I should have listened to my intuition about that job. When I got my PhD in 1995, I was one of only two people from my program who landed professional positions; the other woman was going to teach a heavy load at a state college. I had been offered an endowed chair at a prestigious Baptist college in Georgia. I would be making more money than my former professors, and I’d have the lightest of teaching loads. Still, when the faculty member called to offer me the position, I felt as if I’d swallowed a stone.
I accepted the job, and at the end of August I brought my files and my enthusiasm for teaching gay and lesbian literature to the wealthy, all-white school. Naively, I expected to become the English department’s hip young authority on queer studies. Before I even met my first class, however, a long-closeted faculty member advised me not to come out, or even to talk about my partner, my previous teaching experiences, or anything that might lead people to conclude that I was a lesbian.
That’s when I realized I had made a mistake.
I was almost never happy in that job. Every day, walking to class, I asked myself why I was there, and how I could get out. At one point, another faculty member said to me, about her interior decorator, “I know he’s gay. I’ve got a nose for that. I can smell them.” This seemed unlikely, since she couldn’t smell me, but knowing that she was on the lookout made me nervous.
My partner wanted to move down from Ohio to live with me, but we had trouble finding a suitable place to rent. We finally located a house that was affordable and had room for her dogs. Before we could sign the contract, though, the owner called and said she had something to ask me. “It’s a personal question,” she said. “I sure hope you don’t mind.”
“No, go ahead,” I said.
“Well, it’s just . . . I hate to say this, but I am just not sure about . . . well, what is the nature of your friendship with Maria?”
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. “We are domestic partners. We are committed to each other.”
She seemed confused. “But are you . . . I don’t quite know how to say this.”
“Are we gay?” I offered. “Yes, we are.”
“Then I can’t rent you the house,” she said quickly.
“The house is devoted to the Lord, and it wouldn’t be right for me to allow you to live there.”
“I’m sure the Lord would have no problem with us living there,” I snapped.
“Well, I just can’t. It wouldn’t feel right to me. I’ve prayed about it, and I’m sorry. You seemed like you would have been good tenants, except for that.”
“We would have been good tenants anyway,” I said, but the conversation was over. I ended up living on campus, and my partner could not join me on faculty row.
In the fall of that academic year, a student named Sean came to my office and politely asked to talk to me. I had seen him around: a tall, graceful young man with a long, serious face and deep, sad eyes. He took a long time telling me why he had come. It was kind of personal and difficult, he said, and he didn’t want to risk offending me. With a lot of encouragement, he finally got it out: he was thinking of starting a club on campus, a support and social group for students who might be considering their sexual orientation.
“Well, Sean,” I said, “I’m a lesbian, and I’d be happy to help.”
Sean made unobtrusive flyers to announce the first meeting of Allies. A few of them were ripped down, and someone scrawled something nasty on his dorm-room door, but he didn’t report it.
As the group’s faculty advisor, I attended that first meeting in February. Seven or eight people met in a dimly lit coffeehouse many miles from campus. We sat in a circle on old couches, drinking tea. Everyone was nervous and decorous. The first point of order was to decide that the club would be purely social and supportive, not political in any way. Sean emphasized that he wanted no problems with the faculty or the fraternities. Everyone agreed.
Why are they making such a big deal out of being apolitical? I wondered.
I had a lot to learn. The fraternities at the college were notoriously homophobic, and they practically ran the school. One frat had thrown out a senior member after he’d told some of his brothers that he might be gay.
The first meeting of Allies took place just before basketball-homecoming week, a big affair on campus. Besides the game and the parties, the school held a banner contest to bolster school spirit. The banners lionized the home team and the college.
But a different sort of banner hung over the seat where Sean ate lunch every day. It featured two effeminate-looking basketball players wearing rainbow uniforms. They were dripping with semen, and the speech balloons coming out of their mouths said, “Tasty,” and, “It ruined my makeup.” A fire was climbing around the figures, and below them were the slogans “COME Together as Allies” and “Cream the Flamers.”
By the time Sean called to tell me about the banner, it had been removed by school authorities, but many students had seen it. Some called it hate speech and harassment. Because the banner had been made by a fraternity, however, most were reluctant to condemn it. Even the professors were intimidated by the frats. Bravely, the editors of the school newspaper ran a picture of part of the banner and gave evenhanded coverage of the incident. A number of professors, including me, wrote letters to the editor to express our concern about hatred and homophobia. Others on the faculty, however, denied the importance of the event. Several declared it “just a joke.”
A staffer from Student Affairs called a meeting to tell Sean and me that he didn’t think the banner was “a big deal.” We were astounded. If the banner had used racial slurs and threatened blacks, the frat boys responsible would have been reprimanded, if not punished. But apparently a banner that belittled and threatened queers was nothing to worry about.
The furor went on for weeks. I received hundreds of e-mails about it. My boss and other senior faculty members advised me to stop sponsoring Allies. One person suggested I let someone do it who wasn’t gay, and who would therefore be safe. I was coming up for tenure review, and many professors told me to stay quiet and let others fight for the group.
But I didn’t stop being Allies’ faculty advisor, and neither did I stay quiet. I rallied supporters and encouraged the student and community papers to cover the story.
The end result was a council hearing at which the fraternity got off ridiculously lightly. The only penance required, as I recall, was a written apology. The city’s liberal weekly ran a major article denouncing the decision and uncovering the atmosphere of intimidation at the college. The article anonymously quoted several students and professors. It also quoted Sean as saying that he’d expected some public service to be part of the penalty, and that he doubted the sincerity of any apology that might be forthcoming from the fraternity.
Long before the apology was delivered, a letter was sent to every faculty member and student, warning against “violating the confidentiality of the Honor Code.” We were confused; the rule seemed unrelated to the banner incident. But then we saw the connection: the college administration, upset about the publicity, had seized on an arcane rule in the student code of conduct stipulating that students were not to discuss decisions made by Student Affairs.
The college president devoted an entire monthly faculty meeting to the newspaper article, which was read aloud in tones of horror. The president then asked the faculty members who had talked to the paper to step forward and apologize. The room fell silent. There were a lot of things I wanted to say, but I didn’t speak, and neither did anyone else.
The final injustice was that Sean, who as the only openly gay student on campus had been the primary target of the attack, had to undergo an honor-council trial for “violating confidentiality.” By telling the reporter that community service was not part of the punishment, he had given away information about a council decision.
The honor council, made up of students, declared Sean innocent. Apparently Allies had silent supporters on campus.
Meanwhile the publicity attracted attention to the group. Around a hundred people attended a meeting to discuss what had happened. I felt great pride in the closeted students who were coming out, and in the straight students who were proving to be true allies of their gay peers.
That June I received my renewal contract for the next year of teaching. I had until July to sign it, so I put it off. After exams I was called in to see the provost, who told me that my “teaching style” might not be a good fit for the college.
“Should I be looking for another job next year?” I asked.
He said it might not be a bad idea.
Part of me was stunned; just five months previously, the provost had told me that I was headed for tenure. Another part of me, though, had expected some form of retaliation. As faculty advisor to Allies, I was suspected of being a lesbian.
But when a door closes, another one opens. That afternoon a friend called to tell me about a job opening in California. I flew out, interviewed, got the job, and accepted it, all in less than two weeks. The day I was supposed to turn in my contract for the next year, I told my boss I’d be leaving instead.
The provost and my boss took me out for a goodbye lunch, and the department held a small farewell party for me. Everyone was very polite, and no one mentioned the banner incident. Before I left, I also went to lunch with Sean and another Allies leader, and we reminisced like soldiers who had survived a battle. That summer, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I had never been so glad to leave anywhere.
Sean was preparing to go to law school to learn how to advocate for others who’d been persecuted or treated unfairly. The following year Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming in a highly publicized hate crime against a homosexual. The same year, another young gay man was killed outside a bar in Alabama. Sean wrote a letter to the Student Affairs office pointing out how antigay violence was related to hate speech and intolerance. And he felt that they were beginning to see the light.
Allies successfully lobbied the college to hire a new staff member responsible for diversity. Best of all, there was a real transformation in the atmosphere at the college. Gay couples felt free to come out and even be publicly affectionate without fear of retribution.
What moved me most about all this was the loyalty and perseverance people showed. Sean could have just ignored the banner and lived in fear and silence, perhaps believing the people who insisted it was “no big deal.” I could have stopped being the group’s faculty advisor, as some professors counseled me to do. Those of us who talked to the press could have kept silent, or retracted our statements and apologized for breaking the Honor Code. The dozens, and eventually hundreds, of straight students who came to support Allies could easily have walked away. But all of us decided to stick together. Though it didn’t feel like a triumph at the time, it was one: not for us, but for those who came after.