How This Openly Gay Student Body President Helped Foster LGBT Inclusion at Notre Dame
Editors’ Note: This piece was written in conjunction with GALA ND/SMC, the LGBT alumni group for the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College, which, together with the Fairness Campaign and local NYC LGBT Catholic groups, sponsored a “Pilgrimage of Mercy” celebrating and recognizing LGBT Catholics – and calling for an end to anti-LGBT discrimination in October 2016. The goal of the pilgrimage was to call upon The University of Notre Dame, and Catholic bishops across the US, to join in a show of mercy and compassion for LGBT Catholics, who continue to be marginalized by the Catholic Church. Bryan Ricketts is a trustee of GALA ND/SMC.
When Bryan Ricketts stepped onto campus at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 2012, he knew that his school did not have a strong history of affirming LGBT students. As a Catholic University, the school had faced outside pressure from the Church and others for years – but a burgeoning movement on campus was underway to create an officially recognized organization for LGBT students. For nearly three decades, every single year, the university had denied these requests.
Bryan had only recently come out as gay – but he got involved quickly in the effort to form a group that supported LGBT students at Notre Dame. Many students from Notre Dame were involved.
At last in 2013, the University of Notre Dame granted official recognition to PrismND, the first and only official LGBTQ student organization at the university, dedicated to developing the LGBTQ community on campus and building understanding of these students’ unique needs, all through a Catholic lens.
By his sophomore year, Bryan was serving as co-president of Prism ND – and in his senior year, he served as student body president, a proud openly gay man leading his fellow Notre Dame classmates to success. He and his team won the student body election by a 10-point margin.
“Having an officially recognized organization was an important moment,” Bryan said. “Because now we can have these conversations because we have a visible student group, students are able to be open to themselves. It’s just a totally different environment because of Prism.”
The campus seemed to be changing quickly with regard to LGBT students. “It’s now an environment of tolerance, with some acceptance – and that’s an important distinction,” Bryan explained, adding that there’s still a lot of necessary work left. But still, he said, “The question is no longer, ‘Why should we talk about LGBT students? It doesn’t apply to me.’ It has become, ‘Why are you not an ally? Why don’t you care?’ The conversation is very changed.”
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For Bryan – and many Catholics – his faith is at the center of who he is, a foundational component that has informed so much of his worldview. But in a time where the Catholic Church has not been supportive of LGBT people like him, he has expressed significant reservations about sentiments within the institution.
“I would say I am certainly Catholic, but I have concerns about the way the Church has interpreted its faith teachings,” Bryan said. “At their core, they’re about human relationships trying to match the ideal of God’s relationships – human creation trying to match the ideal of God’s creations. So while I would call myself a faithful Catholic, I wouldn’t say the Church has gotten it all right, and I hope the Church goes into a period of deep introspection.”
The University of Notre Dame, in fact, has had a profound impact on deepening his faith and reconciling his faith with his sexuality. He speaks specifically about several experiences he’s had at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.
“It’s a wonderful place to pray and be with God,” he said. “And during my visits to Notre Dame, I would go to the Grotto and pray, and I would think, ‘I don’t want to be gay. I don’t think this is who I am. Help me figure this out.’ And there wasn’t one time that I felt God saying, ‘You are unloved, you should be different than how you are.’ The only thing I felt was the sense of acceptance and care. My time in the Grotto and my time at Notre Dame overall is a big part of what helped me come out and say, ‘This is who I am, and I don’t think that what you’re saying about LGBT people is correct.’ I experienced LGBT acceptance through my faith, and there’s no getting around that for me. I’m not going to stop being Catholic because I’m gay – and I don’t believe God doesn’t exist just because I’m gay either.”
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And yet, there is no denying that the University of Notre Dame is a campus community in the middle of an ongoing conversation about the importance of respecting and affirming its LGBT members.
“When I was student body president, we were inclusive and welcoming and encouraging diversity to include sexuality,” Bryan said. “We weren’t going out there on some crusade, but people did come up to me and thank me for doing what they couldn’t – be out and open. In so much of the country, coming out was a political act before – and it’s still kind of like that here. Coming out still matters here.”
Part of that tension stems from the fact that the University of Notre Dame’s official non-discrimination policy does not include sexual orientation or gender identity. And since the university is in Indiana, where LGBT people have no state-level protections from discrimination, LGBT people are clearly vulnerable when it comes to speaking up for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
Bryan explained the campus has significant work ahead to improve the climate for transgender students: “We’re not as far along as we could be or should be in treating our transgender students with the respect they deserve,” he said.
In some ways the University of Notre Dame was thrown into the national conversation over LGBT non-discrimination protections in 2015, Bryan’s third year. That was when lawmakers in Indiana, where Notre Dame is located, passed the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a religious exemptions bill that targeted LGBT Hoosiers.
Around the same time, Notre Dame’s athletic department released a video declaring, “If you can play, you can play,” explaining, “Because the university values LGBTQ students in the Notre Dame community, as indeed it values all its students, the university is committed to fostering an environment of welcome and mutual respect that is grounded in its Catholic mission.”
And in June 2015, following the United States Supreme Court order establishing the freedom to marry for same-sex couples nationwide, the University of Notre Dame extended its spousal benefits to all legally married same-sex couples, choosing to respect civil law and the dignity of the same-sex spouses instead of attempting to claim an exemption under RFRA.
Bryan believes that responses like these from the students and decision-makers at Notre Dame signal a brighter future for LGBT inclusion at the University. And he thinks that if LGBT students continue to stay and push forward, thinks will only continue to improve.
“There is an inherent good about being here that I really enjoy, but sometimes it falls short. I don’t want to sugarcoat the experiences that I or other people have had with discrimination. But they exist in opposition to ultimately what Notre Dame means. So I stay and I work and I talk because I think it can live up to that ideal, and it can be a good space precisely because of what it means,” Bryan said. “I stayed because I believe in what Notre Dame stands for. The Catholic faith has a strong sense of social justice and what’s right, and it has a strong sense of community, and both of those things are very important.”