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How Notre Dame sneakily killed off the Queer Film Festival

Tom O'Neil | Sunday, February 15, 2009

Three years ago, when pinned down by the media, Father John Jenkins told the New York Times, Associated Press and Fox News Channel that – gulp, yeah, okay – the Queer Film Festival could continue.

The festival usually occurs this month around Valentine’s Day. Where is it?

Well, not only will there be no gay film festival this year, it’s probably kaput for good. After failing to snuff out the festival in its early years by force of will, Notre Dame recently succeeded in killing it off quietly, slowly and deviously behind the scenes. The result: a gay bashing successfully pulled off by one of the most notoriously anti-gay universities in America.

The Notre Dame Queer Film Festival was launched in 2004 by the gay student group OutreachND, the Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association of Notre Dame/Saint Mary’s College, the Gender Studies Program, the Counseling Center and the Departments of English, History, Anthropology and Film, Television and Theater.

Over the next few years, as an academic event, the Queer Film Festival was a smash success, staging, for example, the Indiana premiere of “Brokeback Mountain” and drawing such notable filmmakers to campus as John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), Notre Dame alum Don Roos (“The Opposite of Sex,” “Boys on the Side,” “Single White Female”), Brian Dannelly (“Saved”) and four-time Tony Award winner Terrence McNally (“Love! Valor! Compassion!”).

It was a miracle, frankly, that the Queer Film Festival was permitted to exist at such a conservative Catholic school, but it got launched in the waning days of the presidency of Monk Malloy, who was too battle-weary to put up a fight. Over previous years, Malloy had mounted a zealous crusade against homosexuality – at one point even throwing the gay-student group off campus – that not only failed, but resulted in his public humiliation when the Faculty and Student Senates passed resolutions denouncing his actions. Throughout the drama, the gay students were valiantly backed up by public protest events involving faculty and hundreds of straight students.

When Jenkins became president, it was obvious that he wanted to kill off the festival. He said in a speech to students and faculty: “Precisely because academic freedom is such a sacred value, we must be clear about its appropriate limits. I do not believe that freedom of expression has absolute priority in every circumstance.”

On the eve of the Queer Film Festival opening in 2006, reporters from the New York Times, Associated Press and Fox News Channel landed on campus to see what Jenkins would do.

Before Jenkins could do anything, he got upstaged and overruled. The New York Times reporter got to Father Theodore Hesburgh, who endorsed the fest, as he had years earlier when he’d met privately with the festival organizers and literally gave us his blessing.

“I think the real test of a great university is that you are fair to the opposition and that you get their point of view out there,” Hesburgh told the Times. “You engage them. You want to get students’ minds working. You don’t want mindless Catholics. You want intelligent, successful Catholics.”

How could Jenkins – so new on the job – contradict Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s saintly champion of civil rights? He couldn’t. So when Jenkins was asked by journalists if he’ll permit the gay film festival to continue in the future, he said – with obvious reluctance – yes.

Then the slow, quiet strangulation began to occur behind the scenes. One year later, Notre Dame actually refused to permit the event to use the word “festival” in its title because, foes said, it suggests that the school “celebrates homosexuality.” So the event struggled on under the clunkily titled “Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives, Spectatorships.”

In 2007, Notre Dame dealt the final death blow. Not only was the gay and lesbian film festival no longer permitted to use the word “festival,” it was forbidden to use the words “gay,” “lesbian” or “queer” in its title!

That nearly killed it, of course. How could it go on without being able to identify itself? Somehow it managed, though. One last time. The event proceeded with no prominent filmmakers in attendance and under the ridiculous name, “Qlassics: Reimagining Sexuality and the Self in Recent American Cinema.”

The result was such a ho-hum disaster that no plans were made to stage it again this year.

But why hasn’t anyone noticed? And why haven’t Notre Dame leaders been denounced for the shocking way they killed off the fest? Why hasn’t the Faculty or Student Senate issued new resolutions denouncing the university for this?

Well, let me speak up loudly on the matter: Shame, shame on old Notre Dame.

At a time when most major Catholic universities are embracing and supporting their gay students, many even including a nondiscrimination clause against sexual orientation in their school policies, Notre Dame has again proven to be a most unchristian institution that officially practices prejudice.

Tom O’Neil is a feature writer and blogger for the Los Angeles Times. He was editor-in-chief of The Observer in 1976-77. He is a member of GALA-ND/SMC who helped to launch the Queer Film Festival.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.