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Saint Mary’s hosts panel discussion on sexual diversity

Nicole Zook | Monday, October 11, 2004

Approximately 45 Saint Mary’s students, faculty and staff kicked off National Coming Out Week on a personal note Sunday by attending a panel discussion on coming out as a gay or lesbian person in the Saint Mary’s community.

Those who ventured to the West Wing of the Noble Family Dining Hall to listen were enlightened by a diverse panel of three Saint Mary’s graduates and two current students who offered perspectives on entering the gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual and queer (GLTBQ) community during their time at Saint Mary’s.

Event moderator Catherine Pittman, a professor in the psychology department, said celebrating the week is important to Saint Mary’s, a primarily heterosexual environment where most students do not have to deal with the issue of confronting others with their sexuality.

“National Coming Out Day is a day where gay, lesbian, transsexual, bisexual and queer individuals are encouraged to tell people that care about them that they are attracted to people of the same gender or that they are not part of the gender everyone thinks they are,” she said. “They are challenging the assumptions generally made about people. Heterosexuals just do not have to do this.”

Panel member Jenn Warner, a 1998 graduate, emphasized coming out is particularly prevalent during the college years, a time when many young men and women attempt to shape their personalities.

“When I was in college, that was something that I felt I had to establish – this is who I am,” she said. “Whereas now, it’s kind of on the back burner. It’s integrated into my being, so it’s not something that I have to think about as much.”

The panelists shared both positive and negative experiences about their own coming out, ranging from complete familial acceptance to denial to rejection.

All agreed the process was harder at Saint Mary’s than elsewhere.

“Identifying as straight on this campus is so different from identifying as queer. It’s a complete 180,” senior Denae Friedman said. “It’s a really conservative place. I haven’t felt much oppression, personally or resistance, but it’s just that everyone is so homogenous here. It’s really hard. I’ve thought about transferring thousands of times, but there’s obviously a reason I’m here. It makes me question myself.”

Kelli Harrison, a 1998 graduate, was one of the first Saint Mary’s students to put up a display for National Coming Out Day. She said most people ignored or avoided the issue.

“Coming out on this campus – I lost a lot of friends that way. A lot of people weren’t even willing to have a conversation with me about it,” she said. “They took the long way around to the dining hall so they wouldn’t have to see the people with the ribbons. Faculty [members] were our only support system. They reminded us that things were as bad as they seemed, but it could be better.”

All of the panelists agreed faculty members were an invaluable resource while they were at Saint Mary’s.

Ang Romano, a 2001 graduate, said her professors helped her to push the envelope to further campus discussion on gay issues during her classes.

“I didn’t care, I was happy with who I was,” she said. “[In class] I would say ‘we’re talking about love, but we’re talking about it in a conventional manner. Can we move away from that?'”

Spurred by Notre Dame’s recent No. 1 ranking in the Princeton Review in the “Alternative Lifestyles Not An Alternative” category, the panelists offered suggestions on how the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s community can become less stereotypically homophobic and more accepting of the GLTBQ minority on the campuses.

These ideas included elimination of speech that could be viewed as hateful such as “that’s so gay,” and using the classroom as an arena for such issues to be discussed.

Senior Jamie Rathert said sensitivity and awareness training directed at all incoming freshmen would be helpful and would most likely prevent rude behavior such as students tearing down signs regarding sexuality or peppering them with unkind graffiti.

“For a long time, I thought I was the only one on campus,” she said. “I’m not upset by it, just sad. Sad that people can’t do better.”

Friedheim agreed such training would develop Saint Mary’s into a more progressive environment.

“There is a lot to be said for tradition and the ideals our school is built on,” she said. “I think the most important thing is that we don’t take closed-minded views into a classroom environment, where most learning is formed.”

The woman felt celebrating National Coming Out Day on campus shows support and provides a certain comfort level for those who may be dealing with sexuality and gender issues at this time.

“Having people be comfortable with me helps me to be comfortable with myself,” Harrison said. “I think that’s really important for students who are not gay to think about. That’s the most important thing students can do for other students – just to let them be who they are and be comfortable with it.”

Warner took that idea one step further.

“I think in order to be a friend to someone who is going through this, you have to do some searching of yourself,” she said.

Harrison admitted that while coming out may be a traumatic experience, especially on the Saint Mary’s campus, the positive aspects of taking that step outweigh the negative ones by far. She suggests that students who wish to come out today ensure they have a “solid support system in place.”

“I can guarantee that there will be hard times,” she said. “But on a personal level, it was so freeing that it made a huge level of difference, spiritually and psychologically.”

Pittman concluded the discussion by urging all students to be tolerant of others, especially those who use today as an opportunity to express their true sexuality for the first time.

“Coming out is a joyous occasion,” she said. “And even though there are fears and doubts, women should be free to celebrate it.”