Outspoken: LGBTQ Alumni Share Stories Through Oral History Project
ear the back of the 1979 Hamilton yearbook, 14 pages titled “Campus Life” feature a collection of black-and-white photos without captions, leaving it to readers to posit the who, what, why: three laughing women in silly hats, a guy at a pottery wheel, a student bent over a book at a library table, etc. The story behind a photo on page 143 belongs to David Balog ’79. He alluded to it when he was interviewed for a new and developing oral history archive of LGBTQ Hamilton alumni.
It’s a shot of protesters on a city street beside a marquee that heralds a visit by Anita Bryant. At the front of the protest line, two young people display a “March for Human Rights” banner. Bryant, a controversial 1970s singer, celebrity, and anti-gay crusader, led Save Our Children, an organization that fought against gay-rights laws. At the time, Balog was a young gay man struggling with his sexual identity and not yet out. Hardly anyone was out at Hamilton then; Balog knew of only one student.
When he read about the impending protest in nearby Utica, he knew he needed to be a part of it. He went by himself; if any other Hamilton students were there, Balog didn’t see them. He shot the photo and, as yearbook editor-in-chief, made sure it got published. “I wish I could have done more, but at least I did that,” he said recently. “I went to the rally and took the picture and put it in the yearbook. It seems a small thing to do, but it was a tough, tough, conservative environment when I look back.”
Spectrum is a group for the LGBTQ+ and straight ally alumni, and is part of the Alumni Council’s Equity & Inclusion Committee.
With three decades of LGBTQ activism behind him now, Balog is among more than 35 alumni who have volunteered so far to be interviewed for the oral history archive. Their stories, like Balog’s, offer glimpses of layered history: personal, Hamilton’s, and the broader culture.
“We’re not only trying to establish an LGBTQ history of Hamilton College, but we want to put this history, and these people who lived it, within a larger context of LGBTQ history in the United States,” says the project’s originator, Joyce Barry, visiting assistant professor of women’s and gender studies and American Studies chair. References to issues of the day — Anita Bryant, AIDS, same-sex marriage, rights for transgender people — are revealed through the personal accounts.
Barry’s goal is to collect at least 100 individual histories for the project, which is being digitized in partnership with Hamilton’s Digital Humanities Initiative and DHi class fellow Duncan Davies ’21. The plan is to build an interactive archive that eventually will be open to anyone who wishes to read it.
The idea for the project began to percolate several years ago when Barry team-taught the course Queer Literature and Film and discovered how difficult it has been historically to gather and establish queer histories of any kind. She found herself wondering why, and that interest dovetailed with conversations she’d had with LGBTQ students over the years. “They shared their experiences with me, their life experiences of being identified as LGBTQ. Some of them are still working out that identity and affiliation at Hamilton. For some of them it’s easy; for others, it’s not,” Barry says.
I hope by reading our stories, they can at least get a sense of what it is to be different in such a core way. Presumably Hamilton students, who have been taught to read, write, and think, will be able to see themselves in our stories, whatever their positionalities.
She knew of other colleges and universities that had created LGBTQ histories and figured Hamilton should, too, especially if it meant an opportunity for students in her Feminist Research and Methods course to have hands-on experience in creating oral histories. Students helped devise the questions, and, over two academic years and two different sections of the course, they asked alumni about their lives at Hamilton and beyond. Barry and Davies are spending this summer working with the information, collecting metadata, and bringing big-picture plans into focus. They are considering creating a digital timeline of the College and LGBTQ rights in the United States, on which the participants would be placed. Davies, a history major with an enthusiasm for digital tools, has suggested that the project include a blog where students and staff can contribute.
he project is long term. Creating this type of searchable digital archive that will be useful to scholars takes time, and the work this summer is just the beginning. “We want this to continue. It’s an event right now, it’s happening now, but I know Professor Barry’s goals are to keep building this, and hopefully now and in the future people will continue contributing and benefiting from hearing each other’s stories. That alone is really, really powerful,” says DHi Director Janet Oppedisano.
Barry plans to unveil the project to the campus this fall with a panel that includes students, some who are now alumni, who helped build the archive. She wants to get more students involved in the project to keep it moving apace.
Eliza Glaser-Kshensky ’20, former co-chair of the Queer Student Union, likes the oral history concept. In her work with the union, she says she saw how easily history disappears in an environment where students come and go so quickly. “Having something like that as a resource, maybe for students who are trying to find their way or who might want to know more about queer culture at Hamilton or queer history at Hamilton, would be really worthwhile,” she says.
To recruit alumni to tell their stories, Barry posted a query on Facebook to Spectrum, Hamilton’s LGBTQ alumni group. The responses came in faster than she’d expected, and she quickly reached her goal of 15 to 20 responses each of the two times she asked for participants. Spectrum Chair Ann Horwitz Dubin ’06 answered the call.
“Being a sociologist and somebody who got a Ph.D. and specialized in qualitative research,” Dubin says, “I think interviewing and gathering oral histories are wonderful. Some folks in academia might look down on it and say it’s not ‘real science’ or whatever, but the truth is that stories matter, and I love the idea that Hamilton students are collecting the recollections of older alumni because it’s such an intimate and deep way of learning the story of gay life at Hamilton over time.”
uring his time on College Hill, David Pratt ’80 remembers an organization called SAPPHO for gay students. He knew Kirkland women who were out as lesbians, and men he thought were gay, but nothing was certain because nothing was ever said. Like Balog, Pratt was gay but not out while at Hamilton, and both of them found Hamilton then to be a difficult place for gay students. One of the questions posed to survey participants is: What was the climate like for LGBTQ students at Hamilton? “There virtually was no climate,” Pratt told his interviewer. “I think you could say that, in a way, the problem was not hostility; the problem was that one didn’t exist. But, of course, it would be especially true of transgender, which did not exist as a word or as a category then.”
Students who worked on the project found some of what they heard mind-blowing, Barry says. As a queer student, Mo McDermott ’18 (who uses they/them pronouns) was struck by how different it was to be an LGBTQ student in a time of invisibility. In their Hamilton experience, LGBTQ students were visible, and students in general had a level of knowledge about them. Yet McDermott also discerned a common thread running between the decades — a feeling of isolation for LGBTQ students. For McDermott, a great value of the oral history project is that it allows students and alumni to understand their own experiences in relation to others across time, backgrounds, and perspectives. “I just think there’s so much power in LGBTQ people being able to connect with one another and learn from one another, when there has been such a lack of records of LGBTQ history,” they say.
It’s important for Hamilton to know its history and doubly important for a marginalized group like LGBTQ students to know theirs, says Ryn Winner ’19, one of the facilitators of T-Time, a discussion group for transgender students. Winner (who uses they/them pronouns) sees in the archive a potential benefit that Barry hadn’t anticipated but likes — a networking opportunity of sorts. Winner believes students need to hear from alumni about how things have improved, or not, on campus, and to understand how alumni progressed after College. For a lot of queer students, especially trans students, says Winner, envisioning a future can be a challenge, and this database can be helpful for that. “It’s really hard to see yourself in the future being respected as who you want to be,” they say.
On the far side of the student experience, Pratt and Balog also recognize a need for connection, which emerged as they explained why they wanted to be part of the archive. Balog did it in part to re-establish a relationship with the College. And he wanted to share what he’s learned since he was a student on the Hill. Isolation has been a problem for older generations of LGBTQ people, Balog says, just like it’s a problem now for LGBTQ youth. He would like to help them have an easier time than his generation did. “I think I have something to offer,” he says.
A science writer whose books include Healing the Brain: Stress, Trauma and LGBTQ Youths, Balog co-founded and runs a nonprofit organization that supports LGBTQ youth in the foster-care system. He’s studied stress and its effects on learning and sees the impact it had on his own studies when he was closeted at Hamilton, where he remembers enduring homophobic comments and attitudes.
Pratt, a fiction writer whose books include a young adult novel, told his story because it felt like he was doing something for future generations of LGBTQ students. He’s hoping that straight people use the archive, too. “I hope by reading our stories, they can at least get a sense of what it is to be different in such a core way. Presumably Hamilton students, who have been taught to read, write, and think, will be able to see themselves in our stories, whatever their positionalities,” he says.
The following section feature highlights from the oral history interviews conducted by students. Conversations have been excerpted, with permission.
Jack Black ’81
Retired Medical Librarian
San Jose, Calif.
Black: Okay. You may want to get into this later, but I helped start a basically gay students group —
Student Interviewer: Oh, cool.
Black: So, obviously, my junior and senior years, that was my focus.
Student Interviewer: That’s awesome.
Black: Yeah, there were about four of us who did that.
Student Interviewer: What did that entail? Would you just meet together, the group of you?
Black: Yeah, we put a notice in The Spectator ... Back then, everybody was closeted, obviously. It was very much underground. We would meet at the Alumni House — I don’t know if it’s still called that — on Sunday evenings, and we’d usually have somebody in there.
I don’t know if this is getting ahead of things, but we actually applied to the student government for money to bring in speakers. That was a stressful thing because to be out at that time was very scary, and we went before the student board. I thought we had a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting anything. They ended up giving us 75 percent of their budget. I guess they felt like we were really a neglected group, so they gave us a big chunk of change, and we were able to bring, I want to say it was Richard Burns, and I may be wrong, but we brought him to campus to [speak]. He was involved with the LGBT center down in New York City at that time.
Student Interviewer: While you were a student here, what was the climate like for LGBTQ students?
Black: It was bad. I don’t know how else you’d describe it. Maybe our fears were overblown. One of my friends, good friend — I tend to present as straight, so I don’t think people assume I’m gay — but one of my friends was pretty effeminate. He’s about as out as you can be. There’s this guy who would spit at him every time he saw him and stuff like that. There was that prejudice. And of course the usual terms back then, people were less hesitant to use terms like faggot and queer in a derogatory sense.
Student Interviewer: Do you feel like the merger with Kirkland was helpful, maybe not diminishing the fear, but do you feel like it was helpful for students who did identify as LGBT?
Black: I think the existence with Kirkland absolutely was. Again, it was this very progressive women’s college and a lot of lesbians. That’s why I hung out at the Women’s Center, because that’s where a bunch of women were, and therefore, the gay men.
High School Math Teacher
Sheldon: It was hard [at Hamilton]. Not very many people were out. The people who were out were ... I don’t know, I felt like they were ostracized. I don’t know what it’s like [now]. I’m much older than all of you guys, but I know at my school, because we have a [Gay Student Association], we have kids who are out. I don’t know how to say it — it’s not a big deal, for the most part. It’s a big deal for some kids because of their background. Maybe they’re international students or maybe their parents are particularly conservative, but for the most part, people are pretty accepting. I felt like we’ve almost flipped the percentages, so maybe now it’s like 30% are not accepting, and I think then, it was about 30% who were.
Student Interviewer: Sure.
Sheldon: You really were careful about who you told for fear of what would happen, worried about the repercussions from losing friendships and what my coaches would say or my professors would say and how they would judge you. [For example] I was with my advisor doing my courses and we had this Knowledge of Others category you had to fill in order to graduate. He says to me, “Well, you haven’t completed your Knowledge of Others category. Why don’t you take this course in the Sociology Department called Psycho-Sexual Diversity where you learn about gay people and transgender people?” I was like, “Yeah, sure. I’ll take that course.” I wasn’t going to tell him I was gay, but he just assumed that would be “other.” It was so bizarre to me. I don’t know.
Student Interviewer: Was the course not good?
Sheldon: No, I thought it was very good. There weren’t very many people in it. I think people were afraid to take it because I think they were afraid of the stigma of why you would sign up for a course like that.
Student Interviewer: Okay, sure.
Sheldon: It was like every couple of weeks, we’d have a panel of people that were transgender who would come in and answer our questions. [The professor] had so many connections with people who would come in and talk to us about what it was like to be born with either full sets of organs or neither set of organs for one particular gender and what was that like growing up. ... I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere. I was like, “Oh, my God. That can happen?” That’s incredibly difficult. Yeah, gender is such a construct. It really made you think about some things you hadn’t thought about. It normalized to me what it was to be gay. Like I said, I grew up in a very conservative family, and it really made me feel better about what I was dealing with.
Program Coordinator for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Harvard Kennedy School
Student Interviewer: Will you talk a little bit more about the climate on campus? It seems like you saw some shifting while you were on campus.
Nekoroski: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I think when I started [at] Hamilton in 2011, I knew maybe two queer people on campus. When I’d go to Rainbow [Alliance] meetings, I think we averaged probably eight people at a meeting, maybe something like that. And when I joined the rugby team my sophomore year — I was dating a girl on the rugby team, but we were the only two people who were out on the team. And then by senior year on rugby, my entire class, save two people, were identifying as queer. And I remember going to a Rainbow meeting my senior year, and you couldn’t even fit everyone in the room, there were so many people. It was insane. So, it changed very drastically over my four years there. I mean, I think during those four years, that was at the time when a lot of huge changes were happening, both in politics and culturally. Lady Gaga was popular and all that stuff, and all the political things were happening with DOMA and marriage equality and everything. So I think you definitely started to see a lot [more] queerer kids on campus. And I think it was a combination of people coming out on campus, and also a lot of kids coming from more accepting high school experiences, already being out and coming to Hamilton already out.
Student Interviewer: Yeah. I have seen a big shift, too, in my four years.
Nekoroski: It’s very cool.
Student Interviewer: All right, could you expand a little bit more on the personal hardships that you faced because of your identity?
Nekoroski: Yeah. I mean, in terms of Hamilton’s campus specifically, I think the biggest thing that I would experience was people not using the correct pronouns, even though I would tell them many times what my pronouns were. That was always [a] difficult sell for people. And just generally not respecting my identity and those sort of things. I was involved when we started the whole gender-neutral bathrooms initiative. So that was a thing, but I wouldn’t consider that to be a particularly hard process. Some of the most difficult experiences I’ve had being trans actually stemmed from when I was abroad. In Morocco, I got kicked out of a bathroom once because they didn’t think I should be in there. And yeah, I had some verbal attacks, I suppose. But Hamilton’s campus has always been never explicitly unaccepting. I think I’ve found that any times I ever felt like something was difficult, it was usually more below the surface uncomfortable, people being uncomfortable with it, or not knowing what it meant.
Student Interviewer: What was the most difficult part of being LGBTQ at Hamilton College?
Evans: It’s difficult saying. The community is small so you’re known. ... I was in a relationship throughout college from freshman year through senior, so I didn’t really get tied up into that.
Student Interviewer: Was your partner from Hamilton?
Evans: No. I feel that would be a little too weird. That would also have narrowed it down to seven people. Like, ”No, thank you.”
Student Interviewer: You mentioned not having any personal hardships at Hamilton. Could you elaborate a little bit on [any other] hardships that you’ve had?
Evans: When I was 17, so my senior year of high school, I was gay-bashed. It was just me and my then boyfriend who got jumped by seven guys, something like that. I had my face dragged across the concrete. It took off layers of skin on the right side of my face, and there was a chunk out of my knee. My hands were [expletive] up; I had a black eye, busted lip. That was a hardship that was caused by being gay. It’s funny because ever since that, now I’m like, ”Oh no, [expletive] no, I take no bullshit regarding my sexuality.“
Student Interviewer: Right. I was going to ask how that experience at 17 shaped you, which you answered, but how you presented yourself in college, what effect did that have?
Evans: If something [like] that were to happen again, I was totally prepared to beat the shit out of somebody. So for me, it made me a little bit more confident, but I also feel this was different because I was in a long-term relationship. I wasn’t trying to, I don’t know, I was already comfortable, so I just completely carried on. I didn’t feel I had to prove anything to anyone about anything.
Ann Horwitz Dubin ’06
Student Interviewer: What would you say are some of the biggest challenges facing the queer community today?
Dubin: Well, through all the progress that’s been made, you know, it’s not news to you I’m sure, there’s still a lot that’s wrong.
Student Interviewer: Right.
Dubin: The way that gays and lesbians and trans people and queer people and bisexuals and gender queer folk and all of that are treated. It’s great that we have marriage rights, but I think over half the states in this country still have legal discrimination against people who identify as minorities in terms of their sexual identity or sexual orientation. In a lot of places it’s still perfectly legal for somebody to fire you because you’re gay or they think you’re gay or for a landlord to evict you because you’re gay or they think you’re gay. That’s wrong. That’s unconstitutional. It violates people’s equal protection under the law. So, that’s a big challenge.
Another big challenge is that, you know, my experience as a white woman who comes from an affluent background and from a social milieu that is generally quite progressive, is that my coming out experience was relatively easy. It was still difficult and emotional and all of that, but, you know, imagine the kids whose parents disown them or cast them out of the house or whose friends or whose religious communities shun them and they end up homeless, they end up addicted to drugs, or having to turn to sex work in order to survive. Trans people face all kinds of discrimination that cisgendered people, cisgendered gay folks, don’t necessarily have to [face]. So, I think that the gay community faces the challenge in understanding that the issues of affluent, white, gay people are not only issues in the LGBT community, and we — cisgendered, white, gay people — need to shut up and understand that this movement is not just our movement. It doesn’t belong to us, and we need to be much more comprehensive in our [thinking]. I think it’s unconscionable that there’s so many places in this country where people can be fired or evicted just because of who they are.