SMC alumnae open up about homosexuality
Saint Mary's editor
As students, they were silent. As alumnae, they spoke.
Breaking the years without voices they experienced as students at Saint Mary's, four homosexual alumnae broke the silence and began to speak Friday at the culminating event of the College's Identity Week. Some spoke of silence, some spoke of pain; all spoke of what it meant to hide who they really were from a community that didn't always understand.
Each woman brought a perspective from a different point in the College's history, from days of uniform-clad conformity to the `80s fads of Izod shirts and designer jeans. While some spoke of the futures they found for themselves, others depicted acceptance and change during their time on campus.
Carol Rafferty, Class of 1963, remembers her two years as a Saint Mary's student in colors that were as expressive as she was allowed to be.
She recalls dull charcoal gray uniforms and white blouses, each woman sporting the required attire from the College, marching one by one down the tree-lined avenue during required physical fitness walks.
But above all, she remembers a gray silence.
"The atmosphere here was very quiet, very closeted," said Carol, who had known about her sexual identity before coming to campus. But discussing homosexuality was a far off notion at that point, buried in an environment that hardly mentioned heterosexuality.
"It was spoken about in hushed tones among three or four people," she said. "People would whisper, `Oh, did she do it?' but it was all very quiet. Lesbianism and homosexuality were not talked about — they simply did not exist."
Furthermore, there was a clear heterosexual standard inherent in the educational process. With most young women filtering in for elementary education or nursing degrees, while majors such as religious studies were still unfounded, there was a feeling of another goal in the atmosphere.
"We were all here to get a `Mrs.' degree," Carol said.
After leaving Saint Mary's after two years to pursue a career in interior design, Carol later married and had four children, who learned of their mother's sexual orientation after their father's death.
"It was difficult for the youngest one, especially," she said. "But since then, they have matured about it."
Since her collegiate experience, Carol was still struggling to find acceptance among society, or at the least, an escape from unwelcoming attitudes. She found that escape in the Michigan Women's Music Festival.
"There are straight women and lesbian women there together, and nobody cares," she said. "But once you leave, and come back to the real world, that different, unwelcoming attitude smacks you in the face. You have to go back to that perception of how society thinks you should be."
While Carol does say things have improved, she still copes with friends from school who have been unable to fully come out, she said.
Because of the silent attitude towards sexuality as a taboo topic, finding women struggling with their own sexual identity was, and still is, difficult. Befriending one woman who was also aware of her identity at the time, to date, they are the only two women who were homosexuals in their class.
"As far as I know, we are the only two," she said. "There could be more, but we don't know. My one close friend is still very quiet about it. She was afraid to come out then because of job opportunities, and she is still quiet now."
Vivian Ostroski knew she had to escape because of who she was.
With vivid memories of Saturday night perfume clouds and makeup frenzies and herds of women climbing onto the shuttle bus to voyage to Notre
Dame, Vivan knew from the start that she didn't want to go over "there."
"I wasn't part of that group, that group who was always going over there," said Vivian, Class of 1985. "I didn't want to do that. I didn't talk to the straight women; it was very important not to be a part of that scene."
Aware she had little in common with a vast majority of her college classmates, she became a part of a group that actively avoided trekking across the street. Coming out during her junior year, her sexual orientation was simply another reason not to belong with the group she so strongly opposed.
"Being queer — it just wasn't something you said," Vivian said. "I was from a working class family. I didn't have the right clothes, shoes or sexual orientation."
So each weekend, Vivian packed her bags, left her dorm, and climbed on her train to freedom. Visiting a friend who attended school in Chicago, she became part of a colorful community where she felt alive.
"I would go into this community where there were people who were queer, people who were flamboyant, there were people of color and people who took up space," she said. "People had this thing called gay pride that I didn't know existed until I saw it."
She kept her journeys secret, partly because she wanted them for herself.
"I owned this place," she said. "If I told anyone, then I wouldn't own it anymore. They owned [Saint Mary's]. This place was mine."
But climbing on the train, that community could only live in her memory until her next visit.
"It was like as soon as I smelled the ethanol in the air, that smell was replacing what Chicago had been," she said. "I didn't feel sad or angry, it was just the way it was."
Jen Moore's experience of sexuality on campus was primarily one of opposition to herself. Still in the process of discovering herself, Jen admitted that she spent much of her time at Saint Mary's in denial.
"I was in the process of coming out to myself, and I was very much in denial," said Jen, Class of `94. "Academically, that hurt my abilities a lot junior and senior year.".
But while she knew that avenues such as GALA ND/SMC, OutreachND and GL
ND/SMC were available to help her, she did not seek resources from those groups, partly because of that denial.
"Many people found places at GLND/SMC that were very safe," she said. "I just didn't go to those groups."
Her difficulty in finding herself was further aggravated by discussions about heterosexual sex which was predominant on campus.
"There was definitely a lot of talk about heterosexual sex," she said. "The few lesbian students that were here used to love it when parietals would come around, because that would end it for us," she said.
An active member in Board of Governance and Notre Dame Encounter retreats during college, Jen found her outlet in community service, which led her to
a year of service with Holy Cross Associates in San Francisco following graduation. During that year, she would encounter her sexuality not only with her family, but with herself as well.
"One of the first things that I did when I got out to San Francisco was join a lesbian softball team," she said. When her mother came out to visit and saw her short haircut at one of the games, she immediately expressed concern for her daughter.
"I hadn't come out to my family at that point," Jen said. "My mom came up to me and said, `Doesn't it ever bother you that people think that you're gay?'"
Her reply embodied the spirit that Jen had come to love about the San Francisco area.
"Mom, in the Bay area, people don't assume anything," she said.
Kelly Harrison, Class of `98, had suddenly found herself in the center of a tailspin that she wasn't prepared to enter and at first, wasn't sure she wanted to.
Entering college unsure of her sexual identity and self-classifying herself as homophobic during her early years of college, Kelly described her process of coming out as one that was terrifying. Afraid to speak about who she was or what she felt, she did not find support until her sophomore year when she sought out the newly formed Alliance (a sexuality support group).
"I would hear discussion around me, and I kept thinking that sooner or later, someone was going to ask me what I thought," she said. "I was trying so hard to be closeted."
That option became less and less a possibility as Kelly realized she needed support.
"When I was not out, it was impossible to find support," she said. "That's still the case for anyone who is closeted. When I became a part of that group, my life took on a whole new dimension."
After GLND had applied for official club status at Notre Dame and had been denied, the subject of a gay/lesbian support group at Saint Mary's was brought to the forefront, placing the Alliance at a crucial transition point.
The Alliance applied for group status at Saint Mary's in 1998 but was denied by president Marilou Eldred.
However, dialogue was still open and awareness was circulating on campus, Kelly said.
However, that wasn't always at an advantage.
"I was in one of my classes, and I overheard one of the girls in the class say I was one of `The Couple,'" Kelly said, who had been seeing another student at the time. "On one hand I was laughing, and on the other I was wishing I could just enjoy college, and not just be a representative of a group. One day I wasn't even out yet, and the next I was being interviewed by The Observer."
Moving beyond Saint Mary's taught all four women that the attitudes they have encountered against their sexual orientation are not isolated specifically to campus. The problem, they said, is something that is spread across society.
"There's been a lot of progress," Kelly said. "We still have a lot to work on as a society. There's a heterosexual assumption where you meet someone and automatically assume they're straight. That can cause a lot of hurtful situations," she said.
But starting changes can start at the campus level, and the women did have suggestions to improve the climate at Saint Mary's.
"I want a space for lesbians to meet at Saint Mary's that is safe," Vivian said, who currently works at the University of Massachusetts in the provost's office. "I want a speaker's bureau of people who are willing to come out and tell their stories. I want someone in the mental health departments, administration, and security that has a clue. I want a class in queer culture, so that gay and lesbian issues are at the heart of the experience here. I want gay and lesbian language in the liturgies. I want there to be safe zones on campus where students know they can go and be safe. I want a plan for dealing with gay violence before it happens. I want the part of the mission statement that deals with diversity to be at the bottom of the college's stationery so it says that everyone is welcome."
Many women also expressed the need to reach out to lesbian alumnae.
"I'd like to see articles in the Courier about gay and lesbian issues, to reach out to women of my generation who need to be reached," Carol said.
The push for any change, however, needs to come from students.
"As a student you can feel very powerless and unimportant," Kelly said.
"But the initiative has to rest with students. If these are things you want, you have to go out and get them. This is a student issue — you can change the environment tremendously."
The women agreed that they wanted to graduate women who were educated about sexual orientation and diversity issues.
"I want women who leave this college to be informed about sexual orientation," Vivian said. "It isn't just about sexual orientation — it's about racism and classism, too. I thought being gay was about sex. It wasn't until I left here that I realized it was about culture."
All News Stories for Monday, February 7, 2000