The Rover’s Chris Damian sat down with Progressive Student Alliance co-president Alex Coccia to discuss LGBTQ issues at Notre Dame. This is the full transcript of their discussion.
September 7, 2012
Damian: Tell me about yourself. Why did you decide to come to Notre Dame, and what has your experience of Notre Dame been like?
Coccia: I’m a Africana and Peace Studies Major, Gender Studies minor. I came to Notre Dame for quite a few reasons. One, I’ve grown up part of the Notre Dame family, because my dad graduated from here in ‘72. I celebrated my first birthday here with a bunch of the alumni board. I knew Notre Dame, and it was familiar, and it seemed like a great place to be. Part of it was fencing, because I wanted to be on a competitive team. Frankly, all of the competitive coaches would talk about how, even though they were rivals with Notre Dame, the team itself was awesome. When I visited, that because clear, too. Actually, a very big part was undergraduate research, because Notre Dame and the other institution I was looking differ in the money they give for undergraduate research. I couldn’t find it at the other university. It may very well be there, but when I called Notre Dame and started looking, they were like, ‘Yeah, there’s CUSE, there’s Honors Program, there’s Nanovic, there’s Kroc, there’s Kellogg.’ I already knew I wanted to do undergraduate research, so that was a huge aspect for me. Those are probably the big reasons why I came.
How did you get involved in Progressive Student Alliance, and what is PSA?
PSA, Progressive Student Alliance, is an umbrella social justice group, started in the late ‘90’s. I think one of its first campaigns was a living wage campaign for on-campus workers. It was one of the many clubs I signed up for freshman year. Other clubs, like Peace Fellowship. I signed up for Orestes Brownson Council. I attended the meetings [of PSA]–Human Rights ND was another one that I attended for a while–and one of the things that stuck out to me was how passionate the seniors were in the group. They had been working both on living wage campaigns and LGBT inclusion for their entire four years, and they were very passionate and able to transfer that to some of the younger members. I thought what they were doing was absolutely right. Our freshman Scholastic issue had covered the No Home Under the Dome March, and the comic in the Observer. I was reading about that, and that’s when I started learning about certain Notre Dame policies about AllianceND and the non-discrimination clause, and that didn’t seem to sit necessarily right with me, so I wanted to learn a little more about it. After going to the club meetings, PSA seemed like the best one to sort of pursue changes like that.
What’s the difference between the 4-5 Movement and AllianceND?
Good question, unfortunately there’s been a lot of confusion. The 4-5 Movement is a particular initiative of Progressive Student Alliance. PSA is a recognized club, like I said, very broad social justice, but in the past has focused on one thing very strongly. The 4-5 Movement is PSA’s initiative, and, while one of its goals is to get recognition for AllianceND, which is the unrecognized gay-straight alliance on campus, that has members that exists but is just not recognized, that’s only one of the goals. The other goals involve getting allies on campus to speak up, doing events that promote an inclusive environment, and the third one is this recognition of AllianceND and then changes to the non-discrimination clause.
What is OutreachND? Is it related?
Outreach ND, I believe–I know what its purpose is, but I’m trying to figure out the history of it–I believe OutreachND is stemmed from GLNDSM, Gays and Lesbians of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, the club that applied for recognition in the 90’s. I believe it stemmed from that. It is unrecognized as solely a support group for gay and lesbian members. It’s similar in a sense to Alliance, but it doesn’t have the ally component. Right now, it’s not seeking recognition.
Are there specific rights that the 4-5 Movement is promoting and working for when it advocates gay rights? And what are these?
The statistic 4-5 comes from when PSA did a rally for diversity in March of 2011, where we brought Bryan Sims, who was the first openly gay college football captain, a very prominent out gay man. Currently, he is the first openly gay congressman in Pennsylvania. He was just elected to the position. He was a lawyer at the time when we invited him. He talked a lot about how allies were so important in his coming out experience and how allies are so important in everyday life, especially on a campus like Notre Dame. The information that he gave was that 4 out of 5 18- to 34-year-old that were college educated in the US are supportive of the general package of gay civil rights. The flipside of that statistic is that, when that same group is polled, they only think a third of their peers agree with them. So it’s an 80 percent majority that supports these rights. They only think they’re a 33 percent minority.
So what gay rights is he talking about? Well, he said it. He said specifically not including marriage. Freedom from discrimination in housing, in the workplace, in employment, public foundation, things like hate crimes bills, inheritance rights, these things that many, many people, regardless of the gay marriage question, believe are right to include. Those are the general rights that the 4-5 Movement name comes from. But what does that mean for us on campus, right? We don’t know if it’s 80 percent of the student body. We haven’t had any polls taken. But what the PSA officers recognized is that, guaranteed the dynamic is the same. There is a supportive majority, but they’re not vocal. In the past, even in the 90’s when the club recognition has come up or the non-discrimination has come up, you’d have pockets of Viewpoint wars or pockets of discussion. I don’t think before has it been in the mainstream conversation. So that was one of our goals, “Look we need to bring it to the forefront of the conversation, because we truly believe it’s a majority of allies. And being able to have them open up and speak out will automatically pave the way for a more open and inclusive environment.” That’s what it means on our campus, in terms of the gay rights issue.
How did you first get involved in working for gay rights, and why is it important to you?
Like I mentioned, the Scholastic article hit some kind of trigger in me. That sort of got me going and wanting me to get involved a little bit, not necessarily as the primary thing that I would do, but something to definitely consider working on. As I started working more and more on it, I was blessed because I was able to talk to people and hear about their experiences. That’s what keeps me going, the fact that I’ve had people come out to me, and I’ve had people tell me their experiences of not feeling included on campus or even at home, and because Notre Dame means so much to me, I want it to mean a lot to everybody. For those students who aren’t feeling welcome, that’s what keeps me going, trying to create an environment where they do feel comfortable.
How does the work of the 4-5 Movement AllianceND differ from the Core Council, and what would AllianceND provide that the Core Council currently does not?
The Core Council was created as a standing committee when GLNDSMC was denied in 1995. They created a standing committee for gay and lesbian student needs, basically as an advisory body of the students to the administration. Then in 2004 they made it into the permanent structure of the Core Council. The Core Council’s past events have been the community sessions that freshmen go to as sort of a sensitivity training, the Gold Room discussions which are open to allies as a discussion-based thing, coffee in the CoMo which I think is more of a support group-based initiative, and then the network ally training which RA’s have to go to and is now open to everybody. Everyone can attend if they wish, and that’s a 2-hour session that goes over psychological counseling and also spiritual counseling.
So is different between AllianceND and Core Council? Number one, Core Council has limited membership. It’s a group of 8-9 students, the majority of whom have to be openly gay. Then administrators, someone from something like Campus Ministry, someone from the GRC, and then from Student Affairs, that are in charge of all of this programming. AllianceND would have a much broader membership. It would also have a much broader leadership. And it would mean that you don’t have to be ‘out’ to be a leader. One of the great things about AllianceND is, while it could be very active, it doesn’t necessarily also carry a stigma with it. It’s a gay-straight alliance. People who are questioning should feel comfortable being able to enter into meetings. The meetings that are going on now with AllianceND, we’re not passing around a checklist and saying, “Which of these acronym letters are you?” It’s a place where people can come, feel it out, find out if they feel comfortable talking and opening up. Or if they’re allies and wanting to learn how to converse with people or address certain issues of homophobia or discrimination or harrassment, that’s extremely important. So that’s one difference.
It’s student-led, which is different from Core Council, because it [the Core Council] is an administrative and advisory body. It [AllianceND] doesn’t carry with it a sort of fear of the administration, which unfortunately exists, and when I’ve talked with a lot of upperclassmen about why they didn’t get involved in Core Council, it was either because they didn’t want to go to whatever events they were advertising, or they went to one and there was just a bad sense about it, or not a necessarily completely welcoming sense about it.
The other thing about Core Council versus Alliance, Core Council is very much stationary, which is good and is needed. The events that they do are very important. It’s very much a resource, and AllianceND could act as a resource as a peer-to-peer group. But it’s also very active and can be a mobile group. As a club it can do advertisements. It can take part in co-sponsorships with other student clubs and plan a bunch of different ideas and events, more so than what Core Council has, as a way to actively be going out into the community and keeping this in the mainstream conversation. One of the things is, once AllianceND is recognized, if it’s recognized, that doesn’t end the conversation. We think that AllianceND’s recognition is one of the more substantive means to a more inclusive environment, but it certainly doesn’t mean that, once recognized, the conversation ends. We have to keep the conversation going, and AllianceND would be a huge part of that and, as a club, practically equipped to do that.
What has the underground AllianceND done in the past, and what would change if it were to become an official organization?
As an unofficial organization, it can’t advertise. It technically can’t meet. It can’t go out and promote itself as the group doing events, so many of the meetings are discussion-based, covering a wide range of topics from allly involvement, to LGBT relations with family members, to bullying, homeless youth, discussions like that. Then there are of course planning of sort of hypothetical events. One of the biggest things that we’ve added to the application for Alliance this year, at the request of some people, was a service component. So AllianceND, if recognized, could advertise. It could do events on campus promoting itself, but it could also represent Notre Dame in a broader sense, going out into the South Bend community. I don’t know which high schools in the South Bend community have GSA’s or have QSA’s or organizations like that, but high school, as well as college, is an important time in self-discovery and how people discover their identity. AllianceND, because of Notre Dame’s reputation, could have an enormous impact on providing mentorship resources for students off campus, just like other clubs do, in going to a soup kitchen or, for example, athletic clubs, doing stuff off campus with people at the Martin Luther King center, stuff like that. That could have a really profound impact, but it would be very difficult for AllianceND to do that if it’s not recognized and can’t use Notre Dame resources. AllianceND has to rely on individual donations right now for funding.
Many are concerned that a GSA may be at odds with Notre Dame’s identity as a Catholic institution. Has the 4-5 Movement and the proposed GSA sought to respond to these concerns?
Absolutely. This question comes up a lot, and often it’s phrased like, “How do you reconcile a gay-straight alliance with Notre Dame’s Catholic identity?” My answer is, I don’t think they need to be reconciled, and I think a lot of people feel that way. We did take measures to address that in our application and in our constitution. It [the constitution] says that the mission of AllianceND is not to address issues that contradict Church teaching. In fact, it’s to further Notre Dame’s call to inclusiveness and Notre Dame’s call to creating a welcoming environment.
One of the interesting things is something we had over the summer. One of the 4-5 initiatives was having people write in, “Why a GSA is important to you.” We had 192 responses, some very short, some very long, some very basic, some very well thought out. About half of them had to do with, “I’m a devout Catholic, and I have problems with Notre Dame not having a recognized GSA. It’s flipping the framing of the question, saying we need to have it. The Catechism says that any form of unjust discrimination should be avoided, with regard to gays and lesbians, and we don’t see any problem with what a GSA would do. The service component, the building of community, those aspects in and of themselves are so integral to what makes Notre Dame great as a Catholic university. We should be able to put those into a club like a gay-straight alliance as well.
About how many times has the University denied the request to establish a GSA, and why do you think they have made this decision in the past?
The GSA in particular, I think, has been denied about four or five times. Applications for an LGBT-themed group have gone back to 1986, and that has been denied a lot more. That included GLNDSMC, which, as I mentioned, didn’t include the ally component. AllianceND has been denied for the past few years. The reason that Student Activities has given is that the structures on campus adequately meet the needs of the gay community, structures meaning a combination of Core Council, Gender Relations Center, Campus Ministry, and the Counseling Center. One thing that I think has become clear is, that’s not the case. My very basic thinking is that, if students are requesting this year after year as a means of recognition and as a means of making a more inclusive environment, who is to say they don’t know what they need, if they recognize it’s a very good thing to have on campus? But that was the reason given in the past, that the structures already meet the needs.
How would a GSA respond to issues brought by students at meetings and events that are in opposition to Church teaching?
Simply state, “This is not something that we address.” That would be something for another forum, or another group to deal with, in terms of allowing a place for that conversation, if it’s made clear that that’s not what Alliance’s purpose is. I don’t see any problem with being able to say that in the meetings.
Last year in one article in the Observer, one student said that “it wasn’t until he set foot on the Notre Dame campus that the relationship between his faith and sexuality became a problem.” Do you think that this is a common problem for GLBTQ students at Notre Dame? And will AllianceND seek to respond to this?
Absolutely. From my personal conversations, I know that this is an issue. The pastoral nature that Core Council and Campus Ministry and some other groups seek to provide, it’s very good and needed. Unfortunately, at times there’s a perception that because of the structures that provide that pastoral care, that students don’t want to go to it or feel like, “Well, I don’t want to be lectured at. I don’t want to be told continually that I’m intrinsically disordered,” something like that. That’s where peer-to-peer discussion and engagement works very well. Frankly, people seem to listen to their peers in conversations about anything. That’s absolutely something that I want to address. Some of the early ideas were, “Look, let’s have an AllianceND-sponsored Mass,” or to co-sponsor events. Those would be things that would absolutely be integral to AllianceND’s mission.
Is active discrimination against GLBTQ students common at Notre Dame? Have you heard of or witnessed any of these incidents? Things like discussion at parties or slurs against students or personal attacks on students?
Sure, that’s happened, personal verbal attacks. I can’t speak for the whole gay community by any means, but until recently you had dorms doing the “Zahm’s gay” chant, which, while seemingly joking in nature, something like that can have a profound impact. That’s why I like the Hesburgh Challenge that Zahm just did, saying, “We are no longer going to start that chant. We hope our fellow dorms don’t as well.” That’s very important. Certainly, as an athlete, with the slurs, that’s something that happens quite a bit in the locker room quite a bit, unfortunately, and that’s something that needs to be addressed. And, yeah, you have individual stories of hostility from peers to gay members. A lot of the times, or commonly it seems, that hostility is not, is out of ignorance of the person’s sexual orientation, so just as part of the conversation the stuff comes out, not knowing whether the person you’re talking to is gay or straight or lesbian or bisexual. So they certainly exist as active forms. And non-active forms, a sense of not feeling welcome, a sense of not feeling comfortable expressing one’s sexual orientation to a greater community, that certainly exists, and that exists not only among students but among faculty and staff as well.
Three years ago, members of the PSA attended the National Equality March in Washington, DC. Does the 4-5 Movement or AllianceND plan to participate in this event or similar events in the future?
No. I didn’t know much about that, so I looked it up. No, the 4-5 Movement does not plan to do any events like that, nor does Alliance. It doesn’t fall in Alliance’s mission at all.
What kinds of groups outside the University has the 4-5 Movement and AllianceND received support from? (25:07)
AllianceND, as a club, has received verbal support through outside groups, as well as clubs like Black Student Association, a lot of minority clubs as well. Campus Pride was one. Campus Pride has helped quite a bit, especially early on when we were doing more public statements, the 4-5 Movement this is. Campus Pride helped with an article in the Huffington Post as well, and Campus Pride generally provides resources. Actually, a friend of mine at Catholic University and I–Catholic University is going through a same kind of conversation, whether to recognize their unofficial group, CU Allies–he and I through our discussions in the spring talked about something Campus Pride is missing. That is, specifically, resources for faith-based campuses. So he and I started a branch of Campus Pride, called Campus Pride in Faith, which aims to provide resources for conversations on faith-based campuses, not just Catholic universities–although both of us are a little biased–but campuses like BYU, campuses like Pepperdine, other Holy Cross schools. Campus Pride is probably the biggest one.
Some are concerned about establishing a GSA at Notre Dame, because similar groups at other Catholic schools have tried to host events and promote views contrary to Church teaching. Boston College’s GLBTQ Leadership Council has tried to host dances for GLBTQ students and promotes gay marriage on its Facebook page. How will AllianceND be different from Boston College’s GLC? Would it have a response for students who would want to do similar events or promote similar views?
I don’t want to assume what goes on at Boston College and their meetings, but what I can say about AllianceND, I have two things. Actually, the Rover laid this out the last article. AllianceND should be treated, one in a show of goodwill and in an effort to be in an inclusive environment. It should likewise be treated like any other club and be held to the same standard as any other club. If, in Alliance’s mission, it says that it will not do events that go against Church teaching, you’ve got to hold them to that, and AllianceND certainly plans to. The other thing, and this sort of ties into a criticism. Some people say things like, “Once this club gets approved, with the sorts of events going on, everything is going to break loose.” Well, AllianceND’s events, as recognized, have to be approved by Student Activities, and Student Activities has every right to deny an event or not approve an event because it wouldn’t fall in line with either Alliance’s mission or the mission of the University. So I don’t see a problem there.
The second thing to mention about this is that Alliance’s recognition has certainly been a struggle, and it’s meant a lot to a lot of people through the years, even GLNDSMC. It’s meant a lot, both positively and negatively. One, it’s allowed people who have been in the know, meaning they know about AllianceND and they’ve been able to attend meetings, to find a community that’s very positive and supportive, but also negatively because of what a rejection continually symbolizes for AllianceND. AllianceND’s recognition would me so much to too many people for Alliance to feel like jeopardizing that, and it would owe a lot to the people who worked hard its recognition. I think that students recognize that and would not have any desire to do anything that would force either a reprimand or a revoking of its club status.
Has AllianceND considered working with Courage in the past, and should Notre Dame establish a chapter of Courage? Could that be a possible alternative to a GSA?
I did some reading on Courage and talked to some friends about it. As a substitute, no. I think their missions are very different. Courage, from what I gathered, seemed to be–they talked about fellowship, but in a sense of working through what homosexuality means in a Catholic context. It raised some questions for me, because it said it was modeled after the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which, I think to many, would pose a rhetorical problem of having someone’s identity being compared to alcoholism. But functionally they’re different. Gay-straight alliance has a lot more components to it. The ally component, of having allies involved, is more than just saying this is a thing we need to work through. This is something we can work through as a community. This is something we can help others work through, and AllianceND, very different from Courage, is an active non-discrimination group. It would actively be able to go out and address instances of homophobia, prevent that by keeping the dialogue going. I seem them as two very different things, so no, definitely not as a substitute.
What impact could Notre Dame’s establishment of a GSA have on other schools or on the national discussion on this issue?
I think one thing that’s becoming clear to me–we started the 4-5 Movement with this idea about a supportive majority of students, and that has gone beyond our expectations. I think that’s becoming more and more clear as the conversations go on and on and as it stays in mainstream conversation, that really this shouldn’t be an issue. Let’s have a gay-straight alliance. There is no issue here, and, actually someone put it brilliantly: “Not having a GSA is the issue.” As I mentioned, this discussion is going on at CU Allies, other smaller Holy Cross schools, although many of them have gay-straight alliances. It would show as well that we are beyond this. This is something that is completely fine. It falls in line with Church teaching, and, frankly, I would say, give Alliance a chance to show how good it can be for Notre Dame as a Catholic university. This is both a double-edged sword. Notre Dame is the prominent Catholic university in the US. That is something that is factually true, so that means it’s under a lot of scrutiny from all angles. But by recognizing a GSA and allowing it to show what it can do, that’s what’s going to give a lot of students at other universities hope as well. For example, this isn’t something that AllianceND would do, but just to show the relationship to the other universities. When 4-5 Movement did its “It needs to get better” campaign, they asked, “Can we use this, because this is something we’ve been trying to say?” In a more positive sense, you had University of Chicago Loyola. Last year, their student government did an entire resolution, passed, to show solidarity for the 4-5 Movement and for the gay community at Notre Dame, because of our shared Catholic heritage. It’s stuff like that that shows this isn’t something particular to Notre Dame, but it could certainly show an example to other universities as well.
Fr. Jenkins mentioned that one of the reasons for not including “sexual orientation” in our non-discrimination clause is that courts may not understand the distinction between “orientation” and “action.” Is this a distinction that is important to AllianceND?
Yes, that’s what Catholic teaching is. That’s the distinction that we go by. Yes, absolutely.
Fr. Jenkins has stated that Notre Dame only includes in its non-discrimination clause the groups that are required by federal law, and that schools which include “sexual orientation” are generally required to do so by local or state law. It has never made additions to these requirements. If “sexual orientation” is added to Notre Dame’s non-discrimination clause, do you think it would open the door for many other groups to seek inclusion in the clause?
I think, as Notre Dame, we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard than necessarily federal or state law. I’m not a lawyer. I understand the argument that the University gives. I also think that the University should not be afraid of legal action to protect a certain group of people. It’s one thing to have the Spirit of Inclusion. It’s another to have legal protection, and I think that the way it stands now, it’s mixed messages. You have, on the one hand saying, “Look, as members of the Notre Dame community we love and respect you, and we want to create a welcoming environment in which none are strangers and all may flourish.” On the other hand, “We’re not going to legally protect you.” That’s a contradiction to me and I think to many, as well. The non-discrimination clause, that’s a separate issue. The 4-5 Movement pushed for it last year. In their statement, Notre Dame said they wouldn’t include it in their non-discrimination clause but is committed to the Spirit of Inclusion. That’s an ongoing conversation. I think that’s going to be ongoing for a little while.
Let me go back, I just thought of something. As a student club, the distinction between orientation and action, it’s not just AllianceND that has to abide by that. That’s every student club. That’s the events on campus. It’s on two levels. It’s on an organizational level. Students have to abide by that, because they’re part of the University. It’s on a student level, too. Orientation and activity, that distinction is important, but as students at Notre Dame we sign this thing called DuLac and the Honor Code. Every student has to be held by that standard. It’s not until marriage, and that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about how we treat our brothers and sisters as members of this community.
Interview conducted and transcribed by Chris Damian, Staff Writer
Chris Damian is a senior who enjoys long talks over coffee. He thinks you should read Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.