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communication tips Why Don’t Gays Keep Quiet? Learning From Our Students
Wm. David Burns, Director, Program on Health and Higher Education, AAC&U

We achieve one ideal of a liberal education when we learn from each other. Last year I learned a great deal especially from Susan, Eli, Ron, and Dan--all student leaders of the Rutgers University Lesbian/Gay Alliance (RULGA). This learning was not without some discomfort. But these students helped me see something important about the complaints, suggestions, claims, and protests of lesbian and gay students.

I always thought that I had a “liberal” view of homosexuality. I thought I was tolerant and open to human differences. As an administrator, I had done what I could to prepare my staff to do their work with a sensitivity to “difference.” Reports of attacks on gays and lesbians on campus disturbed me deeply. So did the fact that one of the few bigotries that many colleges openly permit is a persistent homophobia ranging from subtle insinuations to blatant accusations to acts of violence. I never agreed with the notion that to love someone of the same sex is unnatural--and therefore to be condemned. I assumed that I was not in any way part of the hostile chorus directed against this particular human difference. But I was mistaken.

In spite of my “liberal” views, I still found myself annoyed by those people who made so much ado about their “sexual orientation.” Why did they have to tell me they were lesbian or gay, as if in prelude to anything else? I don’t tell everyone about my sexuality so why do some gays and lesbians make such a big deal about theirs? I wondered why we had to have all these gay dances, gay pride weeks, “wear blue jeans if you are gay” days. I guess I would have preferred silence.

I have learned a lot in the past year: Eli helped me learn when he asked how we could reconcile the University’s mission of searching for truth and its complementary ethic of intellectual honesty with a position that asks some people to engage in a lifetime of deception about some of the most basic of human feelings. And Susan helped me see how, if she had chosen to “pass” as a heterosexual, she could never openly express spontaneous sentiment or openly hug the person she loved.

Dan patiently explained to me that no, a student he knows would not report to our University police that someone had vandalized his car by scrawling “fag” on it. Why? Because, first he didn’t entirely trust the police to take him seriously, and second, he was afraid that the police report might reach his parents, who could then learn something they didn’t know about their son.

And Ron helped me see that to stay silent is never to ask about yourself, never to have an opportunity to share in learning about the history and culture of those like yourself, as other students do in the process of becoming educated. These students helped me see why it was necessary for some students to be open--even emphatically vocal--about who they are.

I also came to see that my notion of sexuality as a private matter is essentially a conceit. To be sure, the specific details of my sexual life are private, but the broad outlines of heterosexuality are not. Heterosexuality screams at us in this culture: in the way we talk, the jokes we tell, the expectations we have, the assumptions we make. Heterosexuality becomes invisible to those who stay within its traces.

By contrast, homosexuality conjures up, for some at least, specific sexual visions--not a range of attractions, affections, desires, or expressions of love. Absent from this view of homosexuality is any appreciation for the common daily experiences-- all the other dimensions of living that homosexuals and heterosexuals share. The narrow, but vivid, sometimes lurid, and usually uninformed construction of homosexuality in the minds of many explains why some would prefer that gays remain in the closet: if we don’t talk about it, we can all be “normal.”

What I learned from the RULGA students is that, for some, breaking silence about one’s gayness is akin to talking out loud when you are in a dark place. There are good reasons to do so: you hear a voice that reassures you and helps you feel a little less afraid. In a hostile situation, however, talking aloud in a dark place means you could be discovered; breaking the silence is a risk. Breaking silence is a choice I have come to respect much more.

The thing I admire most is the courage of these students. Their bravery exposes them to risk, but it can also be a source of strength. While not everyone is in a position to take these risks, there is much we can all learn from the pioneers who have taken this courageous step. We will be better educational leaders if we try hard to listen to them.

The article from which this text is excerpted first appeared in Rutgers Magazine in 1988. At the time, Burns served as Assistant Vice President for Student Life Policy and Services at Rutgers University.

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Breaking the silence about one’s sexuality can be a courageous act, and it can have wide-ranging consequences if it is done in public or in a way the media is likely to cover. News stories about lesbian and gay rights or lesbian and gay student activities tend to feature individuals with personal stories. Therefore, “coming out” in that way can provoke public recognition of one’s sexuality.

Ground rules can be established with journalists if a student wants to share a story but maintain personal privacy. But it is best to be very, very cautious as journalists have, at times inadvertently, compromised an individual’s privacy by publishing or airing details of his or her life (such as hometown, major, and dorm or residence hall) in a way that leaves little doubt as to who the student is.

When dealing with a journalist on a sensitive issue like sexuality, set very clear ground rules and boundaries and reiterate them as often as necessary to be certain that everyone is on the same page.

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