I chatted nervously with my friends sitting at the table. I didn’t want to face front. I had scanned the crowd—inconspicuously, I hoped—from the side of the room. I saw a lot of faces I knew. Okay, just breathe. No big deal. You knew what you were getting into when you filled out that application. Now you have to take up that responsibility. Hey, it’s easier this way, right? Get it all done at once.
Then I was introduced, and my stomach fell, like on a really fast elevator. I got up, approached the podium and said, “My name is Rose. I am the oldest of five children. I am from sunny southern California. I speak French. I am bisexual. I am really nervous.”
This was August 2003. I was a member of the Standing Committee for Gay and Lesbian Students Needs, giving a talk to the new resident assistants (RAs). My family had driven with me to Notre Dame for my senior year and helped me move into my off-campus house. The night before the presentation, I sat down with my mom and dad at the Grotto and told them I was going to be giving a talk to the RAs about being gay/bisexual at Notre Dame.
It was the first time I told my dad.
He didn’t really respond at all. But the next day, when they were leaving, my dad asked me how the talk went and then grabbed me in a big bear hug and told me he loved me.
I am 21 years old. I have known that I liked girls since about 10th grade. I hid my feelings for a long time. The summer before my sophomore year of high school, I went on vacation with three friends. One night one of the girls told us she was bisexual. I didn’t know what she meant. When she explained that she was attracted to both men and women, I was astonished. I didn’t know that there could be an “in between” like that. I had thought that since I like boys, it was really weird that I also had feelings for some girls. When I realized it was possible, I felt liberated. I wasn’t just some freak; there were other people like me.
Throughout high school, I was very image-conscious. I was the oldest child, straight-A student, good Catholic girl, over-involved in activities. It was a hard image to maintain. My parents never pushed me; they loved me as I was. Something inside me made me push myself.
I chose to attend Notre Dame partly because I wanted an environment where I could learn how to fit that narrow good-girl stereotype even more. I hoped being at Notre Dame would help me to get over my feelings for other women. I wanted to become a strict Catholic who would start a great career, find a wonderful man to marry and have children with.
More important, I came because of the sense of community— the Notre Dame family that goes beyond the time we spend on campus. My local alumni club called several times during my decision process, offered me a scholarship, and made me feel welcomed and valuable. They were the deciding factor in my choosing Notre Dame. I was impressed by their connection to the University and their positive experience.
It was hard to talk about relationships when I gave a more in-depth presentation for Network, a smaller, more intensive presentation/discussion with RAs, administrators and other interested people. I have been in only one homosexual relationship, so I don’t feel I have enough experience to talk about the breadth of such relationships. It is hard to be the voice for a huge group of people. I constantly worry about misrepresenting or stereotyping gay students.
My experience is exactly that—my experience. Just as it is impossible to characterize what a heterosexual person is like, it is impossible to say what a homosexual person is like. But I have had to try to do just that for the past year, ever since coming out to the entire group of RAs and rectors in August 2003. I am the living, walking, breathing gay person.
It has not been easy.
My friends often say that it is easier to be out at Notre Dame than be “in the closet” because Notre Dame students are generally considerate. If they know that a section mate is homosexual, they make fewer homophobic remarks around that person. At the same time, being out at Notre Dame can be difficult. Once a student comes out, she is expected to be willing to be vocal for the group. To be gay at Notre Dame, I had to be an activist.
It was the first sunny day of the spring of my freshman year. Even though I had a ton of work to do, like always, I ran outside with my section mates to play some Frisbee on the quad. I’m not good at Frisbee—can’t throw, can’t catch. The one thing I’m good at is diving for the Frisbee, heedless of my own bodily safety. Of course, I still rarely catch it.
During my crazy dives, I kept running into Kalli, who lived in another section. We both went for the Frisbee, knocked into each other and ended up rolling on the grass, neither of us catching it. Kalli extended her hand to help me up, I grabbed and pulled her down. We laughed a lot. Kalli smiled at me a lot. She has a great smile.
Kalli and I decided to stay over Easter break. It was only four days, not enough time to go home and return. Plus, I had a lot of work. With no one else around, Kalli and I spent time together alone. She told me I was beautiful. We walked around campus and held hands when we were sure no one was looking. One time, her roommate walked in while we were watching a movie. Kalli had her arm around my shoulders. Her roommate immediately walked out.
That was when the rumors started. Our friends were more wary around us. Jess, one of my closest friends, started getting uncomfortable when we would exchange backrubs around the section. She joked about getting “a little too close.” The looks she gave me made me feel like I was not welcome in her room anymore. So I stopped visiting.
One night when Kalli came downstairs to check her e-mail on my computer, I locked my door because I wanted to talk to her alone. When Jess tried to get in without knocking, I had to unlock the door to let her in. She wouldn’t come in, just said, “Ummm, we’re going to Lafortune, what are you two doing?”
Kalli left to go with them. I sat down and cried. I needed to talk to someone about Kalli, but I could not tell anyone about our relationship. It was the first time I had really liked a woman. I didn’t think I could talk to my mom. And going by the reactions I had already faced just because of the rumors, I knew I could not talk to my friends.
Kalli was lucky, she could at least talk to her sister. I only had Kalli. I felt so alone
During the first month of my sophomore year in France, I met another international student, Sean. The second night I saw him, Sean was drunk. He told me he was gay. I was the first person in all of France that he had told. I confided in him that I was bisexual. We hung out all night.
The next night, one of my Italian classmates, Nicola, started dancing and flirting with me. When I returned to the table of Notre Dame kids, my friend Brigit said, “I can’t believe Nicola started dancing with you. Do you think she’s gay?” She whispered the last word, almost like it was something forbidden. I tried to laugh it off but squirmed internally.
I came back to school early to start my junior year because I was singing with the Notre Dame Chorale at the opening Mass. Kalli was already there because of band camp. When I saw her, I realized my feelings for her were still strong. We had corresponded while I was gone, but I tried to distance myself a little because I didn’t want the double stress of having a long-distance relationship that I still felt I had to keep secret.
A few days later, I had a talk with my roommate, Elizabeth. She is an amazing and loving person. I wanted to tell her about my sexual orientation but didn’t know how to bring it up. So I brought up rules about the room—stuff the RAs always tell you to talk about when you’re a freshman, like sleeping hours, how long we can have guests over, and things like that. When we were talking about guests, Elizabeth said, “I don’t have a boyfriend, so I’m not really worried about breaking parietals or anything. Do you have one?”
“Well, no, but . . .”
“Ooooh! Who is it?”
“Well, actually, it’s Kalli, like Kalli who lives down the hall.”
“Oh! Really? I had no idea! That’s really cute!”
“You’re okay with that?”
Elizabeth was sweet. She was surprised that I had not told her before and worried that I had been afraid to tell her. Everything was fine for a few weeks.
When Kalli and I became more open with our relationship, just among our friends in the section, I noticed things starting to get bad again. Kalli had told several of our mutual friends about us while I was in France, so I was not really sure who did and didn’t know.
One night I was hanging out with two girls from Kalli’s quad. We were looking at a couple of magazines. One of the girls, Lauren, who is openly lesbian, was talking about how hot some of the girls were. I didn’t say anything because the other girl in the room did not know about my relationship with Kalli. When Lauren bluntly asked me, “So do you like girls in general, or is it just Kalli?” my stomach dropped. I’m sure I blushed profusely and I could not look either of them in the eye when I said, “No, I’ve liked girls before Kalli, but I usually think that I’m bisexual.”
Even though I found out later that the third girl had known for a couple days already, it still felt like I was being forced to out myself. I have tried countless times to explain the importance of the coming out process. Heterosexuals don’t feel that they need to openly state their sexuality because heterosexuality is assumed. It is a part of their identity that they have easily and frequently expressed from childhood. On the other hand, homosexuals have not been able to admit, much less express their sexuality. Although the age of coming out is sooner—many young people come out in high school now— it is still much later than heterosexual identification, which usually emerges at puberty.
Because our society assumes heterosexuality, visually portrayed in the media as typical sex appeal and relationships, homosexuals need to publicly acknowledge their sexuality in order to break out of assumptions. This process of coming out is often a difficult, even painful time of life, because the homosexual person faces and often experiences the rejection of parents or friends at a time when he or she most needs their support.
Although the reactions to my coming out have been mostly positive, I found a distinct difference between people’s theoretical acceptance of my sexuality and the manifestations of it.
While I was in France, Kalli told our mutual friend Jess about our relationship. The revelation did not affect their friendship at all. However, when I came back to school and Kalli and I resumed our relationship, I noticed a change. Although Jess could accept homosexuality in theory, once she was confronted with a homosexual relationship between two of her friends she found it much harder to be accepting. Her discomfort unfortunately is not unique.
During my junior year of college, buried in work and theater activities, I had been letting my emotions fester inside of me, eating Tums like candy as my stomach churned with stress. I had never gone to the OutreachND meetings for gay students because I didn’t want to give my e-mail address to the co-chairs. It is through e-mails that members learn about meeting times, because the organization is not a recognized student group.
I finally found a sort of community when I went on the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Retreat sponsored by Campus Ministry early in the spring semester. It was a big step for me to turn in that $20 check and head out to the retreat center. It was the first time I had met a lot of the people in the gay community. I finally met people I could talk to about my feelings. It was an amazing relief, and I began to feel much happier.
At the retreat I picked up an application for the Standing Committee for Gay and Lesbian Student Needs. On the final day to turn it in I ran up to the third floor of the Main Building. I had been putting off turning in the application because I knew that I would have to hand it in in person. I was scared to even let the secretary know I was gay.
To my great fortune, I was selected to join the Standing Committee for the 2003–04 school year. The Standing Committee is a group of six intelligent and active gay students, the chairperson, Sister M.L. Gude, CSC, and a varying number of administrators/religious who sit in on the meetings and contribute their viewpoints and their resources. It is not enough.
Over the years, the Standing Committee has taken on more responsibilities at the University. This year, the student members gave presentations to the freshmen at 17 of the 27 residence halls. Because we do not have enough resources or time to cover all of the dorms, we have to evaluate which halls most need our education program, called CommUnity. We focus on residences with a large number of freshmen, dorms with a history of homophobia and/or incidents of harassment of homosexuals, and men’s halls. Men’s halls tend to be less accepting of homosexuality in general.
In the single-sex dorm environment at Notre Dame, residents must be both physically and emotionally comfortable with each other. When homophobia is rampant, it is difficult to support one another—a simple backrub to ease somebody’s mind when they’re stressed becomes a sexual act. Homophobia is often rooted in, or at least related to, an overemphasis on sex and sexuality. Homophobic persons are often scared that they will be seen as sexual objects by the homosexual person and therefore try to assert their dominance. Occasionally this assertion is violent, whether overtly or through passive-aggressive tactics. I have friends who have received nasty notes, who have been taunted while showering, who have overheard words like “fag” and “gay” used to mean “disgusting” and “stupid.”
When I give presentations to the RAs, they always ask me what they can do to make homosexual students feel more comfortable. I recommend that they talk about homosexuality; do not let it be an unspoken issue. When RAs gather the section together to talk about the rules of parietals, quiet hours and drinking, they also should talk about the rules of respect for those of all races, classes, cultures, sexual orientation and gender. An RA needs to say that words like “fag” will not be tolerated. The RA also needs to enforce that policy by reprimanding those students who use derogatory words. Even a simple thing like language can change the environment a homosexual student experiences.
I have often felt like I am not part of the Notre Dame family. When I had to hide my sexuality for fear of being ostracized by the women I considered my closest friends, I did not feel part of a community. When students and faculty disregard my views on morality because I am not Catholic, I am excluded from the Notre Dame family. When the freshman orientation activities revolve around meeting people of the opposite sex and performing suggestive dances for them, I do not feel comfortable with my position in the community. When I hear homosexuality compared to anorexia because both are “objectively disordered,” I feel judged and condemned.
On the other hand, when I overhear an RA asking a girl why she used the word “gay” when she actually meant “stupid” or when I see 2,000 people wearing the “Gay? Fine by Me” shirt, I feel that people welcome me into the Notre Dame community. It is often the smallest and most easily implemented things that make the biggest difference in quality of life for a homosexual student at Notre Dame.
This spring semester, at a twice-yearly pizza party with a few members of my local alumni group, the organizer asked me to get her one of the “Gay? Fine by Me” shirts. She was excited to see the creation of a gay-straight alliance and to see how widely supported their “Orange Shirt Campaign” was. I was impressed and touched by her simultaneous support for the University and the Gay-Straight Alliance. After a year of being told that the alumni were “the problem” (the reason why the administration could not or was not willing to change its policy on gay student groups, and receiving e-mails that supported that claim), I was elated to meet someone who loved Notre Dame enough that she wanted it to evolve and become a better academic and social institution.
This has been a particularly important year in the relationship between the administration and the student body regarding homosexual issues. Because I was the crossover officer this year, by which I mean I was on both the Standing Committee and, yes, an officer in OutreachND, I was involved in many of the projects. Outreach brings together the gay students from Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross. Its weekly meetings rotate in format—social, support and business. Social meetings can range from going bowling together to gluing thousands of rainbow ribbons on the Solidarity Sunday cards. Support meetings are confidential meetings where we have open discussions on such topics as coming out to our family, finding a family at Notre Dame, or the possibility of raising a family within a homosexual relationship. During our rare business meetings we discuss how best to use our funding from GALA, the gay and lesbian alumni association, and hold our annual elections.
This past fall Outreach successfully co-sponsored the first transgendered speaker at the University. I had never thought about transgender issues, so the opportunity to meet an activist and hear that story was eye-opening. It reminded me yet again how important diversity is to education, if only to shock people into looking at the world from a different angle.
The next big event was the Queer Film Festival, a program held in February and headed by a member of the Standing Committee and funded and co-sponsored by several academic departments. The attendance, both from the Notre Dame family and the surrounding community, was phenomenal. Several alumni expressed their joy at being able to come to Notre Dame for such a ground-breaking event, especially considering how ostracized they had felt before. Liam Dacey, a senior this past year and chair of the festival, called it “an unprecedented event normalizing the existence of gay students on this campus and offering to the entire community the opportunity to enjoy and study the extraordinary accomplishments of gay cinema artists in the United States.” He said he hoped it would “do more than anything before in Notre Dame history to create support for gays and lesbians, and bring the community together to celebrate diversity on our campus and beyond.”
The “Gay? Fine by Me” T-shirt campaign put together by the emerging Gay-Straight Alliance sought to be an easy, nonviolent way to make the University aware of the support for homosexual persons at Notre Dame. The T-shirt was intended to be non-confrontational, while at the same time highly visible (its bright orange color was hard to miss). More than 2,000 T-shirts were sold and worn on two days in the spring semester 2004. It was an amazing sea of orange. The T-shirt campaign proved to be an easy way to get Notre Dame students, infamous for their apathy, to show their support. Without going to any meetings or being called upon to argue, campaign or confront, students could use the T-shirt to say that they do not judge a person based on the person’s sexual orientation.
While each person wearing the shirt wore it for a different reason, I wore it as a call to the administration to make a bold, visible statement saying it will not judge a person based on his or her sexual orientation. I believe the University’s non-discrimination statement must include sexual orientation in order to prove Notre Dame’s commitment to Catholic social justice.
Rose Lingren will be working on a master’s degree in international politics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland next year.