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SMC group supports AllianceND

Kristen Durbin | Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Editor’s Note: This article was edited on April 24 to correct the incorrect portrayal of the restrictions on SAGA’s programming during visits by the Board of Trustees.

As the University’s decision approaches on whether to approve AllianceND as an official student club, the Progressive Student Alliance (PSA) hosted a panel discussion Monday about the work of the Saint Mary’s College Straight and Gay Alliance (SAGA) in combating prejudice since its recognition in spring 2005.

Sarah Medina Steimer, a 2006 alumna of the College who served as SAGA’s first president, said lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LBTQ) issues were addressed by a somewhat “underground” group of students prior to SAGA’s recognition as an official student group.

“Before [SAGA was recognized], we would only hear about things on the National Day of Silence and National Coming Out Day, when students would draw with sidewalk chalk, wear ribbons or present a slip of paper to their professors about the day of silence,” Steimer said.

Initially, the College administration did not strongly oppose the recognition of SAGA as an official club, Steimer said, though the proposed club’s intentions were sometimes misrepresented.

“There was some worry that having a gay-straight alliance would turn into a sex club that would promote homosexual behavior, which we had to keep in mind when planning events and fundraisers,” she said. “In trying to get approved, we were showing the need for awareness, not trying to get a group of women together to start dating each other.”

Steimer said the student body’s support helped the club achieve official recognition.

“We had a lot of student support and not a lot of backlash. There wasn’t much opposition in student government either,” she said. “We had a lot of support from the Student Diversity Board, which had a position for a SAGA member, so that really helped.”

During SAGA’s first year, the club worked to increase its visibility on campus and make its mission known to the Saint Mary’s community, Steimer said.

“We tried to make a name for ourselves so people would see that we were there to promote diversity and a safe space for lesbian, bisexual and questioning students to come together without making them vulnerable,” she said. “It was very important to have this inclusion and show that a gay-straight alliance is really important on a college campus, especially one that’s faith-based.”

Steimer said she and her fellow SAGA members emphasized how the club’s mission coincided with that of Saint Mary’s as a Catholic institution.

“We tried to show how much this group supported the school’s mission and would make Saint Mary’s a better place for its students,” she said.

Above all, the founding of SAGA provided students with a more informal arena for peer-to-peer interaction and conversation about LBTQ issues on campus outside of the counseling services available to students, Steimer said.

“The members of SAGA found it important that students knew we were there as a resource to use. You need multiple areas of support, and by having a recognized group, you know there are people you can talk to,” she said. “Not all students feel comfortable going to the Counseling Center because of the power dynamic it creates, whereas having a peer-to-peer group allows students to talk to others going through the same situations and creates a better place to talk to someone in the same age group about their experiences.”

Although its operational structure has evolved in recent years, the mission of SAGA in providing a safe space for peer support and discussion on campus has remained constant since the group’s inception, senior and vice president of SAGA Rebecca Jones said.

“The focus was originally on having a peer support group for students who had faced issues on campus, but it didn’t do much in terms of campus programming or outreach,” she said. “Then a new group of officers came in, and they had a vision for totally hybridizing the group into a support group that does something about the things they talk about.”

Jones said SAGA focuses on incorporating its concerns into academic issues on campus and works to promote its ally outreach program at Saint Mary’s and outside the College.

“Last year, it came to our attention that we were the only campus of Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross that had a gay-straight alliance. We didn’t figure it out until Holy Cross students started coming to our meetings, so we tried to help them get conversations going on their campus,” she said. “This year, we got in touch with PSA to work on outreach at Notre Dame to see what we could do to help get AllianceND approved.”

Although reception of the club has been generally favorable on campus, Jones said SAGA faces certain restrictions in its programming because of the College’s Catholic character.

“In planning our events, we’re not allowed to raise money for or promote things that go against the Catholic mission of the College, such as same-sex marriage,” she said.

Despite these restrictions, Bueno said SAGA strives to create programming that brings more students into the conversations the group has on a regular basis through awareness events like Ally Week and Pride Week.

“It’s great to have big events to get other students interested in SAGA events, and we gear a lot of events towards allies,” Bueno said. “We really try to have speakers who can educate, be inspiring and get people involved. The question and answer sessions afterwards show that students are interested in these issues, so we’re glad we can provide that for them.”

Mary Rose D’Angelo, associate professor of theology at Notre Dame, said the role SAGA plays at Saint Mary’s could be filled by an approved gay-straight alliance at Notre Dame without posing a threat to Catholic teaching or injuring the Catholic character of the University, as opponents of the proposed AllianceND often argue.

“Any group that helps make campus a more welcoming place should be considered an advocacy group, and it’s clear that the Saint Mary’s group has been effective,” D’Angelo said. “Catholic teaching and Catholic character are far from simple, but the catechism affirms that people must be treated with respect, compassion and dignity.”

The catechism states every sign of “unjust discrimination” should be avoided, and refusing approval for AllianceND is a prime example of unjust discrimination, D’Angelo said.

“[AllianceND] looks like a really good means of carrying out the mandate of acceptance articulated in the catechism in that it would be a place where LGBTQ students and allies can work to create a sense of human solidarity,” she said. “The focus of the group would be to provide social support, but because it’s explicitly an alliance, it isn’t a dating service for gay students. It’s a venue for student relief where students are treated with compassion and sensitivity.”