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Acknowledging the past, looking to the future: What the LGBTQ+ Center means for Saint Mary’s

| Monday, November 8, 2021

Maggie Klaers | The Observer
Photo: Observer archives, Sept. 29, 1987

On Oct. 8, members of the Saint Mary’s community gathered for a “Celebration of Belonging,” commemorating the opening of the College’s new LGBTQ+ Center — a ribbon-cutting that was decades in the making.

Located on the second floor of the Student Center, the LGBTQ+ Center acts as a welcoming, inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ students and allies to congregate and create community. Student organizations such as the Sexuality and Gender Equity (SAGE) Club utilize the space for club meetings and social events, planning to host guest speakers and discussion groups in the future. 

Although events such as these have occurred on the College’s campus for many years, these are some of the first that will not have to take place inside a multipurpose room. Upon its unveiling last month, the Center became the campus’s first officially designated safe space for LGBTQ+ students since the College’s inception in 1844.

Just two years ago, the Center was nothing more than an aspiration. In the fall of 2019, members of the Saint Mary’s community drafted a proposal for a safe space and presented it to the College administration. In lieu of adequate funds and in the midst of an interim between presidents, the College did not have the resources or capacity to support the project. 

But one year later, Sophia Sanchez helped the movement regain momentum. A current senior studying sociology and gender and women’s studies, Sanchez authored a new proposal — including examples of similar spaces on other Catholic campuses — and with the help of associate professor gender and women’s studies Jamie Wagman, she presented her work to College President Katie Conboy. But in light of budgeting issues and obstacles posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Sanchez said, the proposal was dismissed. 

Despite initial complications, the campaign finally saw success in the latter half of the fall 2020 semester. In collaboration with vice president for inclusion and equity Redgina Hill and former vice president for mission Judy Fean, Sanchez proposed the idea to Conboy once more — and got a yes.

“This has been decades in the making,” Hill told The Observer. “I think it was just the right time, the right leadership and the right administration for it to come to pass.”

But the push for the Center began long before 2019, Hill said. Students and faculty have organized several campaigns for an on-campus safe space over the years — the oldest known proposal dating back to 1999. 

Diving into these decades of activism and advocacy at the College will inevitably reveal the pain and struggles of its LGBTQ+ alumni, many of whom were forced to grapple with a lack of resources and a less welcoming campus. But events like the Celebration of Belonging and other markers of progress, Hill noted, can help to heal the scars of history.

“I have talked to several alums who have shared their experiences of being hurt,” Hill said. “Because they couldn’t fully be themselves on campus; they didn’t feel seen on campus. At the opening [of the LGBTQ+ Center], you felt the energy in the room. And to have our alum come to me crying afterward, saying ‘This was such a healing moment for me; I had to show up to be here to see if this was actually happening at Saint Mary’s’ … To me, that shows progress.” 

And this troubled history is one that the College’s current administration is more than willing to acknowledge, Hill said.

“I think that’s one of the key ways of moving forward — to humbly say that we didn’t always get it right,” she said. “And we hope that this is a step in the right direction for reconciliation.”

Emma Bacon, a sophomore studying religious studies, echoed the importance of reconnection and reconciliation with LGBTQ+ alumni, also admitting the difficulty of said processes.

“[The speakers at the Celebration for Belonging] talked about this being a step towards reconciliation, but [reconciliation] is very difficult to measure,” she said. “While we can’t give a person four years of their life back, I think … flipping our narrative is so important — making room for listening, encounter, accompaniment and dialogue.” 

As a Saint Mary’s ministry assistant, Bacon works with resident assistants to bridge the gap between residential life and campus ministry in McCandless Hall. At the beginning of their tenure, each ministry assistant adopts one of the five core values of the College, a word meant to guide each students’ service throughout the year. Bacon chose “justice” — a virtue that has driven her work in LGBTQ+ advocacy across the tri-campus. 

Bacon’s passion lies in creating spaces for safe and nonjudgmental dialogue across campus. She encourages non-LGBTQ+ students to learn how to ask questions about sexuality and gender identity, even the difficult ones. She urges educated allies to answer these questions when appropriate, helping to take the burden of education off of LGBTQ+ people. For LGBTQ+ Christians, she promotes the College’s LGBTQ+ faith-sharing groups, open to the entire tri-campus community.

Although Bacon’s advocacy centers around the Saint Mary’s community, she advocates for a larger network of solidarity and support spanning across the entire tri-campus community. 

“Extending LGBTQ+ advocacy looks like first breaking the overall stigma which the schools in the tri-campus tend to hold against each other,” Bacon said. “We saw a lot of that last year, and again this year. We saw a dismantling of a culture of shame with Saint Mary’s students taking back the word ‘smick’ this April … If we as a tri-campus community could come together to break a culture of shame around a word, why can’t we come together to break an inherited culture of shame and stigmatization against LGBTQ+ students?”

For Bacon, this tri-campus unification can be modeled in a mantra: “Community over competition.” 

“Basically what it means is that we should build communities and lean into one another before we try to compete with other campuses on who can create ‘more’ change,” she said. 

And the Center might offer a glimpse into this potential tri-campus unity. Although the space primarily serves the Saint Mary’s community, all tri-campus students are welcome to visit and attend events, Sanchez said. 

“It’s going to be a space for people to feel welcome, but also a space where we can invite people outside of the tri-campus community,” she said. “It’s definitely here for everybody.”

But this watershed moment in LGBTQ+ representation is not exclusive to Saint Mary’s — Catholic colleges and universities across the country are finally seeing the conclusions of decades of activism and advocacy from their LGBTQ+ alumni. Xavier University of Louisiana, the country’s only historically Black Catholic college, celebrated its first Pride Week last month with a “gayla,” featuring musical performances from local drag queens. At Boston College, a petition calling for the creation of an LGBTQ+ resource center gathered mass support on campus and beyond, even earning a signature from current Secretary of Labor and former Boston mayor Marty Walsh

As some of the first major milestones for LGBTQ+ representation on these Catholic campuses, many of these movements ignited backlash from alumni and members of the Church. Following the Center’s opening, Hill says she has faced similar resistance — and in formulating responses, she always returns to the College’s central mission of diversity and inclusion. 

“I think my answer always points back to the mission — not just our mission, but our core values of the institution, which speak to community, and also speak to justice,” she said. “I will always point to that and just say ‘You know, hopefully you can get on board with doing good work with us as we continue to walk with our students who are having these experiences on our campus, real human experiences.’”

But the College’s fight for LGBTQ+ liberation should not end with the opening of the Center, Bacon argued. For her, the future of LGBTQ+ representation at Saint Mary’s involves learning from mistakes of the past — discovering which voices have been historically silenced. In the wake of the Center’s opening, she said she hopes the College and the tri-campus at large can do more to listen to the voices of transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming students.

“An often-forgotten population on all of our campuses are our transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming students,” she said. “While respecting a person’s human dignity by calling them by their proper name and pronouns is one thing, we also need to listen to their needs and find out what we can do as students to help create change for our peers. We need to pass on the mic and give them a chance to speak for their needs and tell us what we can be doing to create change.” 

Sanchez played a large role in transforming the Center from a simple idea into a fully fledged reality — and even after a year of advocacy and organization, she still looks toward the future. She said she believes the space will serve as a tool for conservation and reconnection. 

“I feel like [the Center] is going to do really good things,” she said. “Just having all these stories out there is going to do really great things. For Saint Mary’s, I know a lot of alums that previously said they would never donate to Saint Mary’s [who] now will, because we have an LGBTQ center on campus. … I definitely think that it’s pushed Saint Mary’s as a whole to start talking about things like this. It’s opening the conversation more.”

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About Evan McKenna

Evan is a senior at Notre Dame from Morristown, Tennessee majoring in psychology and English with a concentration in creative writing. He is currently serving as the Managing Editor of The Observer and believes in the immutable power of a well-placed em dash. Reach him at [email protected] or @evanjmckenna on Twitter.

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