LGBTQ Alumni Network Serves as a Visible Sign: You Are Welcome

The first of its kind among Jesuit schools, the group is more than a decade old and provides the community many say they lacked in their years on The Hill.

It was spring 2011 when Phil Dardeno ’02 and Meg Griffiths ’04 visited campus to attend a community conversation for LGBTQ students and alumni, an event requested by the students. Neither can recall where the event was, debating whether it was held in Rehm Library or on the third floor of Hogan Campus Center, with Griffiths jokingly calling them “unreliable narrators.” But what they both are sure of is there was a conversation about creating an alumni network for LGBTQ students and allies.

Dardeno and Griffiths found themselves at a similar event in 2012. A year had passed since initial talk about starting a group for LGBTQ alumni, but nothing had materialized. “I remember having that feeling of, ‘OK, here we are again. If somebody doesn’t raise their hand, this is not going to happen,’” Griffiths says.

So she, Dardeno and Dana Knox ’97 set out to make the suggestion a reality, an effort over the past decade that has resulted in the LGBTQ Alumni Network, 700 members strong, representing Holy Cross graduates hailing from the classes of 1958 to 2023. The network is an organization that has had a profound effect on its members, they say, creating a Holy Cross community that many did not have as students.

Tom Cadigan ’02, associate director of alumni relations, calls the three founders “trailblazers”: “What they were doing was very new among Jesuit schools.”

“A sign of change and hope”

Dardeno and Griffiths get emotional when thinking about the alumni they’ve met who have shared the impact that the network has had on them and their relationship to Holy Cross.

“We’re doing a service for the College,” says Griffiths, who adds that many members have told her they would not have returned to campus otherwise, due to their experience as a closeted student. “It was not positive for a lot of folks. The network offered a sign of change and hope and community and repair that a lot of people deeply need. To be able to offer people a visible sign that they are welcome and we see them, and their College values them as members of the community, can be incredibly powerful for folks.”

Britt Axelson ’21 is a newer member, already taking an active role, helping Dardeno plan the network’s tailgate for 2023 Fall Homecoming. She has seen that same impact that Griffiths describes.

“I’ve been able to meet older alumni who talk about how this is the first time they’ve come to things or been back to campus,” Axelson says. “They haven’t engaged with Holy Cross for so long because they haven’t necessarily felt safe or like there was a place for them to go. They told me directly that this has created a space for them to come, and that’s just so special.”

At the group’s 10th anniversary celebration, held on campus in April, College President Vincent D. Rougeau addressed attendees, noting, “I know that for a long time it was not easy to be an LGBTQIA+ person on this campus. We know that many did not feel comfortable to fully be themselves. We hope that moments like today, as we all gather here in the Hogan Ballroom, on our campus on The Hill, that you feel fully embraced by Holy Cross. While progress has certainly been made, we recognize that there is still work to be done. There are still challenges and difficulties within our community, but we are ready to do the work. We are saying that we see you, we hear you, and we support you.”

Connelly Akstens ’68, a transgender activist and author of the memoir “Without Shame: Learning to Be Me,” attends the network’s events because of the camaraderie among the community.

“I don’t have to be an expert about anything. I don’t have to be anything other than a trans person in a room in Hogan, at 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning, having brunch with a bunch of other people. That’s all I need to do,” Akstens says. “And that’s a marvelous feeling of connection. It’s just the most relaxed, informal, warm, friendly thing. We used to have an expression, I don’t know if they still have it up there, but we used to say, ‘Well, that’s a Holy Cross thing.’”

Alumni through the generations often point out and bond over the “Holy Cross things” that make alma mater and campus special. For Akstens and others members of the LGBTQ Alumni Network, their “Holy Cross thing” is the acceptance, belonging and support they have found in the group.

Coming together

The network enacts its mission of uniting alumni and allies through a variety of events. They host tailgates and panel discussions on campus during Homecoming, and always have a presence at Reunion. Plus, there are happy hour and networking events in Worcester and Boston, and they recently added a book club to their repertoire. Every other summer, Dardeno coordinates a trip to Provincetown on Cape Cod, an homage to the senior week Cape Cod trip from their student days.

In 2019, the College hosted Ignatian Q, a student-led conference for LGBTQ students at Jesuit schools, which examined the intersections of faith, sexuality and social justice. As part of the conference, Dardeno gave a presentation about creating the Holy Cross LGBTQ Alumni Network for schools interested in developing similar groups.

“Moving into the future, hopefully we’re thinking about things that we can do that aren’t necessarily just for gathering and celebration, but whatever resources we can provide for each other,” Axelson says. “I see the book club being like that, fulfilling another service outside of gathering. We can become more complex and that’s exciting.”

There are also plans to formalize the network leadership with a board, and they continue to rely on members who volunteer their time to give back.

Dardeno says he gives so much of his time to the network because he wants to support LGBTQ alums who perhaps did not have as positive or supportive an experience on campus as he did: “I came to Holy Cross because the mission of people for others resonated so strongly with me, and I feel like if you have the power within a position to be able to do something, you have a responsibility to do that. When I was a student, I felt like I could be out and be supported. And visibility leads to so much impact. That’s always been something that’s been very important to me, being able to stand up and stand out for things.”

Axelson notes she’s grateful to alumni like Dardeno, Griffiths and Knox who brought the group into existence and grew it over the past decade.

“There is a really rich queer history at Holy Cross,” she says. “We have a cool community that persevered through a lot, because there are some amazing faculty and staff who, for many years, have supported queer students and alumni. There’s a reason Holy Cross has the first LGBTQ Alumni Network, and it’s because members of the community are great. It’s the people who are amazing, who have done the work and who have challenged conventions when it was not easy. It’s impressive that this [network] exists and that it has been here for 10 years.”