This week Notre Dame, the nations most iconic Catholic university, has launched an unprecedented campaign to assure gay student athletes at the college they are as welcome to participate in the life of the school as any other student.
Titled “At Notre Dame, If You Can Play, You Can Play,” the two-minute video promotes a message of friendship and inclusion that features tennis player Matt Dooley and rower Olivia Kacsits, both seniors at the university who have publicly identified as gay.
In a voiceover during the video Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick says: “Because the university values LGBTQ students in the Notre Dame community, as indeed it values all of its students, the university is committed to fostering an environment of welcome and mutual respect that is grounded in its Catholic mission.”
The unabashedly positive message, which supporters say echoes the wider message of love and inclusion of the Catholic faith itself, is reportedly the result of a campaign by Doley and Kacsits to acknowledge the struggles of LGBT students at the famously conservative college.
“Unfortunately, many Notre Dame observers have a different perception of the on-campus atmosphere,” Kacsits said in a statement. “Something I believe to be central to Notre Dame’s philosophy is that we believe in fostering and practicing unconditional, Christ-like love.”
An LGBT inclusive message coming from Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana is certain to send a national signal that the heartland is changing its mind, or at least softening its opposition, to the issue of gay rights on campus in a way that might encourage other Catholic schools to follow suit.
Dooley has previously spoken about his own struggle as a closeted athlete growing up in Texas and later at Notre Dame, where the conservative values surrounding him saw him hide his orientation for years, leading to an eventual suicide attempt in 2011.
In an essay in Outsports magazine about Notre Dame Dooley described a campus where the “religious affiliations and its resulting culture can be easily described as a pressure cooker for someone struggling with his sexual orientation.”
Coming out last year changed his perspective he wrote, saving him from what he called the “mental burdens” of living a lie.
But progress on LGBT issues in one Catholic institution is still often counterbalanced by insuperable opposition to them in another. In recent years conservative forces within the church – including the influential U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference - have taken increasingly anti-gay positions that have led to the firing of longtime teachers and coaches, choir directors and musicians when their orientation becomes public knowledge.