Every now and again, we are presented with an opportunity to thank someone who made a difference in our lives. I think I have been blessed with many such opportunities. Tonight was another one.
Many years ago, back in the dark ages of my drunken youth, back when I still thought I might be straight, if I could ever get this man thing figured out, I attended a small branch of the state university over in the western foothills of Maine. To say Farmington was small back then would be... accurate. It had less than 5,000 people when college was not in session, and there were lots of cows. There was one traffic light downtown, and it started blinking at 9 p.m. Stores closed at 5. Some would call it idyllic. We students called it a remote outpost in the cultural wilderness. Somebody who cares about such things can correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that back then Franklin County had more registered handguns than Democrats. It was not a hotbed of progressive thought.
But college is where young people go to learn things and to drink beer. I mostly drank beer. I drank so much beer, in fact, that the powers that be in the university suggested that I take at least a year off to decide which direction I really wanted to go. I flunked out. Spectacularly, too. I retreated to Massachusetts to live with my aunt while I sobered up.
But back when I was still in school, I was aware of a woman who lived in my dorm. She had a single room (no roommate) and seemed different. Her name was Karen. In my sophmore year, she began an organization called the Gay And Straight People's Alliance (GASP Alliance). I withdrew from her as from a hot flame. She made me very nervous. I was insecure about nearly everything, but especially so about my sexuality. I was worried that this sex with men thing seemed pretty awful, and I feared what that meant for my future dating possibilities. More than anything in this world, I did not want to be a lesbian. I cannot describe the fear and horror and revulsion that roiled in my head at the thought that I might be gay. I drank some more beer and stuffed such thoughts and feelings where they would not be seen or felt.
But Karen kept on. She drew posters and put them up. Vandals took them down. She put them up again and again. The GASP Alliance bulletin board was vandalized and defaced. Anything posted there was torn down within minutes usually, if not hours. And still she kept at it. She didn't quit. Eventually I flunked out and retreated and she graduated. GASP struggled and died within a year without its devoted leader.
Then I came back to school, older, sober, and still closeted, even to myself. The sex with men thing hadn't gotten any better, but I was still trying. I was desperate not to be queer. Three semesters later, I fell in love with my best friend and everything changed. I came out and got active in the same semester. I went to counseling for a while until I decided that I really wasn't having any trouble with my sexuality, even if the rest of the world did, so I stopped. There was a support group on campus at that time and I attended once or twice but left because I did not like the fear it seemed to reinforce with its secret meeting schedule and code words for group and all kinds of stuff that just seemed juvenile to me. I suppose it helped some people who were afraid, but once I figured out I was queer and got a handle on it, I was fine.
But I needed an outlet for my energy. The support group was a wash, and there was no other real option for me that did not involve traveling to Portland periodically.
Then I remembered Karen and GASP. I could do that, I said. I could start a student group like GASP.
So that's what I did. I put up posters and they got torn down. I put them up again. I searched among the faculty and staff whom I knew to be gay, but none would agree to be an adviser to the group. I finally got my straight-but-not-narrow academic adviser to agree, and she gave me carte blanche. God, but we were more dangerous than we knew! I worked with administrators to figure out what I could and couldn't do, I begged money from this fund and that account to get things done. I wrote grants, but didn't know that's what I was doing... I applied for money from a fund and I got it. Later I learned that's what grant-writing was about. Oops. We got plexiglass to cover the bulletin board. I changed the name to the Gay And Straight People's Political Alliance, and some in the student senate had a fit. Too bad for them.
"Every morning I wake up next to a woman, it is a political act," I said at one of their funding meetings. To a person, the young men on the committee squirmed. Most of the women looked at their paperwork in front of them. "So long as I can be fired or evicted for that, everything I do is political." They let the name stand.
I learned a lot by running GASPP. I learned to push for everything, to ignore those who say something cannot be done, to find the money somewhere when it looked like there was none. I learned to be direct, to go up and ask for what I wanted. I learned to talk to people about queer stuff, and sometimes I even learned how to not be hostile and angry all the time. I learned how laws happen and how to lobby for or against a thing. I learned about coalition-building and resource-sharing. I learned how to make my tiny organization look big and how to coordinate huge things on a shoestring budget. I learned how to get people to do stuff for free and I learned how to keep going when I thought I was empty.
I look back now and call those years "my bumble bee years." Bumble bees, you see, are not supposed to fly. They are too fat, too fuzzy, to heavy, their wings are too small, too fragile and do not flap fast enough to keep the bumble aloft. But see, he didn't read that study, so he flies on along his business. I had no idea just what I was accomplishing back then, although I did win a couple of pretty spiffy awards, I just kept on keepin' on. There was work to do, so I stepped up and did it. I didn't think of how or why, only that it needed doing.
I attended UMF for many, many years. When the financial aid ran out and I still didn't have a degree, I dropped back to part-time student and worked two jobs. But we kept GASPP going. More people joined, and by the time I graduated, there were leaders ready to take over. They didn't always do things as I would have done them, but the organization lived on.
Today the GASPP Alliance is called The Alliance, and it is still a viable student organization at UMF. It has officers and members and probably slackers who are just there looking for a date. They get stuff done and put on programs and argue for funding from Student Senate. Their website was sketchy the last time I looked, and needed to be updated, but what else is new for student groups. Students by nature are very busy people. I am not hung up on it, and I doubt they are either.
So I am now organizing this big gay weekend thing. And yesterday I got an e-mail from a woman in Portland named Karen seeking more information about the event. The address showed her very distinct last name. Wow. I e-mailed back, we exchanged phone numbers and tonight we talked on the phone for the first time in probably 20 years. I thanked her for her early work at UMF. Without her example, there would have been no model for me to find some of the most meaningful work of my life.
So yeah, she's coming up for the weekend event, I think. And bringing some friends, probably, and camping out in my yard amongst the others. We'll have coffee and chat some more. It will be cool. And I will be in the company of one of my heroes.