By Emily Gold Boutilier
Every year I volunteer to staff a few events at Reunion. The work is not hard: it involves filling water glasses, making sure talks start and end on time and annoying those seated at the end of an aisle by asking them to pretty please move in to the center.
Alumni walk to an event during 2011 Reunion weekend.
My first stop this year was an informal talk, “Coping with the Loss of a Loved One,” led by Skip Corson ’56, who spoke honestly about the death of his wife, touching on everything from cancer to living wills to the unresolved grief that presented itself only after he started dating again.
A few hours later I took a break from editing an Amherst magazine story by Roger Williams ’56 to attend a concert by the bluegrass band Boys’ Night Out, featuring Williams himself on guitar, Mike Ritter ’56 on bass and Fred Nelson on mandolin and guitar. As it turns out, Williams is not only a talented magazine writer; that guy can sing and play guitar, too. The band played a bunch of old-timey songs that I didn’t know but enjoyed nonetheless as well as several tunes that I did know, including “If I Had a Hammer.” Toes were tapping and the audience was singing along.
My final stop was to see Tom Davis ’71 deliver a talk entitled, “Stalemate in Washington: Why I Left the Congress.” A moderate Republican member of the House of Representatives from 1995-2008 (and my former congressman in northern Virginia), Davis gave his reasons for resigning: gridlock and increasing polarization. While he placed much of the blame on political parties and Congress itself, he saved some of it for cable news networks. When someone in the audience asked whether he misses Congress, he was quick to respond: “Do you miss high school?”
Emily Gold Boutilier is the editor of Amherst magazine.
A GALA Celebration
By Katherine Duke '05
This year at Reunion, I found out that the Class of 1986 wasn’t the only group passing the quarter-century mark. Amherst’s Gay and Lesbian Alumni (GALA) Association was also celebrating the 25th anniversary of its founding.
“Twenty-five years ago, there was a small article in the Amherst magazine that announced the formation of [the] group,” said Marcy Larmon, director of on-campus programming for Alumni and Parent Programs. “As you can imagine, things were very different for people who belonged to that group in those days. And, in fact, the small article … elicited several responses that were fairly unhappy with the fact that such a group would have been formed. …
“So we’re pretty proud to say that—although the world is not perfect yet, and neither is Amherst—things have come a very long way in the last 25 years,” Larmon continued. “That’s something to celebrate, and it’s a good time to reflect on what still is changing, what still needs to be changed, and also to learn from the folks who have been part of that culture.” Larmon also mentioned the OutofAmherst listserv established this year, on which LGBTQIA alumni have been sharing their opinions and telling their stories.
She was introducing “Same-Sex Marriage on Trial,” the first of several Reunion weekend events commemorating GALA’s founding. The panel discussion, on Friday morning in the Cole Assembly Room, featured Martha Merrill Umphrey, professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought, and Emily Griffen ’96, a litigation associate in the San Francisco Bay Area, who majored in LJST and women’s and gender studies at Amherst and won the Stonewall Prize for her thesis on the legal construction of gay identity.
Umphrey—who married her female partner in 2004, shortly after same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts—discussed questions about the value and meaning of pursuing the right to same-sex marriage and the pros and cons of trials as a forum for this issue. (She gave a version of this talk earlier in May as part of the college’s Telephone Lecture Series.)
Griffen focused on the recent, turbulent legal history of the issue in California. She and her partner were among the 18,000 couples who wed during the brief period in 2008 when same-sex marriage was permitted there, before the passage of Proposition 8.
The Q&A that followed included thoughts from audience member Paul M. Smith ’76, who argued the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case in 2003. The Q&A raised further complex questions about, for example, the language we use to label relationships; the distinction between religious and civil marriage; and the justifications for focusing on marriage when there are other, arguably more urgent, issues facing LGBTQIA Americans.
“We’re sort of shooting for the stars, in some ways,” said Griffen of the struggle for marriage equality. “We’re not just saying we don’t want to be fired because we’re gay…. We’re saying our relationships are just as valuable, just as important, just as valid and worth recognizing as yours. We’re asking for the whole thing.”
After that panel, I stayed for a reading by Professor of English Judith Frank of her novel-in-progress, Noah’s Ark. In telling the story of a gay American couple named Matt and Daniel who become the guardians of Daniel’s young niece and nephew after the children’s parents are killed in a café bombing in Jerusalem, the book takes on numerous complicated issues: not just same-sex love and parenthood, but also ethnic and national identity, geopolitics, terrorism and grief.
That evening, I dropped by the lobby of the Arms Music Center, where alumni of all ages were mingling at the GALA 25th Anniversary Reception. The next morning, multiple generations came together again for a panel discussion called “Being Gay at Amherst: Voices Through Time.”
Panelist Louis Dolbeare ’40 reminded us of how different the college, the town and the world were back when he was a student. He described himself as “an unknowing gay” at Amherst: “I came not knowing much, and I learned very little … about gaiety here.” Homosexuality wasn’t openly practiced or discussed on campus, but Dolbeare did recall one stormy night when a classmate knocked on his door and drunkenly, tearfully admitted to being in love with another man; soon thereafter, that student left the college. Dolbeare went on to graduate from Amherst, to serve in World War II, to be married to a woman for 48 years and to have two children, one of whom is also gay.
“To me, what really stands out is not telling anybody about anything,” said Folger Cleaveland ’67, a recently retired clinical psychologist. Determined to be “normal,” Cleaveland dated women during his college years and told almost no one of his same-sex attractions and experiences—not even his best friend, a fellow Amherst student who also turned out to be gay. Cleaveland finally came out to his best friend in the 1980s and to the rest of his class in 1992, in a yearbook that was published just before their 25th Reunion. “How different it is to be here now, and for all of this to be taking place, with this little dedication to GALA’s anniversary on the front cover of the [2011 Reunion] schedule,” he said. “That’s just amazing.”
Steve Cadwell ’72 attended Amherst—still an all-male environment that could be “intensely homoerotic”—at a time when homosexuality was pathologized and, in some ways, illegal: he remembered counselors offering “aversion therapy” as a treatment and a Smith professor getting into legal trouble for possession of homoerotic imagery. (For more on what it was like to be gay at Amherst around that time, see Eric Patterson ’70’s recent essay in Amherst magazine.) “I didn’t find community here, but I was very actively trying to create community,” Cadwell said. He founded a “homosocial” coffeehouse in Barrett Hall called “Grin in Barrett.” He is now a psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients and who teaches and writes about gender, sexuality and shame.
Larry Axelrod ’81 is a composer and pianist who gave a concert in Buckley Recital Hall for Reunion. On the panel, he said he attended Amherst during a time of huge institutional change, with coeducation just beginning and the influence of fraternities waning. It was also, he said, a sort of “golden age” for gay students, after the Stonewall uprising but just before the AIDS crisis. There were several “very out” upperclassmen, one of whom jokingly threatened to drag Axelrod to a meeting of the gay student group on campus; Axelrod later became a leader of the group, which threw popular parties and dances. He said he “didn’t feel any official repression” from the Amherst faculty or administration, and he remembered very few incidents of intolerance from fellow students.
Jasmine Eucogco ’06, the youngest alum by 25 years and the only woman on the panel, said she found Amherst a supportive place where issues of gender and sexuality were discussed in classes and beyond. As a student, she attended meetings of the Pride Alliance and soon thereafter came out as a lesbian. She pointed out the development of such student groups as the Peer Advocates of Sexual Respect and the Queer Peer Educators.
After the panelists spoke, the audience Q&A went on for a long time. It included stories from alumni who were on campus in the late 1980s—a time when some students showed hostility toward their gay classmates and the Amherst community began addressing LGBTQ issues as matters of social justice. An alumnus from the 1960s raised questions about, among other things, focusing on emotionally supportive gay relationships and communities rather than just celebrating sexual freedom.
But I had to leave to meet up with my housemate (an ’01 grad who, incidentally, was one half of the first same-sex couple to get married in Johnson Chapel) at a small private party on campus. There, out on a patch of green lawn, an Amherst professor performed an engagement ceremony for two friends of ours—another young alumna and the woman she will soon wed. I’d made a point of wearing something I’d recently purchased from the Pride Alliance: a purple-and-white T-shirt emblazoned with the words I SUPPORT LOVE.
Listen to Judith Frank’s Reunion reading from her novel in progress, Noah