I’d returned to Notre Dame for the wedding of Ryan* and Megan, an event which already stirred the old notion that, yes, time moves forward. I walked with a group of fellow 2006 graduates, unable to believe how much campus had expanded since my college years. At 25 years old, we quipped about our advanced age and the way things change.
I was struck by the disappearance of Juniper Road, a thoroughfare whose name, even in its heyday, seemed nostalgic. Juniper Road, where I walked in the dead of winter with Lisa from Brownsville, Texas. Where she shoved her hands in her pockets and looked at the thin Converse shoes on feet. “They told me I shouldn’t bring my Chucks here,” she grimaced, “that I’d freeze to death in Indiana.”
Juniper Road, where I’d driven my green Jeep to a party north of campus. Where, as the car passed a huddle of Frosh-O students, my friend Hannah had leaned out the window and yelled, “God loves you even if you’re gay!” Where I, 21 years old and with one foot out of the closet, had felt embarrassed and exhilarated. All that on Juniper Road.
Throughout the wedding reception, I kept thinking about Juniper Road — gone, but where to? Now I wonder if my preoccupation with the absence one small physical aspect of Notre Dame was a smokescreen. In 2002, I entered Notre Dame as an all-American girl, having decided on a college where everyone was just like me. After graduation, I fell in love with a woman and moved to Washington, D.C., to be with her. On the afternoon of Ryan and Megan’s wedding, my home was Portland, Oregon, where I lived as an out lesbian, once again surrounded by people who were just like me.
Juniper Road was gone. Nancy Powaga, the ostensibly straight, Notre Dame girl was long gone. When I told people in Portland that I’d gone to Notre Dame, they gave me looks at once shocked and impressed, as though I had said that I’d attended college on the moon. “What was that like?” they’d ask, meaning, how could I, a visible lesbian, have gone to a conservative Catholic college?
I’d tell them that oh, it wasn’t so bad. I loved my friends. I had a good time, tailgating and football. I studied for a year in Austria. I was an English major, I’d say, and we still read plenty of queer stuff, outsider literature and all that. It wasn’t so strange at the time.
In the ’60s, my father lived in Sorin Hall. I was born white, upper-middle class, Minnesotan. I wore my maroon jumper each day to St. Hubert’s Catholic School. In 1993, my older brother Steve cried when Boston College knocked out the No. 1 Irish with a field goal. Six years later, I visited Steve in Keogh Hall and, surrounded by young men and women whom I adored, decided I wanted to go to Notre Dame, too.
I still want to defend Notre Dame to skeptics, even though I, too, cannot imagine my contemporary self at the school. I just get frustrated when others, especially people who didn’t even go there, try to characterize the university as one thing or another. Who knows Notre Dame best? Catholics? Progressives? Me?
The fall of my junior year, my friends and I drove to Tennessee to watch the Irish play the Vols. The scene around Tennessee stadium as game time approached was madness. An objective outsider (I was not) might have figured that Knoxville’s drinking water had been spiked with whiskey. Drunks skipped and stumbled, flirted and screamed. One such person, a male Tennessee student about my age, pointed at me and shouted across the swirl, “Look! A lesbian!”
By summer, the frat boy’s prophecy had come true, and I had a girlfriend, Amy. It was late July in South Bend. We headed out with a bunch of Amy’s friends to Club 23, another of my favorite spots since fallen to the bulldozer. Amy’s crew, which included another of Notre Dame’s rare lesbian couples, was decidedly less mainstream than my normal crowd.
I still clung to the idea that I was bisexual at that time because, simply put, it made my life much easier to lean on that definition. Well into the evening, the louder half of the rare lesbian couple looked at me and said, “I’m sorry, honey, but you are such a lesbian.”
That fall, I tearfully came out to my three roommates on our torn couch in Lafayette Square Townhomes. They were loving and protective, but others were not. Rumors flew. Our friend Anthony was especially put off. One night, he cornered Megan and asked, “How can you live with Nancy now that she’s a lesbian?”
Just last year in Arizona, I pulled into a 7-Eleven to buy a Diet Coke. When I returned to my car, someone had scrawled “FAGGOT” across my dusty hood. I hightailed out of there, checking my rearview mirror the whole way home.
My entire gay life, other people have felt compelled to speak for me. Now, I’ll tell you what I know. On the campus of Notre Dame, heterosexuality is solid. Single-sex dorms and marriages in the Basilica so frequent that the aisle could be a conveyer belt. Little boys in football jerseys and little girls in cheerleading skirts. God above. Future generations within.
Homosexuality is a shadow. In class, we read James Baldwin and Gertrude Stein. We spoke of desire, we thought about desire, but those among us who acted on homosexual desire were cast out by the administration. Even today, the Notre Dame family does not include sexual orientation under its nondiscrimination policy. Faith is one thing, denial is another, and things get ugly when the two bleed together. Still, Notre Dame is my school, my growing up, my coming out, my coming into love.
Amy’s house on North Saint Peter Street in South Bend was terribly rundown. Notre Dame’s alternative crowd — the WVFI radio people, the punks, the liberals, the queers — flocked to the house. On weekends, Amy and her roommates threw wild parties. We nearly destroyed the already decrepit place. I remember paranoid Amy, clutching a red Solo cup, standing in the kitchen doorway just in case the walls crumbled.
During the week, the house was much quieter. Mornings, I woke up in Amy’s bedroom to blaring sun. I’d always drive back to that student parking lot off of Juniper Road at the crack of dawn, afraid that my friends would notice me missing from my single room in Cavanaugh Hall. I imagined them asking me who I was hooking up with, prying me and pestering me. I couldn’t tell them that I was in love with a woman. Not yet.
But I felt so exhilarated in the bedroom’s sunlight. No shadows on the second floor of St. Pete’s Street. One early morning, I told Amy I didn’t want to tell my friends or my family, ever. She said I didn’t need to tell anyone I didn’t want to tell. So I pulled on my jeans and drove back to a campus where I didn’t have to speak, where others would speak for me, where I could walk in the safe shadows of other people.
*Names have been changed.
This essay received honorable mention in this magazine’s 2013 Young Alumni Essay contest. To see the winners, visit magazine.nd.edu/news/45034/.