This winter, two beloved figures in my life died: Barbara Jordan, who I didn't know personally, and E. Bradford Burns, the great Latin Americanist and professor of history at UCLA who chaired my dissertation committee. Both of their pictures hang on my study wall at home. Their lives are linked for me just as are their deaths, which occurred within a month of each other.
Barbara Jordan, whose name is familiar to you, was a national figure who commanded great respect. A law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, she had been a lawyer and congressional representative whose sole lifelong devotion was to the U.S. Constitution. In my picture, she has wrapped herself in the American flag: It hangs next to my autographed picture of Mr. Justice William O. Douglas, the author of the Supreme Court decision that established our right to privacy, Griswold vs. Connecticut. For a generation of idealistic lawyers who entered the profession in the years immediately following the near-impeachment of Richard Nixon as a result of the infamous Watergate scandal, Barbara Jordan, with her uncompromising integrity, sonorous voice and charismatic presence, was a role model. She electrified those who witnessed her outrage at what she called, in the language of the Constitution, the "high crimes and misdemeanors" of the Nixon administration. Her righteous indignation and keen knowledge of the Constitution, displayed during the Watergate hearings, outshone all her other accomplishments and engraved her persona on the minds of a generation of Americans. What were those accomplishments?
Barbara Jordan was the only woman out of 128 students in her law school class at Boston University Law School, in years when Boston was not the friendliest city for a black person to live; the first black woman from a Southern state to serve in the U.S. Congress (1973-79); the first black to hold a seat in the Texas Senate since 1883; the first black keynote speaker at a national convention of the Democratic party; the sponsor of Texas' first minimum wage law that included farmworkers and those not covered by federal minimum wage standard. Her sponsorship of the minimum wage law alone would have ensured a place for her in the history of poverty law: Until she intervened and carried the measure through to be signed, farm workers and other workers in the most disadvantaged sectors of the Texas economy made next to nothing for their labor.
Her political career was cut short by the onset of multiple sclerosis. One can only imagine what she could have done: She was so well-regarded that there was a high probability that she would have been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, thus having the opportunity to enjoy the company of her intellectual peers, such as Justices William O. Douglas, Earl Warren, Hugo Black, Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, John Marshall Harlan and William Brennan, among the best minds on the U.S. Supreme Court in this century. She could have been the first woman and first black woman to serve on the court.
Jordan's achievements would have been impressive under any circumstances, but a black woman from that era faced formidable obstacles. She began her life in Texas, black middle-class by the standards of the time. Her father, Ben Jordan, was a poor Baptist preacher. His wife, Arlyne, was so eloquent that, it was said, if she hadn't been a woman, she would have been a preacher. Ben Jordan had attended the Tuskegee Institute until hardship and lack of money forced him to drop out. Because he had gone to college, he wanted his daughter to go to follow suit. For the daughter of a Baptist preacher, there was only one road to follow, summarized in this couplet quoted in her autobiography:
Only one life, it will soon be past;About which, she commented: How to die, we got that. But we were missing how to live. I do not recall any message of joy or love or happiness generated out of this experience. It was a confining, restricting mandate. I did not feel free to do anything other than what was presented to me as the way one must proceed; that whatever you do in this life has to be in preparation for that other life. So on balance, my church relationship was, without doubt, a very imprisoning kind of experience.
Only what's done for Christ will last.
She learned the value of hard work laboring side by side with her grandfather, who made his living collecting rags, paper and scraps, for what we today would call recycling. He also collected horse manure to sell as fertilizer. Barbara Jordan mastered a discipline that served her well as she went on to Congress and beyond.
Like many lesbians, when the Houston Chronicle obituary
mentioned her longtime companion Nancy Earl, confirming the rumors
that she was a lesbian, the news surprised and delighted me. At first, I
even sympathized with the letter to the Advocate lamenting her refusal
to trumpet her sexual preference, which quotes one reader as saying,
I know I am not alone in feeling less respect for Barbara Jordan for not coming out in death, but I am especially anxious for all those of every community who idolized Jordan to know she was a lesbian.
As I thought about it, however, the letter rankled: Something about it was deeply disturbing to me. The speculation about Barbara Jordan's private life didn't stop with a few stray letters to the editor. The Advocate ran a front page photo of Jordan with a National Inquirer- style headline: "Exclusive-- Barbara Jordan: The Other Life; How the revered congresswoman kept her lesbianism a secret for almost two decades." Presumably, since the Houston Chronicle had "outed" her, the Advocate could now speculate about her private life. African- American writer and lesbian Barbara Smith told me that the editors at Out magazine asked her for her opinion on the piece when it was submitted to them. She counselled Out against publishing; the author then sold the piece to The Advocate. Jordan's friends begged the Advocate not to publish the article because, they said, she wanted to be remembered for her devotion to the Constitution and for the lives she touched at the University of Texas at Austin.
I wondered what the writer of the letter and the author of the article had done in their lives as compared to what Barbara Jordan accomplished, and I felt outraged: What right had they to be disappointed? Whose lives had they improved by their efforts? Had they overcome cultural, racial and economic obstacles, against all odds, to excel at everything they attempted as she had done? She had become one of the outstanding women of her generation. What had they achieved? They were so quick to judge, but if asked if they had worked on non-gay- related civil rights issues, how would they respond? Had they focussed their efforts on the problems emanating from racism, or had they been too busy with gay issues?
It is clear that Jordan was well-acquainted with the public's
People always want you to be born where you are. They want you to have leaped from the womb a public figure. It just doesn't go that way. I am the composite of my experience and all the people who had something to do with it. And I'm going to try to lay that out.
As a society, we are very hard on public figures. Because they seem bigger than life, we expect them to fulfil all our expectations of them. The American cult of celebrity seems incapable of distinguishing among different types of fame, conflating a cardboard figure who is famous merely for being famous, with one who is notorious for misdeeds, or a member of a prominent family, or a visionary achiever. We burrow into their private lives; we photograph them and their families, and scream with fury when they break cameras and act out in other ways to protect their own privacy: John Kennedy, Jr. could not fail his bar exam, nor could Alec Baldwin enjoy an outing with his family without the intrusive nose of the public sniffing around for juicy gossip. Diana, The Princess of Windsor, can't go to the kitchen for a midnight snack without finding a photographer at the window. When then Congressional Representative Barbara Jordan lost a few pounds, The Houston Chronicle ran side-by-side photos of her, captioned "A Svelte Jordan," with a story describing her weight loss. What possible importance could her physique have to the serious business of making laws? We regard this invasion of their privacy as our absolute right, without regard to the protection that the Constitution offers ALL our citizens. Hell had no fury like a busybody scorned. If our public figures don't meet our expectations, we skewer them: We expect perfection of them and will not accept anything less than that. This high-powered public telescope dooms Bill Clinton to failure. Who can meet the expectations of 230 million people?
Barbara Jordan's accomplishments weren't enough for the members of the lesbigay community who felt that she should have come out. As Austin America-Statesman reporter Juan R. Palomo, who is gay, is quoted in the Advocate article, "If anybody had the luxury to say, 'By golly, I'm a lesbian and this is the woman I love,' it was Barbara Jordan. She could have done it, and her stature would not have been diminished one bit."
She was a leader and a law professor but she was also a woman with deep roots in the black community which she had spent her entire life representing. She must have considered the impact that her coming out would have had on her constituents. Leaders choose either to represent a community or to agitate against it. A member of ACT UP, for example, joins a group of like-minded individuals to prod the community to respond to the priorities of its group. A leader who represents a community to the world, in this case, the black community, takes a more conciliatory role, often compromising his or her own priorities for the sake of the community. Seldom will s/he take the most radical position, since s/he is acutely aware of the natural conservatism of most Americans. Most community leaders recognize the slow and incremental nature of change. Making change at this level takes extraordinary reserves of patience.
Her book does not reveal the evolution of her preference for women but it describes her first encounter with Nancy Earl:
At some point Nancy Earl arrived, and that was the first time that we would meet face to face...Nancy and I sat there playing the guitar; we had just met but we were singing and drinking and having a swell time...I had had a great time and enjoyed myself very much. I remember I thought: this is something I would like to repeat. I'd like to have another party like that. Nancy Earl is a fun person to be with.
I cannot emphasize enough the uniqueness of this passage: In a political autobiography that gingerly avoids any discussion of personal relationships besides those with her immediate family; avoids titillating descriptions of early sexual experiences, and never mentions a romantic relationship with anyone, this loving account of her first meeting with Nancy Earl jumps off the page. In later sections, she describes their joint purchase of a house, and entertaining their many friends and colleagues. She does not spell out their sexual relationship but only one who stubbornly demands an explicit declaration of lesbian identity could miss the implication of her words. The unmistakable impression garnered by the reader is that Barbara Jordan's primary relationship was with Nancy Earl.
"Coming out in Public Life, " is not the same thing as just coming out. This is not to diminish the importance of the difficulties that an ordinary person faces in coming out, but a leader faces a different set of challenges than a person who keeps to the private sphere. Witness the brouhaha that accompanied the 1993 outing of Patricia Ireland, the national president of the National Organization for Women. For weeks, the media could not write of anything else. They ignored NOW's priorities and Ms. Ireland's goals for the organization as they gorged on the "scandal." It is unlikely that anything in the 30- year history of NOW has gotten this much press. Years after the outing, people still focus on her lesbianism rather than on NOW's ambitious agenda for which she has worked for at least 20 years. Did feminism or NOW benefit from this revelation? Did lesbian or bisexual women within the organization benefit from it? I doubt it. While anti- feminists accuse the members of NOW of lesbianism as if it were something to be ashamed of, within the feminist community, it is well known that many in the leadership of NOW are lesbian, and most NOW activists knew that Patricia Ireland was a lesbian, maintaining a cordial relationship with the husband of her youth. Furthermore, NOW's charter openly condemns homophobia and sets lesbian rights among its priorities. Sadly, perhaps the only result was the confirmation of the misguided suspicions of those who oppose women's rights in any form, that feminists are all lesbians and their only interest is in advancing the lesbigay agenda.
While the feminist movement established the principle that "the personal is political," no one compels a private person to expose his/her life to the public unless s/he chooses to do so. The private person has the luxury of working on the issues s/he wants to work on, or ignoring all forms of activism. Like it or not, we who are mere mortals function at a different level than does a figure of Barbara Jordan's prominence: We are not subject to the invasions of privacy perpetrated by the public and the media.
Barbara Jordan made career and professional choices that were based on an apparent need to coordinate her beliefs and actions. Her life had an unmistakable trajectory, sparked by her early training as the daughter of a Baptist minister. I would argue that she would have considered coming out to be self-indulgence and a distraction from her primary passion. If anything, public acknowledgement of her sexual preference would have very likely resulted in anger and rejection from the black community, and they, in turn, would have lost an invaluable advocate.
I am not suggesting that lesbigay people should stay in the closet. I believe that the more people come out, the greater acceptance there will be for us in the world: Critical mass is important to civil rights movements. But sound strategy requires a multi-level approach. An army confronting a fierce enemy doesn't send in the infantry alone: The infantry whose strength is in numbers, must be supported by the cavalry, ie,. the armorized, motorized units organized for maximum mobility. They must be covered by long-range artillery, air support, a navy and the amphibious marines. In the same way, the fight for civil rights, whether focussed on lesbians and gays, African Americans or the rights of any other disenfranchised group, requires an organized attack at many levels. We need orthodoxy to keep us honest. There will always be those who declare openly that they are lesbian/gay/bisexual/ transgendered--deal with it! The majority response to that approach will generally be, "I don't have to deal with anything I don't want to deal with!" Yet their visibility combined with the work of those who toil quietly behind the scenes, gently winning the trust of those who might initially resist, will eventually bring about the change we desire. However, I also believe that the choice to come out must be that of the individual and that we must respect each other's priorities and sensitivities. In the case of Barbara Jordan, disappointment in a person who gave so much of herself for justice is a conceit that is unworthy of members of our community.
There is yet another dimension of her experience that I have not discussed: As a woman of color, she was subject to the special demands placed on a woman of color; demands that I, myself a woman of color, know all too well. To be a woman of color means that you are invisible except when you're in trouble or accomplish something that draws attention to yourself. For instance, even though Latinas in California, where I came from, are ubiquitous, cleaning houses, caring for children, and staffing the fast food counters, they are as invisible to the white majority as clouds are to birds.
If a woman of color gains some measure of prominence, she is always struggling against the stigma of being a token: Whatever she may achieve, mainstream America labels her a token because she and others like her are functioning at a level that is not considered by the majority to be her own. If she is admitted to an institution of higher learning, they assume that she is there because of an affirmative action bow to her color or ethnicity. If she obtains an important job, no doubt, they say, she only got it because she is black. Barbara Charline Jordan rose to become the Barbara Jordan through sheer hard work and force of will, yet even she, with all her achievements, could not escape being a token.
Furthermore, public opinion forces women of color to become whatever they espouse: Had she come out as a lesbian, she would have become the representative of lesbians everywhere. Whether or not she wanted to focus her energies in that direction, she would have been pigeon-holed, just as Patricia Ireland was. The author of the Advocate article points out that she refrained from discussing her multiple sclerosis in public as well, and attributes it to her acute need for privacy. Yet, she also participated in public service commercials for people with disabilities. Just as she did not want to become the "poster child" for people with multiple sclerosis, it is clear that she did not want to become a professional lesbian. Of her background, of her generation, and having set a course where her first priority was the full equality for African Americans under the law, she did not wish her personal choices to become fodder for the public imagination.
For a woman of color, the choices of battlefields are many, and as Napoleon once said, "one can attempt anything but not do everything." Her choices indicate her priorities. The central struggles for a black person of her generation were, and continue to be, civil rights and the fight against racism. The opening of her statement supporting the impeachment of President Richard Nixon at the Watergate hearings shows that she was not blinded by her devotion to her beloved Constitution, and that she was well- aware that it excluded blacks:
'We the people'--is a very eloquent beginning. But when the Constitution of the United States was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that 'We the people.' I felt for many years that somehow George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through amendment, interpretation and court decision, I have finally been included in 'We the people.'. . .My faith in the Constitution is whole. It is complete. It is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.
Senator Lloyd M. Bentsen of Texas later commented that as he watched her give her speech at the Watergate hearings, he "looked down to see if she were reading from stone tablets." Perhaps we are unaccustomed to dealing with people who focus on a single idealistic objective, who act out of principle. In my research on Alice Paul, the suffragist and prime advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment, I found an account about her that describes her life during the winters in Washington, D.C.: She permitted nothing into her life or her consciousness that did not have a direct bearing on suffrage. She lived in a cold room so she wouldn't be tempted to read novels late at night.
Her passion for the ERA was the focus of her life. I believe that Barbara Jordan's refusal to come out emanated from a similar passion for the Constitution. Just as reading novels would have been an indulgence for Alice Paul, she would have considered coming out and becoming a lesbian icon to be an indulgence. She would not allow herself to be defined by things that she considered to be aspects of her life. I do not believe she feared anyone for her entire life was a lesson in courage. She did not hide her relationship with Nancy Earl, as her book shows. She did not fear being diminished or having her reputation tarnished by the disclosure but that the public focus would turn to her private life away from the great passion of her life the Constitution. Everything else was secondary.
White and middle-class from the Midwestern state of Iowa, E. Bradford Burns could not have been more different from Barbara Jordan if their roles had been cast by Hollywood. I first met him when I won a teaching assistantship in my second year of graduate school. He had been away on sabbatical leave during my first year, so I first met him on the first day of class in the Fall of 1989. Burns strode up and down the aisles of the 400-student classroom, his long arms gracefully accenting his words, moving lithely, his tall slender body as graceful as a dancer's: My gaydar went wild; I turned to my friend, Julie, "You didn't tell me he was gay!" "He isn't," she replied. "Oh Julie, c'mon! How many straight men--aside from Mikhail Baryshnikov--do YOU know who move like that?" He clinched it a moment later when, in the midst of his introduction to Latin American history, he quoted Oscar Wilde. Julie still wasn't sure; while everybody "knew" he was gay, he did not confirm it. He never acknowledged it, never replied in kind when his gay or lesbian students came out to him, and seemed ill at ease with the ones who wanted to work with him.
As a graduate student, I was confused and troubled by his reticence. I struggled with the way he kept me at an arm's distance: and wondered if he disliked me, or didn't think me capable of the scholarship, or if my presence in the department threatened him in some way I could not understand as a student. My confusion over my relationship with him made me doubt my own capabilities until I received support and encouragement from other members of my faculty, particularly two for whom I had great respect. I began to notice that I was not alone in this semi-estrangement from him: He treated all the out-gay and -lesbian students coolly. Remarkably, his attitude towards me changed when I left UCLA. His letters were much warmer than he had ever been with me.
Professors and graduate students can enjoy great intellectual intimacy. Academics are familiar with this relationship: It is based on an ancient and honorable tradition that is best articulated in opening paragraphs of the Hippocratic oath, ie., the oath taken by physicians upon their admission to the professions: I swear. . .that I will fulfil according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant: To hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents and to live out my life in partnership with him, and if he is in need of money to give him an equal share of mine, and to regard his offspring as equal to my brothers in male lineage and to teach them this art. . .
Contrary to the impersonal nature of the relationship of the professor with his/her students in the large lecture hall, the graduate student works closely with her mentor, often in his or her home, going to conferences with him or her. In one of his last letters to me, following a visit at the American Historical Association Conference in January 1994 he wrote,
What a great pleasure it was for me to see you and visit with you in San Francisco. What a blessed person I was to enjoy dining in the midst of such fine students. I was indeed proud and rather overawed by the assemblage. Tiempos idos y vividos! [Times lived and gone!] I will always remember that impressive group of lively young scholars.Although we often visited his home, we never saw anyone there besides his dog Chula, and his rabbit who, we learned from his lover, David Aguayo, after his death, was named "Bruiser." When we called, only Burns answered the phone. Until the last months of his life, only his voice and his name were on the telephone answering machine. It would have been hard to believe that he had long-term relationship. When the notice of his death arrived from UCLA by electronic mail, it mentioned that he died at home in the care of his longtime companion of 23 years, David Aguayo. Imagine our surprise! All over the country, the phone lines lit up: "Did YOU know Burns had a lover?" "Twenty-three years--WHERE did he keep him?" He had never brought him to school functions, or to the parties that the doctoral candidates had when they passed their oral examinations. We had never seen them together having lunch or dinner on campus: We were simply astonished.
David luxuriated in the well-deserved attention given to him at the memorial service. One of my classmates asked David if he had left the house deliberately when we came to visit. "You noticed?" he replied. One of the most touching moments at the service occurred when he told us that he knew all of us by name because Burns had told him with great pride about our accomplishments. If only Burns had been able to let come close to him; if only he had let us love him! Nevertheless, Burns chose to lead his life his own way, for his own reasons, and apparently David acquiesced in that choice. No external force compelled him to stay with Burns. One can only conclude that while David must have suffered from his invisibility in Burns' public life, there must have been other compensations for him in their life together.
Burns' relatives apparently knew. At the memorial service, David introduced us to Burns' nephew, the only member of the family who was able to attend since his Burns' mother had a heart attack shortly after his death, which she attributed to the strain of losing him. David, a Southern California Latino from a large family, told us of Burns' acceptance into his family. They had a wide circle of friends. David had traveled extensively with him and knew his mother, sister and other family members. In a heartbreaking letter I received from his mother, she wrote,
I sit here weeping as I write: He was a wonderful son--so loving--so thoughtful, and he treated me like a queen. Our phone calls always ended, "I love you, mother" and "I love you, son . . . I miss him terribly.Considering that he was 63 at his death, his mother had apparently made peace with his choices long ago.
Burns had achieved his fifteen minutes of fame in 1983 when then President Ronald Reagan excoriated him for attacking U.S. policy in Nicaragua. Burns had published a book called At War in Nicaragua: the Reagan Doctrine and the Politics of Nostalgia. The book, with chapter titles such as "Obsessed with Nicaragua," and "The Dirty Little War," struck a nerve with Ronald Reagan, and he denounced him from the White House. In an intemperate attack, Reagan accused him of "disbursing disinformation" and "making propaganda." "Imagine," wrote Burns, "being called a "disinformer" by the very guy who assured us for a full week in November, 1984, that Soviet MIGs were on their way to Nicaragua, before saying, "never mind." Reagan concluded with the promise to pray for Burns' students, to which he replied that that was a good thing since the students had exams coming up. An interesting footnote to this incident is that despite being closeted, At War in Nicaragua is dedicated to David John Aguayo.
For Burns, teaching was the ruling passion of his life. "Go ahead and do your research, publish your books: A few of your colleagues will read and enjoy it, but if you want to change the world," he told one of my classmates, "teach undergraduates." During his distinguished career, he taught at Columbia and UCLA, published twelve books and approximately 150 articles. Of teaching he wrote,
We must learn to teach better. Our enthusiasms for the study of the past should be infectious. We must constantly transfer our conviction of the significance and relevance of history to the young. Tedium has no place in our lecture halls simply because no subject is more exciting than history. We must convey that excitement.
I don't think that it was fear of being publicly denounced as a homosexual that kept him from being more forthcoming with his students, though I wonder how Reagan would have used the information if he had known. I am often asked if I wasn't disappointed that Burns kept his sexual preference to himself. I believe that "disappointment" can be a very manipulative idea. One can be disappointed in one's own failings or mistakes; in one's child's moral lapse, but to be disappointed that someone who is leading a perfectly honorable life fails to live up to our expectations, seems to me to be presumptuous, to say the least. Ultimately, we must respect the choices others make for their own lives even if they are not what we would like for them. Looking for the common thread between Burns and Barbara Jordan, what captured my attention was the fact that they were both college teachers who kept their sexual preferences to themselves. It is at this juncture that I consider my own tactics in the classroom.
Teaching the history of Latin America and women's studies is my joy and my passion.I am at ease and happy in front of a roomful of undergraduates as I am almost nowhere else. I rejoice in their victories, and if it is possible, help them up when they fail. To me, they are "mis pollitos," my baby chicks. Their weekly hair color changes make me laugh, their banter is music to my ears. When they include me in their lives, by inviting me to a poetry reading or a party, I feel the deep connection with them as people. Nevertheless, I don't initially come out to my classes.
If they come to my office and they are semiconscious, they will notice the Stonewall banner over my desk and the bookcase filled with gay and lesbian books. Now and then a student who visits me frequently will ask who the woman is in the photograph over my computer: I reply that she is my late lover Gudrun who died of breast cancer. Gay and lesbian students pick up on hints I drop but I never come out until the semester is almost over for a simple reason: The focus of my work and my life is Latin American history, and my first priority is to challenges their misconceptions and to make Latin America real to them.
Besides my teaching, I am deeply involved in minority student retention and affirmative action. During my years teaching, I have intervened for Latino students whose parents have difficulty accepting their children's academic aspirations. I make a serious effort, when dealing with them, not to look too dyky: no easy task for someone who can transform clothes that look very feminine on my mother into the perfect dyke-in-drag outfit. I go to the bother of trying to transform my appearance not because I fear for my personal safety or worry that they will not like me but for the sake of the student, and with the understanding that I must do all I can to win their confidence and that of their parents.
There is a great deal of homophobia among students. Many of them come from extremely conservative backgrounds or small towns, and may not be prepared to deal with a teacher who is gay. If I were to announce it the first day of class, ("Hi, I'm your instructor for Latin American history and I'm a lesbian,") I know I would lose a significant number of students immediately. An activist might disregard their discomfort, noting that their self-exclusion is their own loss, but I consider at what I am trying to accomplish and conclude that my goals in the classroom are more important to me than my personal satisfaction at being open about my sexuality, particularly since I have maintained a celibate marriage with my daughter's father for the last 15 of our 23 years together. Dealing with complexity is not the American public's strong suit and I have no desire to parade my private life in the bright glare of the afternoon television scandal mongers.
I am not imagining this homophobia: Recently, I showed my class Dona Herlinda and Her Son, a film about two Mexican gay men. In the first frames, the main characters embrace ardently: Through the dark, from the seats behind me, came loud, disgusted groans and retching sounds. I was surprised that they were so open with their homophobia. I confronted them: What is the real difference between two men who love each other kissing passionately and a heterosexual couple kissing passionately? The silence hung in the air like an empty noose. I was nervous as I led them through this discussion. As I spoke, my mind was racing: I recalled the experience of a lesbian friend of mine at UCLA who a student accused of sexual harassment because she announced that she was a lesbian at the beginning of the quarter and made a point of addressing gay and lesbian issues in the class. Another time, I co-led a TA workshop where my colleague mentioned her affiliation with Los Angeles gay and lesbian center: One of the evaluation forms complained that the workshop leaders had spent all their time talking about gay issues. Yet another time, when I was teaching a women's studies class and decided, in that context, to come out to my class for National Coming Out Day during the second week of class, several students pointedly dropped the class. That afternoon, as I took a nap, one of my students woke me with an obscene phone call. I have an excellent memory for voices and I knew instantly who it was: I said "Michael, aren't you a bit young to be engaging in such hateful behavior?" The phone clicked off immediately--I knew I had hit my mark, but I found myself shaking with fear as I hung up the phone. I would see Michael on campus now and then following that incident but he always avoided me. By the time the film and our discussion ended and I made my way back to my car, I was perspiring heavily and feeling weak with exhaustion.
A good indication of the homophobia on college campuses is documented by a study conducted by Committee on Women Historians of the American Historical Association on the experience of Lesbian and Gay Historians in Academia. It showed the startling result that the rate of homophobia was steady and equally present in large state universities and small rural colleges, although church-run colleges in the Bible-belt of the Southeast and Southwest were particularly hostile to lesbian and gay faculty. The study chronicled a list of difficulties encountered by these groups: jobs lost; tenure denied or delayed; difficult tenure battles; hostility from fellow faculty members; exclusion from department social events; even barely concealed giggling and guffawing from senior tenured faculty when the lesbian or gay members walked by. The report showed that 70% of lesbian and gay faculty experienced prejudice from colleagues, students or administrators, and at least 43% suffered some form of discrimination: 16.9% in promotion and tenure and 20% in hiring. The good news is that in many cases, those who refused to discriminate outnumbered the prejudiced members of the department, making tenure and promotion possible for the lesbian and gay faculty. A survey of the sociology department heads in 1982, at the height of both Burns' and Jordan's teaching careers, revealed that "63 percent had reservations about hiring a known homosexual." One man reported that when he came out, "Few [of his older male colleagues] troubled to hide their revulsion. Some expressed contempt." Forty-seven and four-tenths percent reported that their partners were not acknowledged, though 52.6% reported that they personally (though not their mates) were at least socially acknowledged by their departments. Many of those who come out of the closets say that dealing with the prejudice is less of a stress than staying in the closet. Of those who replied to the survey, only 31.4% were out. It is an ugly picture, and one that Barbara Jordan would have encountered on a daily basis teaching at the University of Texas at Austin. Her celebrity would not have protected her from the hostility engaged in by the homophobes.
Andrew Sullivan, the Republican and gay man who, until recently, edited the weekly magazine The New Republic, recently described an encounter with Right Wing presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. "Andrew, it's not who you are, it's what you do!" he yelled at him across a table on CNN's "Crossfire." Open, unbridled homophobia such as that expressed by Buchanan is characteristic of a segment of society that considers gays and lesbians to be fair game. One must remember that it was in Texas that a judge ruled as recently as five years ago that two gay men who were killed because of their sexual identity brought the beatings on themselves. The prejudice against lesbians and gays would have affected her in her role as a college professor, despite her history of achievement.
I can testify to the subtle homophobia at UCLA. When I started graduate school, there were only two other "out" history graduate students besides myself out of over 500 graduate students in the department. Out of seventy-seven full-time faculty members (tenured and tenure-track), in a department that, in 1988, included such luminaries as Carlo Ginsberg, Gary Nash, Saul Friedlander, Robert Dallek, Richard G. Hovannasian, Joyce Appleby, Ellen Carol DuBois, and Robert Brenner, to name a few, there were no "out" faculty. If the statistics are correct, there should have been seven to twelve gay or lesbian members of the UCLA History Department, and perhaps fifty to seventy-five gay or lesbian graduate students.
The Women's Committee study also showed that 54.6% of lesbian and gay faculty throughout the country reported experiencing discrimination from the students. Students are generally conservative or apathetic. The latter fall back into the conservatism of their parents, or may just be naive about the diversity in the world. The professor in his or her classroom maintains a delicate balance, "a fragile chemistry," Burns called it, which builds upon many complex, interlinking factors. The question that every teacher must ask is if teaching this lesson will benefit the student. If it will not, then it should not be a part of the curriculum.
The issue isn't the effect on oneself personally of coming out to a class, although that is a strategic decision that each teacher must make. The issue is that the students who would walk out upon hearing that the professor is a lesbian are most in need of learning tolerance for others in an increasingly diverse society. If I wait until I win their confidence and then introduce the subject gingerly, I can often persuade someone who would have been resistant two months earlier to a different and more tolerant way of thinking. But I am also aware that the amount of prejudice in the classroom today cannot be compared to the conditions that Barbara Jordan and Brad Burns had to contend with as members of the same generation and from two very conservative regions of the country.
Even though the poet W.H. Auden said that a professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep, teaching isn't just the presentation of material; it isn't preaching to the converted. It is a process of transformation; the opening of the heart and mind to the nourishment of the ideas flowing by and around them. Sometimes, teaching consists of coaxing a mind to open just far enough, just long enough for us to slip in and transform it.
Burns knew this: He often joked that he didn't like graduate students because they were cynical and jaded but give him a roomful of undergraduates and he could change the world. A lesbian or gay person teaching in the last few years of the millennium isn't home free. The challenges to the college professor as the world turns more conservative and everyone's personal information becomes accessible by computer are positively frightening. I suggest that we think of Barbara Jordan and Brad Burns as the academic equivalents of the butches in the bars in the 50s: They wore the obligatory pieces of women's clothes under their butch garments so that they could live as they wished: It didn't make them less radical. For them to have been more open would have been suicidal; for Burns and Jordan to have been "out" in their generation in academia and politics, would have been professionally suicidal. We should honor them both and hold ourselves up to their standards to see how well we fare. As for me, if my obituary carried a headline like the one that the Houston Chronicle did for Barbara Jordan, "A Voice for Justice Dies: Barbara Jordan lived as a pioneer and a world prophet," I think I could rest easy for all eternity.
[Footnotes available on request.]
Rosa Maria Pegueros
217C Washburn Hall
Department of History
80 Upper College Road, Suite 3
University of Rhode Island
Kingston, RI 02881-0817
pegueros @ uri.edu
"When a great adventure is offered, you don't refuse it."