Letter to Donald Kennedy after receiving the Dinkelspiel Award

Dear President Kennedy:

It was quite a coincidence that I was working on a draft of this memo last month when Marlene Wine called and told me you wanted to be sure I attended graduation. I assumed that I was winning something, so I held off on this because I thought that perhaps I would have a chance to chat with you personally. I almost would have preferred a lunch with you to the monetary gift I did receive (and if I weren't so recently out of college with bills coming out my ears, it wouldn't even be almost). Since that didn't happen, I'm now taking the time to present my thoughts in writing. I published an article in the Daily that I want to share with you as well as some further thoughts. I know that you are very busy, but I hope that as a favor to me in recognition of my award, you will find a time when you can quietly read and consider what I have to share. It regards the gay community, of which I am an active member.

I enjoyed your graduation address very much. Several of your points touched me personally. You mentioned that we all encounter people we disagree with, but that they need not become enemies. You also mentioned that we should not let one issue exclusively guide us. I believe in this philosophy as well. Gay people have a tendency to hate ignorant people rather than hating ignorance itself. We probably do so because it is easier to dismiss the ignorant as "oppressive society" rather than seeing them as misguided souls who need our help. We feel cheated by society and try to strike back in revenge. The last thing on our minds is helping those who have hurt us.

You can't imagine the anger a gay person feels when he first comes to accept his identity and thinks back on what he has been made to suffer. I was in that state when I first came to Stanford. I wore a button that defiantly announced, "I LIKE BOYS." I wrote articles in the Daily that angered people by saying things like, "I should be able to wink at men I don't know if straight men are able to wink at women they don't know." I became a one-issue person. The world was divided into gay and straight, us and them.

I now realize I was wrong. Misunderstanding is a universal human capacity. Eliminating it requires understanding, not anger; patience, not demands. We can't focus dislike on people just because they hold a certain belief. We have to look deeper and see that most are not despicable, just uninformed. Relating this to your point, ignorant straight people can be our opponents, but they shouldn't be our enemies.

Now that we know we are not going to be enemies, let me start opposing you. The decisions you have made on gay issues show a consistent misunderstanding. You seem to believe that being gay is something private, something that shouldn't be discussed. This attitude has been the shadow hanging over all dealings between the University and the gay community for at least the last ten years. Stanford has always believed that gay people's rights must be protected, and it has a pretty good track record of doing so. But it also seems to think that gay people and gay issues belong "in the bedroom." For example, the Faculty Presidential Search Committee in 1980 felt that because of the social demands of the office, the president should be happily married. They later officially dropped that criterion, but it was evident that a gay president was out of the question.

You were not responsible for that goof, but you have shown the attitude yourself since then. You constantly talk about diversity at Stanford, but you never mention gay people as part of that diversity. You do your best to line up donors with students they wish to support by asking voluntary questions on the financial aid form about gender and minority, but you think students would be embarrassed to be asked if they are gay. You find it worth noting when a woman or minority member reaches a new height in the university system, but you don't mention your gay faculty and staff and probably don't even know who they are. I don't mean to presume too much, but I would guess that you would be embarrassed to ask the faculty and staff which of them are gay, and would be embarrassed to talk about the answers. Let me tell you why I think you are wrong to feel that way.

The angry gay political activist is one extreme. An equally dangerous extreme is the gay "pretend straight" who chooses to keep his orientation secret. The pretend straight misses out on life, because most of our social interaction revolves around sexuality, romance, and love. Notice that I didn't say sex. I'm talking about activities outside the bedroom. We are constantly bombarded with scenes of heterosexual life in advertising, entertainment, and the media. We see men and women dating, falling in love, getting married, and starting families. The pretend straight must endure being told on a daily basis, "Men and women together is the right way. You're making a mistake." In our social interactions we converse about romance and love all the time. The biggest news in a young person's life is, "I'm in love." Straight people shout it from the rooftops. The pretend straight discusses it only with a close circle of gay friends. Another big news flash in anyone's life is, "I'm getting married." This statement is usually greeted with great fanfare, celebration, and sighs of, "At last!" When gay people make such announcements to straight family and friends, the response is often, "Don't make a mistake you'll regret later. How can you be sure you're gay? Maybe you should see Dr. Stevens again." This is very frustrating.

To give you further insight into the dilema of the pretend straight, I will share an excerpt from a letter I received just today from a Stanford freshman who is spending the summer at home. His feelings are typical of the undergraduates who talk to me about their sexuality. "It's becoming a problem I'm finding harder to ignore. Not that my sexual organs are getting the best of me, or that my hormones are overactive. I have a head. But the idea of lying my entire life has become less tolerable, even unbearable. The more I'm 'back here,' though, the more impossible I see it would be to tell anyone...Your quote, Stuart, from Nights in Aruba is very true. I feel empty and unhappy not telling anyone, but I would, so I think, be unhappy if I told people. Sometimes I think to myself, 'Why tell people? What good does it do?' I say to myself, 'None.' But then why do I feel so miserable? I feel so detached when my acquaintances ask me how the women are in California. I can't even utter a phony reply. I just stutter and say I studied a lot this year, when really what I want to say is, 'I wouldn't know, but the guys are great.' "

My point is that sex is a private matter, but sexuality is not. We are wary of anyone who discusses his sex life openly, but we consider it natural for a person to discuss his romantic life. When Queen Elizabeth visited campus, for example, it was natural for your guests to invite their spouses. What a pity that one of your gay guests didn't feel comfortable inviting his gay spouse of over twenty years.

One of the GALA Week speakers gave a fascinating talk about how language is a major obstacle to our freedom. We cannot, in heterosexist language, explain ourselves. We cannot utter the sentences that would free us. People hear mostly the word "sex" when we say "homosexual." And consider your gay guest at the Queen's lunch. Even if he had invited his spouse, how would he have presented him? As his boyfriend? His lover? His partner? None of these captures the depth of their joining. And consider "gay" and "lesbian." As nouns they have a very different status than adjectives like "fat" and "skinny." We naturally think of fat people and skinny people as people, because an adjective merely describes an attribute. Nouns, however, define categories. They encourage us not to think of gays and lesbians as people at all, but to imagine them as a different species, an identifiable "them." Such language is a barrier to understanding and sharing.

I could go on and on, but I've probably made about as much of an impression as I'm going to. I hope that after listening to my ramblings you have a little more insight into gay concerns. We don't want non-discrimination in exchange for silence. If all we achieve is a separate but equal gay community, we will have failed. We need the opportunity to share our lives with straight people as well as gay people. Only then will young gay people have the mentors they need to see that one can be openly gay without being ostracized. Only then will straight people realize that gays and lesbians aren't a distant "them," that gay men and lesbian women are almost the same as straight people and that they are very much a part of "us." Only then will gay people find the words to express their true feelings.

In your position you can very much help or very much hinder this progress. I believe you have hindered it in the past, but I hope you will choose to help it in the future. I have some specific suggestions. When you talk about diversity, mention gay men and lesbian women, especially to prospective applicants and newly arrived freshmen. The gay people will be encouraged by your openness and the non-gay people will take it as a sign that gay people are a vital part of the University (which they are). Find out which of the faculty and staff are openly gay, and talk about them. Say that you admire their courage. Perhaps as a result you will inspire others to find that courage. Make it a goal to have gay mentors in positions of authority. Whenever an openly gay man or woman achieves a new distinction, mention to the media that this reflects well on the entire gay community and that you are sure that young gay people will take pride in the accomplishment. In my own case, I would have been more deeply touched, and the understanding of gay people might have been inched just a bit forward, if my award had also been given, "For his involvement as mentor and friend to young gay people who learn from him that it is possible to be openly gay and still remain a vital part of the whole." And finally, talk to some gay people about their lives. If you get to know some of us on a personal level, you will understand us better.

I'm sure that one short letter won't inspire you to do all of that, but I hope you will at least consider it. The freshman who wrote me today and the many gay freshmen who will follow and all of their family and friends deserve a brighter vision of the future. I intend to work towards giving it to them. I hope you will also.

Thanks for listening,

Stuart Reges
Assistant Chairman, Computer Science

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last updated 02/02/2021