Editor’s note: This is the third installment in our “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: Fay Jacobs and American University. Visit washingtonblade.com for previous installments.
On May 4, 1970, when the tragedy at Kent State burst onto the screen, Neil Young wrote the unforgettable anti-war lyrics “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming.” Fay Jacobs, a senior at American University was accustomed to participating in anti-war rallies on campus in front of the Mary Graydon Center. The news came only twice daily back then — broadcast on console TVs the size of today’s Mini Cooper. But the pot boiled over the next day on Cinco de Mayo with AU students protesting more vociferously than ever. Typically, the protests were handled by campus police, but this time, the D.C. police showed up with noxious tear gas.
Jacobs was in rehearsal for a French Operetta in the campus theater. When the tear gas missed the activists and landed on the steps of the theater, the actors, singers, musicians and men in tights all went running in different directions.
“I hid in the bushes with my pal Rob,” she recalls. “It was all very frightening. Except for the guys in tights running amok. Come on, that’s funny.”
You’d expect nothing less from a renowned comedy writer who’s published two books: “As I Lay Frying” and “Fried and True” — a woman whose favorite movie was “Funny Girl” and whose father taught her that no experience should be considered bad if you can tell a good story about it later. And so we sit to talk about her experiences at AU “back in the day” and the trek that brought her out of the closet and into the bright light of lesbianism.
It would be decades before Melissa Etheridge would walk across fire for another woman. So, like most of us in those days without visible gays, Jacobs focused on textbooks and the bard, lived isolated in the closet, conforming to hetero ideals and dated men.
Her focus was on politics and social justice. Long before RFK was a stadium named in memoriam, she campaigned for Robert F. Kennedy, the man. She vividly recalls the candlelight vigil the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. And the many war protests. She could wage a full-throated protest against the war but remain mute about the war within. It was just too risky. Her own struggle for authenticity would be deferred for a decade, until after she graduated and kicked down the closet door.
AU senior Salina Rivera stands on the same steps of Mary Graydon Center 43 years later and points north.
“My girlfriend and I live about a five-minute walk that way,” she says. Ironically, it’s not far from where Jacobs’ closet was. Out since age 13, and so grateful for her loving parents, she’s only sorry that her father died before she could tell him.
“He was a corrections officer in that male-dominated environment, and yet he never made me feel odd for being the Tom Boy,” Rivera said. “We always played basketball together. I know he’d understand me.” After his untimely death, her mother carried the torch of accepting parent and is, today, Rivera’s straight hero. “I have never met a stronger, more loving person.”
With such solid loving support, the Bronx native blossomed. She was class president in high school and today she is proud to be one of seven founding sisters of AU’s chapter of the lesbian Gamma Rho Lambda sorority — one of five LGBTQ organizations on campus. Her queer peers can join other active organizations and have access to “Safe Space 2.0” and a course named “Trans 101.” She and her girlfriend attend campus events together — usually rallies for social justice. Holding hands. Ho hum. “It’s hard to believe students were ever in the closet here at AU,” Rivera said. “It’s so progressive and inclusive today, but I realize it’s a privilege not to be taken lightly.”
Erin Fuller, immediate past president of the AU Alumni Association, and a straight ally agreed.
“As a student in the 80’s, I watched in awe this year as the campus greeted the coming out of their immediate past president of student government as a transgender person with a collective, supportive shrug. I see the amazing work that the entire division of Student Life does to support everyone from first-generation college attendees to students celebrating their cultural, ethnic and sexual identities, and it makes me incredibly proud to be a part of something so wonderful and so important.”
In hindsight, Jacobs’ life blossomed quickly after she came out. She’s not at all bitter about the late start in life and that in her 31st year, it was time to write her own story. Today she’s driving back to her home in Rehoboth Beach from Dover, Del., where she’s celebrating the movement toward marriage equality with her straight hero, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell. She’s a local celebrity in Rehoboth. Her zany wife Bonnie is the love of her life and the subject of many of her regular columns in Letters from CAMP Rehoboth. From their madcap adventures in the RV, to their frequent visits to the ER, Jacobs chronicles their hysterical antics.
It wasn’t always a bed of roses for Jacobs. Shortly after graduation she married Bob, a classmate, who made a living playing the accordion. It wasn’t long before they both knew something was amiss. I ask if they got together after the break up to watch Lawrence Welk, where accordions ruled.
“No, I moved on, man-free and accordion-less.”
Barbara Gittings, the lesbian activist who picketed the White House in 1967 and founded Daughters of Bilitis is her gay hero.
“She was relentless, brave, determined and most importantly, a heck of a lot of fun,” Jacobs said. Pre-Stonewall, Barbara was one of several brave souls that demonstrated each year on the Fourth of July in Philadelphia. Asked about her gay hero, Rivera thinks for a moment and then points to the office of the coordinator of the LGBTQ Center where we are chatting: “It would be Matt Bruno. He’s unbelievable. Whether it’s help with a cover letter or a fight with my girlfriend, he’s always there for me.”
The Center of campus has an interesting story. Mary Graydon was a generous benefactor of AU until her death in 1926. She’s famous for focusing on the education of women, once saying, “I prefer to put money into brains rather than stone and mortar.” And so after many years of supporting women’s academics, the university honored her with stone and mortar. Her famous building is considered the center of campus and houses our LGBTQ Center.
Salina is reading Jacobs’ current column about how tiring the marriage fight is when you’re 60 something.
“I think Fay needs to come here and put her feet up and let us do some of the heavy lifting now,” Rivera said. She is planning to host Jacobs for a reading of her short stories in the LGBTQ Center this fall. Time has moved on. Jacobs graduated and came out. Nixon’s long gone. “Tin soldiers” include LGBT citizens. Nixon once lamented that “you can’t appreciate the view from the mountaintop until you’ve been in the darkest valley.” For entirely different reasons, Jacobs can relate.
So, hosted by Rivera and her queer peers, Jacobs can prop her feet up on Matt’s desk in a center that didn’t exist in her day. Holding her wife’s hand, she will read aloud her AU/GayU retrospective: “The tear gas was scary. I hid in the bushes for the riot and in the closet by necessity. But there were these men in tights running hither and yon and somehow I knew this story would be funny one day.”
Jacobs’ dad would be proud of her finding a good story in this. Mary Graydon’s investment in the brain trust of AU’s women has paid off in both gray matter and stone and mortar. We will tell our own stories from an LGBTQ Center.