Hunger Strike At Notre Dame
On February 3, at the nation’s most prominent Catholic university over 100 Notre Dame students organized a 3-day hunger strike in support of including sexual orientation in the non-discrimination clause. The Board of Trustees was to meet on February 5 and for the first time ever, have the opportunity to end years of accepted discrimination at the University of Notre Dame.
The first gay student group started in 1970 though it initially stayed underground. It was not until 1986 that the Gays and Lesbians of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s College (GLND/SMC) tried to get the right to advertise and hold meetings on campus. However the Administration denied their request since “formal recognition of GLND/SMC carries with it an implicit sanction for a homosexual lifestyle which is not in keeping with the values of the University or the teachings of the Church.” The Administration encouraged gay, lesbian, and bisexual students to “get help” from the Counseling Center and Campus Ministries.
In 1990 a student government committee found three-quarters student support for GLND/SMC and recommended club recognition and the inclusion of sexual orientation in the non-discrimination clause. A year later, 30 students held Notre Dame’s first coming-out rally. By 1992 the Faculty Senate voted overwhelmingly for recognition.
In 1995 students launched the first wave of mass protests. Their impetus was the Administration’s January 23 declaration expelling GLND/SMC from meeting in the Counseling Center, where they had been informally gathering for nine years. GLND/SMC was being punished for being too open about its presence on campus. But students resisted. Protests grew from 60, to 300, to 400 people. GLND/SMC defied the Administration and 100 students held a public meeting in the student center. The Administration retaliated by threatening to suspend allies, Amnesty International and Pax Christi, for sponsoring the “unauthorized” protests. Every relevant body on campus voiced their outrage at the Administration’s decision by overwhelmingly passing resolutions opposing the expulsion of GLND/SMC and calling for club recognition. But the Administration vetoed the will of the students and faculty, and formed an ad hoc committee to give advice on options besides club recognition.
A year later the committee made a series of small recommendations to decrease homophobia on campus, which were accepted, and raised the issue of changing the non-discrimination clause. Students waited patiently for the Administration to act on the report. The Administration stalled and up to 500 people rallied on the steps of the administrative building demanding students rights for everyone. Once again the Administration refused to change the non-discrimination clause, but for the first time ever included sexual orientation in a publicly released Spirit of Inclusion statement.
Unfortunately the Spirit of Inclusion was not legally binding. So in March 1998, Fr. David Garrick announced his resignation. He was an openly gay priest, theater professor, and a strong supporter of the campus movement for gay rights. He charged that the Administration had discriminated against him since he came out, that he was no longer invited to preside over mass, and that similar discrimination had occurred against other faculty and students. Within 5 days almost 300 students rallied in his support, 1,300 signed a petition for non-discrimination, and the Student and Faculty Senates passed supporting resolutions.
That fall, the issue reached the highest decision making body on campus: the Academic Council. They initially postponed the decision, and then, against the will of President Fr. Malloy, passed it by one vote, forwarding it to the Board of Trustees. Meanwhile, student activists were pushing the issue in the background with rallies and other events.
On February 5, the Board of Trustees was to meet in London and consider ending legalized discrimination against gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.
Student activists organized a Week of Action from February 1-5 to mobilize student support. Students tabled, distributed rainbow ribbons, produced a newsletter, brought alumnist Phil Donahue to come speak, held a vigil, and organized a three-day hunger strike leading up to the Friday when the trustees would meet. Fasting for justice was an effective nonviolent technique which our Administration could not stop, and for many Catholics and other Christians a meaningful way to combine faith with action.
That Friday afternoon, a dozen or more of us gathered in the student center to wait for the results of the trustees meeting. About the same time, students were rallying in solidarity at Indiana University and a small group was sitting-in at the Trustees’ London hotel. After several hours, we finally got a copy of the press release and learned that the decision had gone against us. But the decision was not a surprise, what shocked us was that the decision had been made on December 1 in a secret meeting of the Board of Fellows. The Administration had not told the students, the faculty, the Faculty Senate president, and had not told the hundred plus protesters that our action was too late.
There are over 200 Catholic colleges and universities. Dozens have recognized gay, lesbian, and bisexual student organizations (see http://www.nd.edu/~akreider/catholiclgbt.htm). Boston College, Catholic University, Georgetown, DePaul University, Loyola University, and St. Thomas University have included sexual orientation in their non-discrimination clause. The University of Notre Dame has a choice. It can be Catholic and grant equal rights. Or it can sell out justice to maximize donations from homophobic alumni. Z
Aaron Krieder is a founder and member of the Progressive Student Alliance, a graduate student in sociology, and organizer of the fast. Progressive Student Alliance’s website is http://www. Nd.edu/~psa.