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Coming Out Stories

Jim Gifford

It is hard to believe now, but people were not always so open about begin gay at MVCC.
As a professor back in the 1970s and 1980s, I felt I had to be careful about broadcasting any information about myself, but in retrospect, I’m not sure who I was kidding. As a teacher of literature and film, I occasionally included a worthy book or movie that had some reference to homosexual experience, but I was hardly militant about it. Just as often I would include those that highlighted other minority experiences as well.

One day a student stayed after class. He told me he wanted to start a gay alliance on campus (this was in the mid-1980s) and would I be the advisor. I was put to the test! Certainly I was encouraging equality in my classes but I had not put myself forward in such an activist way. 

I remember thinking: put your money where your mouth is.

The student who started the alliance was the brave one, I thought. If he could be unafraid, so could I. It was a surprise to me (but also maybe not) when faculty or staff who heard about the new group congratulated me on it. But it was students who occasionally objected. Any time we put up a poster announcing a meeting (no Internet then), more often than not we would find it trashed — either taken down or some obscenity written on it. Part of the challenge was simply getting the word out. I was surprised when we easily got our ten required members to register with Student Congress, so we were off and running.

Although we often met simply as a support group, I was surprised to see that these students also wanted far more than that They wanted visibility. Soon they were sponsoring events that would send money to AIDS-related causes (still brand-new then) and more. I was proud of them. Then at one meeting, a student said, Where does our MVCC president stand on this issue? They at once framed an invitation to President Schafer to attend one of our meetings.

The president accepted and came. He was as nervous as I was. Those were different times, and the public had not had the “education” it experiences today, with gay people out and proud. I was glad he had opted to attend, but not as happy with his message: Just because I am here does not mean I necessarily support your goals, he told us.

And yet the point was that he was there. The “academy” is often pictured as being an ultra-liberal bastion, but I can assure you that MVCC in the 1980s had not yet reached such a level. The alliance had a struggle getting more funding from Student Congress. The Congress easily approved it, but it was the Board of Trustees who objected! Bravely, club members appeared at the Board meeting to state their case. We even saw an editorial in the Observer-Dispatch deriding the trustees’ reluctance. In the end, all worked out, with the Gay Alliance here to stay.

The story has a happy ending. As time went by, gay students being out on campus became a common thing. The principle of visibility won out. MVCC came full circle for me in 2011 when they graciously allowed my partner and me to be married on the MVCC stage in the — you guess it — Schafer Theater!