Who Let the Gays Out? (Apologies to the Baha Men)

by Gretchen J. Metzelaarsm Ohio State University

ACPA’s Standing Committee for LGBT Awareness began from a collaborative idea at the 1983 convention. More than 30 years later, SCLGBTA is thriving in its commitment to mobilize members of ACPA – College Student Educators International to build community, empower advocacy, and advance knowledge with people of all genders and sexualities. This Developments series celebrates 30 years of LGBTQ issues and identities in student affairs from three perspectives: administration, research, and association. Each essay explores the history and current status of LGBTQ individuals in higher education, providing insights into current and future advocacy.

When we choose to live authentically we chip away at others’ prisons of pretend and create an opportunity for them to walk out of darkness into freedom.
― Anthony Venn-BrownA Life of Unlearning

I carefully scanned the room to see into the eyes of my compatriots. Were they nervous? Frightened?  Guilty?  Relieved?  Thankful?  We were huddled in the basement of the university’s theater, hiding from the world.  We were “out” to each other and some to our friends, but we were hiding from our institutional colleagues and students.  We were, after all, “the gays.”  It was the year 1989, but the world was beginning to change.  We did introductions: a chemistry professor, a theater associate professor, an education professor, two from the library, several staff members, a grounds person and me, the assistant director of the student union.  We were an assortment of races, an assortment of ages, an assortment of intellect, and an assortment of commitment to making the university a better place for the gay, lesbian and bisexual (GLB) community.

This is the story of an evolution of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals through the eyes of an administrator who bore witness.  As the country matured and university communities came to understand they had LGBTQ friends, roommates, colleagues, faculty members, family, and others; the evolution/revolution on the campus began to mirror what was happening in the country.

These were the days when we were not strong enough to accept or even acknowledge that our sisters and brothers in the transgender community shared our fight.  They were different:  some were invisible and some were trying to make their way alone.  We were hesitant to add a community that might put our possible “acceptance” by the mainstream at peril.  Just another symptom of the fearful place in which we lived.  Years earlier, we had logged many hours discussing and arguing about our bisexual brothers and sisters.  “If we include them will our argument be lost?”  For years many straight people postulated that gays and lesbians “practiced” our sexual orientation and our “practice” was akin to bestiality, child abuse, and mental illness. The Fred Phelps of the 21st century may have been an anomaly to some, but in the late 20th century people like Phelps were everywhere; including in our government, our workplaces and often in our homes.  No wonder we were frightened.

As advisor to the queer student association (variously named GLB, LGB, LGBA, LGBTQA), I worked with about 40 students who ranged from being incredibly closeted and fearful to those who were ready to fight “out loud” for the benefits that straight people took for granted.  Experience and research told me that it was important for our students to have positive role models.  Role models are described in the literature as “a person you respect, follow, look up to or want to be like” (Bricheno & Thornton, 2007, p.385).  The students were looking for role models, for compatriots in the fight, and for confirmation that their identities were “normal.”  I consistently encouraged my theater basement colleagues to meet the students and to get to know them.  Each one of my colleagues was terrified—terrified of being exposed, terrified of being accused, terrified of being fired.

It was the “Stone Age” of gay rights, the time of Stonewall, defending ourselves against the AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) epidemic and panic, GLB patriots being thrown out of the military, and physical and verbal abuse by strangers.  Additionally, we were fighting in the courts to be able to care for our partners as Karen Thompson was forced to do in custody battle in order to care for Sharon Kowalski.  We had made some progress in the 1970s and early 1980s, but our community was dealt a reeling blow when AIDS struck down many of our brothers.  This not only decimated us emotionally and physically, but it provided more ammunition for those who hated us.  And the haters took every opportunity to build fear of the GLB community into the populace.  As I worked with our student organization, I knew they would benefit profoundly from positive faculty and staff role models, but what would it take to get my colleagues out of our basement closet and into the light of our growing student community?  It would take the 1993 March on Washington, the impact of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and George (and Barbara) Bush to get us out of our basement closet.

Are you surprised to see the name of George H. W. (and Barbara) in this essay about emerging from the cloud of fear?  President Bush was the first President to invite openly gay people into the White House when he signed landmark legislation calling for a study of hate crimes motivated by prejudice based on race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.  Barbara Bush responded to a letter from the president of PFLAG with these words: “I firmly believe that we cannot tolerate discrimination against any individuals and groups in our country” (Marcus, 2002, p. 333).

“Two, four, six, eight, God does not discriminate.”
Chant during March on Washington

We gathered on a beautiful sunny morning at the base of the Washington Monument to march with our brothers and sisters.  Faculty, staff, and students FINALLY united together.  Many of us were in tears when told we would have to wait at least two hours to begin the march as there were tens of thousands of people who would start before us.  The tears flowed not because of the delay but because we realized that there were so many people marching.  It was a celebration long in the making.  We all sported our pins:

Replica Pin March on Washington GLBT Rights

As we tried to move forward, there were many trying to push us back.  Some members of Congress were in the midst of creating a gay backlash by passing the Defense of Marriage Act, attacking a gay man nominated for the position of ambassador to Luxemburg and publicly calling gays “weak, morally sick wretches.”As we walked the two-mile route toward the Capitol, I was amazed at the diversity of our community – all shapes, sizes, ages, appearance:  Dykes on Bikes marching/roaring along beside a group of Drag Queens.  We were happy, screaming and shouting:  “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”  Then we saw the protesters; they called themselves Christians.  We called them hate-filled reactionaries.  Their signs said, “Homosexuality is a sin,” “God Hates You,” “You Will Burn in Hell.”  Once again the fear began to overtake us, but our students would not let us retreat. Under the students’ leadership, the hate-filled language actually steeled our resolve.  If we could march on Washington with hundreds of thousands of our community members and look into faces of hate and survive, we were officially “out.” Who let the gays out?  Those who hated us did.

We had our champions; the media had begun showing palatable gays in movies such as Philadelphia (thank you Tom Hanks) and on television shows such as Melrose Place, Friends, and Roseanne.  Ellen DeGeneres was and is our superstar.  She took a major risk and a major stance when her character came out on her show Ellen.  Five of us sat holding hands in front of the TV when, during the coming out episode, Ellen said; “I’m gay;” and her seemingly quiet personal announcement was inadvertently broadcast over the airport’s public address system.  Our reaction was cheering and sheer joy.  Unfortunately for Ellen, she was vilified and attacked by the press and hated by much of the public, eventually losing her show.

But we were finally ready to move forward.  The faculty, staff, and students gathered together to develop a strategy to create a campus that treated the queer community with dignity.  Through discussions, study, and the understanding and belief of the university president; we moved forward.  We embraced the notion that without our advocacy and leadership, the university community would sit stagnate and would never move to be a true educational institution.  We believed the university imperative should be to both educate and engage in a community conversation about and with the GLB community, and most importantly, that in order to educate our students as active and good citizens; they must participate in the discussion.  Within the next five years, we had an incredibly strong student organization, an LGBT Equity Center, a full-time staff member championing our community, a LGBT Studies Program, and a LGBT alumni association.

Though universities did not lead (and actually barely followed) the evolution/revolution, our students did.  Basoc and Howe (1979) stated that “Role models have been defined as people whose lives and activities influence another person in some way” (Quimby & DeSantis, 2006, p. 297).  The students taught us how and when to protest, that we need not be afraid, and the meaning of “leading a cultural revolution.”  In the end, the students were our role models.

When the dust settles and the pages of history are written, it will not be the angry defenders of intolerance who have made the difference.  That reward will go to those who dared to step outside the safety of their privacy in order to expose and rout the prevailing prejudices.
― Bishop John Shelby Spong

Discussion Questions

  1. What international and/or national events contribute or contributed to your personal and professional identity?
  2. Are there instances when you would partner with your students to protest a perceived injustice?  If so, what would be the risk?  How much of a risk to your livelihood and health would you be willing to take?
  3. What are your parameters when working with students?  Will you have contact with them personally as well as a professionally?  What are the risks?

References

Basoc, S. A., & Howe, K. G. (1979). Model influence on career choices of college students. The Vocational Guidance Quarterly, 27, 239-245.

Bricheno, P. & Thornton, M. (2007). Role model, hero or champion?  Children’s views concerning role models.  Educational Research, 49(4), 383-396.

Marcus, E. (2002).  Making gay history: The half-century fight for lesbian and gay equal rights. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Quimby, J. L. & DeSantis, A. M.  (2006). The influence of role models on women’s career choices. The Career Development Quarterly, 54, 297-306.

Venn-Brown, A. (2007). A life of unlearning: One man’s journey to find the truth (2nd Ed.). New Holland Publishing Australia.

About the Author

Gretchen J. Metzelaars is currently the Senior Associate Vice President of Student Life at The Ohio State University, a position she has held since June 2010.  In this position she provides the Office of Student Life with strategic direction for dining services, housing administration, the Ohio Union, orientation, residence life and student activities.  Additionally, she is the faculty advisor to the Muslim Student Association.  Dr. Metzelaars has been involved in several national organizations including ACPA, ACU-I and NACAS. Currently, she was chair of the ACPA 2014 Convention. She was selected to be the ACPA Standing Committee for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Awareness’ Senior Practitioner and was recently honored with selection as a senior member of Annuit Coeptis.  She was chosen as an ACPA Diamond Honoree in 2008.  She has spoken nationally on a variety of topics including leadership; multiculturalism; homosexuality and the Bible; gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual students. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from Virginia Tech in 1975, her Master of Science of Recreation from Indiana University in 1979, and her Ph.D. in Recreation from the University of Maryland in 1995.

Please e-mail inquiries to Gretchen J. Metzelaars.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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