Voices from the Past

Beyond the Silence was written by Ellen H. Brown for CWRU Magazine's Summer 2002 issue. The full article is also available in PDF format.

For readability, this article uses "gay" synonymously with "gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT)."

I have been on many college campuses in Ohio as well as in other states and have come in contact with many gay people on those campuses. However, the one thing that is noted on this campus is the lack of openness of gays. Even though there is an active gay group on campus, the lack of participation of gay students on campus vs. active member gay students within the organization is astounding. For some reason, there seems to be a personal suppression that does not seem evident elsewhere.

—Excerpt from an editorial by John T. in the October 9, 1973, edition of The Observer, the Case student newspaper.

Through the years, gay and lesbian life on campus has represented a rich but often quiet part of the university's culture. In the early 1970s, the Gay Activist Alliance was established at Case, as the gay liberation movement gained momentum across the country following the Stonewall Riots in 1969. In June of that year, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village, sparking a violent uprising. Though such tavern raids were not uncommon in those days, patrons rarely resisted. But on that night in June, the crowds in the Stonewall Inn fought back, and violence erupted in the street.

It was also in this period, in 1973, that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its new diagnostic manual of mental disorders.

The first sanctioned group on campus devoted to gay people, the Gay Activist Alliance, was both an activist and social organization sponsoring seminars, dances, and other events and publishing a newsletter called the Lavender Pages.

Composed of students, faculty, staff, and members of the Cleveland community, the group also provided a hotline for gay people. In the early 1970s, numerous articles, editorials, and letters to the editor, which discussed the GAA and its activities, appeared in the Observer. One editorial, which ran on September 15, 1972, stated, in part: "We mark the surfacing of a gay organization at CWRU as a sign of the times that is long overdue. We will support their efforts, as liberating actions for a minority long suppressed and harassed. We hope the students here have the maturity to do the same."

In the late 1970s, the name of the GAA changed to the Gay Student Union, and the late anthropology professor, Charles Callender, served as the faculty advisor for the organization, which met regularly and featured a number of social events, including an annual dance.

Through the years, the group has waxed and waned, depending on the level of student involvement and leadership--as has been the case with other GLBT-oriented groups on campus, including those based in the School of Law, the School of Medicine, the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, and the School of Graduate Studies, some of which are not currently active. And, depending on the students involved, the Gay Student Union took on slightly different forms. In the 1980s, the group also held weekend-long conferences that featured workshops, films, national speakers, and parties. Although the conferences were free for students, very few students attended, possibly for fear of being identified as gay or lesbian. Many of the people who participated in the conference were members of the Greater Cleveland community.

In the 1980s, the Gay Student Union was renamed the Lesbian Gay Student Union to recognize the identity of lesbians. Though the name of the group has changed over the years to become more inclusive (to the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Alliance and Spectrum), its purpose has typically been social, educational, and political.

As an alumna of Case and a former longtime administrator, Patricia Baldwin Kilpatrick possesses a wealth of personal knowledge on university history. When she is asked what the climate was like for people who were lesbian or gay when she was a college student at the Flora Stone Mather College for Women, she lets out a thunderous laugh. "I can tell you that, until 1970, the subject was never mentioned. It was like the military," says Mrs. Kilpatrick (FSM '49; GRS '51, physical education), vice president and university marshal emerita. "Don't ask, don't tell." When she was a college student, she recalls, "There were more rumors than anything else." But if women were athletic or had their hair cut short, people would make derogatory remarks. "Consequently, some people were always on edge."

In the 1970s, when Mrs. Kilpatrick worked with students as a freshman and dormitory advisor, she says students and peer counselors came to talk to her about their feelings, and some admitted to being lesbians. "I was very fortunate in developing, over time, a feeling of openness with kids," she says. "Students felt good about talking to me, and I developed a warm relationship with them."

She remembers one student, in particular, who once came to her in a despondent mood. She and Mrs. Kilpatrick talked at length, and the student revealed she was a lesbian. Through the years, the woman has kept in touch with Mrs. Kilpatrick; and the two have developed a lifelong friendship, she says.

In those days, she notes, "It was so hard because it was something you couldn't talk about with anyone. You'd just expect rejection. Today it's different. People are still bigoted, of course. But at least some people are willing to talk about it."

What follows are accounts from Case alumni who were willing to talk on the record for this story.

Robert Daroff, Jr. (WRC '86, MED '90)

For Rob Daroff, attending Case as an undergraduate and a medical school student was like living in two different worlds. As an undergraduate, "I felt very isolated," recalls Dr. Daroff, now a staff psychiatrist at the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center and the son of Jane Daroff, a social worker in Case's counseling services office. "It felt like a big, cold place." As he'd walk across the Case quad, he remembers "feeling isolated and alone and feeling like a marked man, because I was 'out.'" As time went by, he became involved in what was then known as the Lesbian Gay Student Union, where he befriended some students who were a "great support to me."

Another source of support was the anthropology professor, Charles Callender, who served as a mentor to Dr. Daroff and many other students (GLBT and straight). Professor Callender taught a course called the "Anthropology of Sexual Deviancy." Though the title of the class left something to be desired, says Dr. Daroff, with a laugh, the premise of the class was great. Professor Callender, who didn't come out until later in life, would chain smoke in class using a big jar as an ashtray, pacing back and forth "and talking about the variety of sexual expressions through time. He helped us reexamine our assumptions about what's normal and how a culture comes to define deviant behaviors." Over time, Dr. Daroff remembers, "I developed a wonderful relationship with him. He was the ideal professor. He helped me academically and helped me come out and flourish. He was an incredible force in my life."

While the Case double alumnus doesn't remember encountering much overt hostility on campus, he does recall one incident that, he says, "really scared me." At the time, he was volunteering on a local gay hotline, and he'd placed an ad in the Observer informing students that he'd be staffing the hotline on a specific time and day. "There was one student who called several times and seemed to be having a hard time coming out," he recalls. When the student asked Dr. Daroff to meet him on campus to continue their conversation, he agreed. But the man never showed up at the designated time and place. "So I figured he got freaked out and didn't show up," Dr. Daroff says. When the man called the hotline the next week and told Dr. Daroff, "I saw you there, you f***ing faggot. I know who you are now," Dr. Daroff remembers being "very freaked out. Quite paranoid that that guy was going to hurt me."

When Dr. Daroff continued on to the School of Medicine, however, he remembers his experience being very different, recalling that the "medical school was like an island unto itself, and it felt very safe there." In his first year, there were twelve other GLBT students in his class who were out, so he and a fellow student launched and became active in the Case chapter of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered People in Medicine. Though some people wouldn't associate with Dr. Daroff because he was gay and out, "We were certainly tolerated, and I felt very safe and supported," he says. "We had a good quorum [of GLBT students] in our class."

Today, as an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco, Dr. Daroff serves as a mentor for gay students. He stated that "I know that kind of support can make such a difference in students' lives, even in San Francisco, where being gay isn't that big of a deal."

Timothy Downing (LAW '88)

In his first semester of law school at Case, Tim Downing recalls trying his best to compartmentalize his life and rarely socializing with other students. "Law school is hard enough, especially in the first year," says Mr. Downing, now a partner with the law firm of Ulmer and Berne, LLP in Cleveland. Back then, he was afraid to be out because he wasn't confident about who he was. Fearful that his sexual orientation would affect his grades and how people--particularly faculty members—would perceive him, he chose to stay "in."

But by the second semester, Mr. Downing began venturing out to gay clubs on weekends, eventually realizing that some of the people he saw at the clubs were also law school students.

"I realized I wasn't alone," he says. Slowly but steadily, he began talking with and befriending some of those people. "We had a sort of secret club going," he says, laughing, noting that "it helped to have a group of students to hang out with."

But the group was closeted, for the most part. Many, including Mr. Downing, were afraid of how faculty members and future employers would react if they knew the students were GLBT.

Mr. Downing acknowledges that some of his fears stemmed from being uncomfortable about being gay. "Because," he admits, "the more comfortable you are with who you are and being gay, the more willing you are to be out."

As time went by, Mr. Downing became more and more confident about who he was, he began "taking baby steps," he recalls. "I didn't lie about where I'd been over the weekend, if it came up."

In his second year of law school when he met Kenneth Press (WRC '84), who would later become his life partner, he accepted who he was and realized that he wanted to live an open, honest life. "It didn't cause me to wave a rainbow flag through the law school," he says. "But I pledged to myself that I would be true to myself and honest about who I am."

When asked what the climate was like for students who were GLBT, he sighs. "In the mid-eighties, I wouldn't say the climate here was particularly hostile, but it also wasn't very welcoming," he says, noting that his assessment refers only to the law school. "There was a sort of 'don't ask, don't tell' policy." While he heard whispers and rumors about certain faculty and staff who were GLBT, he explains, no one talked about "so and so in a particular department who was openly gay."

Barry Rice (CWR '91)

When Barry Rice reflects on his years at Case, he remembers them being a catalyst for his growth, both personally and academically. "It seemed like the university was a pretty easy place to be out," says the former Observer editor, who is now a professor and acting chair of the journalism department at Columbia College Chicago. He recalls, "It was generally an accepting place."

That was particularly the case in the Department of Theater Arts, remembers Mr. Rice, who came out in his junior year after switching his major from biomedical engineering to theater arts: "It was a pretty open crowd that I hung out with."

Mr. Rice also found the Office of Counseling Services and the Office of Housing and Residence Life to be supportive. When he first came out, he remembers meeting with a therapist in the counseling center who was helpful, he says, unsuccessfully searching his memory for her name. The residence life staff was "very progressive," he remembers. Mr. Rice, who served as a resident assistant during his junior and senior years, recalls that there was a "very progressive diversity-training program for resident assistants" and that the staff tried to sensitize students to many different issues in residence life programming, including GLBT-related concerns.

"I had a positive experience at CWRU," he says. "I had good faculty members. I had a good social experience. I have good feelings about Case Western Reserve, in general. It's where I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. And it's where I figured out my sexual orientation."

Shan Mohammed (MED '97)

Though Shan Mohammed was never out to his whole class as a medical student at Case, "There were clearly signs of support," recalls the clinical instructor in the School of Medicine. One such sign was the presence of a group sanctioned by the School of Medicine called Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered People in Medicine, which is a chapter of a national group sponsored by the American Medical Student Association. While Dr. Mohammed never joined the group, he found it comforting to know it existed, he says, noting that he chose instead to create his own network of support, which included a group of GLBT physicians in the region called the Northeast Ohio Physicians for Human Rights, who invited students to participate in their meetings and served as mentors.

A situation during his first year also had a strong impact on him. A student a year ahead of him was making a transition from being a woman to a man. The student sent a letter to fellow students explaining his transition process, so everyone would know what was going on, says Dr. Mohammed. "I think that student made a big impact on many students. That took a great deal of courage, I thought."

Another indication of the school's sensitivity to GLBT issues was a program, affectionately known as Gay Day, sponsored by the medical school. In the half-day program, students talk in small groups with gay and lesbian physicians, learning not only about the physicians' experiences as GLBT doctors but about the importance of being sensitive and alert to patients' concerns and sexual histories.

Though Dr. Mohammed remembers it being difficult hearing derogatory comments made about GLBT patients on the hospital wards, he considers his experience, overall, a positive one.

These days, Dr. Mohammed helps ease the way for medical school students who are GLBT. "Some of them aren't out and are suffering," he says, "which can be hard to see." On the other hand, he meets with a number of students "who are out and doing a lot better than I was doing when I was their age," he notes. "So I see hope and change and progress."

Brian Thornton (CWR '97; GRS '99, civil engineering)

During his years as an undergraduate student at Case, Brian Thornton recalls being disturbed one day when he came across chalkings for a Gay Lesbian Bisexual Alliance event that had been defaced, making him even less likely to come out of the closet.

The pink triangles announcing the event had been slashed with black painted lines. And Mr. Thornton recalls that several weeks passed before the defaced messages were removed, noting that the incident made a powerful impression on him.

For the first two years of his college career, Mr. Thornton never dated, concentrating instead on his studies as an engineering major. In his third year, however, he had a relationship with another male student. "We were totally in the closet about it," he says. "We couldn't tell anybody about it."

It wasn't until the summer between undergraduate and graduate school that he came out to his friends and attended his first gay-pride parade. Though he "embraced the whole gay scene," he couldn't bring himself to come out in the Department of Civil Engineering, he says, because he was well liked and worried about how he'd be perceived if people knew about his sexual orientation. So he chose to keep that part of his life secret. That's no longer the case today, as Mr. Thornton works as a community health advocate for the Lesbian/Gay Community Service Center of Greater Cleveland.

Valerie Molyneaux (CWR '99)

When Valerie Molyneaux attended Case in the mid- to late-'90s, she remembers being the "big lesbian on campus," she says, laughing, "I was one of the only lesbians here, it seemed." In her classes, and in the residence halls, where she eventually served as a resident director (when she was pursuing her master's degree at Kent State University), she often brought up GLBT-related issues. And because she was also involved in a feminist organization on campus ("and everybody assumes that feminists are lesbians"), and she and her partner held hands and embraced in public, she says, "People figured out I was a lesbian." Her partner, then and now, is Courtney Bryant (CWR '01), whom she met when both were students at Case.

With the exception of receiving some harassing phone calls, related to her sexual orientation, she doesn't remember experiencing any repercussions. The fact that she was comfortable with her identity and "didn't present an aura of being afraid," she believes, made a difference.

Though Ms. Molyneaux was involved with what was then the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Alliance (now called Spectrum), which was supported by the Undergraduate Student Government, she didn't find the university administration to be especially supportive of GLBT people. For several years, there were anti-gay chalkings in response to GLBA-sponsored events; and, she says, "basically the administration didn't take a stand on it. And because of that, there was the sense that gay students were tolerated but not supported."

Still, Ms. Molyneaux, who now serves as an area director at Emory University, finds hope in the fact that the university agreed to extend benefits to domestic partners of Case employees.