The University of Notre Dame recently added “gender identity” to a list of protected categories in its policies on discriminatory harassment, sexual harassment, and other sex-based misconduct.
However, the University’s general non-discrimination policy, which covers such areas as educational programs, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, athletic and other school-administered programs, or in employment still does not include either sexual orientation or gender identity in its list of protected categories.
Former Student Body President Elizabeth Boyle, who had worked for the University, located in South Bend, Indiana, to include these two categories in the school’s non-discrimination policy, said that she was “ecstatic” when she heard the news. But The Observer, the student newspaper, also reported:
“Although [Boyle] is happy with the addition of gender identity to the sexual and discriminatory harassment policy, Boyle hopes the University will also change the notice of non-discrimination in time, and she urges student advocates to take up causes they are passionate about.”
This change to the sexual and discriminatory harassment policy comes after years of LGBTQ activism on campus. Beginning in the fall of 1985, the Gay and Lesbian Students of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College began their unofficial meetings in the University Counseling Center (UCC). They attempted over the next ten years to gain University approval for their group and were consistently rejected.
In 1995, they were barred from meeting in the UCC, prompting a march of hundreds of students and faculty demanding that the school recognize the group. Patricia O’Hara, then-vice-president of Student Affairs, rejected the initiative to recognize the group.
Another LGBTQ affirming organization, which took several different names, consistently sought University approval— and was rejected— over the subsequent ten years.
Alongside the fight for the University to recognize an LGBTQ affirming group, the fight to add sexual orientation to the non-discrimination clause continued. In 1997, University President Emeritus Fr. Edward Malloy “announced his refusal to revise the [non-discrimination] clause” to include sexual orientation. In 2009, Fr. John Jenkins, the current president, followed suit by refusing yet again to add sexual orientation to the clause.
In 2010, the student Senate passed another non-discrimination resolution in response to Jenkins’ decision, The Observer reported. In support of these efforts towards inclusion, students and faculty “held a demonstration to demand a revision of the clause to include sexual orientation.”
In 2012, 27 years after the first formation of a Notre Dame LGBTQ student group, the University finally recognized the organization which would become PrismND. The current President of PrismND, Matt Sahd, ‘21, provided a statement to New Ways Ministry at the time:
“We applaud Notre Dame including protections for our trans and gender-non conforming members. However, we continue to work with the administration on implementing increased protections for gender identity and sexual orientation in accordance with Catholic Social Teaching, as well as amplify the voices of LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff on this campus that have every reason to advocate for our university to truly foster a ‘spirit of inclusion.'”
The University of Notre Dame has a troubled past in its relationships with LGBTQ organizations and non-discrimination protections, though some important steps have been made. The recent inclusion of gender identity in the school’s harassment policy is another such step in the right direction. However, as several current and former LGBTQ student activists and Student Government officials reminded the student body in a poignant letter to The Observer:
“The bureaucracy is intentionally complicated, designed to exhaust even the most passionate students until they graduate.
“Please don’t let it.
“Find allies on the inside, pressure from the outside, and organize your fellow students. Learn what constraints are written rules and which are unwritten customs, just ‘the way things are done.’ Make Notre Dame live up to its Spirit of Inclusion, as the welcoming home it must be.”
Notre Dame still has much more to do for–and much more to offer– LGBTQ students. Given the past activism, it’s highly likely that the students and faculty of Notre Dame will continue to hold the University to the high standard appropriate for its position as one of the leading U.S. Catholic research universities.
—Madeline Foley, New Ways Ministry, September 3, 2020