Gay History Month helped, but there's still work to be done

Commentary by Eric Edberg
Associate Professor, DePauw University

As one of the half-dozen or so openly gay faculty members at DePauw, I thought October was a wonderful month on campus. This was the first year that DePauw had formal National Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual History Month events -- an evening of glb-themed films on Oct. 11, "National Coming Out Day," and "Speaking Out: Readings in Gay Experience," which was held a few days later in the Watson Forum and then broadcast twice on Channel 2.

Some faculty members also used other occasions to recognize contributions made to society by glb persons. I, for example, announced during a recent faculty recital that in recognition of GLB History Month I was performing a sonata by Samuel Barber, a great American composer who happens to have been gay.

Even when the controversy which erupted over Delta Chi's burning of the anonymous flyers suggesting that it is a primarily gay fraternity was wonderful to see. After a professor suggested in a letter to The DePauw that Delta Chi's response was homophobic, a member of the fraternity responded in the next issue, taking great offense at the charge. I'm told that other members of the fraternity have been upset and surprised that a number of people in the DePauw community found its handling of the flyers insulting to gay and lesbian people.

Although a public apology to those whom it evidently inadvertently but nonetheless genuinely offended might have helped Delta Chi appear less defensive and more sensitive, it is exciting to me that American society has humanized itself to the extent that even at a DePauw fraternity people are insulted to be labeled homophobic. Not so long ago, it was quite acceptable to be uncomfortable with "queers," and most fraternities would be unashamed -- indeed, would even be proud -- to do everything possible to distance themselves from gays and lesbians. Not any more, it seems. Before you know it, Greek houses at DePauw will have no problem with recruiting openly gay or lesbian pledges.

Changing Times

Clearly, something has shifted for the better in our society. More and more, it is okay to be gay or lesbian. It seems that the tide has turned, and that the opposition to the acceptance and affirmation of gays and lesbians as good people and equal citizens, while well-funded and often dramatic, is but the dying gasps of a world-view which is increasingly recognized by thinking people as intellectually (even theologically) bankrupt.

This change is evident in popular culture. Two recent Hollywood films, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar and Jeffrey, were positive stories about gay men. They featured straight actors (Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, Patrick Stewart) who made it clear in interviews that they had no problem portraying gay men.

Last spring, Olympic champion diver Greg Louganis "came out" in his best-selling autobiography, and was greeted with an enormous outpouring of public affection, instead of the rejection he had feared for many years. When Louganis did a book signing at the enormous County Line Mall in Greenwood (a rather conservative middle-class suburb just south of Indianapolis) I waited in line for hours with a friend who wanted to have his copy autographed.

Most of the others in line were male/female couples and parents with children. Next to me was a mother and her middle-school aged daughter, who was proudly showing everyone her school report on Louganis; the assignment was to write about a "hero." I was ecstatic. Here I am, I thought, standing among hundreds of mostly straight people in Greenwood, Ind., who are each waiting to get the autograph of an openly gay man with AIDS. And he is recognized as a hero -- not in spite of being gay and having AIDS, but in part because of it.

A Separate Peace

I myself have been the subject of a similar show of acceptance and support. Last winter, my wife and I made the emotionally wrenching decision to separate after nearly 10 years of trying to find a way to make a gay/straight marriage work. (Unlike many gay/straight couples, we both knew I was gay when we got married, as did both our families and all of our friends, most of whom thought we were crazy; maybe we were.) We both worried about the reaction among our colleagues and students, since there was little chance of keeping the reason for our breakup a secret.

To our surprise and relief, we were met with great support. Having expected criticism, especially of me, we were simply bowled over by the number of people who complemented us on our courage in facing the truth of the situation, and by the many people who expressed compassion and support for the struggles we were facing.

We wanted me to "come out" on campus in part to help support the growing efforts of United DePauw. Groups such as this are extremely important for young people coming to college, many of whom have never experienced a group of peers among whom it is truly okay to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. I know how alone I felt in high school, and how affirming the presence of openly gay faculty members was once I went to college. I didn't know any openly gay adults until I left home, and that fact had reinforced the mistaken belief, taught to me by my mother in particular, that homosexuals were "sick" and somehow different from us "good" and normal people.

Stepping Stone

Which brings me back to why October was an exciting month for me at DePauw. Some people wonder why we need National Coming Out Day, or a GLB History Month, or why anyone going to a faculty recital needs to hear that Samuel Barber was gay. It's because there is still work to be done.

For those of us who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, these events are an opportunity to celebrate our personal liberation from the idea that it is sick or wrong to be gay, to revel in our escape from the prison of self-hatred in which so many of us grew up, and to share this with our friends and colleagues. They are a way to present the possibility of the joy of self-acceptance to those students, faculty and staff who are still struggling within themselves.

For many straight people, they are a way to share in the righting of the wrong of homophobia (much of the energy and organizational leadership in United DePauw, for example, comes from its many straight members) as well as a way to recognize and be informed about the contributions of gay, lesbian and bisexual people and to celebrate them with us.

Most importantly, they are a way to continue the work of dissolving prejudice and misunderstanding with truth. Much of the change that has come about in the last couple of decades has been the result of gay, lesbian and bisexual people publicly asserting ourselves as the healthy, good, contributing people most of us are. It's knowing us that changes minds and attitudes. This is important not only to us today, but to the next generation.

Some of you who are students here now are going to be blessed with gay or lesbian children, like it or not, and you're not going to know it until they are adolescents or older. What kind of home do you want them to grow up in? My own experience and that of countless others has shown that an "anti-gay" stance in the family doesn't do anything to keep kids from being gay; it just makes it likely that they'll hate themselves for it.

I hope that when your kids ask you what a homosexual is, or what it means for someone to be gay, those of you who are students here now will not answer as my mother did, but instead will say that while most people are attracted to and want to live with someone of the opposite sex, some people want to live with members of their own sex. I hope you'll tell them there's nothing wrong with it and that if they turn out to be gay or lesbian you'll love them just as much as if they turn out straight.

Because of "History Month" events, and because more and more of us are letting you know who we are, you'll also be able to tell them that some of your best friends and professors at DePauw were gay or lesbian. And then if one or more of your kids is too, they'll be much more likely to accept themselves and not be one of the many gay and lesbian youth who currently make up nearly a third of teenage suicides.

Yes, things are getting better, much better, and National GLB History Month, National Coming Out Day, and "outing" dead composers on faculty recitals are some of the mechanisms through which this is happening. They're finally happening here in a way they never have before. And that's why October was such a great month for me, and, come to think of it, for all of us at DePauw.

Eric Edberg is an associate professor of cello at DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana. He is also the faculty adviser of United DePauw. He is on line at eedberg@depauw.edu. Article reprinted with the author's permission.
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