SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The University of Notre Dame's student newspaper made
when it printed an anti-gay comic strip on Jan. 13. The backlash was vocal, intense and deserved -- the comic depicted one character asking another how to turn a "fruit" into a "vegetable." The response: "a baseball bat."
On campus, the response has also been adamant -- in support of the LGBT members of Notre Dame's student body, faculty and staff. And as a result of the incident, a group of students and faculty has launched several new initiatives.
The burgeoning movement on this Catholic campus comes at a time when the nation, too, is asking itself questions about the acceptance of gays and lesbians -- in the military, in churches and in city halls where same-sex couples seek the right to marry. While pivotal decisions are being made on the national level, at places like Notre Dame the path ahead still seems unclear.
First, full disclosure: I'm an editor at The Observer, the student paper that published the cartoon. As such, I've been a front-row witness to the trauma anti-gay hate speech can cause, but also to the encouraging response of the community following such a troubling incident.
What's become clear since the comic's publication is that anti-gay hate speech is not tolerated at Notre Dame. Students told the media
the cartoon was "offensive" and "unacceptable." A student group launched a petition
asking the administration to add sexual orientation to the university's non-discrimination clause. (It's not listed currently, and administrators have referred to Notre Dame's position as a Catholic institution as the key reason why.) Students and faculty have voiced their opinions in letters to the editor of the campus newspaper. A week after the comic was printed, a rally was held
on campus in support of the LGBT community at Notre Dame. All of which make clear that faculty, staff and students will not tolerate anti-gay actions or commentary like that of the Jan. 13 cartoon.
What's less clear, though, is what action will be taken by the administration in the aftermath of the controversy. (To their credit, officials condemned the cartoon in a press release shortly after it was published.) But administrators now have a number of major decisions to make. When the petition drive ends sometime in March, it will be presented to the university president, the Rev. John Jenkins, and student organizers will ask him to amend the non-discrimination clause to include sexual orientation. They'll note that dozens of other Catholic universities have done so. If Jenkins responds as he has in years past (the petition has become an annual occurrence, although it's generated more attention this year), he will pledge to work to improve any perceived intolerance of LGBT community members, but the clause won't change.
The administration also has another decision to make on the issue when it decides whether or not to approve a campus Gay-Straight Alliance. Notre Dame has never had an officially recognized club of this type, although an unofficial group has existed since the '90s, and it has applied for official club status
almost every year. A decision will likely come in April, but if administrators again stick to their guns, they'll say a university-run committee called the Core Council for Gay and Lesbian Students already fulfills the role of a student club in supporting LGBT students.
It's difficult to predict whether the attention generated by the comic strip controversy will cause administrators to change course on these issues. I'd argue they must choose to do something -- whether it's approving a GSA, amending the non-discrimination clause, or some other concrete action.
Part of the concern is that Notre Dame's reputation has been damaged by this controversy at a time when the nation is finally shifting on high-profile LGBT issues. Officials have already begun to deliver policy change to match public opinion
on such issues as the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. While the public remains opposed to gay marriage (41 percent approved, 49 percent disapproved in a fall 2009 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll
), the issue is at least up for debate in states across the country. The more our culture comes to accept such changes, the less an unchanging institution like Notre Dame will be viewed favorably when it comes to these matters.
Another issue at stake is that Notre Dame is often seen as a proxy for the Catholic Church, and while that's an oversimplification, that perception is a burden the school bears as the only Catholic institution among the top 20 U.S. universities. The school's actions are often taken to reflect the views of U.S. bishops, or even the Vatican. Arguments have been made that Catholicism is not accepting of the LGBT community, but church teaching in this area is far more complex than most acknowledge.
In short, both the church and the university have a long way to go to overcome stereotypes about their positions. But I also worry that the opinion of the student body and faculty won't be reflected in the actions of the administration. The university's Student Senate voted last month to amend the non-discrimination clause, as has the Faculty Senate in the past. The petition last year
gathered over 2,500 signatures (more than a quarter of the undergraduate population) and this year's petition
is on pace to surpass that number. The rally held last month was described to me as "unprecedented" by a local newspaper reporter who's covered Notre Dame for many years. All of which would signal that the majority of the population is asking for change, and waiting for administrators to deliver.
If Adm. Mike Mullen, a conservative Catholic, can stand in front of a Senate committee and recommend repealing "don't ask, don't tell," perhaps such a change can also be achieved at a place like Notre Dame.