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Bright orange shirts make bold statement

Maddie Hanna | Friday, September 30, 2005

The “Gay? Fine by Me” tee shirt campaign is two and a half years old, and Notre Dame is no longer No. 1 in the Princeton Review’s “Alternative Lifestyles Not an Alternative” category.

But enough orange shirts were spotted around campus Thursday to show that students are still passionate, and persistent, about promoting acceptance and stimulating discussion about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people (GLBTQ) at Notre Dame.

“I cannot believe what a great day we’ve had,” said Anna Gomberg, a graduate student and co-coordinator of the unrecognized student group AllianceND, which produced the shirts. “I’m floored. Today was probably the most successful of the tee shirt days in my tenure.”

Since the campaign began in spring 2004, Gomberg said the shirts have become a greater part of Notre Dame’s “landscape.” She said the primary goal of the campaign is to show support for the GLBTQ community at Notre Dame.

“In a practical way, it provides an easy way for supportive people to let others know that they are an ally,” Gomberg said.

Despite Gomberg’s optimistic evaluation of the day, other students noticed a drop in participation.

“It’s definitely less than when we first started,” said senior Andy Magee, a member of the University Standing Committee on Gay and Lesbian Student Needs and unofficial member of AllianceND. “When you lose that initial excitement, you lose some numbers.”

But Magee said he was still pleased with how the day unfolded.

“It was cool to go back in the dining hall and see little islands of orange shirts,” he said.

Senior Lauren Manning sported the shirt to express her support for the cause, which she said has become “more vocal.”

“I just feel like it’s a good way to support the GLBTQ community, especially because I feel like the group’s gaining momentum on campus,” Manning said. “And with a new president especially, so we can show its importance to us as a student body.”

Manning said she had become much more aware of “the dialogue” at Notre Dame surrounding alternative lifestyles since her freshman year.

Senior Sara Urben also wore the shirt, and like Manning, focused on the idea of dialogue.

“I just have a lot of friends who are homosexual,” Urben said. “A lot of times at a conservative Catholic university, people are afraid to talk about these issues with people they don’t know.”

Other students disagreed with the way the campaign was conducted.

“I am not against [Gay? Fine by Me day], but I don’t wear a shirt because I feel that someone’s sexuality is their own business,” sophomore Tom Martin said. “I think there is a large majority of the campus who doesn’t care one way or another whether or not someone is gay.

“But by wearing bright orange shirts and drawing attention to themselves, it seems like they are trying to promote homosexuality instead of promoting acceptance.”

Gomberg said the shirts were not designed for the purpose Martin mentioned.

“Shock value is not necessarily what we are going for with the shirts,” Gomberg said. “They are more of a symbol that ND is an accepting, safe place for GLBTQ students regardless of formal University policy. More people wearing the shirts and more people embracing that message is fabulous.”

Some students, like graduate students Joe Gallagher, Jason Quinn and Chris D’Andrea, simply didn’t know Thursday was designated as a Gay? Fine by Me day.

“We’re never aware of it until the day we see people wearing the shirts,” said Gallagher, whose response indicated a reason for the supposed decrease in participation.

When asked if he supported the day’s cause, Gallagher said, “What exactly is it supporting? If you are gay, that’s fine by me.”

Quinn said the slogan was “antiquated.”

“It should already be fine by you,” he said. “But it’s needed here.”

Gallagher, Quinn and D’Andrea all received undergraduate degrees elsewhere and said Notre Dame was unquestionably more conservative in its attitude regarding alternative lifestyles than their previous schools.

“The University should have gotten its act together [and recognized a gay-straight alliance club] a long time ago,” D’Andrea said.

For many freshmen, seeing the shirts was an unexpected surprise Thursday morning. Freshman Greg Arbogast said he did not know about the shirts in advance but had “no problem with it.”

“It’s just a way for people to express their beliefs,” he said. “It gives a general sense of the amount of support on campus.”

Arbogast said he did not hear any specific stereotypes about Notre Dame and alternative lifestyles before coming to campus but “just knew it was a pretty homogenous place.”

While last year’s Princeton Review report placed Notre Dame at No. 1 of “Alternative Lifestyles Not an Alternative” garnered a good deal of backlash – Notre Dame has since slipped to No. 2, behind Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia – some students said the ranking did not accurately reflect the campus climate.

“There are a few [people] that give us a bad name,” Urben said. “People are generally accepting … In my experience, it’s hard to imagine we’re the least tolerant.”

Junior Jeff Smith, who was “in the closet” as a freshman and has since come out, said he thought the ranking was “misleading.” He attributes his current happiness partly to being openly gay, but also to a change in the attitudes of Notre Dame students.

“I think it’s becoming more ‘okay’ to be gay at Notre Dame,” Smith said. “Certainly every new freshman class is more open-minded than any before. From my informal surveys at CommUnity talks, I think roughly 80 percent of the people of the class of ’09 have known one of their high school friends or family members to be gay. That is invaluable to becoming a tolerant, open-minded person.”

Sister Mary Gude, chair of the Standing Committee for Gay and Lesbian Student Needs (SCGLSN), said the campus atmosphere had changed greatly over the past decade.

“The current climate at Notre Dame, while not ideal, is certainly much better than it was ten and even five years ago,” Gude said. “That having been said, I do learn every year of isolated incidents that are very hurtful to GLBT students.”

At an informal AllianceND meeting Thursday night, students discussed their reactions to the day and to and some of the reactions they received.

Stacey Williams, a sophomore and AllianceND board member, shared the story of a friend who wore her shirt to work at the Office of Information and Technology.

“A delivery guy came in and said, “Gay, fine by you? You’re gay? You must be really stressed,'” Williams said.

The man proceeded to tell Williams’ friend he was a “freelance massage therapist” and could help her out, Williams said.

Comments like these and the looks Williams received while wearing her shirt gave her a new perspective, she said.

“Today made me kind of realize it’s got to be really hard to be GLBTQ on this campus sometimes,” Williams said. “No one said anything really nasty to me, but it’s kind of the sense of ‘Oh, there’s someone with the shirt.'”

Professor Dan Myers, chair of the sociology department that sponsored the event, said Gay? Fine by Me days have an important role on campus.

“I and many other faculty in the sociology department and many other departments view the past events as grand successes in terms of opening up some serious and respectful discussion about these issues, how it interacts with our visions of faith and how our practices and stance at Notre Dame interface with attitudes and practices in the broader society in which we exist,” Myers said.

While the shirts “aren’t novel if you’ve seen them before,” Myers noted the campaign is new for the students, faculty and staff new to Notre Dame each year.

“The goals cited above require repetitive engagement,” Myers said, “and thus I think it is important to call attention to the issues periodically with something like the tee shirt day.”