Notre Dame's Point Person

Author: Ed Cohen

The name in the directory is Sister Mary Louise Gude, CSC, (pronounced “goody”) but students and colleagues alike call her “ML.” She has lived in student residence halls for 21 years and joined the Office of Student Affairs in 1998—the same year, she recalls, “that the Progressive Student Alliance was campaigning for sexual orientation to be included in the University’s nondiscrimination clause.” In addition to other duties, ML is Notre Dame’s central liaison with homosexual students and is chairperson of the University’s Standing Committee for Gay and Lesbian Student Needs. Near the end of this school year she sat to talk:

ND Magazine: So you’re the person trying to make Notre Dame a warm and welcoming place for gay students while making sure the University abides by Catholic teaching. While we might not say this puts you between a rock and a hard place . . .

ML: I would. No matter what I do somebody’s mad at me. I just can’t please everybody. And people do call.

NDM: That’s hard.

ML: Well, we have great tension here. On the one hand, the University really strives to affirm church teachings on sexuality. On the other hand, we know by church doctrine that we are all loved by God. Students here go through a hard time coming to terms with their sexual- and self-identity, but we have an obligation to do all we can to be in accordance with church teaching and respond to their needs. The kids get this. They know this better than anyone else because they experience it themselves. It’s a great definition of a dilemma.

NDM: No easy answers.

ML: A student came in the other day, a young man who’s come out, a really good, bright kid. He’s been grappling with the church teachings about sexuality. In a class he’d also heard about the concept—"the primacy of the conscience"— and I told him, “It’s not just a license to do anything. Maybe you could come back, and I’ll talk to you some more.”

NDM: So much of the church’s teaching on this issue does come down to sex.

ML: That is the crux of the matter. But so many Catholics don’t get it, don’t make the distinction between homosexuality and sex. Many good Catholics think homosexuality is co-terminus with sexual relations—that being gay is only about sex and that gays think about sex all the time. But it’s only part of who they are.

NDM: But things are different here?

ML: I think so. Back in ‘98, it was not great. Some of the gay and lesbian issues were out in the open, they were on the radar, but I don’t think things were very good. Rectors weren’t as comfortable as they are now. Things were just not as out in the open as they are now.

NDM: What’s changed?

ML: The larger society has changed around us. More kids have come out in high school and the efforts in high school have helped. But we do get some credit, too, for our educational efforts and special sessions with RAs. We have gay kids say that when they come out to an RA or rector now, that person was good to them. And many of the kids coming out seem perfectly at home with themselves. Right now it’s a minority of the students who say they did not know a gay student in high school. That’s a big change. This generation of young people is much more comfortable with this issue.

NDM: So how would you describe what it’s like for gay students at Notre Dame today?

ML: It’s improved a lot. The gay students who come out say it’s easier to be out than closeted. They say that Notre Dame students are basically good, kind people and will not make disparaging remarks if they know you’re gay. If they don’t know, you probably will hear those remarks. Most of them tell me the students are fine, it’s the administration that’s the problem.

NDM: You probably hear that a lot, about a lot of different things.

ML: Well, we’ve been through a lot. The first gay revolution, then AIDS. The uproar over recognition in February 1995, the Ad Hoc Committee in ‘96 and ’97, then the Standing Committee work in ’97, ’98. The discrimination clause. Where we are now. It’s all prepared the way. Now people just want to live their lives. They want to live it with a partner. So many people out there are just ordinary folks. One thing I’ve learned is the incredible variety—where people are now on the issues, what they hope for. They run the gamut. That’s just been a revelation for me.