On Coming Out on a Campus

Ty Geltmaker, October 2010

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To the Editor:

I’m openly gay in a relationship of 30 years (and a legally recognized conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam, by Illinois State Selective Service Draft Board, 1970) without ever saying much if anything in the classroom about my personal life or political views, except when asked, always advocating/engaging in socio-cultural empiricism—otherwise known as telling the truth—in research and teaching, as opposed to self-serving revisionism, say, of the war experience, as in Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s recent “mis-spoken” obfuscations/lies of his “service in Vietnam” vs. “service during the Vietnam war era.”

Teaching “controversy in the classroom” is a challenge, as your recent excellent articles (Perspectives on History, May 2010) noted. I would add that poststructuralist trends such as the so-called “linguistic turn” and—to cite another related example—“queer theory,” simultaneously fetishize and devalue language (and history) of meaning to the extent that maximally possible, approximate truth is too easily confused with the impossibility of an ineffable, absolute precision; the baby getting thrown out with the bath water. And this can happen from all sides of political debate, left and right, often converging.

Two decades ago, after one year being a teaching assistant in SWMS (Study of Women and Men in Society) at University of Southern California, I was the following year a T.A. in Modern Europe. In one Modern European history class discussion of homosexuality as a changing social construct in the personal practices and arrangements of a timeless yearning/desire, a student said: “Oh yes, we had a homosexual talk to us about this last year.” To which I responded: “That was me, and I gave you your final grade; don’t you remember?” Clearly, I didn’t look gay enough, or make enough of a “personal” case—for better or worse—for that student to remember that the “anonymous homosexual” he did remember was the pacifist gay teacher he also knew, studying together two semesters in a row. Some may find that odd, or even troubling (an “erasure of the homo?”); I took it as a sign of good teaching since my politics and “persona”, never closeted, had not gotten in the way of ideas expressed and critical thinking advanced.

—Ty Geltmaker
Los Angeles