Paul Burke ’98 had a quintessential Notre Dame undergraduate experience: He was vice president of his freshman class, a cheerleader, a resident assistant and a campus tour guide. He dated women and had an active social life.
“I had a very typical, Notre Dame, heteronormative experience, and really enjoyed it,” says Burke, a marketing professional who lives near Philadelphia. He didn’t pay attention to the campus discussions about Notre Dame’s atmosphere for gay and lesbian students and whether there should be a recognized student group to represent their needs. “I wasn’t out to myself, so I certainly wasn’t out to others,” says Burke, who realized in his mid-20s that he was gay. He came out to his extended family and friends at age 30.
Since early 2020, Burke has chaired Gay and Lesbian Alumni of Notre Dame/Saint Mary’s College (GALA-ND/SMC), a group numbering 1,600 members that has existed formally since 1994 but isn’t officially affiliated with the University.
This past June the Notre Dame Alumni Association announced the creation of the Alumni Rainbow Community of Notre Dame (ARC ND), a group dedicated to bringing together lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning alumni and their friends. It will launch in January 2022, joining the Alumni Association’s roster of groups that provide alumni with opportunities to connect in community. As a result, GALA members plan to vote whether to dissolve their organization once ARC ND is official.
Burke says the news of ARC ND’s creation, after so many years of expecting it would never happen, took some GALA members by surprise. “GALA has wanted to have a conversation with the University since its inception. GALA has always wanted to not exist. The members always wanted a University-sanctioned group,” he says.
As an extension of the Alumni Association, ARC ND is intended to strengthen the bonds of Notre Dame graduates to the University and to one another. “The association seeks to welcome all alumni and friends into an inclusive and supportive group, to recognize the God-given human dignity of all people, and to stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ community,” the University said in announcing the news.
In 2019, the association created an ad hoc task force to explore how to engage more effectively with LGBTQ alumni. The ARC ND announcement came after more than a year of online meetings and collaboration with GALA-ND/SMC representatives to incorporate that group’s mission into the Alumni Association’s affinity groups structure. Burke was a member of the task force and will serve as the inaugural ARC ND chair.
Affinity groups funded and supervised by the Alumni Association also include ND Women Connect, Notre Dame Senior Alumni, YoungND, the Diversity Council, Asian Pacific Alumni of Notre Dame, Black Alumni of Notre Dame, Hispanic Alumni of Notre Dame and Native American Alumni of Notre Dame. Dolly Duffy ’84, executive director of the Alumni Association and associate vice president for University relations, says more substantive information will emerge after ARC ND forms next year.
As early as 1991, Notre Dame graduates were making fledgling efforts to establish a group to represent gay and lesbian alumni. The University and the Alumni Association at the time weren’t receptive to the idea, so GALA was created independent of the University.
The group’s first alumni reunion took place in June 1994 at Kamm Island in Mishawaka, Indiana, because GALA wasn’t permitted to gather or host events on campus. Tom Zahn ’67, one of the early GALA organizers, attended that inaugural event.
Zahn, who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, says he knew before he entered kindergarten that he was different from most other boys, but same-sex attractions simply weren’t discussed in that era. The feeling held true during his undergraduate years. He joined the Glee Club and dated a woman who attended Saint Mary’s College.
After graduating and moving to Minnesota, Zahn got to know some gay men. “I became friends with a whole group and made it much easier for me to come out at that point,” he recalls. He revealed his sexual orientation to family and friends in his late 20s.
By then he had cut most ties to the University. “In my 20s, I had all these accepting friends in Minnesota and all this ambiguity behind me at Notre Dame,” he says.
Zahn says he felt a powerful need to bring the different components of his life together, including his identity as a gay man and his love for his alma mater. “I was dealt this hand at Notre Dame that we were all a big family and all this stuff, but we aren’t being treated that way,” he remembers thinking.
He recalls visiting a gay friend who was attending graduate school at Notre Dame in 1991. They sat on the back porch of the man’s rental house in South Bend and talked for hours about the need for an alumni group accepting of gay and lesbian Notre Dame graduates. That was the origin of GALA.
Early members of GALA were highly political, Zahn says. Members spoke out, for example, on behalf of a not-officially-recognized LGBTQ student group when it encountered restrictions and barriers imposed by the University.
Since 2013, Notre Dame has recognized PrismND as its first official LGBTQ undergraduate student organization. The group is dedicated to fostering community among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and their friends. It hosts activities from weekly meetings to an annual Stand Against Hate Week.
Zahn was active in GALA for a long time, although not as much in recent years. He admits some skepticism when he heard about ARC ND and hopes the new organization will maintain the community service, awards and scholarships GALA provides.
Growing up, “Gay to me was something very bad,” says Lisa Karle ’85, a former GALA board secretary who lives and works in South Bend. “The Catholic guilt, especially once I got to college, was very hard.”
Karle knew she was a lesbian by the time she was a college junior, but she didn’t come out to family and friends until after graduation. She was terrified her family would reject her. The coming out process was rocky, but she remains close to her parents and other family members.
“My Notre Dame friends are all from GALA,” she says. “We wanted to have a group where we could support each other, because we didn’t feel any support from the University.”
Karle says she will join ARC ND and be watching its development closely. “I’m grateful for it. I have a wait-and-see attitude,” she says. “There is some lingering cynicism as to whether we will be treated equally.”
She credits GALA’s creation and all of its efforts through the years to a love of Notre Dame. “We always wanted to make things better, even during the times it was adversarial,” she says.
Many LGBTQ alumni say circumstances have changed for the better, with growing social acceptance and same-sex marriage legal across the United States since 2015.
Burke lives with his boyfriend, a pediatrician from Ireland, and is active in his Catholic parish. The couple are foster parents, currently caring for a 3-year-old child. “And my [extended] family,” he says, “could not be more supportive.”
He says his home life is like that of countless other American families. “Another part of the LGBTQ story is, as soon as somebody comes out and all these stereotypes are dispelled, you find out that you’re more the same than different.”
Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine.