Free “funfetti” cupcakes and a glittery, purple, six and a half foot tall closet invited students to “come out” in solidarity with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) students. Sponsored by the Progressive Student Alliance (PSA) at the Fieldhouse Mall on October 8, Notre Dame’s Coming Out Day was held in accordance with National Coming Out Day, which commemorates the 1987 gay march in Washington, D.C., and promotes public awareness of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues.

According to PSA Co-President Jackie Emmanuel, the event’s purpose was to “promote individuality on campus.”  “[Notre Dame] is a very conservative campus and it’s sometimes difficult for people to come out as who they are whether it be gay, pacifist, or whatever,” Emmanuel stated.

Emmanuel spoke of a need to combat “general intolerance” across Notre Dame’s campus. “Along with GLBT students, there are many students who may not be Catholic, who may be Muslims or atheists and have difficulty professing their faith on campus because of the differences between the majority of campus and themselves….There are many closets, not just the GLBT closet.”

According to Emmanuel, the event welcomed debuts of every sort.

“People have proclaimed themselves as allies, cupcake-lovers, gay, arts and letters majors, business majors, Asian, atheist…” she said.

Brandon Buchanan of AllianceND, the unofficial gay-straight alliance (GSA) group, joined Emmanuel in discussing the closet’s symbolism.

“You’re basically coming out of the closet as anything that’s important to your person, who you are,” Buchanan responded. 

Emmanuel said that PSA saw a particular need to sponsor the event in light of the recent suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi who jumped from the George Washington Bridge after his possible homosexual orientation was broadcasted over the Internet.

Buchanan thinks that there is more of a community at Notre Dame than at universities like Rutgers. “There are people around you who will protect you if someone was to be discriminatory,” he said, claiming that this would be impossible without the work of a gay-straight alliance. 

Buchanan explained that GSA’s mission is to reduce homophobia and open discrimination against GLBT individuals by fostering dialogue between GLBT students and heterosexuals.

“One of the best ways psychology has shown to reduce racism is by exposing people of different groups to those other groups, whoever it is they happen to be racist or prejudiced against,” he offered, suggesting that a similar approach is necessary to combat homophobia.

When asked how GSA may incorporate Catholic teaching into the dialogue, Buchanan said, “We don’t want to encourage relationships between gay people because that is considered disordered. … and if we are getting gay people in relationships, then we are promoting a gay culture that would basically create a culture that would be conducive to them falling into sin.”

Buchanan continued. “We’ll talk about what it means to be at a Catholic school, in the Catholic context, and then we’ll also get to talk about things that the Catholic Church would not necessarily approve of, not in the subversive sense, but simply saying ‘look, here is a plethora of thoughts that is out there . . . and I’m going to let you make up your own mind.’”

The Rover turned to university professors for their thoughts and reactions on National Coming Out Day and the larger issues at play in the event.

Law Professor Emeritus Charles Rice emphasized the university’s responsibility to educate its students in Catholic sexual ethics.

“Notre Dame has an obligation to ensure that its students at least have an opportunity to understand the Catholic teaching on homosexuality as presented in the Catechism,” he said. “This teaching is not negative, but rather, is an affirmation of the true character of human sexuality. Persons with homosexual inclinations are entitled to respect. What is completely unsound is the translation of that respect into an affirmation that intrinsically disordered conduct can ever be approved.”

Another university professor, who wished to remain anonymous, raised a similar concern.

“If ‘coming out’ in alliance or solidarity with certain others means endorsement of homosexual activity, it is in blatant violation of Catholic teaching,” said the professor.  “Overall I have not found PSA sensitive to Catholic teaching except when they might cite it as a pragmatic tool while pursuing their own objectives.”

In contrast, Notre Dame history professor Gail Bederman supports a coming out day.

“Feeling safe about revealing and accepting one’s own sexual orientation seems to me entirely salutary,” she said.

Bederman went on to suggest that a proper way of understanding homosexual persons “from a loving and consistent Catholic point of view—might be to address the broader question of chastity more often, and of sexual orientation less often. . . Let’s divorce the issue of unchastity from the issue of sexual orientation.”

For Bederman, Coming Out Day is “the only way to keep raising the issue of why, whether, and in what circumstances, LGBT people ought to be ‘shamed’ in contrast with the shaming of other people who have sinful tendencies.”

Professor David O’Connor of the Department of Philosophy, however, worries that the organizers of Coming Out Day may be looking for “an acknowledgement that sexual acts based on these [homosexual] desires are morally acceptable.”

Coming Out Day, O’Connor observed, presents sexual identity as a sort of choice.  He called this “a silly way of looking at sexuality” because it “makes human sexual desire look like something more superficial than it is.”

O’Connor admits that though the sexual desires of homosexual persons create “specific challenges” for them, heterosexuals also have to deal with the burdens of their own sexual impulses, which can also disordered.

He also suggests that the discussion suffers from a lack of focus on vocations, especially the lay single and married life.

 “If you don’t keep your eye on what marriage is and its centrality in human life, you can’t make sense of anything sexual,” O’Connor concluded.

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