I was surprised to see the posters. As I walked into my dormitory after a morning class, I saw posters advertising Notre Dame’s participation in National Coming Out Day (NCOD). I saw that the university’s Gender Relations Center (GRC) was cosponsoring the event, along with Notre Dame’s newly formed gay-straight alliance, PrismND.
National Coming Out Day has been celebrated annually on October 11—the date commemorating the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights—since its founding in 1988. According to Maureen Doyle, the GRC’s Assistant Director for LGBTQ Initiatives, Notre Dame has been celebrating this national event since at least 2007.
When I asked Doyle about how Notre Dame’s religious commitments comport with its participation in NCOD, she responded:
We are called to support our brothers and sisters in Christ, which includes celebrating the multitude of identities that make each of us unique and beautiful individuals. For students who may be struggling with different aspects of their identity . . . celebrations like NCOD help reiterate for them that this campus is a safe space, an inclusive community, where they will find support and understanding as they work to answer the question, “Who has God called me to be?”
Her repeated use of the word “celebrate” echoes the language that the Human Rights Campaign employs in its own description of NCOD. It is this language of “celebration” that reveals why Notre Dame—and other similar institutions of higher education that hope to encourage all their students to live chastely—should not participate in National Coming Out Day.
In celebrating NCOD, such institutions do a disservice to their students who are struggling to understand their sexual attractions (especially in light of their religious or moral commitments) or to come to grips with their sexual identity as male or female.
What is, and is not, National Coming Out Day?
NCOD exists to be an occasion when individuals who are uncomfortable with making certain attractions or self-understandings public knowledge can openly proclaim themselves as “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or as an ally.”
Note well the absence here of a label typically associated with the rest of the bunch: questioning. NCOD is not, in its own understanding, an occasion for those who are struggling with their sexual attractions or identity to reveal this fact and make use of the social affirmation or public support available to their more determined peers.
NCOD is not simply a convenient, nationally coordinated occasion on which those who have discovered that their pattern of sexual attractions is predominantly homosexual can acknowledge this to others in their communities. Were this the case, the Human Rights Campaign (and Notre Dame) wouldn’t speak of “celebrating” such an awareness. They would instead employ more descriptive, less evaluative terms, and provide private, more controlled, more subsidiary environments in which this disclosure could occur organically, rather than erecting rainbow-colored doorframes around campus and equipping students with megaphones.
Nor is NCOD an opportunity for those who are unsure of the pattern of their sexual attractions to seek the assistance of their friends and community members in their struggle to integrate their attractions with their larger self-understanding.
NCOD is an invitation—one is tempted to say, a forceful summons—to take part in the public celebration, which supposes affirmation of specific acts of auto-identification whereby those individuals embrace the sexual attractions or understandings that constitute those identity labels as meriting celebration and affirmation.
Why is this problematic for Notre Dame?
The problem with Notre Dame and similarly committed institutions participating in NCOD is that in doing so they sow confusion and embroil themselves in contradiction. In publicly celebrating and affirming these acts of self-identification, such institutions are committing themselves to celebrating and affirming the constitutive attractions or understandings that comprise those identifications.
But in a community like Notre Dame, the integration of those attractions or understandings into the broader life of faith and virtuous maturation—inseparable from which is the truth that non-marital sex acts wrongly dispose one’s character against marriage—is part and parcel of the university’s objective for its students.
Notre Dame cannot host events the purpose of which is to tell its students who identify as LGBT that their identification as LGBT is worthy of celebration, while simultaneously aiming to form those students in the Christian sexual ethic. This would be akin to my former coach celebrating, and telling me that I should celebrate, my being a member of Notre Dame’s track team while simultaneously informing me that I should never race (or even lace up my spikes) and must constantly combat my desire to do so.
Notre Dame has no reason to celebrate patterns of same-sex attractions or bisexual attraction, or confused understandings of one’s sexual identity as male or female, as “beautiful.” These conditions are particular trials, more difficult than some but not as challenging as others, with which some people are burdened. To celebrate these attractions or understandings as unique and beautiful is morally problematic and pastorally catastrophic.
The Pastoral and Political Problems
It may be argued that, whatever the purpose of National Coming Out Day may be, religious educational institutions can responsibly partake of it by “tempering” its underlying logic. What if these institutions could host coming-out events simply to reinforce that, in spite of popular misperception, the university will accept in love those students who identify as LGBT “no matter what”?
Nobody would deny the importance of communicating such a message. But if that is the message Notre Dame wants to convey, it should not make a messenger of a national event that expresses overtly political goals antithetical to Christian teaching. (This year’s national NCOD theme is, as it has been in past years, “Come Out. Vote.” It’s not difficult to guess what sort of legislation is being referenced. Other past themes include “Come Out to Congress” and, in 2010—in the midst of legal action concerning “marriage equality”—“Coming Out for Equality.”)
NCOD is not like Alcoholics Anonymous: a support group to which people turn in order to seek support and guidance as they first, acknowledge their problem, and second, strive to overcome it. In fact NCOD, in its celebratory nature, does exactly the opposite: it teaches individuals to accept as entirely unproblematic attractions and understandings that stand in need of continual moral purification.
It is imprudent of Notre Dame to encourage students to readily co-identify with other individuals under the mantle of an international political activism campaign (the Human Rights Campaign), when that campaign has as a goal the legal and social eradication of the same beliefs that Notre Dame wishes to instill in its students.
As far as Notre Dame’s pastoral ministry is concerned, celebrating acts of auto-identification precisely as acts of identification as LGBT is perhaps the least efficient way to convey to those students the message that pastoral guidance concerning their sexuality is needed.
A Better Way Forward
Notre Dame will have to find a way to commit itself deeply to transmitting both the truth of human sexuality and the truth of human dignity. Celebrating NCOD does neither.
Rather than celebrating NCOD, Notre Dame should labor to teach its students that “gay,” “bisexual,” or any other sexual descriptor should be used as an adjective and not as a noun, as patterns of attraction one experiences, rather than realities that comprise the concrete foundation of one’s very existence.
Notre Dame should refuse to sensationalize, politicize, or aggrandize the disclosures—the decision to reveal one’s sexual attractions—through which students with same-sex attractions may achieve closure.
Notre Dame should not alienate students who are struggling with or questioning their sexuality by endorsing events that make wheat and chaff of the determinate and the indeterminate, the resolved and the unresolved, the public and the private. Instead, the celebratory and exultant nature of NCOD may communicate to those students who wish to remain private—or are unsure—about their sexual struggles that anything short of a proud proclamation constitutes a “closeting” or a denial of who they truly are and are meant to be.
The pastoral needs of Notre Dame students who struggle with their sexual attractions and understandings are many. The university indeed should be “filled with people who will readily walk with our students on their path to self-discovery,” as the aforementioned GRC official explained to me. I couldn’t agree more.
This is why Notre Dame should not walk with its students through those rainbow-colored doors.