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Gay Students Plan Protest at Notre Dame

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As a sister school of the University of Notre Dame, the all-women's Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind., shares many activities with its powerhouse neighbor, from social exchanges to Catholic identity to political club memberships.

One thing the separate institutions do not share, however, is equal recognition and protections for LGBT students, faculty members, and administrators.

An informal grouping of four students from both schools hopes to change that with a protest at Notre Dame on Wednesday morning.

The action arrives in the wake of outrage over an antigay editorial cartoon that appeared in the independent student-run newspaper, The Observer, on January 13. The cartoon called a baseball bat the "quickest way to turn a fruit into a vegetable." The newspaper staff apologized for its publication, and the university president denounced it.

Laurel Javors, vice president of the Straight and Gay Alliance at Saint Mary's, says the insulting cartoon sparked the latest push in the decade-long effort to establish a gay-straight alliance at Notre Dame and to include LGBT students and staff in the university's nondiscrimination policy. (Notre Dame's policy does not explicitly include sexual orientation, while Saint Mary's does.)

"The comic was really the way of saying, 'This is why we need a student group," said the junior social work major, who serves as a liaison on LGBT issues between the two campuses. "Language like this is so pervasive, and having no legal protections from the university makes Notre Dame a less desirable place for a professor or student interested in becoming part of the school."

Notre Dame, a Catholic institution affiliated with the conservative Congregation of the Holy Cross, stands out among elite American universities because it lacks a student-run gay group and an inclusive non-discrimination policy. Jesuit colleges such as Boston College and Georgetown, which are generally considered more progressive on the issue, have gay-straight alliances and inclusive non-discrimination policies in place.

In contrast, Notre Dame abides by the Spirit of Inclusion, a formal statement adopted in response to student agitation for gay rights in 1997. The statement appears in du Lac, the university guide to student life. Reverend John I. Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, invoked the Spirit of Inclusion in a letter that denounced this month's antigay cartoon.

"We prize the uniqueness of all persons as God's creatures' and welcome 'all people, regardless of color, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social or economic class, and nationality,'" said Jenkins.

"Further, 'we value gay and lesbian members of this community as we value all members of this community. We condemn harassment of any kind' and 'we consciously create an environment of mutual respect, hospitality and warmth in which none are strangers and all may flourish.'"

Critics like Javors say that the sentiments fall short of a real non-discrimination policy.

Planners of Wednesday's demonstration are also calling for the creation of a student-run LGBT group, in which at least 50 students have privately expressed interest. They believe the current university-approved group, the elected Core Council for Gay and Lesbian Students, does not adequately serve the small community of gay students, some of whom remain deeply closeted on campus.

"In order to be in Core Council, you need to be out," said Javors, who identifies as queer and lesbian. "And not everyone is out. People are still afraid. We need our own club to offer support, but we can't even get funding or meet as a group because of group sanctions from student activities. It's a bitter cycle."

Those frustrations also apply to planning for the demonstration, for which organizers have relied on social networking because their unofficial group is barred from on-campus advertising. The GLBT Resource Center of Michiana in the nearby town of South Bend has offered help, in addition to the encouragement from supportive faculty members.

The demonstration is scheduled to begin at noon on Wednesday outside the gates of Notre Dame. Participants are expected to stand in silence, with tape covering their mouths similar to the NOH8 campaign, to represent the dearth of productive conversation about LGBT issues on campus.

Javors, a Catholic by birth who recently converted to the Episcopal Church, said the organizers hope not to provoke Catholics, but to show that religion and equality are compatible.

"If the biggest name in Catholic universities, the most conservative Catholic university, can accept and take in a healthy discussion, then it opens the door for a lot more gay Catholics to come out and realize that they are equal in the eyes of God," she said.

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