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Back to school: How campus life got better

Reflections on change as the class of 1974 meets the class of 2014 at UVA



Bob Witeck, Brendan Maupin Wynn, University of Virginia, gay news, Washington Blade
Bob Witeck, Brendan Maupin Wynn, University of Virginia, gay news, Washington Blade

Bob Witeck (left), who graduated from the University of Virginia in 1974, shown here in Charlottesville. Brendan Maupin Wynn, class of 2014, at UVA’s Serpentine Wall on campus. (Photos courtesy of Witeck and Wynn)

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 [email protected].

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Va. businessman apologizes for burning of rainbow flag poster

‘Shocked and horrified’: Ashburn incident caught on video



Organizers of an event where a Pride symbol was burned say the incident was a misunderstanding.

The owner of a Virginia technology company that hosted a private Veterans Day party on the grounds of an Ashburn, Va., brewery in which a company employee used a flame-throwing device to ignite a rainbow flag poster said the selection of the poster was a mistake and he and his company have no ill will toward the LGBTQ community.

The Washington Blade learned about the poster burning from a customer of the Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, where the incident took place on its outdoor grounds. The customer made a video of the incident with his cell phone and sent a copy of the video to the Blade.

The video, which includes an audio recording, shows a man using a hand-held flame-throwing device to ignite the rainbow poster, which was hanging from a cable and appeared to be mounted on cardboard or a thin sheet of wood. Bystanders can be heard laughing and cheering as the poster is set on fire.

The poster consisted of a variation of the LGBTQ Pride rainbow flag that included the word “love” configured from an upper white stripe on the rainbow symbol.

The customer who took the video, who has asked not to be identified, thought the decision to set the poster on fire was a sign of disrespect if not hatred toward a longstanding symbol of LGBTQ equality and pride.

Chris Burns, Old Ox Brewery’s president, shared that view, telling the Blade he and his staff were “shocked and horrified” when they learned later that a rainbow flag poster had been burned on the brewery’s grounds. Burns said Old Ox supports the LGBTQ community and participated in LGBTQ Pride month earlier this year.

He said the company that held the private party paid a fee to hold the event on the brewery’s grounds, but the brewery did not know a rainbow poster would be burned.

“I’m mortified that our event was interpreted in this way,” said Nate Reynolds, the founder and partner of Hypershift Technologies LLC, the Falls Church, Va.-based technology company that organized the Nov. 11 party at Old Ox Brewery. “I can assure you that ZERO ill-will or offense was meant,” Reynolds told the Blade in a Nov. 24 email.

“We held a small private party for a few clients, which included a demonstration of Elon Musk’s Boring Company ‘Not a Flamethrower,’” he said in his message. He was referring to one of billionaire businessman Elon Musk’s companies that specializes in boring through the ground to create tunnels for cars, trains, and other purposes. 

“After so many being isolated during COVID, we wanted to have an event that was lighthearted and to some small effect, silly,” Reynolds said in his message to the Blade.

According to Reynolds, in thinking about what should be used for “fodder” for the flame-thrower, he went to a Five Below discount store and purchased items such as stuffed animals and posters, including a “Space Jam” movie poster as well as what he thought was a poster of the British rock group The Beatles.

“When I pulled the Beatles poster out of the tube it was instead the ‘Love’ poster,” he said, referring to the rainbow flag poster the Blade asked him about in an earlier email.

“All I focused on was the ‘Love’ wording and not the rainbow and did not draw the conclusion that the poster was an icon that represents the LGBTQ community,” Reynolds said. “It was my own ignorance of not connecting the symbolism of the poster. If I had realized it was a symbol of the LGBTQ community, I would not have used it,” he said.

“I feel terrible, and I want to emphasize that I am solely responsible for this mistake – not the Old Ox Brewery,” he wrote in his message. “Nobody at Old Ox had anything to do with this activity.”

Reynolds added, “Hate has no place in my heart, and I sincerely apologize for any offense that could have been drawn from what I now realize was poor judgement on my part. I simply didn’t correlate this poster with the LGBTQ pride symbol.”  

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Before Reynolds issued his statement of apology, Burns, the Old Ox Brewery co-owner, told the Blade in an email he was “saddened and upset” over the rainbow poster burning on the grounds of his brewery.

“We do not wish to benefit from this event,” he said in his email message. “Therefore, Old Ox is donating 100% of the revenue generated from the private event to GLSEN.”

GLSEN is a national LGBTQ advocacy group that focuses on education and support for LGBTQ youth. Burns said Old Ox Brewery also donated proceeds from a Pride month event it organized earlier this year to GLSEN.

LGBTQ activists and organizations contacted by the Blade said they were unfamiliar with the variation of the rainbow flag with the word “love” that was the subject of the poster burning incident. The poster is available for sale at Five Below stores in the D.C. metropolitan area for $5.

Small print writings on the poster show it is produced by Trends International LLC, which describes itself on its website as “the leading publisher and manufacturer of licensed posters, calendars, stickers and social stationery products.” The Blade couldn’t immediately determine who designed the poster.

 The video of the poster burning incident can be viewed here:

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Fairfax schools returns LGBTQ-themed books in high school libraries

Review found ‘no pedophilia’ in texts as critics claimed



(Book cover insert courtesy of Amazon)

The Fairfax County Public Schools announced on Tuesday that following a detailed review by two committees appointed by school officials it has returned two LGBTQ themed books to its high school libraries that had been temporarily withdrawn after being challenged by critics who claimed they included sexually explicit content inappropriate for students.

The two books, “Lawn Boy,” a novel by author Jonathan Evison, and “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” which is described as an illustrated autobiography by non-binary author Maia Kobabe, each contain descriptions of sexual acts.

But supporters of the books have argued that they have won praise by literary critics and, while describing intimate relationships, they tell stories that do not fall into the category of pornography.  

Fairfax County Public Schools, the name used for the county’s public school system, on Tuesday said in a statement that a thorough review of the books by two committees consisting of educators, school officials, parents and some students found that neither book contained content that could be considered to depict pedophilia as claimed by some parents and others opposing the two books.

School officials announced they had temporarily withdrawn the two books from school libraries following a Sept. 23 meeting of the Fairfax County School Board where strong objections to the two books were raised by parents.

“Two books that were subject to formal challenge have been deemed appropriate for high school readers following a two-month review process and will be reinstated to Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) libraries,” Tuesday’s statement by the school system says.

“The decision reaffirms FCPS’s ongoing commitment to provide diverse reading materials that reflect our student population, allowing every child an opportunity to see themselves reflected in literary characters,” the statement continues. “Both reviews concluded that the books were valuable in their potential to reach marginalized youth who may struggle to find relatable literary characters that reflect their personal journey,” the statement says.

The statement says the final decision to reinstate the books was made by Noel Klimenko, the Fairfax County Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for its Instructional Services Department.

The two books have received favorable reviews in various literary publications. Both have received the American Library Association’s Alex Award, an annual award that recognizes the year’s 10 books written for adults that the association says have a special appeal to young adults ages 12 through 18.

“The robust committee process took place over several weeks and considered whether the books flouted regulations by being obscene or harmful to juveniles as defined by the Code of Virginia,” the school system statement says. “The members also considered the work in line with an excerpt from the FCPS Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook pertaining to possessing obscene visual imagery as defined in the Code of Virginia,” the statement says.

“After careful consideration, neither books were deemed to have fallen foul of these regulations,” it concludes.

The decision by Fairfax school officials to reinstate the two books came about six weeks after more than 425 LGBTQ students and allies from over 30 Fairfax County public high schools sent a letter to the school board and the school system’s superintendent urging them to reinstate the two books.

The Pride Liberation Project, a coalition of LGBTQ and allied students in Fairfax County, organized the joint letter.

“Student representatives from over 30 schools, including nearly every high school in Fairfax County Public Schools, have signed this letter, and many of us are students of color, low-income, gender expansive and not out to our families and communities,” the letter states.

“We are writing to ask you to reject calls to remove Maia Kobabe’s ‘Gender Queer’ and Jonathan Evison’s ‘Lawn Boy’ from Fairfax County Public Schools libraries,” the letter says.

It points out that “hundreds of books in our schools already depict heterosexual relationships and physical intimacy,” and says singling out LGBTQ themed books with similar stories of intimacy for rejection is unfair.

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Transgender Zimbabwean woman in Md. wins asylum case

Mattie Tux Horton lives in Rockville



Mattie Tux Horton, right, with her lawyer Ankush Dhupar in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Mattie Tux Horton/Facebook)

A transgender woman from Zimbabwe who lives in Rockville won her asylum case in late October after living in the U.S. for the past five years. 

Mattie Tux Horton was represented by Ankush Dhupar from the Los Angeles law firm Paul Hastings LLP.

“I feel at ease,” said Horton. “Although a lot is going on in the [United States], it’s [significantly] different compared to where I’m coming from.”

Horton said that she now considers the U.S. to be her home. 

Although she has been living in Maryland for a while now, receiving asylum stripped away the anxiety associated with returning to Zimbabwe had the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency denied her request. 

With protection from the U.S. government, Horton gets to live in a safe environment and without the vile treatment she encountered in Zimbabwe because of her transness.

In her hometown of Bulawayo, Horton faced constant public humiliation and was once fired from her job as a graphic artist because of her dress presentation, according to an interview she did with Medium. 

She was attacked by a violent group of men in 2014, and was outed later that year following a holiday trip to South Africa, according to the interview. 

This incident garnered media attention and The Sunday News, a Zimbabwean newspaper, published an article in which it misgendered Horton throughout the entire piece. 

This prompted Horton to apply for a U.S. visa so she could attend an LGBTQ leadership conference in D.C. and remove herself from the cacophony in her town.

The Sunday News later ran a story about Horton’s departure in which they misgendered her again and referred to her as a “transgender man” and “alleged gay.”

Horton arrived in D.C. in December 2016 and began her asylum process there. 

While visiting a friend in Los Angeles, she connected with the city’s Human Rights First chapter that referred her to Dhupar, who represented her pro bono. 

Dhupar is a labor and employment law attorney at Paul Hastings LLC and he volunteered to work on Horton’s case as part of his firm’s partnership with Human Rights First to do pro bono LGBTQ advocacy work.

Horton’s asylum was his first ever immigration case.

While the legal underpinnings of immigration were new to him, Dhupar did not struggle to situate his modus operandi because of how compelling Horton’s case was.

“I always referred to the facts of the case because the law is geared towards helping situations like [Horton’s] where someone fears for their life in their home country,” said Dhupar. 

Dhupar also added that Horton’s case was a prime example of why the asylum process exists.

Horton submitted a psychological evaluation in February 2021 that would expedite her asylum case and grant her an interview notice sooner than usual. 

At that point she had lived in the U.S. for more than four years, but she still had to wait a couple more months before she was called for an interview. This caused Horton to feel trepid about whether her case was strong enough. 

“I went through depression and had psychological breakdowns,” said Horton. “I have friends who were called in for an interview months after moving here and didn’t have to wait five years [like I did].”

This hurdle, however, gave Horton and Dhupar adequate time to build an indisputable case. The two built a personal relationship that kept them vigilant despite the abounding uncertainty. 

“She was a perfect advocate for herself and took the initiative to make sure the case did not fall on the backburner,” said Dhupar. 

Now that she has won her case, Horton is taking time to relish on her recent success. 

“I’m going to take a breather,” she said.

She also plans to secure full-time employment in 2022 and build a makeup brand. Horton currently works part time as a steering committee member — a role she says is fulfilling — at the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project- Transgender Law Center.

There, she links Black trans and gender nonconforming individuals to education, employment, legal and healthcare resources.

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