Lesbian Activist Recounts Her Decades-Long Fight For Equality In Philadelphia And Beyond.

by Leona Thomas

1980s: Being Openly Gay In College “Wasn’t Without Some Level Of Risk Every Day.”

When I was growing up in high school, I had no idea that I was LGBTQ or potentially LGBTQ. And at that point in time, no one in our age group was out in high school. It wasn’t even a concept.

When I came down to go to school, I actually came into an area at University of Pennsylvania where first thing, Penn was a really supportive environment and I had friends in my dorms who were LGBTQ, and then I also started to play on the ice hockey team and – the women’s ice hockey team – and then that team sort of brought me into playing rugby. And both of those teams were – had a significant number of women who were not only lesbian but openly lesbian. But it was always one of those things that, you know, freshman year, it was really more, you know, these are a group of my friends, we’re part of that group, but I’m not part of that… you know, I’m not lesbian. And it wasn’t sort of a conscious of the I’m not lesbian. There wasn’t really anybody I thought I was attracted to. And it wasn’t even sort of in that thought process. It wasn’t something I thought was a possibility. It wasn’t – it wasn’t even in my awareness until I went home between my freshman my sophomore year and I began to realize that I missed somebody a little more than you normally would miss somebody.

I sort of struggled a little bit with that summer and then went down to school – back to school – came back down to school because I lived up in New England – came back down to school and finally decided, like, you know, within the first month or so, You know what? I think this is something real. And I got the guts to ask the woman out. She shot me down. She basically said – and it took me awhile to hear it – that we were good friends and we still are good friends today, but that it really wouldn’t work out between us, you know, and that she was really more of a mentor and someone who I looked up to and respected to, and that we would end up ruining that friendship had we gotten together.

But it did start me on a path being part of the rugby crew, you know, did a little bit of dating, a little bit of experimenting here and there, but nothing that I would say really of any substance, right? But I sort of knew at that point. I’d sort of accepted it. And, you know, many of my close friends were starting to know that that was a possibility.

For sophomore year, I had moved off campus with a group of us. You know, at that time up in West Philly, I shared housing, you know, people, you know, with roommates you know, big house with 8 and 10 bedrooms had 8 and 10 people sort of sharing a house. It was myself, a friend of mine, several of her friends from ROTC – R-O-T-C and several of her friends that were connected to or from other parts of her friends and family type stuff.

And we became – started to become really close during that year. We would spend all night talking. We would, you know, do a lot of stuff together. We were hanging out together. And I began to realize that I was starting to sort of become very attached and attracted to her. And I who used to run the campus going, She’s straight. She’s straight. She’s straight. She’s straight. You cannot do anything about it.

We eventually ended up going away to a March on Washington for women’s rights and meeting my aunt, who at that time ran NARAL New Hampshire and she ended up running that for over 20 years. We ended up going back home that night, taking the train back up to Philadelphia, coming back into the house and that was the night I found out she wasn’t straight. Because she made the first move sort of opened the door.

We ended up getting together that night and – but we were in a situation where that wasn’t friendly space, we found out the next morning. Right, so, you know, she did the right thing, she called and broke it off with her fiancé and – but that really sort of told the rest of the house what was going on. You know, the next night or a couple nights later, when she came home I was up in one of the rooms waiting for her. She came into the bedroom and she wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. I could tell she wasn’t okay and she just refused to tell me what was wrong so I promised her that no matter what she told me I wouldn’t do anything. Well, it turned out that one of the roommates in the house had attacked her with a knife that night.

And so I called a friend of mine who you lived down the street but was moving. So it – lucky for us, she had an empty apartment that I could get a key to quickly. And we went over and, you know, and stayed over there. Without phones, without having any access to anybody, with nobody else knowing what was going on. But literally we had just sort of cleared the house as quickly as possible. And then get up the next morning and went up to rugby. I had a game that day. And we were on the rugby field. And from the time that I made that phone call that said I need a place to stay tonight, to the time that I walked on the field the next morning, that group had actually already done all the calls and made arrangements for us to have emergency housing for whatever the next few weeks were that we needed to take care of. And for the next several weeks, they made sure that we had a place to stay, we were fed, we could focus on dealing with, you know, trying to figure out how to – where going to go find a place to stay. We could focus on how we’re gonna get our stuff out of the house.

We were both being harassed. It wasn’t safe for me to walk across campus. Now I both worked on campus and was going to class down there, so the fact I couldn’t walk to campus is a problem. And I would have friends that would literally meet me. I would call them up and say I’m going to be at this corner and x, and they would have to walk across campus to make sure that I could get it to there safely.

Not only was she thrown out of ROTC, which was really important to her, she wasn’t allowed to testify at that point against the guy who had attacked her. And just the fact of how badly the military was treating her and what she was doing was appalling. We were able to negotiate through that with the benefit of our friends with the help and support of our friends, but the reality is that, you know, people in organizations – even with the police we are having problems of not wanting to protect us to get into the house to be able to get our stuff. We originally were supposed to have protection duty and the protection duty didn’t show up. My rugby team showed up instead.

We ended up having to move outside of West Philadelphia, which is the place that we very much had a big community of friends. For a while, we stayed with friends and families in and around the suburbs until we eventually found at a house down in Northern Liberties, which was an area of the city at that time a lot of people didn’t explore and didn’t spend a lot of time to. But again, every single time that we came back into that area was a place of potential risk.

It still today doesn’t fathom me that the military thought it was more important to keep a lesbian out than to take care of some of the guys that were actually willing to help abuse one of their – one of their colleagues and literally attack one of the colleagues. Luckily, some other people stepped up and helped to press charges against him and he was eventually taken out. But the fact that she was banned from it is just one of those – it’s one of those rights that people don’t understand.

You know, when you look at what was going on, that is not a place where we could say every day, we could sort of stand up. We could not say we could be okay. We did anyways, but it – we knew it wasn’t without having some level of risk every day, every moment that we were willing to come out. And still – still to this day, but not anywhere near what it was then. You know, there’s so much of a change today than there was when it first happened, when I first came out that 35 years ago. Mostly for the better.

 

 

1980s:  Young Lesbian Newlyweds Appear On The Sally Jessy Raphael Show.

You know, one of the, one of the things is as time went on with my first girlfriend, we obviously became a lot closer. We started going to MCC, which is Metropolitan Community Church, which is one of the – was really founded for, and one of the very few LGBTQ friendly churches at that time.

And I really sort of found myself wanting to get married, wanting to have that sort of ability to sort of say to friends and family and, for the time, God at the time, and say, you know, This is the person I want to be with for the rest of my life. And it wasn’t legal. I mean, we knew it wasn’t legal, but I asked her anyway.

We got married in – I may get the wrong… it was either 87 or 86 or 87. I’m bad with years, so it’s right around 86, 87. And we had a huge gathering of friends, family. Half the rugby team was there. It was up at Duper Thai House outside King of Prussia. You know, literally was outside in the pine groves with the Reverend at the time was this minister Joseph, who had this huge beard, in a lot of ways looked like Santa Claus.

Just had an amazing day and time and ability to sort of celebrate with our friends, with our families, and be a part of a community that reflected and embraced us. And from our perspective, we considered ourselves to be married, screw the law.

We were reached out to and asked to be part of Sally Jessy Raphael, who did the first show ever on lesbian – the first national show ever on lesbian marriages. You know, Sally Jessy Raphael at the time was up in New Haven and they had been looking for people willing to come on the show. And they called around New Haven, didn’t get anybody. They called Boston and they called around New York. Eventually they hit Joseph at MCC in Philly, and apparently his response was, “Oh, I have the couple for you.” And he turned around and called us. Without question, we said yes. And we decided to do it. We went through all the prep and the information that was there.

They went through and, you know, they did some pre-work afterwards. They did some information about us, but then we went up to New Haven and actually shot the show. It was a really great experience to have happen. But one of the other things that was sort of shocking to me was about, I think, a third of the way into it, this guy stands up in the middle of the audience and I recognize him. And I realized I had grown up in Massachusetts, not far from where Sally Jessy Raphael is filmed or was filmed, and it was one of the teachers from my high school that was there. And he came off all fire and brimstone about how wrong it was and what was wrong with the world and things. And I honestly was just like, “You’re an ass.” We actually reported him back to the school and I heard he got removed shortly after that, which was nice to see happen. And I was actually a little bit surprised. I’m not, you know, it was really controversial and people were, you know, obviously not expecting, sort of, I think, see me or see him on that show. The other part about people not 100% expecting me be on there, which is I had been out to most of my immediate family at that point, but I have a huge extended family and hadn’t even thought to call and tell them that I was doing this.

The way that my family found out that I was going on national TV to talk about being an openly married lesbian was when the previews started showing up on the Sally Jessy Raphael show going out at that time on the – on TV. And of course, at that point, everybody watched three or four different channels.

And so apparently when that hit the infamous, you know, family hotline kicked into play. Called, you know, everybody called everybody. I’m sure almost everybody saw the show. They had called my grandmother to find out what had, what the heck was going on, and I didn’t think to call and warn my grandmother. That was on me. I should have, I should have thought that one through.

When I came out to my grandmother, her response had been, “I love you. I will always love you, but I’m praying for you.” And I could tell at the time she was hoping at some point it would change. I think by the time Sally Jessy Raphael had happened, she had resigned herself it wasn’t going to change. But I think for her, having her granddaughter getting attacked for basically telling and speaking up about it or someone who they loved was not okay. And instead of calling me and saying something about it, she ended up really becoming one of my staunchest supporters and basically telling people to go mind their own business. And never again did I hear her say, but I’m praying for you. It was just, I love you and accept you.

You know, the other thing was there was the benefit inside the community itself. And the number of people who, you know, said something to us about Thank you for standing up. Thank you for coming out. There are people who are close in our lives that didn’t have the guts to come out, that came out.

At the same time we did get some of the backlash for that. One of the areas where we had, we had, we had become coaches, and she had been a longstanding coach of a girl scout canoe team at the time.

At that time, the Girl Scouts of America did not allow LGBTQ women to be out and be part of the process. And we were actually given an ultimatum that either we were going to leave or they were going to shut down the program.

So it was an unexpected negative impact in our lives to lose that. But either way, I look back at it and go, the positives way out outweigh the negatives. The benefits that we got, the benefits that other people got, being able to see someone be able to stand up and say, not only are we LGBTQ, but we’re willing to commit to each other were just, you know, incredible. Especially at that time where almost nobody was able to do that.

What I’ve learned over the years is the only way we as a collective make progress is for all of us to be willing to stand up and step out and be able to push that forward. And that those of us that are further out front are more likely the ones that are going to get that first set of flack. It does make a difference in the long run, and it does make a difference in people’s lives to be able to do that and to really ask for what we – and demand what we deserve.

 

 

1987 March On Washington: “This Is Who We Are. This Is What We’re Doing. We Don’t Care Who Sees Us.”

When I first came out in 85, I came out into a fairly supportive area, community. Looking back, I now know how many of these things were sort of the “first of” type of things. Like, my first gay pride was in 86. I was at New York Gay Pride. And then something that year, you could start hearing bubbling up sort of shortly after Pride, sort of a lot of people talking about what was going to be a march on Washington. That was about – it was time to stand up and speak out for rights and to really demand it, very much like the civil rights march was going – had happened years prior in the 60s, that we were going to do a similar type thing. And it was – it was like initially, almost like the slow sort of, you could hear it sort of scurrying and people talking about it and then all of a sudden you just felt this huge wave of people saying, Yeah, we’re going. Yeah, we’re going to go. Let’s do this. 

Few of us originally said, “Well, you know, we have a bunch of us who want to go. Why would we not get a bus? Like, let’s see if we can’t get a bus and fill it.” And you know, we were thinking one bus. And so we did some research. We found one of the bus companies, we hired a bus, started selling tickets.

This was before the internet, so there was no way to, to sort of broadcast and advertise it to the general population. Within 24 hours, that first bus was full. So we called and got a second bus. And that bus filled, like, almost immediately. And we called and got a third bus and we got a fourth bus, and every time we called in another bus and people would buy the ticket for it, we’re calling in another bus.

And eventually, you know, before it was all said and done, we had over 20 buses coming out of Philadelphia. You know, we got there and they were lining up the buses in RFK old stadium to be able to get over and get people over to where the march is going to start. And everywhere you looked around, there was nothing but buses. And it is a feeling of – one of the first times, I think, that that many of us ever got together. I know it ended up being one of the largest marches on Washington anywhere. But just that feeling first of getting there and seeing that many buses coming in and logistics challenges we were having about getting everybody to where they needed to be.

You know, it’s one thing to try and get any people there, but then we had to get everybody from the buses through all the Metro systems and to the start of the march, and, one, it was just a matter of cooperation. Everybody’s sort of helping each other get where they needed to be. But just everywhere you looked around, there was this sea of LGBT folks, and at that time we didn’t use LGBTQ. It was gay and lesbian, but it was just everywhere. You could see there was every walk of life. You can imagine it was coming over those Hills. Every walk of life was showing up and lining up at the beginning of the March to get everything together.

As we stepped off in Philadelphia, marched off as a collective group, somebody had brought down a banner that said “Philadelphia Marches on Washington” And you know, a large part of our group grabbed that banner and took off down the roads together.

Not only were we taking over the streets, there was so many of us trying to walk together. There was so much going on, we were spilling over into the sidewalks. We were literally just coming down and it was just this huge force of people that just kept moving. We were starting to push into crowds. We had people starting to show up who weren’t expecting to have an LGBTQ march happening that day. And sort of instinctively, those of us who were a little larger, you know, particularly those of us on the rugby team started to, you know, step out towards the edge of the sides and really sort of form that barrier to make sure that if somebody tried to make a run or try to cut through the march, that they were sort of directed in another direction and sort of help keep people’s space.

But really that – just sort of that whole feeling of just getting everybody to the march, getting everybody down there, you know, it was a long day of activities, but it was just really one of cohesive support as a community of showing up. We got out to the end of the march and were able to get to the Capitol and to the areas at the end out on the Constitutional… out on the Mall. And, you know, seeing that Mall just filled with that many people was one of those amazing sights.

And the speakers and things that, you know, I don’t – the day was so intense, I honestly don’t remember necessarily what any one speaker said and whatever was done. It was the feeling of the collective group, the energy that was there, of one that you knew was making a change, making a difference, that this was somehow different than that, than anything that had happened before. This was one of those sort of Things aren’t going to go back. They’re not going to go, you know, it may, it’s a step forward and it’s a permanent step forward. There were too many of us who were willing to show – to basically show up and stand up and say, This is who we are. This is what we’re doing. We don’t care who’s around. We don’t care who sees us. We’re going to say that you really need to treat us like human beings. 

One of the really great things that came out of it is a year later, they decided to create National Coming Out Day in October, and it is absolutely one of my favorite holidays. Basically as that first celebration of National Coming Out Day was coming together with the different cities, Philadelphia, we put together a small gathering in front of Giovanni’s room, which was about a, a third, you know, three quarters of the block in front of, of Giovanni’s room, which is the LGBTQ bookstore that was there, and was able to have, you know, our organization, the student organizations come together, many other organizations were there and people started to show out.

That was the first of the out, the National Coming Out Day celebrations and in Philadelphia that’s now grown to become Outfest, which is the largest celebration in October of National Coming Out Day anywhere in the world.

One of the things that was really cool is later, much later, um, there was an exhibit in the National Archives, which was the first ever LGBTQ exhibits ever in that National Archives called speaking out for quality. And the very first thing you saw when you walked in to that, that National Archives at the Constitution Center, and that thing was a picture of the group in Philadelphia with a big sign that said, “Philadelphia Marches on Washington.” And at the very edge there’s a woman who’s there. with a maroon and teal blue rugby shirt on who isn’t me, but it’s one of my teammates that was there, and that was the start of our group of where we had sort of formed up to put all that there. And, you know, I know I was within five feet of that picture.

 

It was one of those things that you just will never forget the sight of seeing that many people show up after being told for so many years that we didn’t exist. You know, we were the, the outcasts, we were the ones that were, we’re going to be sort of, you know, scorned on, never, you know, never be able accepted anywhere. And to see, you know, hundreds of thousands, I believe they ended up with almost a million – I don’t remember the exact count of people – but it was one of the largest marches in Washington ever.

And to see that there, it didn’t surprise me because what I saw was just this huge wave of energy of people saying, you know, it is time for us to stand up and come together and make this a part of, you know, we are part of this country. We are part of this community. We are part of who’s here and that it’s – it is definitely time for a change.

 

 

Legal Protections Before Marriage Equality–And Still Today: “Make Sure You Know And Understand What The Laws Are.”

In like 86, 87 my girlfriend and I at the time were married and I went through a joining ceremony. But at the time, there was no ability to have any semblance of legal marriage or even a domestic partnership agreement type of situation. So, we, you know, we initially just sort of took our chances.

Shortly after, the Philadelphia LGBT community center, which at the time actually was referred to as the “center without walls,” offered a class with Lambda Legal on how you can actually sort of approximate having a legal marriage as much as possible. And it went over things like legal powers of attorney, medical power of attorney, wills, about the importance of doing things like putting property in joint names.

One of the things that, you know, folks today have really no understanding of about how bad it was. There was a big problem in the, you know, 60s and 70s and 80s, with families not recognizing their people’s relationships with, with people literally being thrown out of their houses from – that they had bought together and lived in together for over 20 years, where one partner got sick and died or couldn’t take care of them or something would happen and families would literally swoop in and claim to be, you know, next of kin and take everything.

You had problems where people weren’t able to actually get in and see their loved ones in a hospital. So these are things that, you know, were becoming – especially with the AIDS crisis that was going on – more and more prevalent of real risks to each one of us, that we were not recognized by the law, we were not understood about our relationships, and there were a lot of places where we were flat-out banned for being able to do some things. You could not get into the back of the hospital without having something of a piece of paper that said there was, you know, you were responsible for that person. Even if you walked in with a wedding ring on your hand.

Basically when I saw a posting for this class at the community center was offering, to me it was a no brainer that we just needed to go and understand and find out what we could learn. And I learned so much in that class. It was everything from the fact that – I didn’t have any idea that, you know, powers of attorneys even existed so that we could be able to help make legal decisions for each other. I was so young, I didn’t understand things like the importance of having a will and in a way to sort of declare how things together.

And so we went through all the legal activities, you know, paid out way too much money in legal fees, but it was important – not way too much – paid out a lot of money in legal fees to make sure that happened. But also one of the really nice things that was there in that class was that they – there was one book that existed at that time to be able to understand how to be able to negotiate these and do these types of activities. And they even actually had sample documents in that book. And Lambda Legal and the Community Center had made arrangements with Giovanni’s Room, as being the gay bookstore, to make sure that that always stayed in stock.

And so I believe many of us who were in that class, even if somebody didn’t make the class, were able to help share and point friends towards being able to find the book, being understand what they needed to do, being able – the importance of being able to legally document who you were and what your relationship was so that you would have some leg to stand on if something happened.

You know, that particular relationship ended up not working out and ending. But a few years later, in like 92, I met my now son’s biological mother and quickly became the primary parent within a few months of starting to raise him. He was six and we were actually, honestly, I know we were some of the first openly lesbian parents raising children. So to be able to do something as simple as pick my son up for his dentist appointment or his doctor appointment, I had to have a piece of paper that said I had legal permission to pick him up that day. So luckily we had already drawn up things like the medical power of attorney and the, the legal powers of attorney. My will was already always in place just in case to do that. But I always knew I was at risk of losing him because Pennsylvania was one of the, the last, you know, one of the latest States around to be able to allow second-parent adoption where they would let a person of the same sex adopt somebody else’s child and not force the other person to give up their parental and custodial rights.

I know that as he got older and we were more and more exposed in the community, that there were places where if we hadn’t had the paperwork, I wouldn’t have been able to something as – do something as simple as, you know, get him into the hospital and take care of him, what was needed to. I knew that there was a risk that I could actually lose having custody of him and him being in my life.

The relationship with his mother wasn’t going as well as we’d wanted, but I stuck it through to make sure that he was okay knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to keep custody of him if something happened. But once he got old enough to be able to, you know, factor in that choice, and when we split up, he chose to stay with me. And luckily, having had those documentation, you know, sort of helped to make that possible.

We actually eventually moved back to Pennsylvania and one of the benefits of Pennsylvania is that they still do adult adoption, which ironically, I learned about in that first class because at the time, back in the 80s, the only – one of the few ways that people had to sort of establishing a legal relationship was if one adopted the other as a, you know, almost like a parent-child relationship.

Later when my son was 28, and I, you know, had been raising him already for 22 years, we were in a position then, now to take advantage of that knowledge so that I could actually legally adopt him. And so, you know, 28, 22 years later, I officially became a parent in the eyes of the law. But I had been his parent since 92. And now today, I am lucky enough to be blessed with not only him being in my life, but, you know, two grandkids right behind. You know, that’s the next generation growing up. And I can’t imagine what my life would’ve been like had I not had that knowledge and understanding to be able to do that.

And it also reinforces how important it is to make sure you know and understand what the laws are. Because even today, even with gay marriage, a lot of people assume that gay marriage automatically covers your kids. And unfortunately it doesn’t because most laws in most states in acts, and actually I believe all states, adoption isn’t based on whether you’re gay or straight or married or not straight. Custody is actually based on, on understanding it’s you’re either the biological parents and you haven’t lost your rights as a biological parent or you’ve adopted, it’s that simple. So if you have two parents who are the same sex by default, one of them is going to not have that legal custody until you actually do the paperwork, until you actually go through the legal steps to do that. And it is critical that we all understand that.

And it’s also critical – and what that class taught me really early is – even in those places where life isn’t fair and things aren’t right, if you understand the rules, you can do as much as possible to protect yourself and give yourself an advantage. And there are a whole lot of other examples in my life where I was able to actually help take that knowledge and get someone to change something because of that piece. But none of them anywhere near as important than being able to hold onto my son.

 

 

1980s-1990s: “Big Dyke On Campus” Successfully Campaigns For LGBTQ Non-Discrimination Policies At College — And Beyond.

In 1984 when I first came down and went to Penn, I had no idea that I was going to be in an organization – going to a university that was extremely unique in terms of the LGBT community because not only was it sort of in a place where it was fairly open and accepting for a lesbian and gays to be out and had a, a student group, they actually were one of the very few universities in the country that had a funded staff person at that time who helped organize activities, events, and it really made a difference in the ability of the LGBT community in and around Penn’s campus to even be able to form up.

About a year and a half of going into Penn, I had to leave cause I ran out of money. And I ended up transferring over to Drexel university, which is an engineering school and a local university. It was nowhere near as open and accepting in general. It was fairly conservative politically-wise. It was fairly conservative in terms of diversity, in terms of minorities and women, and really was not exactly, you know, the hotbed of civil rights in any way, shape or form.

People begin to recognize me particularly because I, at the time, I was married.  I was very open in a lot of ways. And I honestly didn’t do anything consciously. I just didn’t change who I was. I became known as Big Dyke on Campus before I even knew who half most of the people were.

But during that period of time, I had a limited amount of interaction with the student organizations, in part because I wasn’t a full time student. But when I actually became and was starting to think about coming down full time, which started probably, you know, 91, 92ish, I became much more involved with GLBD, which was Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals at Drexel. Initially just as a participant in and showing up at the activities, and then in 92, I took over as the president and the chair of the group.

Our organization began – started to actually do more in terms of more activities to be able to get more visibility on campus. When I had gone to Penn in 84, one of the things that I had noticed that there was an event every year for most of those years called Gay Jeans Day.

It was actually promoted across campus that to tell people to wear jeans and supportive being gay. Now at that time, wearing jeans was a given. Almost everybody wore jeans every single day. So one of the things that was interesting to watch was suddenly how many guys suddenly showed up in dress pants to sort of show that they weren’t gay. But it was really – it was an awareness activity to try and get people involved. And one that was happening, you know, at least in my life I had seen happening on a regular basis.

Well, Drexel wasn’t doing that, so we decided to go ahead and have the first Gay Jeans Day at Drexel when I took over that year. And it was interesting to watch because you had the same thing happen that happened over in the other, you know, some of the other universities where all of a sudden, everybody started to wear dress pants and, and you know, there wasn’t that sort of awareness and acceptance, but there was more of an awareness of those of us who did show up in jeans that day.

In addition to doing the Gay Jeans Day, we also had done a couple of speakers that we had come in and some smaller events to try and help promote awareness of campus of having an LGBTQ community there. It was interesting because we caught enough attention that I got called into the Dean’s office about us being a little bit too political. So, our response to that was the next year, instead, we decided to do a full gay – gay pride week, and started with not only doing Gay Jeans Day, but we had speakers come in every day, multiple sometimes. We had events, we had a dance, we had a gathering and we had Drexel’s first ever drag show.

Around that same period of time though, there was a couple of things that were a little disturbing starting to happen. One of which was we were getting threatening phone calls coming in on our office, our student organizations office phone, and we reported it. And to Drexel’s credit, they actually took them seriously and they took the time to trace them back where they were coming from.

And it actually turned out that the calls were coming from a phone that was locked in several offices deep in the security office for Drexel that no one except Drexel security had access to. So we were literally getting calls of harassment, threatening to hurt us or kill us, coming from someone on Drexel security staff at the time.

Around that same period of time, we actually had had a –  that they figured that out – we also had a dance. And while someone was coming out of the dance, there was a point where they – people coming out of the dance – ran into some folks that were part of the frats and the guys at the frats actually physically attacked them. No one got seriously hurt, but it was enough to sort of put some awareness up that, you know, something as simple as coming out of a dance shouldn’t put somebody’s life, you know, at harm’s way.

When we got to that level of severity, and particularly I think with the benefit of knowing that the harassing phone calls had started to come from Drexel security officers, I had actually reached out since through some people to find some legal help and was able to make connections through Lambda Legal to find out what we could or couldn’t do. And what we did is we came up with a couple set of proposals for them of how things were going to change. Some of it was better funding and, and ways to be able to – to be able to provide more activities and events for, you know, and friendlier spaces for the LGBT community on campus.

Some of them though, were even more sort of fundamental than that. There were no protections in Drexel’s anti-harassment policies. So I rewrote the guidelines or the policies in Drexel student handbooks to include that – the nondiscrimination policies in those handbooks  – to include not only sex and sexual orientation, but also sexual identity, which not realizing at the time, but do realize the importance of it now, also met included those who are trans.

The other thing we were able to do is get them to agree to allow, not that they would actually develop the training, but we allowed the students, myself included, to create a diversity training program. And we required that the security guards, the new training security guards, and even some of the older training security guards go through it. And that will require that the frats go through it.

We were also doing it with some of the other student groups and our director of student services at the time had made arrangements for us to speak to the black student union. And I remember I started to talk about some of the, you know, what it was like some of the discrimination, some of the issues I had about housing, some of the issues I’ve been having about employment and where I had lost my job.

And I heard someone say, “Oh, of course it’s because you’re gay.”

And I said, “And that’s because I’m half black.” And as soon as someone finds out that I’m half-black, I get some of that same treatment as I do when I’m gay. And the look on several other people’s faces that you saw sort of that light go off and saying, you know, This is a fight that we all have together. Now did we change everybody’s minds? No. But we started to get that ball rolling.

And one of the things that was really cool is many years later, you know, while I was out in Oregon, which was, you know, between 2001 and 2007, I don’t remember the exact year, but in that space and time, so we are talking like over 20 years later. I was listening to the public radio station one morning and I heard them say that, you know, talk about all of these universities and how we’re starting to have student-led diversity training programs and how the students were involved in sharing their stories and the activities that they were happening and that they had all based this on this program that had become out of Drexel University.

And personally, I sort of just shot up because I had no idea that what we had done had sort of gone so far. It also sort of goes to show, you never know how far or what impact you’re going to have, but by doing something as simple as sort of standing up and talking about who you are and what you’re – what you’re facing, and how important it is to be able to sort of build those alliances and bring people together, what seems like maybe a small step can really actually make a huge difference. And that is just being able to speak up.

 

 

2015: At An Exhibition On The LGBTQ Rights Movement: “I Don’t Have To Read The Cards. I Was Physically There.”

I have said several times and I really truly believe it – the generation before me fought really hard for our ability to stand up and be able to come out and say who we are, and it’s one of the most important things that any of us can do. But our generation, particularly those of us who came out younger, who came out when we were 18, 19, 20, when that was just starting to come out, to occur in the 80s and 90s where we started that shift, we had to fight for that, right to be able to live our lives as full lives.

And one of the things that was really one of those times that was very much of a – an a-ha moment to me about how much things have changed and how much it’s important for us to be able to tell the stories so that people know how much went into making it change, was in 2015.

There was an exhibit at the Constitution Center that our community center helped put together, called Speaking Out for Equality. And while I knew what was getting put together, the first time, I actually got to see it was on opening day, on the opening night. And I went with a friend of mine who – I had been out since 1985. She had only been out maybe five years and she was in her late forties. So we went through completely different lives and as we were walking through the exhibit and I was explaining things to her, and walking up, and we came up to the part where there was the stuff about the March on Washington in 1987. There was a March on – in 1993. There was stuff about National Coming Out Day. There was the show about when Ellen came out and like, I actually was able to sort of tell, you know, mouth the words, and right at the point where Ellen hits the, the speaker, the microphone and says, “I’m gay,” and sort of shouts to the world. Like, you know, we’re walking along, and she stopped me at one point and says, “You’re not… how do you know all this stuff? Like you’re not reading the cards.”

And I said, “I don’t have to read the cards. I was physically there at a lot of those. Or we had sort of groups together that got together to do a party for the Ellen show. I was at the March in 87, March in 1987 and 93. I’ve been at the gay prides. I was at one of the last laying downs of the – the last time that they were able to lay the full AIDS quilt out on the National Mall before it got too big because we were still losing and too many men were dying. Too many people were dying of a disease that this country refused to sort of even address. These are all things that have – I know they’ve taken and shaped me in my life and what’s happened, and to see it on display is an amazing thing to be able to sort of reflect back, but it also sort of reinforces everything it took for us to get here and how important it is that our generation, the next generation, the people there, no matter how old you are when you come out or whether or not you even come out, whether or not you are LGBTQ yourself – if you’re an ally, you have friends and family who are, who are affected by this and how important it is for all of us to come together and force those changes to happen.

A lot of the changes in this world have actually come through corporations being willing to stand up and fight for our rights when people couldn’t or wouldn’t, or governments wouldn’t. And yet people sort of go after the corporations today about being a little bit too commercial. You know, it’s all about a balance about how do we move things forward and take the good out of areas and bring them in to help continue to make it forward and take the – and figure out how to get people to improve the things that aren’t working. But it has to be about going forward and it can’t be taken for granted. Just because today it’s okay for us to be able to walk down the street doesn’t mean it’s gonna be okay for us to walk down the street tomorrow if we don’t continue to make sure it’s there.

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