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Gay students discuss coming out at Notre Dame

Sam Stryker | Monday, March 5, 2012

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a three-part series about the experience of LGBTQ students at Notre Dame in lightof recent requests that the University grant club status to a gay-straight alliance.

Before coming to Notre Dame, senior Jason G’Sell said he anticipated the University would be a place where he could come to terms with his faith and sexuality, whereas in high school, only a few friends knew he was gay.  

“I wanted to go to college and be an out person,” he said. “I wanted people to have this assumption that clearly, I had been out forever.”

For gay students, college presents the opportunity to start fresh with new friends and a new environment. Yet students said deciding when to come out can be an intensely personal decision that often involves overcoming both internal and external boundaries.

Sophomore Mia Lillis said she was prepared to be open about her sexual orientation before coming to Notre Dame, but waited a month into her freshman year to come out because of her experience with freshman orientation. She said after telling her roommates, word “gradually got out” to the rest of her dorm.

“[My roommates] were perfectly awesome with it,” she said. “I didn’t encounter any problems with anyone in the dorm.”

However, Lillis did encounter some trials in coming out that she said are unique to the campus environment found at Notre Dame.

“You take on such a big responsibility when you come out here. Not that necessarily you are going to receive a lot of discrimination, but you are taking on the role of educating people,” she said. “A lot of people here have not met gay people before coming to Notre Dame. That gets really tiring after a while, to explain over and over again.”

For those who do wish to come out, the environment at Notre Dame can be daunting. Senior Sam Costanzo said the campus environment initially prevented him from being open about his sexual orientation.

“I wanted to be who I was publicly,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t because it was just so grating. It rubbed up against so many gendered expectations of people here.”

Costanzo said he was cautious whom he came out to when he came to Notre Dame, waiting until second semester of freshman year to come out to people in his dorm.

A difficult experience

Costanzo said being a gay student at Notre Dame was not the only thing he struggled with freshman year. He overstretched himself academically, struggled with his faith and coming from a largely Hispanic area of Texas, experienced “culture shock” at Notre Dame.

As a result, Costanzo said he attended University counseling for most of his freshman year.

The year culminated when Costanzo attempted to kill himself by swallowing several different medications, but could not keep them down. After the incident, his rector took him to the hospital where Costanzo called his parents, his academic advisor and his older sister, who attended Notre Dame at the time.

Costanzo said his sister chastised him for not approaching family members for help. He said he was angered by her reaction, as she hadn’t shown concern before.

“I knew she was wrong,” he said. “It was infuriating, the supposed value she was placing in our family relationships because for me, they had been compromised a while ago.”

Following his freshman year, Costanzo took a medical withdrawal from Notre Dame and studied at the University of Texas at El Paso. He said he decided to return to Notre Dame both for academic and personal reasons.

“I knew if I was going to really develop on a philosophical or spiritual level personally, in relation to Catholicism and the tradition I was raised in, I was going to have to come back here,” he said. “There wasn’t going to be a better place for me to do that.”

Deciding when to come out

Lillis, who came out as bisexual in middle school and later as a lesbian in high school, said her openness with her sexuality was swiftly challenged during freshman orientation.

“I was not planning on being in the closet per se, but Frosh-O kind of changed my mind … It basically set the precedent that being straight is assumed here,” she said. “I guess I didn’t really feel comfortable enough with myself to correct that assumption.”

 Students encounter a heterosexual mentality immediately upon arriving on campus with freshman orientation, G’Sell said.

“Immediately you get there, and you are paired up with a girl dorm, and you’re tied to a girl’s wrist and you’re walking around together and you’re supposed to find your wife,” he said. “Everything is focused on these heterosexual relationships.”

Sometimes, coming out during college is not a given.

Senior Rocky Stroud said he had no immediate plans to come out at Notre Dame, as he wished to keep his sexual orientation private.

“I didn’t think people needed to know. I didn’t want all those pestering questions like ‘When did it start? How are you doing? How did your parents take it? Did any of your friends change?'” he said. “I didn’t want all of those questions you don’t want to answer. I didn’t want my life to change.”

However, Stroud said a friend revealed Stroud’s sexual orientation at a party while he was with his older sister. He said his coming out experience was not ideal, as he did not want his older sister, a student at Saint Mary’s, to find out in such a way.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster those few days, mainly because I was at a party with my sister,” he said. “When she found out, she had a meltdown. She was in the bathroom crying.”

With his younger sister and mother in town that same weekend for a football game, Stroud said he came out in one fell swoop.

“It all happened in one day — 24 hours, done.”

Though he said the circumstances for his coming out experience were less than ideal, Stroud said he is ultimately glad it happened because he would not have been able to come out on his own.

“I wish it happened differently, [but] I’m okay with the fact it happened, because I don’t think I would have had the courage or determination or necessity to come out myself,” he said.

Faith and sexuality

Though Costanzo said he is not a practicing Catholic anymore, it wasn’t until he set foot on the Notre Dame campus that the relationship between his faith and sexuality became a problem.

“The religious thing and the gay thing were two separate things in high school, and it wasn’t until I got here that they were really convergent,” he said. “This deeply personal, meaningful but not all-encompassing aspect of who [I am] is incompatible in some aspects with [my] faith.”

Like Costanzo, G’Sell said he chose to attend Notre Dame for reasons relating to his faith. He thought Notre Dame would be a school where he could come to terms with his sexual orientation as it related to being a practicing Catholic.

However, G’Sell said he soon realized the process of reconciling the two was not going to be as easy as he thought.

“Even though you have some incredibly intelligent Catholics here, no one has the answers,” he said. “There is no easy solution to reconciling these two things.”

G’Sell said he approached his rector in Duncan Hall to help deal with the relationship between his faith and sexuality.

“He didn’t give me any sort of mind-blowing answer and he didn’t have any solutions for me, but what he did do was really important,” he said. “He just welcomed me, not only to the hall, but to the Church.”

G’Sell said there was another benefit to living in Duncan, a new dorm at the time.

“I felt it was important because [Duncan] didn’t have an identity and there was no stereotype,” he said. “I know it is much more difficult for guys that live in dorms that have really strong heterosexual identities.”

‘I’m grateful it hasn’t been a walk in the park’

Had she attended a different school, Lillis said she believes she would have approached coming out very differently than she has at Notre Dame.

“I think I definitely would have come out off the bat, because I was in the closet for a month,” she said. “I don’t think I would have stayed in the closet at any other place. I would have been out from the start.”

Stroud said it is difficult for some gay students to come out at Notre Dame for several reasons.

“From the guys I’ve met and been with who aren’t out of the closet … either it is personal, they are afraid for family reasons or culture reasons, or just in general the fear of coming out,” he said.

There are also internal issues students need to struggle with, Stroud said.

“I wouldn’t say personally it was a fear of coming out to the Notre Dame population I was afraid of. It was maybe admitting to myself I was gay,” he said.

Coming out as a female at Notre Dame is also different than coming out as a male, Lillis said, because of preconceived notions in respect to masculinity and femininity.

“Guys, if they are in any way gender bending, then other men are going to label them as gay no matter what, so it’s like they might as well come out,” she said. “Whereas with girls, we can gender bend as much as we want and no one assumes that they’re gay. For a girl to come out, it definitely is much more of a personal choice than it is with a guy.”

Despite the challenges he has faced as a gay student, G’Sell said he appreciates how these obstacles have been beneficial to his Notre Dame experience.

“It hasn’t been without its struggles. At the same time, I don’t think that’s a problem necessarily. I think it’s good to struggle,” he said. “In a way, I’m grateful it hasn’t been a walk in the park.”

The third installment of this series will examine the gay community’s underground network at Notre Dame and student experiences being in relationships on campus. It will run in Wednesday’s Observer.