From the Archives: Early LGBTQ+ history in the pages of The Observer
Editor’s Note: This is the first story in a two-part From the Archives series depicting the history of LGBTQ+ activism at Notre Dame. The second part will be published Monday, Nov. 22.
The LGBTQ+ students at Notre Dame make up one of the brightest and joyous groups on campus. Despite years of adversity, members of this community have been telling their stories over the decades, courageously sharing their experiences across the tri-campus. Though the LGBTQ+ community at Notre Dame existed long before The Observer, we’d like to share how The Observer has documented LGBTQ+ history throughout the late 20th century.
In an interview with From the Archives leader Uyen Le, Marty Kennedy (’22) provided commentary on some of the most momentous events in Notre Dame’s history of LGBTQ+ activism documented in The Observer. With the help of the brilliant Kennedy and his project LGBTQ ND, this From the Archives series will highlight the work of these students — those who persevered against an often-unbending administration in calling for rights, recognition and respect on campus.
‘Through the personal lens’: Gay students share experiences, build coalitions in the pages of The Observer
Researched by Jim Moster and Julianna Conley
In a 1975 article, Andy Praschak (‘77) reflected on the struggles faced by gay students at Notre Dame. He writes that gay Domers struggled to accept themselves and find community in Notre Dame’s masculine culture. This first story in a three-part series was one of the earliest articles published in The Observer to document the experiences of gay students at Notre Dame.
According to a 1949 report by sexologist Alfred Kinsey, 5% of Americans are “practicing” gay men. Citing this number, Praschak estimated that over 400 gay men attended Notre Dame at the time. Despite the size of the gay community, Notre Dame gays were subject to “an existence of anonymity,” meeting in secret off campus and avoiding conflict with the University. Praschak compared the situation to professional baseball pre-Jackie Robinson, implying that a gay student needed to break Notre Dame’s glass ceiling.
Perhaps in a step toward this goal, several students formed a group called “The Gay Students of Notre Dame,” aimed at building a gay community on campus. While the group failed to attract lesbians, it provided a space for gay men to meet in large and small groups and discuss their identities. Members were quite open in discussing the group with Praschak, but the group as a whole refused to be interviewed to protect anonymity.
The goal of the organization was to provide a safe space where gay students could “meet, exchange ideas and experiences and offer each other the social reinforcement imperative to gay life.”
Oftentimes, Praschak wrote, students confused about their sexuality visited the Notre Dame Counseling Center.
“‘Many men come to us because they are concerned about their virility or masculinity,’” said Dr. Sheridan McCabe, former director of the Counseling Center. McCabe suggested that Notre Dame’s masculine culture made gay men self-conscious and confused. And although the Counseling Center was “here to help [the gay community] work out their confusion,” McCabe added, not all of the staff were accepting of the “gay way of life.”
Praschak then transitioned into highlighting one man’s story: Tom, whose last name remained anonymous. A 23-year-old graduate student at the time, Tom decided to study at Notre Dame because of his partner, but the transition from a liberal college near the city during undergrad to a school “that seemed to be hung up on sex, booze and drugs, in that order,” proved to be more difficult than he expected.
Tom reflected on his journey towards embracing his sexuality as a gay man. Though he had had “homosexual feelings” ever since he could remember, he became much more aware of it in high school. Fearing these feelings, Tom spent some time at the seminary, where he would get “a lot of social approval,” but living within a close-knit, “intimate” community of men made it hard for Tom to deny his identity.
Eventually, Tom did come to terms with his sexuality, which is how he ended up at Notre Dame with his partner. Initially, feeling as if he couldn’t come out to many classmates, Tom admitted that he first resented Notre Dame and its unfamiliar campus climate. With so few openly queer Notre Dame students at the time, Tom and his partner had a hard time finding other gay men who could relate to their experiences.
Still, Tom reported a healthy social life, with straight friends — both male and female — who knew about and supported his sexuality. He did note, however, that some of his friends warned him about people on campus who might be less accepting.
Addressing the judgement that he potentially faced, Tom stated, “People should just realize that what is normal for them may not be normal for someone else.” Ultimately, he advocated for the expansion of the Gay Students of Notre Dame to raise awareness around campus, but also to increase the support network for gay students.
“Maybe it’s a little selfish but when more people join, that’s more support for me and more people to give my support to,” Tom concluded.
Marty Kennedy, leader of the archival LGBTQ ND project, commented on the importance of this particular moment in Notre Dame’s LGBTQ+ history.
“This is one of the first times we see any mention of queerness in The Observer and at Notre Dame,” Kennedy said. “During this time, being gay wasn’t talked about. It wasn’t institutionally recognized. It is monumental because it highlights the personal experiences of queer people: their trials, tribulations and joys. Prior to this story, we had only seen this community in a broad sense through an institutional lens. Through the personal lens, these issues become a person-centered movement.”
Unrecognized: The GLND/SMC story
Researched by Spencer Kelly
After years of paltry progress and scant exposure, LGBTQ+ rights were thrust into the spotlight in 1995.
At the time, Gays and Lesbians of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College (GLND/SMC) was the primary LGBTQ organization.
“GLND/SMC formed out of a desire for queer people to fight for University recognition, but to also change the perception of queerness at Notre Dame,” Kennedy said.
However, they remained an unofficial group as they were denied University recognition twice, in both 1986 and 1992.
In Sept. 1986, while vice president of student affairs Father David Tyson refused to officially recognize GLND/SMC, he did offer them use of certain campus resources.
“The Office of University Ministry and the University Counseling Center are the best resources to be of assistance to homosexual students,” Tyson wrote in his 1986 rejection letter.
For nine years, GLND/SMC met at the UCC, slowly growing their campus presence.
But in January 1995, after seeing advertisements for GLND/SMC meetings in The Observer, the administration changed its mind. They informed GLND/SMC that, as an unrecognized group, they were prohibited from meeting on campus.
“The policy is a setback for the University, and a setback for us as well,” GLND/SMC co-chair John Blandford said in response. “It’s a setback for those in the process of coming out of the closet, because they need some safe space to deal with their emotions.”
But this setback ignited an outpouring of support from the community. On March 3, over 300 faculty, students and staff gathered at Fieldhouse Mall to demand University recognition of GLND/SMC.
Among other speakers, student body president Dave Hungeling condemned the University for its actions. Although the administration refused to acknowledge GLND/SMC, Hungeling had a message for LGBTQ+ students at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s: “We recognize you, accept you, and love you.”
Commenting on the protest — one of the first large-scale public demonstrations for LBGTQ+ rights on campus — Kennedy emphasized just how significant it was to have a protest of this size on the University’s campus more than 20 years ago.
“Student protests put pressure on the administration, and they showed that, in the ’90s, there was big support from the student body for queer rights,” Kennedy said. “It was this big moment that showed the administration that there was some student voice behind this. There was a large swath of students that believed what was going on was unjust. This was a lot of people for a ‘90s protest at a Catholic, Midwestern university. This protest sent a message that some action needed to happen.”
Three days later, the Notre Dame administration ran an open letter in The Observer, in which vice president of student affairs Patricia O’Hara reiterated the University’s intention to not recognize GLND/SMC.
However, O’Hara wrote that the administration had “a sincere desire to affirm the presence of those students in [their] midst who are gay and lesbian and to meet their needs through appropriate channels.”
To this end, O’Hara created the Ad Hoc Committee on Gay and Lesbian Student Needs to determine better ways to support the LGBTQ+ community outside of recognizing GLND/SMC or other student organizations.
But the establishment of this committee did not end the debate for LGBTQ+ representation on campus, Kennedy said.
“The decision to create the ad hoc committee was in response to student voices. There was a group who rejoiced that there was an administration-appointed committee to address these issues. There was another group, however, that was skeptical of the committee, as it would take a year to give a response that was already expected,” Kennedy said. “In other words, a stalling tactic. And then there was yet another group of people who claimed that they wanted a queer student group, not a committee that would decide whether they could have a queer student group.”
While GLND/SMC remained unrecognized, this was still a momentous achievement for LGBTQ+ activism at Notre Dame. The University had finally acknowledged that LGBTQ+ rights were not a personal problem, but an institutional problem.
“A year later, the ad hoc committee released 12 recommendations,” Kennedy said. “Some of the most important ones were that the committee would remain a standing committee, that the University needed a queer student group on campus and that the University should consider changing the non-discrimination clause to include sexual orientation.”
The student activism and subsequent policy change were a testament to the power of the community and the importance of allyship. Once the broader campus community demonstrated that they supported LGBTQ+ rights, the University was forced to act.
From this we can take inspiration and instruction today: If students, faculty and staff show up and speak out, real change can happen.