Wednesday, July 17, 2013

I was kicked out of Rhodes College for being gay

Well, sort of. I was kicked out in an unofficial way - the "we hate you and we will make your life hell until you go" kind of way. But it was Rhodes College and I was fully and completely gay.

To be fair, it was a long time ago. 1991 is (doing the math) -- OH SHIT -- that's 22 years! Correction: it was ages ago.

I often think about my experience at Rhodes but it rarely occupies my mind for long. Today was different. It came up in conversation with a friend this morning. I don't know what we were talking about but it was apropos to the conversation and for some reason the pain of this old event seemed particularly fresh to me and I have dwelt on it off and on all day.

I burst out of the closet like a tiger through a flaming paper hoop. My idea of gradually introducing the idea was to show up in Russian History II wearing shiny teal polyester pants, a burgundy red button up shirt and matching red eye liner. Fair dues though, I had been working up to it for nineteen years and this was, to me, just another small step towards self-realization. Window dressing, if you will.

That was the spring of 1989. By that fall I had tired of shiny polyester and was growing impatient with eye liner as a means of self expression. I was reading The Advocate and going to the sad, sad gay bars of Memphis on the weekends. I was also searching for allies on campus. I found a few potentials but scared them off with my brash openness, my inability to blend in. I didn't lose much sleep over that though.

Probably the smartest move I made was to seek counseling services on campus to help me sort through the major issues I was having around the need to cram my Pentecostal self, my gay self, my blue collar self, my high-academic-achieving self, my searching self and my lonesome self into one consciousness. This worked well for me. I could talk to someone and they got paid to listen. In the process I came up with the questions that lay beneath my growing pains and I figured out the answers to a lot of them.

My next smartest move was to fall in love with a guy old enough to be my dad. Jay was HIV positive and didn't bother to let me in on that secret until we had been dating for several months. I decided we should get married. I am typing this as a nearly 45 year old man and, yes, I am cringing as I type. Back then I was 19. Don't even ask what was going on in my head. If you imagine the worst cluster fuck of co-dependency, insecurity and naivete, you're on the right track. That isn't the point of this story though. I've worked through most of that. The point is my decision to marry led me to the campus chaplain, Steve.

Steve was not ready for me. He was open minded though and, after some prayer and study, agreed to enter into a period of couples counseling with us both. He didn't promise to marry us. He said he would work prayerfully with us and see where that led. Over a period of a couple of months he learned a lot about gayness and we learned a little about couples counseling. Steve took us at face value, never judging, never disrespecting in spite of his inexperience. In the end he agreed to perform our commitment ceremony in the Voorhies Chapel.

It was Fall semester, 1990. We dressed and drove to the chapel. Our guests arrived early. My dear sister Rebecca was there. The chaplain arrived fifteen minutes early with a grim look on his face. The college president, James Daughdrill, had summoned him and delivered the news that if we were married he would be fired. Jay and I made the decision in less than a minute. Steve has stood by us through this process and grown with us. We would not be responsible for the loss of his job. The wedding party followed us back to Jay's apartment in Midtown where we ate the wedding cake and had drinks. It was not a celebration.

Since coming out I had faced several threats and confrontations on campus. My dorm mate moved into a different room. My dorm room was vandalized repeatedly. After our wedding was scuttled the abuse intensified. Obscenities were hurled down to me from windows as I walked across campus. A couple of times things were thrown at me. I was a leper in the Refectory. I received death threat phone calls late at night.

At some point I requested a meeting with Daughdrill to discuss the difficulties I was facing on campus. He refused to meet with me and instead sent a dean to run interference. I was told that no one had committed any crime but to let them know if that happened. The dean informed me that Daughdrill was very busy and would not be able to meet with me.

My grades took a nose dive. I was unable to study, concentrate, couldn't physically relax on campus. I was unable to get an appointment with my advisor, the chair of the Political Science department, until I caught him in the hall and pushed the point. When I explained my situation he did not seem surprised and was not helpful. In fact, the air in his office had a distinct flavor of disdain. I got the message.

As my life became less comfortable on campus I spent more time off-campus. By Christmas Break I had moved into Jay's apartment and my transition away from school was complete. That is how I went, in five semesters, from having high hopes of academic success at a highly regarded private college to being a college drop out. That is how I was kicked out of Rhodes College for being gay.

According to their website, Rhodes now has an LGBT Working Group and a nice little anti discrimination policy here. The school is still affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and that denomination has recently published a lengthy and carefully constructed statement about same sex marriage.

Apparently there has been some growth within the denomination and on the Rhodes College campus. I would like to visit again some day and see whether the on-the-ground reality matches the online presentation.

I would also like to reconnect with Steve. Aside from a couple of boyfriends, he was the first adult man I interacted with on an equal footing. His practice allowed me to see myself as a man. I hadn't gotten that previously from my dad or from men at church or school. That meant a lot to me then and it still does today. I would like to thank him for that.

Sunday, July 7, 2013


This poem is published in Wendell Berry's 2010 volume Leavings. I read it yesterday morning and must have re-read it four or five times during the day. It is a very sneaky poem, beginning with an obvious easy question and gradually working up to one of the most basic (and ignored) conundrums of life as a member of society.

1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.

4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

Of course, no one would kill a child for energy or an ideal. If the child is in front of you and you know her name, you will not kill her. You might step between her and the bullet and give your own life. Lots of people have.

What if you do not know her name, see her face? What if her existence is within a small rectangle on a monitor and you are at a command center thousands of miles away? Her parents are Afghanis? Does that make the killing any easier?

I'm burning babies every day as I drive to work. Their ashes are invisible to me; I do not examine my exhaust pipe.