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Solidarity debate sweeps campus

Claire Heininger | Friday, March 19, 2004

Following a day-long, bright orange public pledge of gay/straight solidarity, members of the Notre Dame community examined the policies of peer Catholic institution Boston College Thursday night as an example of progress made towards the acceptance of homosexuals on campus.Michael Yaksich, Boston College’s director of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) Issues, addressed approximately 130 students and faculty in DeBartolo Hall, explaining his college’s stance towards gay/straight student organizations and urging Notre Dame to follow suit.”It is the Catholic obligation to provide love and support for all – especially the least among us,” Yaksich said as he described the mission of Allies, Boston College’s gay/straight alliance that was granted full recognition in April. “At Boston College, we’ve found that justice comes from recognition.”Notre Dame’s March 4 refusal to grant similar recognition to “United in Diversity,” a proposed gay/straight alliance, sparked passionate arguments and reactions throughout the forum, titled “The Catholic Church and Changing Times: Perspectives on Homosexuality at Notre Dame.”Sister Mary Louise Gude, chair of the Standing Committee on Gay and Lesbian Student Needs, said Catholic universities find themselves on the “horns of a dilemma” when making decisions about their policies on homosexuality.”There is a real tension between educating young people to live and work in our society and treating them within the teaching of the Church,” she said. “There really is a lot of goodwill, but strictures arise with the University vis-à-vis the Catholic Church and that’s not about to change – but I firmly believe that creativity is the vehicle to success.”While several audience members echoed Gude’s ideas and suggested creative approaches to achieving the goals of a gay/straight alliance without receiving official approval – such as continued publicity efforts by unrecognized homosexual student group OUTReachND and making the most of current Campus Ministry activities such as a monthly coffee hour – the overwhelming consensus among both the audience and the panel members was that recognition was irreplaceable.”There’s an emotional, impressive, symbolic meaning to approval,” said Dan Myers, chair of the department of sociology, which helped sponsor the forum along with the departments of psychology and anthropology, OUTReachND and the psychology club. Ava Preacher, an assistant dean in the College of Arts & Letters, agreed that students would not, and should not, settle for less.”Students want recognition, and there’s no taking that away,” she said. “We need to continue to raise awareness until awareness is so high that it cannot be denied.”Preacher also related a personal story as she extended the debate to another point of contention – the University’s exclusion of sexual orientation from its legal non-discrimination clause.When a fellow faculty member approached her with the idea of a forum to discuss GLBT issues a few years ago, Preacher said this policy made her response discouragingly easy.”I told her that the second we have a sexual orientation phrase in our non-discrimination clause, then we’ll have our forum,” Preacher said. “You need to feel safe in your community.”Maureen Lafferty, an openly homosexual staff psychologist at the University Counseling Center, jumped in, immediately adding the community had been “not only safe – but validating and celebrating of my experience.””But we need that to happen for everyone,” she said.Current student body president-elect Adam Istvan and vice president-elect Karla Bell proposed a way to make the University community feel more welcoming from the bottom up, suggesting that all student clubs and organizations amend their own mission statements to include a promise that “students will not discriminate against students.”Istvan said the move would at least make student feelings of acceptance heard, if not recognized, by the administration.”We’ve been given the strong indication that there will not be a student-run homosexual organization at Notre Dame as long as the current administration is there,” he said. “Basically we’ve been told that it would be a meaningless effort … but even if the administration won’t change, it’s the statement that counts.”Dave Wyncott, a former co-chair OUTReachND, strongly asserted his support for adjusting non-discrimination clauses on all levels and reiterated the need for a sense of safety on campus.”It comes down to being able to say to your roommate, ‘I might be gay,'” he said. Wyncott remembered attending high school in South Bend in the mid 1990’s and then coming to Notre Dame in 1997, a time when campus tensions ran high about both official club status and the non-discrimination clause. He told the audience about a hunger strike, sit-in protests and spray paint and flier demonstrations to protest these policies.”It was an awful place to be and it had been for an incredibly long time,” he said. “There was a lot of anger on campus.”Most forum attendees agreed the University community’s attitude toward homosexuality has changed significantly since those years of turmoil but said the administration has refused to change along with the community, and students had to take the lead in pushing for recognition.Calling herself an “eternal optimist,” Preacher expressed hope that official status would eventually be achieved, and closed the forum by setting a high standard for the entire campus to aspire.”We need a widespread effort to teach respect,” she said.”Period.”