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SMC panel discusses College’s atmosphere

Kelly Meehan | Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Saint Mary’s Straight and Gay Alliance (SAGA) – a club officially recognized last spring by the College, unlike the still-striving AllianceND group at Notre Dame – held its first major public event Monday night to commemorate National Coming Out Day.

The two Saint Mary’s students and two College faculty members who led the panel discussion held at Dalloway’s Clubhouse told stories of progress while emphasizing the need to promote campus-wide acceptance of alternative lifestyles.

Panelist and College math professor Mary Porter recalled how the College has progressed in the past 10 years.

“Society and Saint Mary’s have both moved forward, but we are still behind,” Porter said.

Porter, a tenured professor who was not always “out” while teaching at Saint Mary’s, is now open about her sexual preference.

“I would advise an incoming gay professor to stay closeted depending on the department they work in, for some are more liberal and accepting than others,” Porter said. “Prior to becoming tenured, they may be judged on their sexual preference instead of their expertise, intelligence and research.”

Sara Nielsen, sophomore panelist and SAGA vice president, said many people who believe the Catholic Church is not fully supportive of an alternative lifestyle have questioned her decision to attend Saint Mary’s.

“I came to Saint Mary’s because I felt good, accepted and happy when I was on campus. But when I saw how conservative some people are, I questioned my decision,” Nielsen said. “But I have found wonderful students and professors who are fully supportive of me.”

Leticia Verduzco, a 2004 Saint Mary’s alumna and current faculty member in the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership, said she also experienced difficulties as a gay student at Saint Mary’s.

“I did not come out until the second semester of my senior year [at Saint Mary’s],” Verduzco said. “I did not know who supported me, so I just told others one person at a time.”

Senior Marisa Sandahl said she felt being Catholic and a bisexual at Saint Mary’s is not easy, but believes it is her duty to work to open other’s minds in regards towards homosexuality and the teachings of the Catholic church.

“Many people who are against SAGA and our mission feel this way because they believe they are coming from a morally correct standpoint,” Sandahl said. “I am Catholic, and it hurts when I see people who feel this way because the Church is about love and acceptance. I wish that I could see more people embrace this aspect of their faith.”

Nielsen said she believes the College’s Campus Ministry works to promote a message of acceptance and erase messages of hate.

“I have been so fortunate to find the support of so many wonderful people in Campus Ministry,” she said. “If anyone thinks that acceptance is lacking on this campus, they should go there and meet some of those people.”

The panelists agreed the college atmosphere is not the only place they struggle to find acceptance. They said they also face the daily challenge of finding acceptance within their own families.

Sandahl said she is not embarrassed by the fact that she is bisexual, but has opted to not tell her parents about it.

“My sexuality is just an aspect of who I am, but not a defining characteristic,” Sandahl said. “There are certain things I don’t tell my parents because I choose not to hurt them. It does bother me that it would hurt them so much, but I know if I ever choose to be on a serious level with a woman I would tell them … I would assume my dad has enough love for me that it would just be a little hurdle he would have to jump over.”

Porter said she found that support from her parents was something that came with time. After telling them about her sexual preferences in college, she made it a topic for open discussion. This frequent discourse helped them reach a better understanding of her sexuality, she said.

Verduzco said the process of officially “coming out” produces unnecessary pressure.

“Why do I have to announce it?” Verduzco asked. “I try to just let people get to know me and have it come out as part of a conversation.”

Nielsen said she also finds it difficult to tell others about her sexuality and is very cautious about who she tells.

“I hate when people say ‘that’s so gay’ and I hate it when I receive hate mail,” Nielsen said. “I am glad to be who I am. I am happy and not ashamed.”

Sandahl said discrimination at Saint Mary’s was unacceptable.

“[Saint Mary’s] does not mandate Catholic teachings,” Sandahl said. “We deserve to be treated like every group, and people should be aware of us and more socially conscious.”

Nielsen said she would like to see homosexuality discussed from an accepting Catholic perspective during freshman orientation.

Panel members said they felt many members of the College support their mission, but their ultimate goal is to further educate all students and faculty about their lifestyles and increase the number of homosexual students at Saint Mary’s as a part of the push to increase campus diversity.

“We need to plan more events,” Verduzco said. “I am glad to see SAGA on our campus celebrating National Coming Out Day, but this is only one day of celebration. Why not celebrate 364 more?”