Graduation has come and gone, releasing thousands of college students (at least three hundred of whom were mine) to test their bachelors’ degrees in a frightening job market. Across the land, keynote speakers on this most holy of academic occasions soothed or shocked their audiences, and for gay and lesbian students and their allies, it was a particularly challenging year to sit through college commencement.
The Associated Press reported that well over ten percent of the graduates at St. Joseph’s University in Pennsylvania walked out to protest graduation speaker Sen. Rick Santorum (R), in light of his recent homophobic remarks. A more sedate but similarly angry response greeted Georgetown University’s commencement speaker Cardinal Francis Arinze, who deviated from expected comments on inter-religious relations in order to blast nontraditional families and homosexuality. One of my Georgetown colleagues was heard to remark, “It’s always nice to be reminded that you’re a second-class citizen.” And at least one Dean quickly set aside a special day to meet with the many students, families and faculty insulted by the Cardinal’s remarks.
Meanwhile, across town, I sat onstage in my faculty gown at George Washington University’s graduation exercises while our speaker, Virginia Governor Mark Warner (D), reminisced about his days as a GWU student. His were mild and pleasant words, yet I couldn’t help reflecting that with the stroke of a pen, this guest could alleviate enormous suffering in his home state by reforming sodomy laws and other anti-gay legislation. Not that long ago, Virginia made headlines by removing a child from the home of lesbian mom Sharon Bottoms at the request of Bottoms’ own anti-gay mother. I thought of the letter that gay activist Jim Fouratt sent to the governor of Vermont after same-sex couples were first permitted to register their domestic partnerships there: “Dear Honorable Governor, How proud you must be to represent a state where the judicial system is able to rise above bigotry and hate, and declare all U.S. citizens deserving of equal protection under the law!”
Because graduation symbolizes the culmination of great learning at great institutions, it is all the more distressing when symbolic ignorance, too, is incorporated into festivities meant to uplift all students and others present. I well recall the bitter debate at my own graduation from American University over keynote speaker George Gilder, whose defense-of-the-traditional-family rhetoric and ideas about woman’s place in the social order fell somewhat to the right of Pat Robertson. Honorary doctorates are often presented to guest speakers as a measure of thanks and/or as appreciation of their intellectual, social, spiritual or political contributions and stature. Thus important questions of etiquette and decorum come up when insulted parties walk out or turn their backs on invited speakers.
Can a single authorized celebrity ever satisfy an entire audience’s values? Of course not. And through dissent, we find that we maintain at least a measure of diversity in the university. Only once in the past several years have I chosen to walk out during a speaker’s words when I felt they were directly targeting my integrity. I am actually very old-fashioned in terms of good manners and thank-you notes. As a veteran of numberless lesbian music festivals, I cringe when more-politically-evolved-than-thou folks boo or hiss a brand-new stage performer. At the same time, having often addressed crowds from onstage myself, I firmly support the ethic that one should never insult one’s audience.
For Catholic institutions such as St. Joseph and Georgetown, a religious identity and adherence to Church doctrine on issues like homosexuality make difficult any censorship of religiously appointed guest speakers or, in the case of secular guest speaker Santorum, those who defend Biblical injunctions against “sodomy.” Such universities are at a crossroads, acknowledging and celebrating tuition-paying gay students while permitting public displays of intolerance at ritual intervals. What no one can deny is the increasing visibility of gay students as contributors of talent. To its credit, Georgetown selected a gay African-American student speaker as well as readers of Muslim and Jewish liturgies in a separate, earlier senior convocation — one made “campier” altogether by the presence of keynote speaker and alum Maria Shriver, who thrust out her breasts and boasted, “They’re real!”
The Washington Post recently devoted a front-page story to ethnic and racial divisions at graduation time, examining the growing trend at many schools of hosting separate and thematic graduation ceremonies for black or Asian students and their families. Critics charge that any such separatism undermines efforts at integrating our universities — although the generally accepted practice of separation by worship, on or off campus, is rarely mentioned. Could a gay graduation ceremony attract relevant students, perhaps those already alienated by the choice of a homophobic speaker? A controversial proposal, but one that might expand a basic party celebration into something really honorable — the opportunity to make visible how many gay and lesbian students enhance our campuses nationwide.
Students about to enter a workplace that does not protect them from being fired or demoted for their sexuality have limited choices at graduation: Either politely endure any derogatory remarks, or exit ungraciously, perhaps directly to Lambda Rising to spend that graduation loot on a good set of books. And faculty like me will continue to keep office doors open wide in late May and in June, to hear from those who found “commencement” tarnished.
Bonnie J. Morris, Ph.D., is on the women’s studies faculty at George Washington University and Georgetown University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.