By Brian Charles Clark, Washington State Magazine
Bob Dlugosh says that he and his roommate, Al, “were always chumming around Pullman together.” Best friends, Bob figured Al for straight, but he liked the guy so much he didn’t let it bother him. Bob did wonder if Al knew he was gay. In 1968, “gay” felt like a brand new word. So it probably wasn’t the one used on the sign Al and Bob found tacked to their Stephenson Hall door: “Bob and Al are gay.”
But that’s what Robert Dlugosh ’71 recalls decades later. The noun was probably something from the much crueler vernacular of the day: They were being called faggots, queers, fairies. Al brushed it off, Dlugosh says, and the friends roomed together until graduation. In recalling the sign of aggression, Dlugosh, too, brushes it off. Others had it much worse than him. He has “warm and fuzzy feelings” for the University. Dlugosh, an activist-through-education and Seattle architect, and his husband, Don McKee, now endow a scholarship for LGBTQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer — students at Washington State University.
For Prudence Miles ’77, being outed wasn’t a homophobic attack, but an act of defiance. Although open about her orientation, she only shared that with a small group of other gay and lesbian students, staff, and faculty. But one day the editors of WSU’s student newspaper, The Evergreen, published a letter by one of that small group. Prudence’s name was on the list of signatories.
“There was little me,” she recalls, “eating breakfast in the Regent’s Hall dining room, suddenly seeing this letter with my name attached to it. Probably 99 percent of the women in the room didn’t care or didn’t know who I was — but it was a public outing that I had not expected.” She says she was already a member of the Gay People’s Alliance, one of the first activist and awareness groups at WSU, and had volunteered for its speakers bureau. She got pretty good at answering the question, what’s it like to be a lesbian?
Becca Prescott ’12 came out in the safety of the Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation Resource Center: GIESORC (“gee-sork”), or just the Center. She discovered she was a lesbian while in college. Friends she made at the Center on the fourth floor of the CUB, along with the staff there, shared experiences and insights “about what being gay meant, and why people are that way,” she says from her parents’ home in Montana, on break from nursing school in Oakland, California. During her college years, it was precisely going home she stressed about. Her mother, especially, was having difficulty accepting her daughter’s orientation, fearing she had made some terrible error in rearing her child.
“Having that conversation at the Center made me more confident in having that conversation with my family,” she says, just before she heads out the door to go skiing with her dad.
Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor and first openly gay elected official in California, urged his “brothers and sisters” to come out “for your sake,” and for the sake of friends, family, and coworkers. “I know that it is hard and will hurt them,” he said in a 1978 speech. “Come out [and] once and for all, break down the myths. Destroy the lies and distortions.” Milk urged people to come out at least to those they knew well, because coming out is a tonic for homophobia.
Coming out is how community is created among a very diverse group of sexual minorities. But it is no guarantee; it can be, as Milk acknowledged that day, dangerous. Later in 1978, Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were gunned down in San Francisco City Hall, murdered by Dan White.
Opening a door
Becca Prescott learned a cool new word: “queero,” queer + hero. The portmanteau, coined by comedian Cameron Esposito on her podcast, Queery, refers to activists such as Harvey Milk, Ellen DeGeneres, or Esposito herself. Much closer to home though, there is the quotidian grind and exaltation of “the little things,” says Melynda Huskey, the first permanent director of the Center. That we can discover our orientations and identities at all in such an overwhelmingly straight, gender-binary—and frequently violently homophobic — culture is the real act of heroism. Huskey recalls students who walked past the always-open door of the Center, time and again, sometimes slowing down, maybe peering in. But only some ever made it in.
That door, always open, is not just a metaphor for LGBTQ community; it really is one of the entrances to queer culture at WSU.
As Paul Kwon, a psychology professor at WSU Pullman, says, partaking in community — having people to talk to and allies to count on — is the most important factor in the resilience of lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. Minorities have forever formed communities, when possible, trying to strike an equitable equilibrium with the dominant culture.
Matthew Jeffries, the Center’s current director, says that because Washington state—and Washington State University — have long been models of inclusion and diversity, we have a responsibility to keep striving for civil rights for all.
But WSU and the state weren’t always that way. Just this year, Washington state legislators finally passed a bill that outlaws conversion therapy, a long-disproven “cure” for emergent, juvenile homosexuality that’s still legal in 40 other states.
Dlugosh summarizes the situation in Pullman in the late ’60s, but he might be talking about just about anywhere in the United States other than a few major urban centers — such as San Francisco, New York, and Seattle. He hesitates, then says, “How do I put this? I knew some other gay people — I mean, they seemed gay to me but we never talked about it. It was very frustrating for all of us students.” Dlugosh’s recollection is that there was no gay liberation movement, as it was only beginning to be called, during his years in Pullman.
Alumni mentioned in various Evergreen articles, and especially in the student newspaper’s letters section, are difficult to find. Dlugosh says that when he tried to kickstart an LGBT alumni group, “we found [many alumni] had a bad taste in their mouth for WSU not being very progressive back in those days. They did not have warm and fuzzy feelings.” It’s not surprising; the virulent homophobia in some of the letters the Evergreen published from the early 1970s until as recently as the late 1990s is sometimes horrifying. To the paper’s credit, the editorials were mostly in favor of giving gay people that right to live — a “right” as ominous as it sounds — and have at least some civil rights (if not all the rights, such as to not be fired from a job for one’s sexual identity).
Dlugosh graduated in 1971. By the time Prudence Miles got to Pullman in 1973, things were perking up. She says she must have seen a poster for Gay Awareness and started going to meetings. Then, as now, what to call an alliance as diverse as a group of sexual minorities was always a struggle, so in the Evergreen, this group, or perhaps another, also went by Gay Alliance or Gay People’s Alliance, with the name gradually becoming more inclusive over the years as it became more inclusive of identities.
In any case, Miles was soon part of what was then a community transitioning from “protective invisibility” to out, proud, and loud. She misses the diversity of what was then a sort of secretive social club. Secretive for self-defense, but it was nevertheless a group of people who spent their time rapping about awareness, rights, and the simple observation that coming out to people changed minds and softened hard hearts. That’s why, she says, “there were a group of us who were willing to go out and talk when asked.”
The Gay Alliance’s speakers bureau would do interviews on the campus radio station, or give talks and answer questions at residence halls and sorority and fraternity houses.
“Human sexuality classes always wanted gay people to come and talk,” Miles recalls. “You try to talk to people: it’s not scary and it’s not going to change who you are if somebody you know is gay. You’re the same, they’re the same. It’s just, they’re in love with somebody different.”
Miles spoke up because of the tonic effect of coming out. Even more important, she says, “You never know if someone in that room is scared and questioning. They need to hear it’s OK.”
Community as resilience
The letter to the Evergreen where Miles’ name was signed really sticks out as a sign of just how bad things were for LGBTQ people in the 1970s. Published on December 4, 1973—while Miles was still in her first semester of college—the letter refers to an ASWSU survey asking if gay people should have “the equal rights supposedly guaranteed to all human beings.” A majority of respondents said no, gay people should not have basic human rights. But, the letter writers say, here’s “a good word for the ASWSU Assembly” for arguing otherwise and counting LGBTQ people among the human.
For his part, Dlugosh says he worked at passing for straight: the best defense against homophobia was camouflage. For many people, it still is; Becca Prescott is quite candid about that. But that approach to life results in an internal self-conflict that degrades mental and emotional health.
An anonymous interview in a video produced in 1977 by KUID called “From Sweet Land of Liberty: Moscow/Pullman Gay Community” captures this double consciousness perfectly. The interview subject is in shadow, but clearly bearded and, says the on-camera reporter, a faculty member, likely from the University of Idaho. “You have to establish a dual personality,” the man in the shadows says. You have to have a straight face that you put on “so you can go out and cope and function with straight people. And then, somewhere between your house and the office, you become somebody else, the person who no longer plays games with himself.”
“What if you were discovered?” the interviewer asks. “I’d be fired immediately. Shock and appall by my colleagues. My students would freak out. My parents don’t know, and it would be really difficult to tell them. My father would disown me. I’d like to stop being a dual personality… . It’s a lonely life.”
Lonely, and not at all healthy. Minority stress is the fracture line between a stigmatized minority and the dominant culture. It drives its victims to drugs and suicide at a much higher rate than the straight, white population.
Kwon enumerates the factors that defuse the chronic wear and tear caused by minority stress and that help create resilience. The most important, he says, is having a social support network, being connected to a positive community. Having hope and optimism about the future, where oppressors have a change of heart, and being emotionally aware are the other two major contributors to resilience and mental health.
Emotional self-awareness is a little counterintuitive, Kwon says. “If someone is targeted with an insult, the intuitive thing might be to immediately push your emotions aside, to try to not feel bad about what just happened. But what we know in psychology is that kind of emotional suppression is more damaging than accepting that there are going to be some uncomfortable emotions, and that we need to process and spend time and deal with those emotions wisely.” And, he says, “rates of mental health disorders are about twice in LGB folks — I suspect it would be even higher in trans folks — compared to non-LBGT individuals.
“Some sources of minority stress can be very blatant,” Kwon continues, “like having laws that are discriminatory. But it’s also more subtle, just feeling that you can’t be yourself, that you have to conceal your identity. Or if you see negative messages in the media, or even overhear a remark that’s not personally directed at you, it still impacts your sense of being OK with who you are.”
A 2016 WSU Health and Wellness Services survey indicates just how many people are potentially affected by minority stress resulting from homophobia and microaggression. Nearly 15 percent of student respondents indicated they were not heterosexual.
Miles remembers the excitement of discovering that the LGBTQ community was blossoming into a social movement in the early 1970s. “A woman friend called me up and said, ‘Come over, come over!’ She had this album of women’s music! Women singing about women!” Miles and her friends would sit and listen to Lavender Jane Loves Women, Meg Christian, Ferron, and many other voices that found their way to vinyl via a burgeoning network of labels and festivals.
“We knew we were becoming more visible and we believed in possibilities,” Miles says. “And I think over the years we’ve gotten a lot of those possibilities but with it has come pain.”
The pain comes in the form of a seemingly endless backlash. According to a classic definition of prejudice by psychologist Gordon Allport, backlash is due to the fact that “prejudice treats persons as categories rather than as individuals. Because someone is black, female, homosexual, and so forth, the prejudiced person needs no further information on which to base his evaluations and behavior…. A summarizing, administrative spirit prevails.”
Prejudice, including homophobia, has little to do with facts and everything to do with categorizing nemeses. Instead of a life-affirming view of the world where other people are a potential source of support, people who suffer from prejudice, writes Thomas Henricks in a 2016 Psychology Today article that expands on Allport’s analysis, “preoccupy themselves with social competition. Life strategies center on victory and defeat, offense and defense. Resources are comprehended as difficult-to-attain prizes, awarded to individuals and their allies.”
As Kwon says, “Part of what I teach in my diversity class is the idea of privilege, the unconferred advantage that certain people have based on their demographics. I think what we’ve seen is that people are extremely reluctant to give up their privilege. And I think that is what results in this kind of backlash. People in power feel they are losing that kind of privilege and they retaliate by reinforcing that privilege. I think we know prejudice rises when there is more competition over scarce resources.”
Matthew Jeffries concurs that education is important. One of the goals of the Center’s work is to offer workshops and trainings that educate faculty, staff, and students about the realities of being a minority. “We are here to create cognitive dissonance in students, so that the next time they think before speaking: ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn’t say “That’s so gay.”’ We can’t unlearn behaviors for students that they’ve acquired over 20 years. But even tiny shifts in the way people go about the world — I’ll take that.”
Just as gendered language is a constant source of microaggressions against women, so too are all the default heteronormative things we say and do that ramp up minority stress; it’s death by a thousand cuts as your true self is again and again diminished and erased—or worse. Violent crimes against sexual minorities are on the rise, according to studies by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Human Rights Campaign. Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the SPLC, wrote that “LGBT people are more than twice as likely to be the target of a violent hate-crime than Jews or black people.”
And a lot of that violence is invisible. It does not rise to the scale of the 2016 mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, but is rather in homes, highways, streets, and schools, according to the HRC study.
But it’s hardly a competition to see who can suffer the most. One of the great realizations of the past few decades has been the idea of “intersectionality.” The term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Columbia Law School professor, in a 1998 paper that sought to illuminate the oppression of African-American women. The term has since been taken up by those seeking to elucidate the inherently intertwined workings of prejudice against all minorities. The result has been a networking of minorities and their allies fighting together against racial and identity oppression.
As Jeffries says, “The major issues are really intersectional. It’s not just that they’re LGBT, it’s they’re LGBT and a student of color. That adds a lot of complexity and creates a lot of work on their part.” It’s as Margot Lee Shetterly wrote in Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, about the women who were working in a Jim Crow, male-dominated world: They had to work twice as hard to get half as much.
The summer that Becca Prescott read The Laramie Project—the play about the brutal murder of a gay man, Matthew Shepard, in Wyoming—she realized that her personal experience intersects with those of people in the LGBTQ community as well as other minorities. “The community is so incredibly diverse,” she says, as she realized that “if I’m going to be an ally to other parts of the community, it is going to take educating myself.” One of the ways she does that is by reading, networking, and, yes, listening to podcasts, such as Cameron Esposito’s Queery.
Even before the word intersectionality was coined by Crenshaw, students at WSU have been working in that direction. Melynda Huskey recalls that “we had a Filipina student who worked with students and me to put together something called Brown and Out,” in 1997. “It was an opportunity to bring together white LGBT students, LGBT students of color, and students of color who did not identify as LGBT for a facilitated discussion about being your full self in all places.” Huskey says that Brown and Out was part of the reason that the Center, after the CUB was remodeled, moved to the fourth floor, “the same floor as all the multicultural student centers because there’s a large community of folks with many identities who needed support.”
Challenging the future
Civil rights for LGBTQ people are improving, at least in Washington. WSU has certainly played a significant role in that progress. WSU ranks among the top 25 in the national Campus Pride Index for its progressive policies and support networks. But, as Nolan Yaws-Gonzalez says, the support is uneven across WSU’s campuses.
Based at WSU Vancouver, where he is the assistant manager of student services, Yaws-Gonzalez is also a member of the President’s Commission for Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation, which has representatives from every WSU campus. The commission advocates for policies that contribute to a positive campus climate for LGBTQ people. One of the goals is to be less reactive and more proactive, Yaws-Gonzalez says.
“If people want to come to a meeting and raise things, to ask us to partner, we want that,” he says. “There’s a lot of people with a lot of energy and motivation on the campuses” and the commission wants to tap into that.
As hopeful as conditions are in Washington, Huskey points out that we still have a long way to go. “In the U.S. we are now seeing significant pushback around LGBT civil rights. We thought marriage was settled but it is not clear to me that it is going to stay settled. We have not achieved solid employment rights at a national level. There are many states where it is still perfectly legal to terminate someone from their job for the non-job-performance related fact that they have an LGBT identity.
“We have enjoyed civil rights for such a short period of time,” it’s hard to see them start to slip away. “It’s one thing for someone of my age. I went for a long time without the right to be married or for my children to be the children of both of their parents. But for young people—they started out thinking they would have those rights and to lose them is much harder if you didn’t know that could happen. We’ve got to move forward.”
Kwon says that “folks have been inspired to be more vocal, to be more active politically… . But it’s draining, and you hear that all the time. People who are really making those efforts are just exhausted.” Kwon, who offers counseling services one day a week in Lewiston, Idaho, admits to sometimes feeling “paralyzed by what is going on nationally or even statewide.” So he focuses on those things where he can make a difference: teaching and working with clients. And reminding people to build community, be emotionally self-aware, and have hope.
Prudence Miles offers a ray of hope.
“I work for Seattle Parks and Recreation, and I had a funny thing happen recently. I was at the bus stop. Quarter of seven, it’s dark. This random man walked up to me, looked at me, and said, ‘Your girlfriend’s cheating on you.’ I had headphones on, and was like, I’m not engaging with you. But I was telling people at work about it and my boss, a straight woman, immediately quipped, ‘Your girlfriend’s cheating on you? Does your wife know?’ And I just cracked up! That kind of casual comment at work!
“When I think about times in the past when I was so scared at work, when I was closeted. It’s just so nice to just be who we are.”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Washington State Magazine.