Editor’s note: This is the second installment in the “Back To School” series assessing the LGBT climate on university campuses as told by alumni we’re pairing with current students to tell their stories. This week: Jeff Trammell and William & Mary. Next in the series: Lesbian author Fay Jacobs returns to American University.
Speaking of her beloved college, the acclaimed actress Glenn Close once said, “I have an indestructible, visceral connection to this place — a connection which is vital and real and which has sustained me through good times and bad.”
This loving endorsement of William & Mary by Close threads the needle for this series. As we explore the experiences and struggles of gay alumni, the actress known for her roles in “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Fatal Attraction” serves apt imagery.
For Jeff Trammell, in the early 1970s, any same-sex liaisons would have been dangerous — and any attraction could be fatal to his reputation, or worse.
So, while heterosexual classmates were sewing their wild oats, Trammell buried himself in books, basketball and life in the Lambda Chi fraternity. One can picture him with 20 pounds of history books in his backpack, waiting in line to use a public pay phone to call his “date” — a coed with whom only polite conversation would take place. No liaisons, no attractions. The oats he sewed were mild. He only risked coming out once, quietly, to his straight little brother in the fraternity. Much later in life, Trammell would come to lead the Lambda Alliance for LGBTQ’s, but, typical of Trammell, he didn’t drop his ties to Lambda Chi. To this day he is thankful to — and a dear friend of —his little brother and sole confidant, Dave Blount.
Trammell took one shot at wild oats back then. It was a secret mission into D.C. to check out the legendary gay bar, Lost and Found. He arrived at 7 p.m. and entered solo. The bartender just laughed and said, “Come back at 11.” The star senior hoopster was a rookie in gay life so he anxiously sat out in the parking lot. Once inside at the stroke of 11, he saw men dancing with men. As he puts it, “Breathtaking.” But, across the crowded dance floor he spotted the captain of the tennis team, and frightened, he slunk into the shadows, “which is not easy at 6’7″.”
Like many southern boys, Trammell relies on those immortal words from “Steel Magnolias”: “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” And strong is an understatement. Settled down with Stuart Serkin, his husband with whom he has danced for 36 years, they laugh at having met taking the Florida Bar exam — and Serkin had to coax out of Trammell that his great uncle was indeed “that” former Gov. Trammell of Florida. Their first date was to see “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and here they are 36 years later watching the potential reality horror show “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Under Ken Cuccinelli?” But, ever present in their politics, both are at the barricades working for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe.
Trammell has worked for Democrats on Capitol Hill for decades, run LGBT outreach for both the Al Gore and John Kerry campaigns and gone toe-to-toe on gay issues with the likes of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. Throughout his life, he has always stayed involved in William & Mary alumni affairs. Last year, he agreed once again to mentor an undergrad — this time Davey McKissick, a senior whose experiences are quite different.
First off, McKissick’s books and phone are both on his iPad, and literally balanced in the palm of his hand. In his other hand? His boyfriend’s. No pay phones, no book bags, no coed “beards.” And if McKissick were single and ran into a gay tennis player, he wouldn’t feel the need to run away. He leads an authentic life. He has learned his gay history through documentaries, lectures at W&M and through Trammell. His ambition was to intern in D.C. and among the 15,000 alumni in the D.C. area, he’s sitting at Trammell and Company with Jeff — the first openly gay board chair (rector) of a major university.
William & Mary elected the first openly gay board chair of a major university in the United States. It didn’t happen in Cambridge, Berkley or Madison. It happened in Williamsburg, Va. “I owe it all to the GALA students and faculty at the university,” Trammell said. “They created the climate for this to happen.” There are many reasons to look up to this former basketball star, and his height isn’t even at the top of the list. Start with McKissick’s gay hero, Barney Frank. It so happens that Trammell co-founded Stonewall Democrats with Frank, so the next thing you know, bang, McKissick is shaking hands with his hero. McKissick is interested in LGBT outreach at the DNC, and poof, he’s sitting in the director, Jeff Marootian’s office, working the Obama-Biden campaign.
When not mentoring students, Trammell can be found funding LGBT lectures at W&M with Chris Bram, fellow alum and the author of “Gods and Monsters,” or helping to fund the Boswell Project, named for John Boswell, class of 1969 — the historian of same-sex relationships in the middle ages. Ironically, Boswell was lost in the AIDS plague. Or you can find Trammell working with David Mixner on the gay issues documented in the U.S. Holocaust Museum. He’s been appointed to the board of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, which represents 38,000+ trustees across the U.S. He’s answering his Blade interview questions at 1 a.m. and then at press time, he’s on the front page of the Washington Post dealing with the new tuition structure. Throughout, his trips to Williamsburg and Richmond are frequent.
Back in Williamsburg, McKissick has already navigated the same gauntlet of traditions Trammell did — swimming the Crim Dell pond, jumping the wall of the Governor’s Mansion, and running the Sunken Gardens. But today, gay campus life is lived in Technicolor with Pride festivals, movie nights and the occasional drag show. There are “safe zones” throughout campus, letting LGBT students know they are welcome.
Reflecting on all this change, Trammell recalls his mother’s reaction late in life to his coming out post-college.
“Well, she was very WASPy and southern and that adds up to being polite,” Trammell said. “She said ‘Oh, honey, I’ve known that for a long time. Now, we don’t need to talk about it’.”
He got unconditional love, but conditional parameters for discussing it. McKissick’s answer to the question about his straight heroes is heart-warming. He answers: “Betty and Ron.” That would be his parents, the McKissicks.
“I could not ask for more supportive influences in my life,” he said. “They motivate me to set high goals for myself and to be relentless in achieving them.” Betty and Ron have no problem talking with — or about — their son.
“It’s remarkable to see Davey is fully out and authentic, things not possible for me back then,” Trammell said. “I think no matter what the size of your alma mater, gay alums should get back involved and support their students.”
As rector, he will officiate commencement at William & Mary Hall this summer, on the same floor he played his first basketball game.
The college marks 1918 as admitting the first woman student and 1951 the first African American. Gays have been there since 1693, but the price to pay for being admitted was no admission of who you were. Those days are steadily fading behind us. Because of its history, W&M has been called “the alma mater of a nation:”
Hark the students voices swelling
Strong and true and clear
Alma Mater’s love their telling
Ringing far and near
Today, each student’s voice is strong and clear. Liaisons aren’t dangerous and attractions aren’t fatal to your reputation. LGBT alumni proudly join Glenn Close in a visceral connection that has sustained them all through the years.
And so, even from a famed Sunken Garden, when he’s standing on Trammell’s shoulders, McKissick can see nothing but rainbows in a clear blue sky ahead of him.
Read the previous installment of this series at washingtonblade.com. If you have alumni stories to share, reach Brent Mundt at Brentm54@comcast.net.