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Being Gay at IC: A Retrospective


Ithaca College has earned recognition as an LGBT-friendly campus. Campus Pride ranked IC among the top 25  LGBT-friendly institutions and one of the top Trans-friendly colleges. IC was also recognized as having one of the 10 most LGBT-friendly athletic departments in Campus Pride's Out to Play Project.

Learn more about the LGBT Center at Ithaca College.

The closet doors opened on campus decades ago, but full equality is still a distance away.  By Doug McInnis and Maura Stephens

For years, including those he spent as an Ithaca undergraduate, Ralph Siciliano ’72 hid his sexual orientation.

“Maybe it’s shame,” says Siciliano. “You feel you’re not normal. It’s always hard when you have some aspect about you that doesn’t fit the ideal.”

There surely were gay students at Ithaca before the late 1960s, when the gay rights movement began in earnest. But to any observer, the campus in those earlier years would have looked as straight as the rest of America. To be openly gay in those days was to invite ruin. In the decades since, things have changed.

Only after graduation did Siciliano come to the realization that there was nothing wrong with him. “One of the unfortunate things about being gay,” says Siciliano, a long-time trustee of the College and former president of the Ithaca College Alumni Association, “is that you can hide it. It’s the hiding that creates all sorts of problems.”

For most of U.S. history, to be gay was to be secretive. To go public invited the loss of jobs and friends, and courted the possibility of criminal prosecution. Before the 1960s, for example, police raids on gay bars were commonplace. It wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders. And it wasn’t until 30 years after that that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the last state laws barring same-sex relations. Yet year by year, the barriers to equal treatment and public acceptance of the country’s millions of gay and lesbian citizens have fallen. Ithaca College has become a campus where a student’s disclosure that he or she prefers the same sex isn’t going to raise many eyebrows.

That wasn’t the case four decades ago as the gay rights movement gained momentum. While small numbers of students and faculty at Ithaca made their sexual preferences known, many remained “in the closet.”

 “When I was at Ithaca in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” says Siciliano, “I was not ‘out’ with anyone. There were students who were still very homophobic. Epithets would be thrown around in conversation. You knew that if you had turned around and said to them, ‘I’m gay,’ it would have been pretty difficult.”

Siciliano now makes a point to be very open on campus about his sexual orientation. “If there are students who are still not comfortable with their sexuality, they can say, ‘There’s a trustee who is openly gay.’ ”

Coming Out

Increasingly, gay and lesbian students at Ithaca have felt that they can be themselves. “Ithaca was a place where I felt comfortable coming out,” recalls Murillo Soranso ’02. “I was a member of the Student Government Association, and it wasn’t a secret that I was gay. People treated me just fine.”

 “It was a welcoming environment,” agrees Tara Foley ’02, who now works in human services in Portland, Oregon. “On the second week of college, I saw a poster for Bi-Gay-La, then a campus group for gay and lesbian [and bisexual] students [that originated around 1980]. There were probably 30 or 40 people there when I went to a meeting.”

For Siciliano, the decision to go public was much harder. Even after he came to terms with his sexuality, for example, Siciliano found it worrisome to tell his colleagues at the New York law firm where he practices securities law. “I was bringing my boyfriend to an event at the firm,” he recalls, “and I didn’t want to just show up.” So he broached the subject with one of the partners. When the partner replied, “This is an issue in your head and no one else’s,” Siciliano began to realize that things had indeed changed, at least in liberal New York City.

He faced another hurdle with his parents. One day he turned to his mother and said, “I want you to know I’m gay.” And nothing happened. “My father was even more interesting,” Siciliano recalls. “He was a longshoreman who worked on the docks, a real macho guy. I never really turned to him and said, ‘I just want you to know.’ But at some point he became aware that I had a boyfriend. And he was totally comfortable with that.”

The 20th century was marked by efforts here and there to bring equality to gays and lesbians, but for the most part the efforts were futile. Even the IRS code worked against them. At one time the IRS could strip an organization of its tax-exempt status if it argued that homosexuality was acceptable, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which was instrumental in getting the policy altered.

By the late 1960s, things were ripe for change. The United States was at the tail end of a turbulent era marked by the antiwar movement and movements for civil rights, women’s rights, and protection of the environment.

The turning point came in the early morning of June 28, 1969, as police raided a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. When the bar’s patrons fought back, the incident made national headlines and the gay rights movement really took off. It quickly spread to liberal areas including Ithaca, New York, over time gaining support at Ithaca College and neighboring Cornell University.

Gay and lesbian Americans often employed the simple and nonviolent tactic of openly declaring their sexuality. As they did so, it became apparent that gays and lesbians were an integral part of society — they were soldiers, athletes, politicians, police officers, college professors, brothers, sisters, parents,  and longtime friends.

People tend to be more supportive of gay rights when they know someone who is gay, points out Christopher Dyer ’92, who now serves as director of the Mayor’s Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs in Washington, D.C. “My grandmother is more tolerant and accepting,” says Dyer, “now that she knows her grandson is gay.”

“The biggest problem is ignorance,” says Alan Orloff ’75, who was open about his sexuality at Ithaca. “When people don’t know anyone who is gay, they know only what they are spoon-fed. But when people get to know gay people, prejudice can break down. They see gays and lesbians as human beings.”

In earlier decades, those who were gay, lesbian, or bisexual lived lives of great secrecy, and on the rare instance when their sexual preference was exposed, a scandal was one of the likely outcomes. “People didn’t mention it if they were gay,” says ally Dorothy Daetsch, a retired Ithaca College associate professor and reference librarian. “At least it’s out in the open now, and people are discussing it. Back then I don’t think people were discussing it because gays and lesbians were still in the closet.”

 “My guess is that society would have shut them out,” says her husband, emeritus professor Willard Tichnor Daetsch, who taught modern languages and literatures at IC from 1965 through 1995 and was the College’s first faculty trustee. Daetsch recalls one incident in the 1950s when the son of a prominent Buffalo lawyer was arrested in a gay bar and the arrest was headlined in the city’s newspapers. Such public “shamings” were not unusual, recalls Daetsch.

By the 1970s, gays and lesbians began to do what was once unthinkable — come out. But even in that more tolerant era, coming out wasn’t without consequences. “My decision to come out in 1975 changed my whole pool of friendships,” says Marty Brownstein, who has taught politics at Ithaca since 1970. “It was very tough,” he recalls. “There was no support system.” And the reaction on campus was decidedly mixed. “The students were supportive,” Brownstein says. “The administration didn’t care one way or the other. But the faculty back then were mostly male, conventional, and straight, and for the most part didn’t want to hear about gay stuff. This is a liberal community, but back then the liberalism didn’t stretch to gay issues.”

The 1970s were a time when early gay rights groups were forming on campus, and gay dances were held from time to time, recalls Orloff. “I felt like people would stare at us while we were at the dance,” he says. “You’d get the occasional comment, and you knew people were looking at you like you were weird. I was in Ithaca a week ago. Gay life, both at the College and in the town, is much more open now. If you held a gay dance today, no one would stare.”

As the gay rights movement gained momentum, it was aided by a number of factors. One was the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, which hit the American gay community particularly hard. For hundreds of thousands of gay men who were struck down by the disease, it was no longer possible to live in secrecy. Another factor was a string of court decisions in favor of gay rights. A third was the growing number of straight people who rallied to aid gay and lesbian causes.

Allies and a Resource

One such ally was Shelley Facente ’02, who was until recently the coordinator for HIV testing in San Francisco and is now a consultant. She was appalled by the prejudice aroused in her small Connecticut town when a high school friend disclosed his homosexuality in a story that ran on the front page of the regional newspaper. The day after the article appeared, there was a petition on the counter of the local general store to get her friend removed from the school. People scratched the word “fag” on his locker. “It really affected me to see people who had been his friends turn on him,” Facente says.

She decided to get actively involved during her first semester at IC after Matthew Shepard, a gay college student at the University of Wyoming, was pistol-whipped and left tied to a ranch fence post in near-freezing weather. Shepard died five days after he was found, marking one of the most heinous and public incidents of anti-gay violence on record.

Facente began to lobby the College administration to establish a formal center for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students. Other students, particularly Michael Mandel ’00, and faculty and staff became involved and vocal, and the Center for LGBT Education, Outreach, and Services opened in 2001. “Looking back,” says Facente, “the College did it fairly quickly. I feel fortunate for having had the administration we had.”

 “It happened incredibly fast,” agrees the Tucson, Arizona–based Mandel. “But that’s the kind of place Ithaca is. If it’s the right thing to do, they’ll do it.”

Among other things, the center gives gay and lesbian students another place to work out any problems they may have over their sexuality, and it helps to break the sense of isolation that was so damaging to gays and lesbians of past eras who had to keep their sexuality secret.

“In earlier generations, gays and lesbians had a sense that they were different, and a concurrent sense that they should not talk about it,” says Lis Maurer, who has directed IC’s LGBT center since it opened. Maurer understands students’ issues personally. “When I was a kid,” she says, “I felt a sense of isolation. I felt I was the only gay person in my high school.”

Less Isolation

Since those lonesome days, Maurer says, three major happenings have made that kind of isolation less common for lesbian and gay kids: an increase in media portrayals of LGBT characters; the Internet and the ease it affords kids to find others like themselves with whom to connect and share information; and the rise of gay-straight alliance clubs in high schools.

“Gay and lesbian folks and their families could see characters on TV — admittedly, sometimes tortured characters or the comic relief — but at least they were portrayals,” says Maurer. Probably the first openly gay main character on a popular primetime TV show was Billy Crystal’s character in Soap, which ran from 1977 to 1981. “Then there was a huge void until Roseanne [1988–97], and then Ellen [1994–98],” says Maurer. Now it’s very common to see gay, lesbian, and questioning main characters on cable and network shows.

Gays and lesbians often participate on reality shows like The Amazing Race. Popular contestants on shows like American Idol have been gay. One of the primary characters on Six Feet Under was a gay man who eventually found a long-term love and settled into a monogamous relationship. Grey’s Anatomy features a Latina doctor exploring her identity. “That resonates with students,” Maurer says. “They like that she’s exploring and confused.” A member of the medical team on House is bisexual. The daytime soap opera All My Children has a storyline about a transgender character transitioning from male to female. “I had a student who was on cloud nine about that,” Maurer says. “That show even had a trans-persons’ support group, which was incredible. Half the people in an audience where I spoke recently were aware of the character and plot line and delighted.”

Popular entertainment has furthered non-gays’ understanding and helped LGBT kids know they’re not alone, but the Internet has been even more instrumental, says Maurer, putting resources and support right on their desks. “You might still think you’re the only gay kid in your own school,” Maurer points out, “but at least you’re able to chat with other kids having parallel experiences. There’s less of a sense of isolation.”

With the tremendous growth in the number of alliance clubs in high schools over the past two years — there are now thousands — kids can meet others like them as well as allies (the term used for heterosexual supporters and friends of LGBT persons). On college campuses across the country, LGBT centers have become almost a necessity. “About two years ago, we realized that incoming students expect that colleges have a center,” Maurer says. Although kids might still feel isolated in parts of their lives, it’s more likely they can find some space where they feel welcome and able to be open about themselves. “There’s likely to be a gay-straight alliance in your school,” says Maurer, “even if not in your church or place of worship.”

Recognition

Although resistance to LGBT rights continues within many political and religious groups — and battles within churches rage, including the much-publicized rift in the Episcopalian Church over the 2003 appointment of a gay bishop — same-sex relations are becoming more of a non-issue in large parts of the nation. The city of Ithaca extends the same employee benefits to same-sex partners as it does to married couples. Ten years ago only 10 percent of employers offered domestic partner benefits; in 2008, 83 percent of Fortune 100 companies and 39 percent of Fortune 1,000 companies did so. Ten years ago only 11 states had a sexual orientation–inclusive nondiscrimination law and/or a broad family recognition law; that number has climbed to 20.

Ithaca College instituted domestic-partner benefits in 1996 and added gender identity to its non-discrimination statement in 2006. Of course, there are many openly gay and lesbian faculty, staff, and administrators, and openly gay and lesbian students serve in student government, play on the College’s athletic teams, lead student organizations, and excel (and flop) in every way their heterosexual counterparts do. Ithaca has been named one of the 100 best colleges for gay and lesbian students by the Advocate, a leading gay magazine. When ICView ran a feature story about a newlywed gay couple a few years ago (there had been announcements and photos of gay couples at their commitment ceremonies and weddings in the magazine for at least a decade by then, as well as many stories about LGBT issues and rights), although there was a small amount of negative feedback, letters to the editor ran heavily in favor of the decision to feature them.

Even so, there are still incidents on campus from time to time. Just in the last year, Maurer notes, gay and lesbian students have received anonymous e-mails containing veiled threats or anti-gay slurs. And in fall 2008, anti-gay graffiti were written in the public area of a residence hall. Such incidents are often not reported to authorities, says Maurer, because students fear it would invite additional abuse.

The generally accepting ambience found at Ithaca isn’t universal, but a variety of indicators suggest that much of society is increasingly supportive of gay rights. “Society has changed significantly, especially among the young,” says the Washington, D.C.–based Dyer. “If you look at statistics, younger people are more likely to support same-sex marriage, to [realize they] know people who are gay, and to support anti-discrimination measures.”

Along with more LGBT characters on TV and in movies, a small but growing number of public figures — actors, musicians, athletes, talk-show hosts, and three members of the U.S. House of Representatives — have made their gay or lesbian sexual orientation known.

Legal Obstacles

Still, there are numerous hurdles to clear for those who believe gay rights should be codified throughout the land. In 1996, Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, by which no state is required to honor same-sex marriages performed in another state and by which marriage may be defined or interpreted under federal law to be “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” Some states have passed both a statute and a constitutional amendment stating that marriage may be only between a man and a woman. Ten states have passed broader anti-gay family measures, banning other forms of partner recognition such as domestic partnerships and civil unions (some also ban those for unmarried opposite-sex couples as well).

There was also the passage in November 2008 of Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative to bar same-sex couples from marrying. The measure passed narrowly, by 52 to 48 percent. A post-election study by Ken Sherrill of Hunter College and Patrick J. Egan of New York University found that a majority of voters under age 65 opposed the measure and that it passed because it won 67 percent of voters over 65. “The passage of Proposition 8 was very difficult for us,” says Foley. “But the vote was very close. As hard as it was for us to have that measure passed, there still was positive movement. Gay marriage is on the table as an issue. It’s being talked about. And as we can see from history, it’s the little bits of progress that make the difference in the end.”

Since Prop 8, and despite its May 2009 upholding by the California Supreme Court, there has been much progress on the same-sex marriage front. New York State is poised to become the seventh U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage, following Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire.

Although marriage equality is important to many gay rights activists, it’s just one aspect of the struggle for equality. “Relationship recognition is one thing, but you can still be fired in the majority of states just for being gay,” Maurer points out. “People need the right to work without the fear of being fired for being gay or if someone thinks they’re gay. There’s no federal nondiscrimination act yet, and many states don’t have one.”

Eyes on the Prize

Ithaca College community members involved in the movement for LGBT rights think of their work as part of a long, painful, but proud history of struggle for human rights and equality in the United States. Historically, hard-fought rights — antislavery, women’s right to vote, civil rights — have been codified after a populist movement. “When white people speak out against racism,” Lis Maurer has written, “and when people of color speak out against homophobia and [sexism], the campus community hears a much louder and more unified chorus of voices united against injustice, hate, and cruelty.”

Activists say they feel the gay rights movement often seems to take two steps forward, one step back. Yet that represents progress, in light of where things stood just a few decades ago, and is not unusual in the scheme of equality movements; it took more than a century for women and blacks to be granted equality under federal law.

“If you look at the official history, going back 40, 50, or 60 years,” says Mandel, “we didn’t exist. Now we have gay and lesbian characters on TV shows. We are being treated as mainstream. The needle has moved. We’re getting closer to the long-term goal of full equality.”

 


 



1 Comment

Thank you ICView for publishing this article! It's amazing to feel visible and included in my alumni journal. It makes me feel very proud of my college reading about the work towards LGBT rights that continues to be done on campus.

As a therapist working with LGBT youth in Philadelphia I have become acutely aware of my privilege of attending a college that took steps to reduce barriers to my education and well-being, including homophobia. Although there is still work to be done, change takes commitment, which Ithaca College continues to demonstrate.

Alumni '01