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More LGBT-related fallout at Notre Dame
by Chuck Colbert
2012-05-02

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Notre Dame students hold candle light vigil in response to university administrators declining to add sexual orientation to the school's nondiscrimination policy. Photo by Dylan Parent


It still needs to get better for gays at the University of Notre Dame.

That's the overall reaction to news that school officials are not adding sexual orientation to the school's non-discrimination policy even after months of student and faculty advocacy for a policy change.

And yet, a university spokesperson said, Notre Dame will take "student suggestions" for "several new steps to better support of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and questioning members of its community."

Specifically, Notre Dame will "make ally training more widely available" and offer "education to First-Year Orientation commissioners," at the same time "expanding" a "Safe Space initiative" and "improving hall staff training."

Apparently, administrators have not decided on whether to approve a self-governing gay-straight alliance ( GSA ) student organization.

For more than two decades, Notre Dame has refused to grant official status to a gay student group.

Meanwhile, news of the status quo in nondiscrimination came in an April 25 press statement issued by Dennis Brown, an assistant vice president of public information and communications.

The statement offered no reason or explanation for why sexual-orientation protections would not be added.

However, Brown said in e-mail correspondence, "We may have more to say on our rationale." Brown also said he "would check on the timing of the GSA decision."

The "It-Needs-to-Get-Better" meme has become a rallying cry for the 4 to 5 Movement, a student-led initiative ( including some faculty ) calling on Notre Dame to catch up with its top-ranked peer public and private schools, as well as other Catholic colleges and universities that already offer legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation in admissions and employment.

Last February the 4 to 5 Movement released an "It Needs To Get Better" video wherein students, faculty and staff call out the university for failing, year after year, to approve an official GSA and to include legal protections for LGBTQ community. The video has more than 20,000 hits on YouTube.

Currently, Notre Dame policy "does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, disability, veteran status or age."

As students held a candlelight vigil April 25 in response to the decision, 4 to 5 Movement leader Alex Coccia voiced disappointment that adding a sexual-orientation nondiscrimination clause would not be brought before university trustees who have final authority on the matter.

"It would be an enormous way to change the campus climate and allow people to feel safe in the classroom, on campus, and in the workplace," he said in e-mail correspondence.

"This change is so extremely important," Coccia added. "Until this change is made, we can never have full inclusion for the GLBTQ community on campus."

It was 15 years ago when Notre Dame trustees voted against adding sexual orientation to the non-discrimination clause.

Making sexual orientation a "protected category" could inhibit the school in its ability to "make decisions that are necessary to support Catholic Church teaching," according a statement, released by the trustees on Feb. 5, 1997, the day of the vote.

At the time of the decision, Notre Dame issued a "Spirit of Inclusion" statement, which strongly condemned anti-gay harassment but fell short of banning discriminatory practices.

"We choose not to change our legal nondiscrimination clause, but we call ourselves to act in accordance with what we regard as a higher standard—Christ's call to inclusiveness, coupled with the gospel's call to live chaste lives," wrote then university president the Rev. Edward A. Malloy, CSC, who strongly opposed changing the policy.

The "Spirit of Inclusion" supports gay students, faculty, and staff and condemns harassment and discrimination, stating, "We consciously create an environment of mutual respect, hospitality, and warmth in which none are strangers and all may flourish."

Fifteen years later, Coccia said, the "Spirit of Inclusion" does not go far enough. "We have always said that [ it ] not only calls but morally requires us to provide [ legal ] protections," he said.

Notre Dame's Peter Holland—a professor of film, television and theater—told Inside Higher Ed that faculty members also view the push for gay rights as a moral issue. The lack of a sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy, he said fosters "a climate of anxiety."

To make the university a more welcoming, in 1997 Notre Dame established the Core Council for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Students, an administration-run group, including students and administrators, that addresses gay issues by providing resources and planning educational events. Core Council also advises the vice president for student affairs on LGBTQ needs.

"The university has made significant progress over the past 15 years in its support for gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning students," said the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, CSC, student affairs vice president, in a statement.

"But we've always emphasized the desire to continuously improve and to be responsive to student concerns. The conversations between students and the administration both recently and over the past several years have been very important," said Doyle.

For his part, university president the Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, said, "In all of our efforts, we seek within the context of Church teaching to better realize the ideals expressed in the university's 'Spirit of Inclusion' statement—to create an environment of mutual respect, hospitality and warmth.

Nonetheless, gay and lesbian alumni voiced frustration.

"President Jenkin's administration continues to deny the two central tenets that students, staff, and faculty have been asking for: Acceptance of a gay and lesbian student organization or gay/straight alliance and sexual orientation protection on the University's legally-binding non discrimination clause," said Liam Dacey, a former chair of Gay & Lesbian Alumni of Notre Dame & St. Mary's College ( www.glandsmc.org ) .

Dacey added, " [ The president's ] advisers are continuing to advance the pattern of hostile discrimination to a significant portion of their community."

One measure of such hostility came in January 2010, when a student newspaper, The Observer, ran a cartoon that seemingly promoted violence against gays.

In the cartoon, two people are talking:

"What's the easiest way to turn a fruit into a vegetable?"

"No idea."

"A baseball bat."

A subsequent Observer editorial apologized for the "offensive comic," saying, "There is no excuse that can be given and nothing that can be said to reverse the damage that has already been done by this egregious error in judgment."

Still, an initial online posting of the comic suggested "AIDS" as the punch line instead of "baseball bat."

The cartoonist, moreover, reported the paper preferred "not to make light of fatal diseases," according the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation ( GLAAD ) , which monitored the incident.

Alumna Elizabeth M. Karle also voiced dissatisfaction with Notre Dame's decision.

"While continued dialogue is certainly welcome, enhancing awareness of the 'Spirit of Inclusion' is an inadequate response to student concerns regarding a gay/straight alliance and an inclusive non-discrimination policy—both of which are fully compatible with Catholic social teaching and already realities at other Catholic colleges and universities," said Karle who is a former GALA-ND/SMC secretary.

Jack Bergen, the newly elected GALA vice-chair of programs, said, "The response from the University is not surprising given the current lack of support for GLBT students and is inadequate to meet their needs."

"While progress has been made, Notre Dame remains behind every other major institution we compare ourselves against. Once again Notre Dame will fall to the bottom of ladder when it comes to inclusion of GLBT students. What a shame," said Bergen.

Yet Notre Dame's press statement also said the university would consider making the "Spirit of Inclusion" statement "more explicit and effective."

"Notre Dame will strive to enhance awareness of existing practices and protections among students, faculty, and staff. The avenues for reporting harassment and discrimination will be clarified, strengthened, and better publicized," the statement said.

What also raises eyebrows about the "Spirit of Inclusion" is its implicit assumption that gay students are somehow likely, perhaps, to be unchaste compared with non-gays.

"Notre Dame is making the same mistake that many church leaders make when dealing with lesbian/gay issues," said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the gay-positive New Ways Ministry.

"They assume that the first and most important way to respond to lesbian/gay people is to focus on any potential sexual activity that might occur," he said.

"Sexualizing lesbian/gay people is discriminatory, demeaning, and dehumanizing," DeBernardo added.

Based in Mt. Rainier, Md., New Ways is a ministry of healing and reconciliation for LGBT Catholics and the Church.

DeBernardo added, "The Notre Dame administration does not treat heterosexual people in the same way, though they are equally as likely to be in violation of Catholic teaching on sexuality."

"Church teaching is clear that lesbian/gay people must be included in Catholic organizations and that no discrimination should occur in their regard. A non-discrimination policy is the most basic way to put that teaching into practice, and it has been instituted in Catholic institutions, including colleges and universities, around the country," explained DeBernardo.

"Notre Dame's refusal to do so shows an absence of will to do so on the administration's part, in spite of the fact that a clear Catholic rationale for doing so exists," he said.

A 1978 graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Chuck Colbert is a co-founder of GALA-ND/SMC and a former co-chair of the organization, which is not affiliated with the Notre Dame Alumni Association.

�Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.

SIDEBAR

LGBT name game at

Notre Dame Magazine

by Chuck Colbert

Even as advocates at Notre Dame pressed school officials to make the university gay friendly, a policy change at the Notre Dame Magazine signals a step backwards.

The magazine, which is distributed free of charge to tens of thousands of alumni worldwide, does not allow use of the word "marriage" in the classnotes section to acknowledge legal same-sex wedlock.

The new block-out policy came to light in the most recent issue of the magazine ( Spring 2012 ) in a letter to the editor.

"When I was married in the District of Columbia on June 18, 2011, my friend and classmate Lorie Masters was kind enough to write about this joyous occasion in the classnotes section of the winter issue. You, however, saw fit to change the word 'marriage' to 'united in a ceremony,'" wrote a 1981 law school alumnus, Allyn Amato of Alexandria, Va.

He continued, "Not only is your editorial policy intellectually and logically flawed, it is also downright insulting both to my husband and to me. We are married and have exactly the same legal status as any heterosexual couple married in the District of Columbia."

"The attitude evidenced by your editorial policy is, in my view, most decidedly hypocritical and anti-Christian. Please answer me this question: Had I married a Jewish or Muslim woman outside the Catholic Church, would you have edited the column in the same manner? I think not," wrote Amato.

News of the policy change disheartened at least one alumnus, Jack Bergen of Walpole, Mass., newly elected vice-chair of programs for the Gay & Lesbian Alumni Association of Notre Dame/ St. Mary's College ( GALA-ND/SMC ) .

"I'm disappointed," he said over the telephone. "Marriage is a state issue," Bergen continued. "If a particular state recognizes the union of same-sex couples as marriages, then I think it should be reflected as such."

Editor Kerry Temple explained how the change came about. "Until three or four maybe five years ago, the magazine's classnotes section carried news of same-sex unions and called them marriages," he said in e-mail correspondence.

"Then some very vocal alums protested and the result was a meeting of administrators during which it was decided not to use the word marriage, but to use other terminology, such as civil union or partnership ceremony," said Temple.

"The rationale was that for the vast majority of our readers the word marriage means the sacrament of matrimony," he added.

And yet the issue here is civil marriage and not sacramental marriage—civil rights, not sacred rites.

The magazine policy change comes at time when same-sex civil marriage is now legal in six states, including Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia.

This past summer, the Catholic governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, signed marriage equality into law. More recently, Catholic governors in Maryland and Washington signed similar legislation, although roll- back efforts in those two states by ballot measure referenda are likely to challenge the new laws.

For a short time gay couples could marry in California until the November 2008 passage of Proposition 8 banned same-sex marriage.

In fact, Notre Dame alumnus and a former GALA-ND/SMC ( www.galandsmc.org ) co-chair Tom O'Brien of Los Angeles married his partner Oct. 30, 2008, at the Beverly Hills Courthouse while same-sex marriage was still legal.

Asked about the magazine's new policy, he offered comments, taken from a letter written at the time to family and friends.

"Both of us have seen wonderful examples of love, honor, commitment and loyalty in our lives. We believe marriage to be a beautiful expression of that love and commitment; and are thrilled to be able to stand before you and publicly and legally confirm what we have shared together for 14 and-a-half years," O'Brien wrote.

"For both of us, the most powerful moment of the wedding came when we heard the words: 'By the power invested in me by the State of California…'" he added.

Nonetheless, O'Brien acknowledged the struggle same-sex marriage is for Catholics. "Some family members and friends whom we love and who love us dearly have struggled with the notion of gay marriage. We recognize that it represents a major shift for society and one that will occur fitfully," he wrote.

"But we hope that everyone can recognize that over the past 14 and a half years, we have become better people for having found each other. We are happier and more fulfilled as a result."

Neither editor Temple nor university spokesperson Dennis Brown, an assistant vice president of Public Information and Communications, would say, when asked, if any gay alumni had been part of discussions about the policy change.

However, Temple said the objection to the policy "has prompted some discussion here," adding, "As more states have allowed same-sex marriages and as society changes, I would think further review is warranted."

�Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.


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