When I was a student in the 1970s, it would have been nearly unthinkable for an openly queer person to speak at commencement — even at a liberal college. The Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 was of recent memory and homosexuality was considered a mental illness until 1973.
“Put on a skirt,” my late father said, as I got ready for my graduation, “people will think you’re a lesbian if you wear jeans.” My Dad, a man of good will, voiced the view of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people held by many at that time.
Today, when an out celebrity speaks at a graduation, few bat an eye. Ellen DeGeneres’ commencement speech at Tulane University last year was an instant hit in the blogosphere. When Rachel Maddow, the lesbian MSNBC host respected by many of all sexual orientations for her smart, witty political commentary, addresses graduating students at Smith College this Sunday, it’s a safe bet that her remarks will be Tweeted widely.
Like many, I sometimes become nostalgic about my youth. Facing the realities of work, a mortgage, an elderly stepmother with health issues — let alone the bad economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — I long for dorm bull sessions, hitting the great books and good ole’ sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
Yet, when I emerge from my hazy reverie, I remember things weren’t that great if you were gay back in the day. There were no gay/straight alliances in high schools and few, if any, queer groups on college campuses. Since coming out was so new, it wasn’t easy to find other LGBT students and there weren’t any online chatrooms, dating sites or listservs. It was hard for me and other queers to come out to ourselves when so often people who we loved and respected — our parents, teachers and even our friends — thought that “homosexuals” were “sick” or “disturbed.” One of my best friends was sent to a psychiatrist to be “helped” when her mother discovered her letters to her lesbian lover.
In many ways, it’s a whole new planet if you’re queer and graduating in the class of 2010. Many of you have grown up with the support of your parents, teachers and hetero peers. With everything from gay porn to gay-friendly churches being a mouse click away, it’s hard to conceive of a time before even grandmas had gaydar. Coming out may seem like an outdated rite of passage to those of you whose sexuality is so well integrated into your life and so widely accepted.
Some of you, in Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., where same-sex marriage is legal, will marry after graduation. At some point, you (or you and your mate) may start a family. No matter what your future holds, the odds are that you’ll be less conflicted and less closeted about your sexual orientation than previous generations of LGBT graduates.
We boomers can be tedious in our coming out stories. Most of us weren’t at Stonewall. Many of us have been scarred to some degree by homophobia, but, despite this, we’ve often lived fulfilling lives.
Yet, even in the age of “Glee,” life won’t be all irony and glam if you’re queer and donning a cap and gown this year. Marriage equality is still just a dream for most gay and lesbians. As this paper has reported, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is being delayed. Anti-gay violence and employment discrimination continue to be issues for our community.
As you commence, do what you can to make life better for future generations. Celebrate LGBT history, but remember (to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw) nostalgia is wasted on the young.
Kathi Wolfe is a local writer and poet. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.