By Moni Basu, CNN
(CNN) — Mia Lillis knew that she was gay when she was 12. She felt lucky to attend a public high school in Austin, Texas, that was highly supportive and had a gay student alliance. Then she arrived at the University of Notre Dame.
She enrolled there because Notre Dame’s reputation as a premier Catholic school appealed to her family. But from the very first day, Lillis was scared.
She searched for a gay and lesbian student organization. There was none. She sought out literature for gay students. Again, nothing.
“It gave me the impression that Notre Dame didn’t care about queer students,” said Lillis, 20. “It was pretty intimidating.”
She went back in the closet. She even considered transferring. “I would say a lot of gay students think that way,” she said.
But this week, Lillis celebrated after Notre Dame announced that it will create services for students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning, as in those who are still figuring out their sexual identity.
After a five-month review process, Notre Dame made the recommendations in a comprehensive pastoral plan that the university said is grounded in its Catholic mission.
“As articulated in the university’s ‘Spirit of Inclusion’ statement, Notre Dame’s goal remains to create and sustain a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students, and I am confident that this multi-faceted, pastoral approach represents the next step in advancing our efforts toward this aspiration for our GLBTQ students,” said the Rev. John Jenkins, president of the university.
The university said it will create a student organization that will offer support and services to GLBTQ students and form an advisory committee to provide guidance on such matters.
It will also appoint a full-time student development staff member to oversee new programs and ensure that they help emphasize Notre Dame’s goal of inclusion.
“Rooted in Catholic teaching on sexuality and gender identity, the plan emphasizes the ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity’ due to all, and calls all Notre Dame students to cultivate chaste relationships and to support one another in a community of friendship,” said a university news release.
Lillis said the actions were huge for a school that has not been welcoming to gay students and has often found itself atop national lists of gay-unfriendly schools. Too bad, she said, because she found the students to be accepting of her. But they had not been afforded the channels to vocalize their thoughts. The climate was one of silence on gay issues.
Alex Coccia, who helped spearhead the student effort to change things at Notre Dame, said a new environment will be especially a big deal for questioning students.
“People need to have a safe environment to go through that process especially in college, which is a trying time for everybody,” said Coccia, 21.
Coccia has been involved in bringing change to Notre Dame for a while. He is part of a coalition called the 4 to 5 Movement — named for data that say four out of five Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 support gay civil rights — that raised a gay-unfriendly profile of Notre Dame on social media.
A video posted on YouTube highlighted Notre Dame’s treatment of gays, including its refusal several times to authorize a gay student organization and to exclude sexual orientation in its non-discrimination clause.
Conservative Catholics oppose the idea of a university that espouses the values of Catholicism catering to homosexuality.
The Sycamore Trust, which says its goal is to protect the Catholic identity of Notre Dame, expressed concern on its website, saying the university’s support of a gay club “would give grave scandal damaging to the church, to the university, to students, and to other Catholic institutions and would establish a potential source of serious mischief within the school.”
It went on to say, “Surely it is predictable that a group whose organizing principle is same-sex attraction is likely to be a forum, overt or covert, for opposition to the Church’s teachings about homosexuality. It may also become an instrumentality in the student ‘hookup’ culture.”
Others were more accepting.
Kevin Rhoades, the bishop of the Indiana diocese where Notre Dame is located, said the university’s plan affirms Catholic teachings that men and women with homosexual tendencies “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter wrote that Notre Dame’s decision was not just the right thing to do but a courageous act.
Karl Abad said Notre Dame has taken a big step.
“I have no idea how the future debates about the moral issues raised by homosexuality will play out, but I do know that Notre Dame is here insisting on the fact that, whatever our theological views on human sexuality, we also have a Christian obligation to ‘create a community where all may flourish and feel welcome, where we aspire to an even deeper understanding and appreciation of Catholic teaching, and where the human dignity of each Notre Dame student is valued,’ ” Winters wrote. “That, too, is part of our Catholic moral tradition.”
Openly gay student Karl Abad, 21, said he hoped prospective students will no longer have a fear of enrolling at Notre Dame like he did.
“We now will have a place where gay students can get together,” he said. “I am expecting a lot more student involvement in terms of gay issues.”
He said GLBTQ students will no longer have to go underground to seek support.
He applauded the university’s decision, acknowledging the difficulty in balancing a Catholic identity with policies that are inclusive of gay students. In that respect, he said, Notre Dame has taken a giant step.