From yesterday’s inbox…
It (the Academy) Gets Better
October2012By Bill Tierney
Twenty-five years ago this month, a gay rights organization was constituted at Penn State University with equal parts solidarity, confusion, and fear. The university’s nondiscrimination policy lacked a clause for gays and lesbians, which made discriminating against us okay. Two years later, we wrote a respectful letter to the university president asking to meet with him. As an untenured assistant professor, I signed the letter. Many full professors did not. They had too much to lose.
The signers eventually met with the president, who agreed, after much foot dragging, to establish a commission to study gay and lesbian issues. I chaired the commission, and we wrote a report about the climate at Penn State for gays and lesbians. After another spell of hesitation, the administration allowed the report to be distributed.
The faculty senate held a hearing on our findings. I went to testify and saw state police at the door; they had been invited, in case of a disturbance. TV cameras broadcast the scene across Happy Valley. Soon after, the faculty senate issued a call to the Board of Trustees to include sexual orientation in Penn State’s statement of nondiscrimination.
I arrived home one evening and the phone rang. Someone said, “Stop talking about this gay stuff. Shut up or you’ll be sorry!” and hung up. Later that week the phone rang in the dead of night and someone yelled, “Faggot!” and hung up.
For the first time, a woman was elected to chair the Board of Trustees. She invited the longtime leader of gay rights on campus, and me, to meet with her. She would get the trustees to act, she said, by confronting them one at a time. Whatever her secret, they voted shortly thereafter to include sexual orientation in the university’s nondiscrimination policy. It was one of the board’s closest votes ever.
The president finally declared the importance of supporting diversity on campus and hired a vice president for diversity. Responding to the concerns of gay students was part of the job.
Flash forward to 2008. California offers a window of opportunity for my partner, Barry, and me to marry. My brothers, nephews, and nieces attend the wedding. Barry’s 90-year-old father sings for the crowd. My dean at the University of Southern California, my friends on the faculty, and our university provost (now president) Max Nikias and his wife are in attendance. A member of the Board of Trustees sits with us. Afterwards, the president sends us a poem commemorating the occasion.
October is LGBTQ History Month, and October 11 is National Coming Out Day. AERA, I believe, held its first openly gay and lesbian Annual Meeting session in 1989. The AERA Queer Studies SIG was formed about a year later.
Bigotry and intolerance still exist. But I reject the idea that nothing improves. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King said, “but it bends towards justice.” There are those who will sit on the sidelines, for one reason or another, and I wish they would not. There are those who will be against us, for one reason or another, and I wish they were not. And there are those who will continue to speak up. They are the ones who will make a difference for the better, for all of us.
Dan Savage started the “It Gets Better” project to help LGBT youth in schools. Check it out on
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