I would not thank God

Today I will receive an award from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee for LGBTQ+ Advocate of the Year. The mid-afternoon ceremony is a big one with more than a score of other awards being given for enduring contributions to the development of the University, excellence in teaching, distinguished service, research, academic staff service, academic staff outstanding teaching, advisor, and use of technology in teaching. I am pleased to be recognized, though somewhat disappointed that we will not hear from the awardees. There will be no speeches. The number of awards given multiplied by even three minutes would keep us in our seats for much longer than most of us have attention these days. The decision makes sense.

But I do like to hear people voice their motivations and give appreciations to those who prompted their meritorious actions. And I do have something to say.

Were there acceptance speeches today, I would not thank God. Instead, I would start by appreciating the anonymous person or persons who nominated me for this recognition.

Then I would, in the context of briefly describing my five decades at UWM, name my allies in my four years as an undergraduate. Drs. Durning, Fisher, and Holst would be recognized as greatly influential in reconceptualizing myself as a student and writer. Their support helped me gain my footing, move from performing well in school to compensate for poverty and being gay to doing well by expressing my thoughts and perspectives. Though I don’t know her last name, I would also appreciate Sylvie, a middle-aged returning student who brought me corned beef sandwiches from Plotkin’s Deli every Tuesday and Thursday of a semester in my sophomore year because I was hungry and broke.

In my last two undergraduate years, I was also exposed to Adlerian psychology. I have built a lifetime of teaching, clinical, and community work on that foundation. While I do not recall the names of my instructors in those classes, I do remember the rooms we were in, specific things they said, and decisions I made about myself and the world because of them. If time were unlimited, I would likely also mention the women and men in maintenance and food service who supervised my work, coached my performance, and put up with my undergraduate angst. Library staff would get a shout out for turning a blind eye to my sleeping there for a month or more when I was homeless.

If I were afforded the chance to speak today at the awards ceremony, instead of thanking God, I would give a shout out to Ann Jo Carter, Florence Ato-Yarney, Julie Pryor, Joyce Thompson, Pat Kihslinger, and Dale Hagan. Each of these Milwaukee Public School teachers shaped my work in the classroom. All were at once committed to the content of the curriculum and the lives of the learners. In the period of 1969 through 1983, when the notion of an out gay teacher was novel at best, these advocates were at my side, supporting my emerging career in education.

My graduate work at the University would also get mention in my speech today if I were to give one. In particular, Drs. Diane Pollard, David Prasse, and Robyn Ridley would be praised. Diane’s classes in developmental psychology still influence me today as I consult with large youth development programs in the Midwest. But, I especially appreciate how Diane stayed with me in courses, on my dissertation committee, and eventually on my nonprofit board of directors. She was a generous academic, a patient friend, and a remarkable human who could not have bridged a wider divide with me as a gay, white, raised-poor, AIDS activist. David, too, is very different from me, but as a steady and pragmatic ally in my doctoral program he was unparalleled in his support. Robyn especially stood at my side when a couple of faculty in one graduate department showed reprehensible behavior toward me as a gay graduate student.

From my three decades of teaching at UWM, I would be remiss if I didn’t publicly appreciate Anna Morehouse, department secretary in psychology. She is constant, unflappable, supportive, and patient. But perhaps of greatest note was her friendship in the days after my husband died and I was returning to work to teach weeks later. For over a decade my classes in LGBT psychology could not find a home on campus; there appeared to be no room in the schedule. But people in the office of off-campus instruction and a couple of professors pulled strings to have me teach nights at Aurora Sinai Medical Center and at Whitefish Bay High School. Those classes started with a waiting list beyond the 25 students enrolled, then ended on campus in 2018 with somewhat smaller waiting lists, but with 40 students enrolled.

Instead of thanking God, I would appreciate — most likely with tears — the various deities who were my students at UWM. Unfortunately, my fears of missing any of their names would prompt me to name none of them specifically. But as I write this, I am recalling their faces, their conversations, and those countless meetings over coffee in the Union. I can see the ones who were first generation college students like myself. I would laugh at the ones who teased me and joked with me, showing me that we are on the same side. The students who struggled to get to class, told me their challenges, and turned around their self-defeating behaviors are as fresh in my mind today as they were one year, five years, or longer ago. They were universal in remembering that I was not their problem nor they mine; we had a goal we were working on together — their success.

The students who saw me through two heart attacks and the death of my husband could join me at the podium to receive this award, too. I am also picturing the faces of those students whom I ominously kept after class each semester building suspense for at least an hour before I popped their fears with an offer to write letters of recommendation for graduate school.

The handful of former students who came to my final lectures at UWM, for some many years after they graduated, showed me a level of honor and respect rarely given old gay men in America. In a speech at an awards ceremony at UWM, I would certainly be brought to tears by their generosity.

Finally, I would thank a group of high school students of mine from Lincoln High School and James Madison High School. A few of these stalwarts remain friends and Facebook contacts. One is even my health care power of attorney. They were my students and allies more than forty years ago. They helped established the foundation for me to advocate for myself as a gay man and for other LGBTQ people.

I would not thank God for this recognition. To do so could make invisible the intimacy, passion, and commitment of so many for education, for right action, and for me.

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