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‘Overdue and necessary change’: student advocates react to changes in sexual and discriminatory harassment policy

| Tuesday, August 25, 2020

On Feb. 29, 1996, the Ad Hoc Committee on Gay and Lesbian Student Needs presented a report to the vice president of student affairs with 12 recommendations to address the needs of LGBTQ+ students on campus. The last of the 12 recommendations called for the non-discrimination clause be evaluated by the University.

Years later, the University’s non-discrimination clause still excludes protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. However, Notre Dame recently updated its policies on discriminatory and sexual harassment to prohibit unwelcome conduct on the basis of gender identity.

While this isn’t quite the policy change for which students and faculty have advocated for years, student activists see this change as a positive step towards providing protections for LGBTQ+ students on campus.

According to Office of Institutional Equity officials, the University decided to make the revision after considering the Supreme Court decision in June, which ruled the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ+ employees from discrimination on the basis of sex, and the student activists who have been calling for revision of the policy for years.

“It just seemed like the right time to be revisiting where we were in the other protected classes that we have listed within our policy,” Erin Oliver, assistant vice president in the Office of Institutional Equity and Title IX coordinator, said. “And that’s a change that I will say that we’ve had a student voice asking for [a while].”

Diane Park

History of the non-discrimination policy and the fight for LGBTQ+ rights on campus

In the fall of 1985, the Gay and Lesbian Students of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s (GLND/SMC) began meeting unofficially in the University Counseling Center (UCC) after being denied official status by Notre Dame. Over the next 10 years, GLND/SMC attempted on numerous occasions to gain University approval, but failed to do so. In Jan. 1995, GLND/SMC was barred from meeting at the UCC after running an ad in The Observer publicizing their meeting location.

In response to GLND/SMC’s ban from the UCC, hundreds of students, faculty and staff marched to demand Notre Dame recognize the group. The Campus Life Council passed a resolution calling the administration to give GLND/SMC official status, which the vice president of student affairs, Patricia O’Hara, rejected.

“GLND addressed homosexual acts neutrally, and urged the University towards encouraging monogamous homosexual relationships,” O’Hara said to The Observer at the time.

Instead, O’Hara announced the creation of the Ad Hoc Committee on Gay and Lesbian Student Needs to advise the administration. The committee submitted a report with 12 recommendations to O’Hara in March 1996, one of which requested O’Hara raise to University leaders the issue of altering the non-discrimination clause to include sexual orientation.

While O’Hara accepted the recommendation in April 1996, University President Emeritus Fr. Edward Malloy announced his refusal to revise the clause in Aug. 1997.

“Within society at large, the phrase ‘sexual orientation’ sometimes becomes a term that does not admit distinction between sexual orientation and the manner in which people live out their sexual orientation — a distinction that is critical to us as a Catholic intuition,” Malloy said in an open letter to the Notre Dame community.

An LGBTQ+-affirming unofficial organization, which took the form a few different names, would apply for formal recognition by the University multiple times over the next 10 years, and in 2009, University President Fr. John Jenkins denied another appeal to add sexual orientation to the notice of non-discrimination after the Campaign for Human Dignity submitted a petition.

Student activists fighting for LGBTQ+ protections at Notre Dame

In 2010, the Senate passed another non-discrimination resolution, and students and faculty held a demonstration to demand a revision of the clause to include sexual orientation.

Alex Coccia, ’14, said he remembers reading about the demonstration in an edition of Scholastic before he began his first year at Notre Dame.

“I remember reading that thinking, well, this seems to be kind of inconsistent with the social justice missions that I’ve heard about as being relevant to Notre Dame and its mission of being a place where learning becomes service to justice,” Coccia said.

Once he arrived on campus, Coccia joined the Progressive Student Alliance which worked closely with LGBTQ+ rights activists. He founded the 4 to 5 movement, created to increase ally awareness, lobby the University to change the non-discrimination clause and gain formal recognition for the Gay-Straight Alliance.

In 2012, the University administration formally recognized a student organization designed to address the needs of LGBTQ+ students and their allies on campus, which would become PrismND.

When Coccia became student body president in 2013, his administration amended the Student Union non-discrimination clause to include sexual orientation, gender identity and documentation status.

“The hope there, of course, was that we would be setting the example for a broader policy change,” Coccia said.

When Bryan Ricketts, ’17, was a sophomore, he became co-president of the newly recognized PrismND.

“We focused mostly on providing a safe community for everybody,” Ricketts said. “You know, we had a lot of students who just came out while in college and are in an environment where they don’t know if they’re going to be supported.”

When Ricketts became student body president his senior year, he continued to advocate for a LGBTQ+ protections and a more inclusive campus environment. While Ricketts said he was happy to hear about the addition of gender identity to the sexual and discriminatory harassment policy, he hopes students will continue to push the University to revise the non-discrimination clause as well.

“Putting this in writing allows people to know that they’re going to be heard, and it’s really, really, really important, but on the other hand,” Ricketts said, “making it clear that they’re hearing what students are saying, that we want non-discrimination protections, and still failing to provide, like, the full measure of protection to students. I find that very frustrating.”

The University declined to comment on changing the notice of non-discrimination in the future.

Nick Ottone, ’20, who was on the gender relations committee his sophomore year and served as director for University policy in student government his senior year, considers the policy revision an “overdue and necessary change.”

(Editor’s Note: Ottone is a former Scene writer for The Observer and provided a number of the archive links that appear in this story.)

“I’m very happy that it happened because it’s going to make Notre Dame live up to its ideals of inclusion,” Ottone said. “In student government, I thought this was something that we should absolutely advocate for along with the non-discrimination clause.”

Ottone remembers the 2016 election on campus as a political turning point for him and a catalyst to become more involved in issues on campus.

“I realized that our country, but also specifically our campus was not nearly as inclusive as I thought it was, not just on LGBTQ+ issues, but also on racial issues,” Ottone said.

Over the next few years, Ottone worked on a number of projects to promote diversity and inclusion on campus. He helped organize Notre Dame: Unfiltered, publicize reforming the parietals amnesty clause and coordinate a Campus Safety Summit, among other projects.

While the change to the sexual and discriminatory harassment policy follows Ottone’s graduation from Notre Dame, he emphasized the importance of the work of students who came before him.

“I think it’s just really important that students know that, number one, if they think that something’s not right, they’re not alone,” Ottone said. “That people have been thinking this for a long time and also to learn from the strategies and the rhetoric and the argument and the intellectual knowledge that has been built up by a lot of students in their place for decades.”

After learning about the lack of non-discrimination protections against LGBTQ+ students and the extensive history of advocacy on campus, Kendrick Peterson, ’20, began to better understand why Notre Dame did not feel like a conducive environment for him to learn and live as a gay student when he first arrived on campus.

“It seemed all the time that the University of Notre Dame, though a phenomenal institution, just felt behind a lot of other institutions generally,” Peterson said.

Peterson became involved in PrismND, serving as president his senior year. He also served on vice president of student affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding’s Advisory Committee for Student Climate Related to LGBTQ Students.

Over the course of his time at the University, Peterson said he began to feel more hopeful the campus climate was changing in regards to LGBTQ+ issues. Though he appreciated how receptive Hoffmann Harding was to many of the committee’s comments, Peterson said he expects policies to change soon simply because the U.S. is progressing and to keep up, Notre Dame will too.

Peterson said advocates do have to continue working, though, to see that change to fruition.

“You can’t let that moment fade whether that be advocating for the marginalized people in black and brown communities or advocating for LGBTQ+ students,” he said. “Just because there’s a statute that’s done does not mean they’re not marginalized anymore. You have to keep working towards it otherwise that community will fade.”

Former student body president Elizabeth Boyle, ’20, also worked towards changing the non-discrimination clause to include sexual orientation and gender identity over the course of her administration, and she said she was ecstatic when she heard the news.

In many ways, Boyle felt she was passed down this fight from Coccia, Ricketts and many other alumni before her. She also credits the coalition of student groups that came together to advocate for this policy change, including student government, PrismND and students in the Gender Relations Center.

“It felt like people at all different levels of student organizing leadership and advocacy we’re asking for the same thing, which makes it a lot more difficult for people to look away from it,” Boyle said.

Although she is happy with the addition of gender identity to the sexual and discriminatory harassment policy, Boyle hopes the University will also change the notice of non-discrimination in time, and she urges student advocates to take up causes they are passionate about.

“I would love if students at Notre Dame would be able to recognize more that these changes don’t happen just because of one person or one administration,” Boyle said. “It happens because of years and years of fighting and advocacy, and the more that we can recognize that, I think the better position will be to make these kinds of changes.”


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About Serena Zacharias

Serena is a member of the class of 2021 majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She hails from the great cheese state of Wisconsin and is a former ND News Editor for The Observer.

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