A Pride Story

When I shouted out “HAPPY PRIDE!!!” this morning on the Internet, it occurred to me that quite a few of my friends online would have no idea a) what that actually means or b) that I’m queer. [tweetmeme source=”jolieodell” only_single=false]

In honor of Pride, which is being celebrated today in San Francisco with a great big gay parade, I’d like to share a story with you.

In the early 2000s, I was still in college. My college was an interesting anomaly in the gay/straight, liberal/conservative continuum: It was a music theatre-specialized conservatory school in Northern Virginia, a.k.a. deep hick country. In essence, that meant that the orange boa-wearing twink boys with tap shoes over their shoulders and a song in their hearts were rubbing shoulders with ancient farmers whose backwoods dialect was as thick as their prejudice. Fun times.

For little queer-girl me, the situation was tough, as well. There were not more than a handful of openly gay girls on campus; the rest of my potential girlfriends were heartbreaking, “experimental” but inevitably straight theatre girls who wanted, I suppose, to be edgy for a semester before getting on with their lives. Being bisexual pansexual*, I had the option of dating guys, too. But you know what they say: The best ones were gay or taken. In fact, the girls at my school would spend long hours lamenting the ratios and percentages to which this adage held true in our little sphere.

Despite the high proportion of gay male students, which had been a longstanding feature of the school as long as anyone could remember, there was no student group to support our gay population and their straight “allies.” I’d been spending some time at a neighboring school with a strong Gay Straight Alliance — they’d go bowling or stage a tiny dance or watch movies together, kid stuff, really, but it was so much fun. I began to wonder why my school, with its much larger gay population, didn’t have any cohesion or organization within the LGBT community on campus.

As it turns out, at least a couple students before I arrived at the university had pondered the same questions. They’d attempted to organize but were stonewalled by a conservative administration and harassed or beaten up by their fellow students. One kid’s dorm room was flooded and all his possessions completely ruined when a few boys from the football team grabbed bajillion-gallon trashcans full of water and dumped them one after the other all over the room.

Despite hearing these horror stories, and despite my already full schedule of working at the school paper and organizing poetry readings and being involved with my own professional organizations, I decided to take it upon myself to form the school’s first official Gay Straight Alliance, to be called SU Allies.

So, I went to the university administrators and filled out the paperwork. I talked to friends and tried to find people who would be interested in helping me. This fabulous Domme dyke I’d never seen before, Marie, a nursing student from the medical campus, heard what I was trying to get started and threw her considerable energies into the project. A bisexual cellist boy, a quiet but intensely funny lesbian girl, and one straight young man rounded out our “charter membership,” as we styled ourselves. Out of the hundreds of queens in the music theatre department, not one of them came to any of our meetings that first year.

In retrospect, I can’t blame them. I became a universally despised pariah almost overnight. I was screamed at to my face by conservative, religious students. I received hate mail in a deluge when word started to get around about the Allies. The administration must have gotten a similar deluge — minus the death threats, I hope — because they told our group that we had to change the name. The university didn’t want its initials, “SU,” in any way associated with the flaming homos that paid tuition, graced its stage, and in many other ways, kept the place afloat.

As offensive as it was that the school itself was resisting the simplest gesture of acceptance toward its gay population, we coalesced. The battle we were fighting was simply to get a group established, to give our gay friends a feeling of community, to let the growing sports program students know that we were to be tolerated and not mocked or bullied, to make LGBT students know that they were safe and welcomed.

After a few months of campaigning the student body, trying to organize events, making posters, reaching out to neighboring organizations, petitioning the faculty, and pleading with administrators, we finally got what we’d come for: The higher-ups signed off on our group. Not in memory had any student organization been so hard-won; the Black Student Union that formed the next year was officially sanctioned practically in the same breath that it was conceived. And I’m very glad for those kids, too.

At last, Marie, the cellist, the quiet lesbian, the straight guy and I had our Allies. We kept holding meetings and trying to organize events, but for some strange reason, no one ever came. The following year, I graduated. Still, almost no one was coming to the Allies’ meetings. The last I heard, the Allies as a student group no longer exists, and there is no student organization to support LGBT community members. (Strangely, the literary magazine I helped found the year before is still around. There’s more interest in bad student poetry than gay stuff? Really?)

There’s only so much one small group of queer kids can do to change homophobic prejudice in the “New, But Who Can Tell?” South. I suppose the gay young men in the music theatre department understood that a lot better than we did; they were there to get degrees in showtunes and toe-tapping, not fight for civil rights.

I still wonder what it will take for that place to embrace its music theatre ‘mos. Or the trannies who wander onto campus every few years. Or the dykes.

In my heart, in my wildest imaginings, I see a glorious cross-campus Pride parade in the late springtime, just as the apple blossoms are beginning to litter the curbs in semipermanent snowbanks. No one is afraid — not the university president, afraid of losing grant money or donations from conservative government officials and alumni, and not the gay students, afraid their openness will cost them a role or a grade or respect or, god forbid, life and limb. No one holds back an iota, and everyone is proud.

*Upon some reflection, I can’t honestly call myself “bisexual” anymore. Although that term will be more familiar to non-queer folks (no, no, thank YOU, Tila Tequila), it just doesn’t fit some/most of my, shall we say, tendencies. Some of the queerest experiences I’ve had have technically been girl-on-guy, if you want to get absolutely gender-literal… Which I don’t.

19 thoughts on “A Pride Story

  1. Jolie,

    Happy Pride weekend indeed. My college experience was a bit different in my circle of friends (a mix of sf/gaming geeks and literary theater folk) I was among the token straights. But our campus (the University of Chicago) was generally fairly accepting with multiple formal student organizations and as best as I could tell as a straight man a fairly accepting atmosphere (for the times – early 90’s)

    Have a wonderful pride weekend.

    Shannon

    • Well God bless you for being the token straight guy, Shannon. =)

      The idea of an “alliance” is lost on so many folks, gay and straight alike. After all, the goal is to celebrate who we ALL are and not segregate ourselves because of our differences, right? And that schema definitely includes straight people.

  2. I wish I had known about this when I was at SU with you. Though this may have been spearheaded after I left. I’m looking to go back in the fall or spring and am considerably more comfortable with my queerdom, so if I get the finances to go, I will see if we can garner some interest.

    I actually considered going to Liberty U down here in the petrified bible belt to be like a bi Harriet Tubman, with my own underground rainbow railroad. Perhaps SU needs one just as much.

    You are an inspiration! @–v–

  3. Cool to see you had the courage to try and unite some people. Sometimes we don’t see the personal side of all these online people. It is a damn shame that only a few people had the same courage that you did. Fear can last a long time, but hopefully some of those people have conquered their fears and tried to help like you did.

  4. When I read this story it reminded me of all the rallies and fighting I did through high school for my gay friends. I helped out our school’s GLAAD organizations and got into a few scrapes protecting the gay student body from high school football jerks. Even in the valley of california, which is THE most conservative part it seems, there are the same good ol’ boys they just where flip-flops and shorts. Lol I say bravo to you and I wish more people fought as hard as you for things they believe in. I’ll be moving to SF soon so maybe I’ll see ya out there at the next parade.

  5. Jolie, thanks for sharing. Your story is heartwarming and inspirational for so many. Good for you for having the courage to take a stand and make a difference in the lives of LGBT students; and for bringing awareness and working toward acceptance (or at least tolerance) of LGBT students in a bigoted environment. That’s not easy and takes a lot of courage. You go girl!!!!!

    Happy Pride Day!!! Hope to see you soon!
    xoxo

  6. Such a well written story! You know I am so glad that you have found your way. I think back to the days talking with you and thinking you seemed so lost. Now it seems as though you have found your place and I am so happy for you!

  7. Jolie, Great story. You are a natural leader and take pride in everything you do. Your writing is insightful and inspiring.

    Don Dodge

  8. greetings ms. o’dell,

    i enjoy your blogs; your intelligence, wit, creativity & beauty mesh together to present a unique and irresistible personality. i appreciate your work in keeping us in-the-know & entertained.

    i’d like to share/re-post some of your entries in this blog on my facebook profile, but i dont see a ‘share’ button.
    is there another way i can do this, or would you prefer your stuff not to be re-posted?

    thanks for your time
    jenny

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