general. It’s merely a signal that that person whose window this is supports our LGBTQ students along with the rest of the student body.

“That this is a problem is disturbing to me — a symbol of love and acceptance is offensive and misleading?”

Despite these negative responses, Ricketts, Furnari and the rest of the organizers of the flag drop have said due to the large number of pride flags around campus, it was a positive experience that they hope will become an annual tradition.

“I was happy in particular with the support we received from faculty and grad students,” Furnari said. “Beyond that, I think we have every dorm on campus with at least one flag … to be able to do that has been awesome. I think the vibe on campus is changing a little bit, but there’s still some tension. Small improvements add up to big improvements. I have definitely seen a change since I’ve been a student here. Every year seems to get better.”

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