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Claire Heininger | Thursday, February 19, 2004

As a scholarship athlete, Jeneka Joyce is already part of a select crowd on campus. But it’s another group that she belongs to that truly sets her apart – students who don’t hesitate to talk about their homosexuality. “It’s not a big deal, it’s not some crisis,” Joyce said simply, confident that her own choices and her own life are resolutely balanced. “I speak up. If people are mute about it, there is no way that change can come about.”Speaking up wasn’t always that easy. When Joyce began questioning her sexuality during her first two years at Notre Dame, she felt as if she was the only one who didn’t fit the straight-laced image the University’s identity prescribes. It didn’t help that all homosexual students seemed to be classified under the same don’t-ask-don’t-tell heading, since Joyce firmly disagrees that sexuality can fit into a neat little box.A clear-cut sexuality, she said, “is not necessarily the case – I think it’s more on some kind of continuum.” But while the senior now openly describes herself as “queer,” a term she said is “pretty much all-encompassing of sexualities that are different from heterosexuality,” memories of confusion and isolation still linger.”Now it’s different because I’m involved in the gay/lesbian/bisexual community,” she said. “I know a lot of people. But when I wasn’t involved and I didn’t know any other gays on campus, I didn’t think anyone else was – it definitely seems like there are no gays at Notre Dame.”However, several conversations at the end of Joyce’s sophomore year revealed just the opposite. Talking with her close friends, she realized that although gays on campus were still a mostly silent minority, she was anything but alone.”In college, you’re growing, your self-identity is becoming more solidified, you’re going through lots of changes and coming into yourself,” she said, recalling the talks that opened her eyes and strengthened her resolve. “It turned out that some people I was already friends with were bi, and when we started talking about things, I kind of opened up.”It was this support system that gave her the confidence to seek out other students facing the same struggle. Now the co-chair of OutreachND, Joyce helps provide a forum for what she calls a “tight-knit circle” of about 40 non-heterosexual students to relax, socialize and voice their frustrations about everyday life on a conservative campus. Strength in numbers, she said, has become a powerful asset.”I think we’re finally making enough noise-we have enough people who aren’t afraid to wear ‘Gay Irish’ or ‘Gay’s Fine by Me’ shirts” around campus, she said. “We have enough people willing to push the envelope and to take a stand.” Despite the courage displayed by her peers, Joyce admits that pushing towards acceptance at Notre Dame is a slow and painful process. And while she is excited about the recent public strides that the University has made in the direction of tolerance – listing off the Notre Dame Queer Film Festival, OutreachND and the Gay/Straight Alliance as powerful indicators – she is concerned that students’ casually snide remarks still cause a lot of private pain.Joyce said she defends herself and other less vocal victims of such stereotypes – albeit with a more politically correct retort than she sometimes wishes.”I say that there’s a lot of variability within our society and I feel it’s unfair to stereotype someone because of how they look or how you perceive their behavior,” Joyce said. “What else can you say, ‘Shut the hell up?'”No matter how civil the response, the important thing is that Joyce responds. Unlike those who suffer in silence – a circumstance to which she can relate – she now refuses to remain hidden in the campus background. And she knows that just because she might not fit any mold, and definitely does not fit the Notre Dame mold, it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t belong.”I’m tired of being a marginalized voice. I’m tired of being alienated,” Joyce said. “I’m a part of the community too.”In the public eye, she is also a part of the basketball team. But team life, she said, is something she keeps completely separate from her sexuality, and asked The Observer not to speak with her teammates.”When it comes to personal things, I keep some things to myself,” she said. “I go about my business and go to school like everyone else … [sexuality] is not an issue.” Mindful of these separate spheres, Joyce believes there is a time and a place for vocally pushing acceptance to the forefront.”Publicity is very good,” she said, addressing the controversy that arose when Notre Dame chose to host the Queer Film Festival this month. “These are issues Notre Dame needs to recognize – we’re everywhere. A little acknowledgment would be nice so we don’t feel like outcasts in the community here.”She characterized the acknowledgment earned on campus thus far as minimal, but still highly significant. Although she called steps like the Festival “baby steps” toward recognizing and accepting alternative lifestyles, she said that the strength of voices like her own is still a vast improvement from years past.”I think it’s good to have voices of dissent [that] are not in line,” Joyce said, adding realistically, “And any step forward at Notre Dame is tremendous.”