It’s the time of year when students across the nation are returning to college campuses. At the University of Notre Dame, that means the revival of the major debate on LGBT issues that took place at their school during the past academic year.
Students in the campus’ 4 to 5 Movement, led by sophomore Alex Coccia, had made great strides last year in gathering support from a variety of university groups to support their quest for an officially recognized student-run gay-straight alliance (GSA), as well as trying to have sexual orientation added to the university’s non-discrimination policy. At the end of the school year in May, the university postponed the GSA decision until the fall, which has now arrived.
In one of the first issues of this The Observer, the student newspaper, Fr. John Jenkins, Notre Dame president discussed the possibility of amending the university’s non-discrimination policy as well as the possibility of establishing a GSA.
On the latter issue, Jenkins offered some hope to the students who want a GSA. He stated:
“Are there better structures to achieve our ends? I think it’s time for a fresh look.”
On the issue of adding sexual orientation to the university’s non-discrimination policy, Jenkins defended the current policy of not including the category:
“ ‘At Notre Dame, we do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation,” Jenkins said. ‘That’s a fundamental thing, but that’s not the only thing. The Spirit of Inclusion, which was approved by the Board of Fellows, higher than me, the highest level of the University, says that not only don’t we discriminate, but we want to be a place, an environment, where people feel — of same-sex orientation, anything else — feel respected, supported, fully involved in this community.’ . . .
“ ‘If Notre Dame voluntarily took this on, our fear is that it would be seen as a broader and stronger commitment with regard to same-sex orientation that may undermine our ability to live in accordance with the Catholic teaching because we distinguish between orientation and action.’ ”
Jenkins explained that he feared that adopting such a policy would make the university vulnerable to law suits and that he didn’t think such a policy would end discrimination:
“I don’t believe that step [of including sexual orientation in the non-discrimination clause] would achieve the goal of creating an environment of welcome, of support. I fear that it would tend to be divisive. So I am absolutely committed to try to create that environment, but I think there are other ways to do that.”
Jenkins offered that the university will continue to work in other ways towards non-discrimination:
“I think so much of this is about climate, and it’s not what I’m, what the president, is doing in his office. It’s about what all of us are doing on campus. I think that’s extremely important, and that’s something we work on with hall staff, that’s something we work on with our Student Affairs personnel. … We just have to keep working on it.”
Fr. Jenkins is correct that adopting a policy is not a guarantee that discrimination will end. What he fails to recognize, however, is that adopting such a policy would send a strong and important message that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is unacceptable. While it may not guarantee an end to discrimination, it would surely be a giant step towards achieving that end.
Adopting such a policy does not mean that the university’s work stops there. Other measures, such as recognizing an official GSA on campus, would also be an important step towards achieving a fully inclusive community. While these steps may not guarantee a fully inclusive campus community, not having them certainly guarantees that the movement towards inclusion will be hampered and less likely to be achieved.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry