It gives me tremendous pleasure to speak to you this morning. As the dean of the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa, I am both humbled and honored to serve in such an auspicious role. My entire professional life has been dedicated to the education and well-being of young people. I believe that being an educator is a calling. It is more than a vocation, but an avocation“ a desired passion that enables you to serve our nation's most precious resource: our children and young people.
Three weeks ago, I attended Montreal Pride. While in Canada, I had the opportunity to see the Jean Paul Gaultier collection at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. One of the story boards describing the displayed pieces read:
He thinks of society as a cocktail“ mixed, stirred, spiced, varied, de-compartmentalized. The product of a single melting pot, society no longer consists of groups indifferent to one another while living side-by-side. It is made up of individuals, and each of them tells the story of our diversity.
This quote captures my views of diversity. As a Black, gay man diversity is important to me. I believe in access and opportunity for all learners and people. I strive to promote these aspects in all that I do. Currently, in the College of Education, we have a safe space placard that I helped develop. I invite my colleagues to place the placard on their doors and outside of their office spaces. The placard reads:
This zone is declared safe! Regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, and ability, you will be treated and respected as a human being. Ignorance and bigotry will not be tolerated.
Early in my journey, I was not so actualized. I often thought that when discussing diversity issues, my college students would dismiss me because they would think that I had a specific agenda. I soon realized that I did have an agenda and that this agenda should be theirs as well when it comes to equity, social justice and inclusivity. Teachers of children and young people should have open and affirming dispositional stances toward all of their students“ many who are marginalized and disenfranchised. Teachers need to be intentionally taught that their students are different from them and enter the learning environment viewing this place called school through a difference lens. For some students, schools must be there to make a difference in their lives and schools must embrace my difference. Regardless of the lens through which their students' view the world and live their lives, the teachers' role is to make sure that the students are taught the functional, pragmatics skills so that they can have access to power.
My own personal lens was that of intersections. I had several disparate parts of my person struggling to find some sort of synergistic connectivity. I was Black, overweight, bookish, Southern Baptist, poor, and the youngest of six kids. These various pieces played out in my life and created interruptions and disruptions in my navigation. There was no place for gayness in my community.
This reality resurfaced recently due to the Waterloo incident in which a 19 year old Black teenager was violently attacked outside of his friend's house in Waterloo. Several sources reported that the attack was instigated when a group of young people pulled up to the house and began shouting anti-gay slurs and derogatory remarks that quickly escalated into a volatile situation. During the fight, the teen was critically injured and was taken to an Iowa City hospital where he later died.
As I read this account, silent tears rolled down my cheek as I imagined this victim and the grief his family must be feeling. It angered me that in the Black community being gay is still viewed as outlaw status and like in the days of old, an outlaw could be killed in the streets with little provocation and limited retribution. The latest account that I read about this incident, it seems that the authorities are attempting to disclaim that this altercation was motivated by gay slurs; therefore, it would not be viewed as a hate crime. It would probably be viewed as unfortunate misunderstanding in which teens fought and unfortunately the end results was the death of this young man. This type of mindless slaying seems to be more digestible to the media and the public “ boys fight, bad things can happen.
Gay as outlaw is an analogy that has troubled me over the years. I grew up in the 1960s in the South in the small town of Sumter, SC. The racial division was palpable and racial pride was paramount. To be a faggot was tantamount to denying one's upbringing, one's blackness -- to be an outlaw. At an early aged, I recognized that I was attracted men. In my early teens, I began to act on this attraction. My own internalized homophobia taught me that this behavior had to be clandestine and secretive because it was dirty and immoral. I knew it was not normal and kept it hidden from view “ I was an outlaw.
At the ages of 17, my three older brothers got their girlfriends pregnant and based on our Baptist beliefs, they were told by my dad that they had to get married. It was not uncommon in my early 70's community to be dating at the age of 15 and sexually active at 17. While my brothers' virility was applauded and later sanctified through marriage, my interactions remained closeted.
Due to my environment, closeted was a safe place. At the time gay was not a word that I knew. I knew the words faggot, punk, sissy, queer and other more offensive terms. I also knew by the harsh treatment of those that were viewed as such that I did not want to be identified with this group. So instead of dating, I read. Instead of socializing, I read. In an effort to hide my identity, I studied, got good grades, and simply tried to stay under the radar. Because I was an overweight kid, my parents and others assumed that I probably was not dating because girls found me unattractive. I remember consciously using my weight as a beard to disguise my heterosexual inactivity.
Unfortunately, there were no teachers or counselors who could assist me in my sexual orientation journey. I realized that in order to navigate the hetero-normative world, I had to pretend, isolate, and distract. I pretended to be straight by talking falsely about girls with much libidinous bravado. I isolated myself from others and concentrated on my studies. I distracted my parents and teachers by being a model achiever academically, spiritually, and altruistically. I did well in school, I went to church and participated in youth programs, and I gave back by tutoring young children and assisting the elderly. I knew that the environment that I lived in was not ready for me as an actualized gay person, so I had to accentuate other more accepting aspects of my person.
As I continue to journey through life, the intersections are coming together. As I turn 50 this year, I am no longer living a multi-chotomous life. I can be a dean, overweight, scholar, Black, gay, Christian, and actualized. Indeed life gets better.
I am simply ecstatic about pop culture and the bold embracing of diversity as well as the young GLBT youth who are out and proud in their middle and high schools. I attended the Matthew Shepherd Scholarship ceremony and the stories that each recipient stated in the brochure was testament that they have benefitted greatly from the legacy of our queer history. The evolution should indeed be televised. As I listen to pop radio, I marvel at the lyrics and how empowering the songs are for young people.
Born this Way: Lady Gaga
I'm beautiful in my own way. God makes no mistakes. I am on the right track, baby. I was born this way.
Don't hide yourself in regret. Just love yourself and you're set. I am on the right track, baby. I was born this way.
Firework: Katie Perry
You don't have to feel like a waste of space
You're an original, cannot be replaced
If you only knew what the future holds
After a hurricane comes a rainbow.
Fly: Nicki Minaj
I came to win, to fight, to conquer, to thrive
I came to win, to survive, to prosper, to rise.
To fly, to fly.
I have great faith in our young people and the future of our queer community. Last week as Dr. King's monument was revealed in DC, I thought about the powerful words he stated 40 years ago.
Somebody must have sense enough in the world to meet hate with love, to meet physical force with soul force, to stand up and say, I will not hate. We are challenged to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns the broader concerns of all humanity. We must all live together as brothers in this world or we will die as fools.
These words resonated in my soul. All of the trials and tribulations that I encountered during my upbringing have hopefully paved a different path for other Black, gay, and lesbian youth. I don't believe in settling down. The term implies that the current path I am on isn't valid. As I navigate my life and reflect on my journey, I realized that it is not always about living your life the way people have lived before you. It is about cultivating the experiences in your life, learning from them, and sharing them with others. I am perpetually awaiting a renaissance of wonder. I am waiting for a time when imagination takes over this planet.
Thank you for your time this morning and I applaud your attentiveness.