Saturday, May 2, 2009

An Idaho Gay History

I gave this speech on April 30, 2009 at the University of Idaho's Lavender Graduation. Ten remarkable students were honored at this event. The Coordinator of LGBTQA Programs at the University's Womens' Center, Rebecca Rod, welcomed all of us to the celebration, and the University's President Stephen Daly-Laursen gave heartfelt welcoming remarks. Below is my keynote speech, which was followed by Audrey Ebert's Valedictory, and the presentation of the graduates.

Graduates, friends, members of the University community, and family members, I'm grateful for the invitation to talk with you tonight. I'm touched by it, and deeply appreciative for the University of Idaho, for its Women's Center, and more particularly for the thousands of people like us who have graduated from this school.

When my father, Vernon Burlison, died in 1997, I wanted to remember him. He was an instructor and professor here at the University for three decades. He was also a pastor of a small community church in Juliaetta, Idaho for many years. He was beloved by all who knew him. I wanted to remember his life. I worked with the University of Idaho Foundation to establish a fund in his name at the University to benefit LGBTQA* programming through the Women's Center. I value the Women’s Center and these programs, and I invite you to support them, financially and otherwise. I especially want to thank Rebecca Rod for her fabulous work as coordinator of these programs.

Back in 1969, we were mostly homosexuals. Today, we're transgendered, lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer, or questioning, and allies.

Tonight, I want to tell you some Idaho stories, stories of my youth, and of what happened to me at the University of Idaho. It’s important to tell our stories because they weave a history of who we are and give us a perspective on where we might be going.

When I was growing up in Idaho in the 1950s and 60s, I knew I was different from an early age. I learned relatively early that I was a homosexual, but I had no idea what to do with that information. Because of a conservative post-WWII culture, as many of you may have felt at one time or another, I felt invisible.

I found out about myself by reading an article in Life Magazine, which had written about the homosexual lifestyle in San Francisco. The article showed pictures of men dancing with each other. I told my mother about the article, and she told me, "We don't talk about things like that in our home." That was quite all right with me. I was elated, because I knew, finally, who I was. It was a fact, another thing that I knew about myself. I think I was 10 or 11 at the time.

In junior high school and high school, I was the typical dork. My pants were too short. I had a very scary fashion sense. I couldn't throw a baseball or hit a basket. Football terrified me. Does any of this sound familiar? A couple of guys took delight in bullying me, but I was pretty careful to stay out of their way. I had parents who loved me just the way I was, and thankfully, they didn't ask many questions. I was smart, did well in school, and actually enjoyed PE, except for dodge ball.

And the girls, boy did I sell them a bill of goods. I liked girls. I wanted to grow up, get married, have kids, and live happily ever after. And girls liked me. I dated, but rarely kissed. And I didn't even think about sex. My mother told me that the only reason girls went to high school was to find a husband, and if I EVER got a girl pregnant, I'd have to drop out of school and support her, and oh, by the way, I'd be on my own, and how could I support a family? She had a lot less to worry about than she thought at the time.

By the time I got to high school, the family had moved to Potlatch, just up the road from here. I had a crush on one of my male classmates, but the sexual attraction was transmuted into this deep, wonderful friendship of track, hunting, fishing, and playing cards.

I continued to date girls, wondering once or twice what the hullaballoo was all about. I was popular in high school, but socially awkward. I later found out that the girls liked me because I could carry on a conversation, and I didn’t make demands. But word also got out that I didn’t make out or kiss, which probably should have set off a few alarm bells.

In my senior year of high school, I got engaged to Susan. She lived on a neighboring farm. We were in the same 4-H club. She was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormon, and I was Methodist.

Times were changing across America in 1969. Hundreds of thousands of people were protesting the Vietnam War. Nixon had just been elected President, promising to get us out. We had watched the beating of protesters at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. All of us in Potlatch saw this, but it hadn’t really reached us yet. We were hunkering down preparing for a confrontation between our deeply conservative selves and the Hippie proponents of Peace and Love. It was a visceral conflict, and I thought those Mormons might have some good answers.

So what was my conservative brain thinking? I was thinking that I wanted to be happy. Like some of you, perhaps, I couldn't imagine a world where I didn't have a wife and children. In 1969, there were no places in Potlatch, Idaho that had meaningful information about homosexuality, and my high school Family Living Class certainly didn't cover that topic. It wasn’t something that was on the TV News. I could hum the tunes of the musical, Hair, but I wasn’t about to join the cast. The world 40 years ago was a very different world than today. It punished sexual deviancy. It was a world where homosexuality was completely invisible, even to those of us who were homosexual. There was no gay history in Potlatch, Idaho.

Stonewall changed all of that. Judy Garland, an icon to all of us who are "Friends of Dorothy," died on June 22, 1969. As a result, the queens of Gotham were depressed, and some of them were drinking at the Stonewall Inn when the police raided the bar on the humid, scorching evening of June 28. The New York City Finest handcuffed then beat up a bulldyke with their billy clubs. A large, quiet crowd of homosexuals gathered outside the bar waiting for the paddy wagons. Desperate and angry the bloodied bulldyke cried out to the crowd, "Why don't you guys do something?" In that moment gay consciousness and gay history were born. Her angry and despairing words sparked a three-night riot, which sparked a movement, which fundamentally changed how you and I see ourselves and each other.

I was working at the Potlatch lumber mill that summer. I watched men walk on the moon, and I read about the Stonewall riots in Time Magazine. It was a very short article. I saw myself, again. This time, I was gay, still determined to get married and have kids. Still in love with my fiancée, Susan, but quite sure that I was gay, and totally clueless about what that meant to me and to the ones I loved.

That fall, I entered the University of Idaho. This was a time of personal exploration, looking for moral compass, trying to figure out what was what. One of the student Audio-Visual technicians that I worked with introduced me to pot. I also started drinking heavily, more to enjoy than to escape. My Methodist mother was appalled when she found out. She and Dad cut me off financially, for which I am grateful. They cared about me.

During this time, I also took the investigator lessons from the Mormon missionaries. I was baptized a member of the LDS Church when I was 19, and my fiancée, Susan, was very happy. My Mother was relieved (except for the LDS part), because it appeared that I was turning my life around. Strange as it may sound to you, I saw no contradictions in all of this. Without a history to know and understand, it's extremely difficult to gauge one's behavior. There was no gay past in Idaho from which to learn.

I was also a janitor at the Student Union Building and the University Classroom Center. One of the restrooms that I cleaned at the Classroom Center was notorious. It had lots of phone numbers, and some graphic suggestions about social activities. I knew that other men like me were out there. I had read their phone numbers and their messages. They may have sat next to me in my classes, but we never connected, and it never occurred to me that this could be a community in the making.

I dropped out of school my junior year to save money to go on a mission for the LDS Church. At church, I was a Sunday School teacher and a Priesthood Advisor to some of the men in the congregation.

I moved into the Mormon fraternity, Sigma Gamma Chi, next door to the LDS Institute. One Sunday evening in 1972, my roommate, Kay, a member of my Sunday School class, came into our room quite visibly upset and said he had to talk with me. He told me he had just had a sexual encounter with his zoology professor. In a moment of clarity about who I was, I responded, "Kay, I'm gay, too." He and I had a torrid affair. It was full of sex, danger, intrigue, secrecy, and desperation. We were always hiding out from our fraternity brothers, and yet they knew what was going on. We were a scandal, and we were terrified.

Kay and I loved each other passionately, and I think deeply, and we tried to imagine a world where we could live together. But we couldn’t imagine it. Moscow, Idaho was not San Francisco. We were sandbagged by a repressive religious culture. And in the midst of the biggest social and cultural upheaval of the 20th century, instead of Making Love Not War, we were at war with ourselves. We did not hear stories of other people like us. We had found each other, but could not create a world in which we fit.

We talked to our bishop, our stake presidents, and eventually, I was told to talk to one of the LDS Church authorities about my gay problem. I remember Elder Henry D. Taylor well. He told me, "Brother Burlison, I promise you that if you fast and pray, and get married in the Temple of the Lord, it will take care of your problem." Did he ever get that right! It took care of my problem, and confirmed to me, more than ever that I was gay as a goose.

So in May of 1973, Susan and I finally got married in the LDS Temple at Logan, Utah. I had had a difficult year. Kay had gone on a mission to Brazil, and I missed him a lot. My mother died the previous December after a long illness. Susan and I had broken up, and then had gotten back together only to rush off to Logan to get married, because it would take care of my problem. She thought everything was fixed. I felt like a heel. But I really wanted to marry, have children, and live happily ever after. I just wanted to be happy. I wanted my wife to be happy. Needless to say, Susan and I weren't happy. We loved each other. We tried to ignore the elephant sharing our bedroom. I was gay. Ultimately, our love for each other wasn’t enough.

I continued school here at the University. My academic advisor was my bishop. He was very concerned about me being gay and married, and all that. 1976 was a very scary year for me on campus. But I finally graduated, much to my relief!

So that was growing up gay at the University of Idaho. I discovered that not only was I clueless, but everyone else was, too when it came to homosexuality. Nobody knew what to do about my problem. Everyone, even those who I loved dearly, could only give me really awful advice. The reason for that is because we had no gay history. No one was telling our stories.

Actually, there were two lights in the dark. When my mother was dying, I went to the student counseling center because I needed someone to talk to. The director of the center and I talked my way through the anger and pain of my mother's illness. Then he asked me if there was anything else. I told him I was gay. He told me, "That's okay." During the same time, another janitor came out to me (an incredibly brave thing for him to do). He introduced me to a staff member who took me to his room, and held me one afternoon. That's all he did, but I needed that more than anything else at the time. I was afraid and distraught, and he held me.

I went to graduate school. I got a job. Susan and I had four beautiful children. I was excommunicated from the Mormon Church. Susan and I got divorced. I was fired from my job because I was gay and a security risk. I moved to Washington, DC. I met Ron, the love of my life. I got on with my life.

So what is the object of my story? Gay people have a history. And it's not just a personal history like I've recounted, it's a history in the context of world events.

We now know a lot about sexual orientation. We know a lot about gender identity. And it's my earnest hope that we're learning something useful from our histories. But to learn from those histories, we have to hear the stories and understand their impact.

I belonged to a religion that ultimately felt so threatened by my sexuality that it excommunicated me and tried to rob me of my spiritual life. Today, people who are members of sexual minorities are still under grave spiritual assault in most organized religions and denominations because of who we are. The most heartwrenching web page I've ever read is a page listing links to obituary notices of members of the LDS Church who have committed suicide because they were exposed as lesbian or gay, in their local churches, kicked out of their spiritual community, and robbed of their spiritual life. Their blood cries out to us.

Today, even in the smallest hamlet in Idaho, young women and men can find out important information about their sexuality or their gender identity. There is a history out there for them, maybe not in the local library, but it’s on the Internet. It's not a neat history, and not always a truthful story, but the word is out, and for the most part, the word is, it's okay to be gay or queer, or transgendered, or confused for that matter. I invite you to add your voice and your history so that you are heard. Don't be quiet.

I want to say a few words about love. Love is a wonderful expressive, intimate, and creative gift. Be happy with that gift. Be open to its giving and its receiving. There is a joy in love, and for me it comes down to this, I choose to love someone of my own gender. We must be very clear with ourselves: it's okay!

I still sometimes wonder about those men who left their phone numbers in the UCC men’s room. I hope they survived the plague of AIDS, and I hope they have gone on to live lives of purpose and dreams.

I wonder about you. I wonder about other students on this campus outside this room who should be here, listening to your stories, recounting their own. You offer hope, compassion, and strength in what is a chaotic, difficult collegiate world.

Some final advice: find your own family. I have stayed in Washington, DC, not because I like the traffic, or nine million people being in my face every day, but because I love Ron. For twenty-six years, he’s been my man! Twenty years ago, I went to a pool party, and bumped into Brian, and he's with us, as well. Fifteen years ago, I met Perry at a potluck, and he joined our family. Ten years ago, I square danced with Tim, and he became part of our tribe. I love these men dearly and completely. They are my chosen family. My hope is that you will choose your families too.

Take care of yourselves. It's okay to be yourself. It's okay to fight for what you believe in. Don't let anyone rob you of your spiritual birthright. Be playful and silly at least once a in a while. Let the ones you love know how much you love them, every day. Tell your story; please tell your story so that it can become part of a rich rainbow tapestry as beautiful as the Palouse Hills as resilient as the spirit of the people in this room tonight. I hope that each of you has a wonderful life. My life has been wonderful because of the men and women I have loved. I do not want anything less than that for you.

Thank you.

*Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer and Questioning, and Allies