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Campus communities examine sexuality

Katie Perry | Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Students, faculty and staff gathered on Fieldhouse Mall Monday as part of a sexuality and gender rally that supporters said was designed to foster a “safe space” at Notre Dame.

The “Speak Out! Sexuality and Gender at Notre Dame” forum was the “first of its kind” at the University, senior Progressive Student Alliance (PSA) member and organizer Curtis Leighton said.

“We knew we wanted to address the state of gender relations on campus and the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning [GLBTQ] students,” Leighton said. “These issues need to be addressed in a public setting … They are not simply issues that pertain to a minority of Notre Dame students.”

Junior Chris Vierig, a gay student who spoke at the event, emphasized the significance of having an open forum like this at Notre Dame.

“These events are important to raise awareness and tell people it’s okay to be gay at a Catholic college,” he said. “Even at a place like this, [being gay and being Catholic] don’t conflict. Events like this add understanding to an issue clouded with ignorance.”

Vierig said he experienced ignorance first hand as a freshman when his dorm neighbors discovered his sexual orientation and chastised him. Vierig said the students wrote “Go home, faggot” on his whiteboard and urinated on personal photographs.

“Actions like that are formed out of ignorance,” he said.

Vierig maintained the importance of events addressing issues of gender and sexuality, even though he said they sometimes have a tendency to “preach to the choir” or only attract students who already agree with the specified calls to action.

“[These events are] important for visibility,” he said. “People will see this event and maybe think about it, maybe for just one second … But if they see others are supportive, they may think it’s okay to be supportive themselves.”

Vierig, like most rally participants and supporters, was optimistic about the outlook of his cause. But he still expressed a desire for change.

“Change happens slow but we are taking baby steps … and a lot of baby steps equal a big change,” he said.

Director of the Gender Relations Center Heather Rakoczy spoke about the explicit and implicit disrespect of colloquial language. Rakoczy said hate speech, which includes such commonplace phrases as “that’s so gay,” leads to intolerance.

“Listen for opportunities to challenge language, belief and behavior,” she said. “If you stop and say, ‘That’s not okay with me,’ it ultimately gives others the courage to say that it’s also not okay with them … Language matters. Change language, change beliefs and change our community.”

PSA President Molly Hayes echoed this call for change and said the University could – and should – be taking steps in the direction of tolerance and equality on campus.

“As a University that prides itself on faith, Notre Dame has a responsibility to do more,” Hayes said. “We believe in the dignity of a person … We are all part of the human family.”

Stacey Williams, board member of the unrecognized student group AllianceND, agreed with Hayes and said Notre Dame’s current resources do not sufficiently meet the needs of GLBTQ students on campus.

“The Princeton Review ranking is not okay,” she said. “We’re going to change this community.”

History professor Gail Bederman gave a more historical perspective on the changing culture of sexual orientation and student action at Notre Dame.

“Thirteen years ago when I came to Notre Dame, I wouldn’t have believed this,” she said, gesturing to the crowd.

Bederman described a class taught in 1993 in which students were silent when prompted to discuss issues of sexuality because they “didn’t know what to say.”

“This was Notre Dame 13 years ago,” Bederman said. “As much as we have to move and question and query and suggest, things have changed.”

But although Bederman said the University has made strides to better acknowledge Notre Dame’s population of GLBTQ students, she told supporters that their work was far from complete.

“Don’t say, ‘Everything’s fine – let’s go home now,'” Bederman said. “[If] you keep asking for what you want, things change.”

The urgent call for change expressed at the rally was a consequence of the supporters’ beliefs in the weightiness of such issues as gender and sexuality at Notre Dame. Event organizers said these topics still have controversial connotations in the University community.

Hayes said much of the discrimination toward these often-marginalized GLBTQ students is “unjust.”

“Injustice comes in many forms,” she said. “It comes from a lack of respect – a lack of respect for life, education and opinion.”

Senior Zach Ortiz, a self-described “straight ally,” said the issue of sexual discrimination is more serious that many people realize.

“Sexual discrimination is on par with racism and all of the other ‘-isms’ that face our community,” he said.

Leighton encouraged students to talk to their friends about issues like sexual discrimination, which he said are no longer deemed “taboo” or “sensitive subjects.”

“Creating a ‘safe space’ is [about] proving the Princeton Review wrong,” he said. “It’s about time Notre Dame came out of the closet.”

The rally included both student and faculty speakers and addressed the topics of inequality, hate speech, intolerance, the role of straight allies and the needs of gay, lesbian and bisexual students.

Speakers employed poetry, drama and personal anecdotes and reflections to help make these contentious issues cognizant in the minds of Notre Dame community members.