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‘Celebrating the joy that is queer existence’: In wake of Irish Rover piece, students celebrate LGBTQ+ joy

| Monday, November 15, 2021

The ground was wet, the sky was gray and the temperature was nearly below freezing — but still, Library Lawn emanated joy. Students held colorful signs with loving messages, socializing with old friends and making new ones. A nearby speaker played upbeat pop songs. Under scarves and heavy coats, each face was red and smiling.

These students gathered on Library Lawn as part of a celebration of LGBTQ+ joy, held at 3 p.m. on Friday. Featuring an art installation, music and a number of student speakers, the event invited all LGBTQ+ tri-campus students and allies to gather to celebrate identity, visibility and “queer joy” on the University’s campus.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Decked in pride flags and colorful clothing, LGBTQ+ students and allies gather on Library Lawn as part of Friday’s “celebration of queer joy.”

‘This is really not about the Irish Rover’: How the movement found its roots in joy

Despite its joyful culmination, the movement began in a moment of hurt. Following the Irish Rover’s Oct. 13 publication of No Man Can Serve Two Masters” — in which Irish Rover editor-in-chief Mary Frances Myler condemns the University’s “erosive” initiatives of LGBTQ+ inclusion — many in the tri-campus LGBTQ+ community spoke out against the piece’s rhetoric. Ashton Weber, a senior at the University and the event’s primary organizer, said her initial reaction was a “sinking gut feeling.” 

“Unfortunately, it was not shocking, because this is not the first homophobic publication in the Irish Rover or anywhere on campus that I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” she said. “… but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t hurt.” 

Weber said she believes strongly in the power of protest, and this belief is evident in her history of campus activism. Following Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court last October, Weber helped to facilitate the organization of the student protest against her nomination. And after University President Fr. John Jenkins failed to uphold the University’s health and safety protocols at Barrett’s nomination and subsequently contracted COVID-19, Weber petitioned for his resignation

In the wake of the piece’s publication in the Irish Rover, Weber said she knew something had to be done in response. Continuing her streak of on-campus advocacy, Weber teamed up with other organizers — some of whom were also involved in the Barrett protest — to form a plan.

But upon reflection, the group realized that this particular movement had to be different. Rather than emerging in response or in protest, this campaign would arise on its own terms. In place of protests and petitions, the students opted for something simple: a celebration of joy.

This emphasis on joy was crucial, Weber said, because the organizers did not want to call unnecessary attention to the “homophobia and transphobia” of the piece.

“A lot of us were recognizing that we don’t even want to validate [Myler’s] opinion,” she said. “We don’t even want to give it a response. By spending so much energy contesting it, we would almost be validating that there were points made — and I think that’s not something we care to do.”

When faced with the burden of an unaccepting world, Weber said, many LGBTQ+ people,  especially those growing up within the Catholic Church, feel a compulsion to convince the world of their own validity — but this might not always be productive. 

“If you have grown up in Catholic spaces, you spent time figuring out the apologetics of your identity and how to make sense of queerness in a way that’s compatible with the Catholic Church. And I think so many of us are just so tired of that,” she said. “We can give all the best arguments rooted in all the soundest theology … and it’s exhausting to keep doing that. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if we convince everyone at the Irish Rover that we deserve to be here, because the fact is that we do. So we’d much rather spend our time and energy being happy that we’re here … and showing to this community all the value that we add, instead of spending more and more time fighting for our right to exist on this campus — because we’re already earned it.”

Turning dreams into demonstrations: The purpose and process of on-campus activism

Whether a campaign arises in protest or in celebration, Weber said she believes these public demonstrations are crucial because of the visibility they bring. She recalled her struggle to come out during her first few years at Notre Dame, attributing her hesitancy to the lack of LGBTQ+ visibility on campus. The only major public demonstration during those years, Weber recalled, was a protest against the University’s six-semester housing policy in 2019. 

“And, you know, I was mad about that too,” she said. “But it was just shocking to me that that was the only time I had seen the campus community come together to protest anything. And that was 2018 — there was the midterm election; there were lots of other things we could have been protesting, and that was the one that got all the attention.” 

But that was before October 2020, when hundreds of students gathered on Library Lawn to protest Barrett’s confirmation. Seeing these crowds, Weber said, marked a turning point for her feelings of belonging on campus.

“I had never seen so much pride, so many rainbow flags … so many materials that supported the true and authentic identities of so many people on this campus — I had never seen that celebrated in such a prominent way,” she said. “And I just know that if I had seen that sooner in my time at Notre Dame, it would have been so much easier for me to share myself with the rest of campus.” 

But even though the organizers’ response to the Irish Rover piece would be a celebration rather than a protest, Weber said, the group still hoped to promote LGBTQ+ visibility by making the event a public demonstration.

First, Weber emailed vice president for campus safety Michael Seamon, requesting permission for an on-campus demonstration. This was done in order to prevent disciplinary action from the University, Weber said.

Historically, Notre Dame has often deemed unapproved demonstrations as punishable by suspension or expulsion. In 1969, 10 students were suspended for violating the “15-minute rule” during a sit-in inside the Main Building. Instituted by the Hesburgh administration in 1969 amidst student protests against the Vietnam War, the 15-minute rule called for the expulsion of any student who engaged in unauthorized protest for more than 15 minutes. And today, the du Lac code states that the University may dismiss a student for a “disruption of the regular and essential operations the University.” 

Shortly after submitting the request, Weber received an approval letter from Seamon, which also outlined the University’s conduct policies regarding demonstrations. 

And once the demonstration was approved, Weber said, the rest came easily. She wrote a Letter to the Editor in The Observer contextualizing the event, and the organizers repurposed the “@NDAgainstACB” Instagram account into “@QueerJoyND,” posting event information and calling for students to submit their own stories of queer joy on campus.

Ahead of Friday’s event, Weber said she hoped the turnout would be large — but recalling the enthusiastic activism of her peers, especially current first-years and sophomores, she felt confident in the cause.

“The actual act of organizing people is pretty easy, because contrary to popular belief, people in the tri-campus community are very eager to be active on social issues,” Weber said. “I think it’s also something we’ve seen as younger classes have come in. They’ve been a lot more active from the get-go, which is awesome. It’s been really inspiring to see the action that they’re taking.”

‘We are joyful, we are here, we are loving’: Students share stories, celebrate joy

The movement culminated on Friday afternoon, when students gathered on Library Lawn for a public, colorful demonstration of LGBTQ+ joy. Following a brief introduction from Weber, senior Sara Ferraro took the mic to read students’ anonymous stories of queer joy.

“Hopefully if you don’t have a queer joy story yet, this could become yours,” Ferraro said. 

One anonymous submission told the story of a male student taking his boyfriend to his residence hall’s formal as a first-year, and the acceptance that ensued. 

“Multiple guys in every grade, many that I’m not even necessarily close with, actively made an effort to meet and talk to him. Some remembered his name weeks later and asked how he was doing,” Ferraro read. “Straight men don’t know how much their actions mean. It’s little things that count.” 

The conversation then shifted to the event’s art installation, created by sophomore studio art major Mae Harkins. Entitled “Faces of Joy,” the installation featured photographs of 28 LBGTQ+ tri-campus students, each smiling against a colorful background. Beside the photographs hung the question “What brings you joy?” written on a sheet of paper, inviting attendees to share their responses.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
The event’s art installation, entitled “Faces of Joy,” featured 28 photographs of LGBTQ+ tri-campus students. The piece was created by Mae Harkins, a sophomore majoring in studio art.

“After the Rover piece, I was thinking a lot about queer visibility on campus, and how often we’re either invisible or belittled to our queerness — and that’s not an okay way to represent us,” Harkins said. “And so I wanted to take portraits of some of my queer friends and people in the community, not just because they’re queer, but because they’re joyful people, because they have stories, they have backgrounds.”

Luis Sosa Manubes, a junior also majoring in studio art, said he had similar hopes for the installation’s impact. 

“I would like [Mary Frances] to look at all of these photos and see that when [she] wrote that, it hurt someone’s heart,” he said. Gesturing to the crowd, he added, “And look how many hearts there are.” 

Harkins said she originally envisioned the piece as a depiction of anger, but in line with the event’s positive philosophy, the project eventually became a manifestation of joy. 

“Originally, I was thinking of having us all stare down [the camera], almost as a confrontation to Mary Frances and to other homophobic people,” she said. “And then I was talking with a friend and she said, ‘Maybe that’s what they want to see: us as hateful or confrontational or fighting back with anger. But that’s not our community.’”

And Harkins agreed. She recalled a quote from Pope John Paul II — “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song!” — and argued that this assertion of joy can also be extended to the LBGTQ+ community.

“We are people of joy. … We are smiling. We are happy,” Harkins said. “And the only way to fight hate is with love.” 

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Mae Harkins, a sophomore living in Lewis Hall, waves a pride flag in front of Hesburgh Library during Friday’s event.

But Harkins made a clarification: The demonstration’s lack of anger does not imply a lack of hurt.

“We’re not angry. We’re not responding to this with anger, with hatred, even though we are responding with hurt,” she said. “I’m feeling hurt. Notre Dame has been the only accepting home to me … so to be out on campus has been so transformative for me, and to live in Lewis, a beautiful community. But that was marred when this article was published, especially because Mary Frances is in Lewis.” 

In spite of the harm done to the tri-campus LGBTQ+ community, Harkins had a joyful message for Myler — who lives just two doors down from her in Lewis Hall. 

“Mary Frances, I love you,” she said. “I wrote you a letter saying that I loved you and put it outside your door. I have nothing but love for you. I was hurt, but I don’t know how to do anything without love.”

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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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