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Notre Dame’s evasion of an inclusive non-discrimination clause

and | Friday, October 11, 2019

October is LGBTQ history month, and this year, the attention surrounding the oral arguments to the Supreme Court regarding Title VII protections have brought LGBTQ issues to the national consciousness. While the Supreme Court is deliberating on the legality of discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, we must remember that Notre Dame is no stranger to its own controversy surrounding the rights of LGBTQ members of the community.

On March 19, 1998, Fr. David Garrick, a celibate gay Holy Cross priest, resigned in protest of the administration’s refusal to add sexual orientation to the non-discrimination clause. The theater professor was incensed by discrimination following his public coming-out in The Observer, indignant over the administration’s lack of action on concerns voiced by gay and lesbian students and tired of walking on eggshells to white-wash his identity. As he wrote in 2001 in a personal history detailing his coming out: “It is all right for a priest to be gay privately, so long as he remains celibate; but an unwritten rule — the kind of ordinance that is hardest to contest or appeal — whispers that a priest must not come out publicly.”

Fr. Garrick’s students remember him for being a witty, understanding, yet demanding instructor. Dr. Dan Smith (ND Class of 1998), now a theatre professor at Michigan State, remembers, “As a professor, he had a calm, quiet energy and a dry sense of humor. He was very interested in avant-garde theatre directors and liked to joke that he and Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold had similarly unruly hair.” Reports of the rally following his resignation describe a crowd of 250, in large part consisting of students invested in his message and energized by what was at stake for the future of the University’s relation to the LGBTQ community.

Fr. Garrick’s resignation was situated in a decade animated by lesbian and gay activism (their aims were narrower in scope than those of the more commonly recognized LGBTQ community of today). The students called for the University to officially recognize the intercampus Gay and Lesbian Association (GLND/SMC). In the spring of 1995, Patricia O’Hara, the vice president of Student Affairs, released an open letter detailing the decision to refuse this request. In the same letter, O’Hara established the Ad Hoc Committee on Gay and Lesbian Student Needs to discuss the concerns of the students.

Heeding the advice of his colleagues, Fr. Garrick had elected not to publicly come out at the beginning of his time with the Congregation of the Holy Cross, except for privately to fellow gay Holy Cross priests. He initially approached the controversy with caution and moderation, but was slowly convinced that he could not continue to do so: “I try to remain somewhat in the center between my friends in the administration and the 25 or so students in the gay group. But forces beyond me are moving me out of the middle position. … I am present at meetings where Notre Dame students are in tears over the administration’s various moves in opposition to their self-disclosure. As an educator, I cannot abide organizational maneuvers that bring vulnerable students to tears.” Fr. Garrick, painfully aware of the high rates of suicide and depression within this marginalized community, was increasingly embittered by the administration’s unfeeling behavior and primed to act. 

On March 2, 1996, O’Hara released another open letter in The Observer responding to the final report of the Ad Hoc Committee. This report reaffirmed that the administration would not recognize GLND/SMC. Rather, they would permit a “group of students” whose activity would be closely monitored and that would not be permitted to elect officers nor host events outside of its regular meetings. Fr. Garrick saw an opportunity to provide support to the gay and lesbian students he had grown to care about. Within 24 hours of the news, he submitted his coming-out letter to the Observer.

Fr. Garrick’s coming-out letter was a convincing and moving argument for the recognition of gay and lesbian students grounded in Catholic doctrine and contemporary psychological research. While adhering to the teachings of the Church, he emphasized one’s right and obligation to tell the truth about their identity. Although the priest had been warned that “the sky will fall on any priest who comes out, that no ‘amount’ of celibacy or faithfulness will shield him,” he was buoyed by the support he received from friends and colleagues and the fact that he had done right by his students. He noted with satisfaction the re-energized dialogue among students about gay rights.

In a way, however, the sky did fall — slowly, then all at once. Fr. Garrick remembers in his personal history that he lost many friendships — some abruptly, and some more gradually. As his social circle narrowed, so did his ministry — more and more dorms ceased inviting him to say Mass, and he became increasingly reliant on his ministry in the Basilica. So it constituted a near-total ostracization when his name was quietly removed from the list of celebrants in the Basilica in the spring of 1998. When pressed, Holy Cross officials (through their spokesperson, Fr. John I. Jenkins) cited complaints that Fr. Garrick’s homilies were too “long” and “dramatic.” The unhappy parishioners and their whining letters never seemed to materialize to corroborate these claims. Fr. Garrick refused to take this would-be fatal blow to his identity as a practicing priest lying down.

Fr. Garrick published his official statement of resignation in the Observer on March 19, 1998, voicing his disappointment over the refusal to change the non-discrimination statement and rejecting the explanation that he was suspended from his pastoral duties on account of the quality of his homilies. Despite the somber tone of his resignation, Fr. Garrick did express hope for the future of the University’s relation to the LGBTQ community: “It is my belief that Notre Dame, my beloved Alma Mater, will one day take the lead in the liberation of gay people from discrimination, derision and false witness.” 

Supporters of Fr. Garrick were quick to organize. On March 25, a crowd of 250 students, faculty and staff gathered for a rally in support of the issues Fr. Garrick brought to light. Dr. Smith, his former student, remembers, “that felt like a galvanizing moment.” In his speech, Fr. Garrick recognized the need for rights rather than rhetoric: “It is essential that the University teach about equal rights, and that they do this by giving equal rights to gay and lesbian students, faculty and staff.” Today, the continued exclusion of sexual orientation from the University’s non-discrimination clause means that the ND LGBTQ community is still vulnerable. Few people in our community are willing to share their experiences of employment discrimination out of fear of serious repercussions. It is no surprise that these stories are very rarely told, except in rumors and hushed warnings. Fr. Garrick’s tale is a courageous, noteworthy exception.


Annie Moran is a senior hailing from Chicago studying psychology and education. She can be reached at [email protected] or @anniemoranie on Twitter. She’d love to hear your musings on the wonders of fresh basil, experimental theater or the sacred space of public transportation. 

Katie Hieatt is a senior majoring in Economics and American Studies from Memphis, Tennessee. Her go-to streaming recommendations are Russian Doll and Killing Eve. She can be reached at [email protected] or @katie_hieatt on Twitter.

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

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