Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a series assessing the LGBT climate on university campuses as told by alumni we’re pairing with current students to tell their stories. This week: Bob Witeck and the University of Virginia. Next in the series: Jeff Trammell returns to William and Mary as rector.
In 1973, Bette Midler flounced out of the Continental Baths in Manhattan to record the chart-topping gay anthem, “You Gotta Have Friends,” but for Bob Witeck, it didn’t come with an instruction manual. With nary a hint of gay life on the campus of the University of Virginia, he sought help in the library.
“There were maybe 10 titles, each of them clinical or scary,” Witeck recalled. “None gave me a sense of hope, promise or acceptance in any way.” So, he buried himself in his studies, anti-war activism and marathon bridge tournaments. He could declare and partner in bridge, but seeking one in life was too risky. Jesse Helms and Anita Bryant were hunting and killing gay civil rights wherever they could. Witeck is from an entire generation of “Friends of Dorothy” — and the gay, straight-A student was asexual.
Such was the state of gay life on America’s college campuses for many closeted students 40 years ago.
Today, brimming with hope, promise and acceptance, Brendan Maupin Wynn walks the same UVA campus that Witeck did four decades earlier — only he’s running for office, signing petitions for any number of progressive causes, and when the mood strikes him, he takes a man on a date.
“I only worry whether my date has a winning smile — never how we’ll be treated at an event,” he says. This straight-A student is gay and makes no apologies for it.
When he learned of this project for the Washington Blade and that he was being paired with Bob Witeck, Wynn responded, “Is this the Bob Witeck who’s the Washington PR magician?” The answer is yes, Brendan, and that magician did a disappearing act when he was in your shoes. Contrasting the two Cavs is the goal of this column and that progress is nothing about which to be cavalier.
LGBT rights advances can be attributed to the work of many straight allies and gay heroes — and on the UVA Grounds, to the Serpentine Society, where LGBT alumni provide straight talk beside the legendary curvy serpentine wall invented by Thomas Jefferson. The Serpentine Society was conceived in 1998 and is dedicated to advocating for LGBT alumni, faculty and students.
It’s simultaneously no one’s fault — and everyone’s — that LGBT students had to live in a quiet isolated closet over much of history. Queers have been in quads since the first Corinthian column was erected on a campus. Today they’re out in the sunshine sitting against that same column.
Who to thank for all this progress? Witeck’s gay heroes are pre-Stonewall: Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings and Lilli Vincenz. His straight heroes are Rep. John Lewis (D- Ga.) and Julian Bond of the NAACP — black leaders who considered us their “gay brothers and sisters” even before President Obama gave an inaugural shout-out to those brave enough to be out. Imagine that from Richard Nixon in ’73. Wynn’s straight hero is Hillary Clinton and he talks about the gay-straight village it took to raise him at UVA. While Ellen DeGeneres and Rachel Maddow are high on his list of gay heroes, he need look no further than Peabody Hall on campus to find others.
“I am so lucky to have a ton of gay role models to choose from. Our dean of students, Allen Groves is the coolest guy around. Everyone on Grounds loves him!”
Our long slow march toward this equality is sort of parallel in pop culture to the goofy (and now gay) Gomer Pyle of the ‘60s TV show. The now-out Jim Nabors endured sit-com life in quiet backwards Mayberry RFD. Nabors waited until he was 82 to come out. Wynn? He grew up with Will and Grace. In comparison, his coming out was a piece of cake. Even in rural Tidewater, Va., he was able to come out to his parents and very close friends in 10th grade. He arrived at UVA to find that a freshman’s sexual orientation was indeed part of freshmen orientation.
Witeck waited until he was out of college before pursuing the authentic gay life. That year, Paul Simon topped the charts with “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and it’s only then that Witeck looked for one.
With courage and composure, Witeck has returned to help make the Grounds at UVA better for Wynn and the generations to follow. Witeck has worked on the Hill and in public relations. He worked for Sen. Bob Packwood and for Hill and Knowlton, the legendary PR shop, and now owns his own firm, Witeck Communications in D.C. He published the landmark book “Business Inside Out,” serves on too many LGBT boards to mention, and returned to UVA in 2001 to accept the prestigious Bernard Mayes Award.
Would he trade all that for four “out” years as a young man?
“I felt very lucky to have the quality of education UVA offers,” Witeck said. “I sometimes imagine the difference being open and honest would have allowed me to break my own self barriers. But no, I have zero regrets. What I really value is having witnessed so much of this change in 40 years and knowing that we all played a part in making it happen.” It occurs to him that childless gay boomers do have kids going to college each year — other people’s gay children who need help and guidance.
Wistful about the past, but stridently optimistic about the future, Witeck reflects, ”The Serpentine Society is one of the few groups that serve as a bridge for the gay community to the entire Virginia community — to the faculty, staff and students and allows us to put LGBT and identity issues forward.”
Although UVA isn’t perfect on gay issues, and may lag behind some other major institutions, the vision of the Serpentine Society is helping bring about positive change.
Scientists recently reported that as we age, the most vivid memories we will retain will be those from 12 to 22 years. Cleverly termed “the reminiscence bump” it’s a cruel hoax on older gay folks. Those years could be lonely and isolating and when it comes to true gay identity, it’s a bump that leaves an entire generation with just a lump in their throats. Not so with Wynn.
“I can’t count the number of gay friends I have in my head! Isn’t that awesome?” He still cautions that many of his classmates are closeted and that victory isn’t complete. As Witeck says, “Students today still have their own aspirations, fears, risks and needs.”
Anyone walking the grounds at UVA must know that time has been on the side of LGBT students. Just ask Wynn and his date, sitting over on the Lawn, both with their winning smiles.
Wynn’s ancestor, Socrates Maupin, joined UVA as a student in 1828 and later returned as faculty. The Civil War occurred while he was chairman of the faculty. It was Socrates Maupin who refinanced the university on his credit, reconstituted the faculty and returned the university to the Union — clearly marking progress and forward momentum.
Today, if Socrates — or Witeck — were to return to the grounds, they’d walk past an open door on the ground floor of Newcomb Hall where Scott Rheinheimer leads the LGBT Resource Center. New to his job, he is amazed at the support and resources for the center.
“From Dean Groves to the Serpentine Society to the faculty and the administration, everyone here has welcomed me openly and warmly,” Rheinheimer said.
So, Witeck lived in a desert so today’s students, like Wynn, could enjoy an oasis.
“I think that students inherently face a number of challenges acclimating to the college environment,” said Wynn. “What’s fortunate is that the university has made great strides in being inclusive and accepting. Like Bob, many students feel they must hide their orientation — from their parents, from their classmates and even from their friends. There are still challenges to coming out, but I think that it’s getting easier, and it’s getting better.”
Brent Mundt is collecting alumni stories for a book. Reach him at Brentm54@comcast.net.