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Petition starts in response to comic

Aaron Steiner | Friday, January 22, 2010

Notre Dame seniors Patrick Bears and Meaghan Jennings knew they had to do something to try to get the University to act after the Jan. 13 publication of an offensive comic about violence towards the gay community in The Observer.

The two, both involved in the Gender Relations Center and the Core Council — a University group that works to support the GLBTQ community at Notre Dame — said there was “shock and outrage” after the offensive comic was printed last week.

“By no means [do I] think that anyone saw it and thought, ‘Oh, but Notre Dame is so accepting of homosexuals,'” Jennings said.

On the contrary, the comic and the national response it generated contributed to a perception of the University as not being accepting of the GLBTQ community, she said.
“I feel like our image has very much been tarnished by this,” she said.

So the pair decided to start a petition to have “sexual orientation” added to the University’s non-discrimination clause — it’s currently not listed alongside “race/ethnicity, color, national origin, sex, disability, veteran status or age.”

Bears and Jennings are working with other students to gather signatures and are coordinating with other student groups and faculty to plan events related to the cause — including a rally and panel discussion next Thursday.

Several student groups have petitioned the administration in the past to amend the non-discrimination clause to include “sexual orientation,” but to no avail.

Most recently, the Campaign for Human Dignity, sponsored by the Progressive Student Alliance, presented a petition with some 2,700 signatures to University President Fr. John Jenkins last March. Jenkins told the group he was open to ways to make campus “more welcoming” to the GLBTQ community.

University spokesman Dennis Brown told The Observer at the time that “after careful analysis from both the legal and theological perspectives, it was determined that adding the clause may not allow us to distinguish between sexual orientation and behavior, which is a distinction that we must maintain as a Catholic university.”

Administrators have also referenced the University’s “Spirit of Inclusion” document, which states that “[w]e welcome all people, regardless of color, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social or economic class, and nationality for example, precisely because of Christ’s calling to treat others as we deserve to be treated.”

The statement was adopted in 1997 after a similar petition to amend the clause came from students, and after student government and faculty members also spoke out on the issue.
Jennings said even before 1997, Notre Dame struggled with issues of intolerance towards the GLBTQ community.

“Notre Dame has a history of hate crimes and violence towards homosexuals on this campus,” she said, noting that when she and Bears met with a group of concerned professors, they heard stories from faculty “talking about when they were students [here] and had friends who had been the victims of such crimes.”

But this year, Bears said he feels the controversy over the comic strip, plus changes within the student body over the past few years, lead him to believe now is a good time to again address the issue.

“A lot has changed, at least in terms of the student body,” Bears said. He said there is a growing awareness of issues surrounding intolerance.

“I don’t think these kinds of issues were even talked aboutas they are now,” he said.
Bears noted the Student Senate’s passing of a resolution on Wednesday that includes a call for “sexual orientation” to be added to the non-discrimination clause as one recent example.

However, he noted, there still are continued problems of intolerance and a lack of awareness among the student body. He cited the widespread, casual use of the word “gay” as a derogatory adjective as one example.

Bears said while some of that is ingrained in the larger culture, “we (at Notre Dame) pride ourselves on somehow being better than that, or at least we aspire to be better than that.”
Jennings said the University has the opportunity to, in response to the controversy over last week’s comic, make a change and publicly demonstrate it supports the LGBT community through its non-discrimination clause.

In fact, Jennings said, as the only top-20 university without “sexual orientation” included in the clause, “this is just going to hold us back.”

In addition to changing the non-discrimination clause, the two said they’re hopeful they can also affect greater awareness on campus about the lingering problems of intolerance of the GLBTQ community through the petition process.

“We can no longer just ignore these issues,” Jennings said.