Tuesday, April 15, 2008


(Adrienne Booth, Sever Hall, Harvard, 2000)

My friend Adrienne Booth is currently working on a master's in Media Arts and Computer Science at New Mexico Highlands University. She's also taking a graduate level course in the Geology Department on mining and environmental policy (very relevant to her interests in natural and cultural resources interpretation/environmental education). After a field trip taken by the class earlier this month, she asked for time to speak to her classmates about something which had occurred. Her talk, and the class's response to it, is after the fold. Feel free to comment as if to Adrienne, because she'll be reading what you have to say.

This talk is a variation on something that I presented at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Managing Parks Operations training course.

Let me begin by sharing some photographs with you.

(A baseball player)

(An old woman)

(A smiling young stewardess)

(A child on a city sidewalk, wearing purple pants and cowboy boots)

(A woman on a horse)

I’ll tell you more about the photos after you all have a chance to look at them, and while you’re looking at them, I am going to continue talking.

There was a movie that was in the theaters a couple years ago -- it’s a story about two people who meet and fall in love while working at a summer job in the Rockies. Time passes, and one of them ends up being brutally murdered, beaten to death with a tire iron; his grief-stricken lover travels to ask permission to bury that person’s ashes at the place where they met and fell in love, but the person’s father refuses his request.

Can anyone tell me the name of that film?

The movie is Brokeback Mountain, and I bring up now because there were some folks on the field trip who were making jokes about it – “heh heh” sort of innuendoes, just casual banter among friends; I guess the opportunity was too good to pass up, when the bus drove past a dude ranch in Cerrillos called The Broken Saddle….

I think the people cracking those jokes felt okay doing so, because they figured that nobody on the bus, or at least no one within hearing distance, was gay. Would you crack jokes using the “N” word, if you were sitting next to an African-American person? Would you make snide innuendos about “wetbacks” if you were sitting next to a Mexican-American person? Would you make innuendoes about homosexuality if you knew that you were sitting next to a gay person?

But the more important question, and a main point of this presentation, is this:

If the assumptions and implications behind what you are saying are offensive, is it okay to say those things at all? And especially in a college setting that is supposed to be a safe and supportive learning environment, is it okay to say things that are based on hateful stereotypes, and to say things that are potentially threatening to your classmates and to others in the university community, and indeed in the community at large? Please understand: your words may not just be rude or “politically incorrect” -- they can cause people to feel threatened and vulnerable. Why, as a civil person and educated human being, would you permit yourself to think in such stereotypical terms, much less open your mouth to say something so stupid and offensive?

Sometimes we avoid saying offensive things around individuals of a particular group, because we think we can tell who people “are” based on superficial characteristics. But gay people, in particular, often try hard to blend in and be invisible, despite the prevalent stereotypes about flamboyant gays. (And this is true for members of other marginalized groups as well; fear is a powerful motivator to encourage you to assimilate and “blend in.”) I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard about Matthew Shepard, and about Brandon Teena (who is the main character in the film Boys Don’t Cry), and I saw what happened to Jack in Brokeback Mountain -- and I, personally, have been harassed at various times in my life, mainly by macho but insecure and immature heterosexual men. Fear motivates me to be quiet, and to blend in as best I can.

But today I want to use that fear for a higher purpose, as an educational tool, which I why I am sharing these stories with you.

I’d like you to think about the photographs I passed around the room. There’s a baseball player; an old woman; a smiling young stewardess; a child on a city sidewalk, wearing purple pants and cowboy boots; a woman on a horse.

The people in those photos are incredibly important to me.

(Adrienne's grandfather, Michal "Mike" Pankiewicz, 1932)

The baseball player is my grandfather, Mike Pankiewicz. He was born in Russia and came to the United States as a child. He learned English as a second language, and he self-consciously spoke with a slight Polish accent all of his adult life. He taught me how to catch, throw, and hit a baseball.

(Adrienne's grandmother, Bernice Pankiewicz)

The woman is my grandmother, and in the photo she is 61 years old, which is just 12 years older than I am right now. She worked as a seamstress, and in the photo, with hands that are deformed from illness, she is threading a needle.

(Adrienne's mother, M.J. Panke, as stewardess for Northwest Airlines, late 1950s)

The stewardess is my mom -- and that photo was taken right before she was forced to give up her job with Northwest Airlines because she was pregnant with me.

(Adrienne at age five, early 1960s, Chicago)

The child is me, in front of a tiny, old apartment where my family lived, in Chicago. My grandmother made the shirt and the pants I am wearing in the photo, and she made many of my other clothes when I was growing up.

(Adrienne's partner, Marsha Rippetoe)

The woman on the horse is my partner, Marsha. I couldn’t be attending graduate school here at Highlands if it wasn’t for her support, emotionally and financially. Among other things, she is a breast cancer survivor, and she has taught me a lot about toughness and perseverance. She can’t be with me here in New Mexico, although we both want her to be here, because she is back in Texas caring for her elderly mother.

I can tell you a bunch of facts: That my ethnic heritage on my mother’s side is Polish; that my grandfather worked as a laborer in a steel mill; that I have to this day never met my father; that I played intercollegiate fast-pitch softball; that I was the first person in my immediate family to complete college, and that I graduated from Harvard with honors -- and yes, I can tell you that I am gay -- but without me sharing these photographs with you and explaining them, or telling you about my fears and dreams, you don’t really know me. And if you allow yourself to see only a stereotype when you hear the word “Harvard,” or any other word associated with me, you don’t see the person that is me.

On the bus the other day, Professor Lindline mentioned the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If you wonder what all this has to do with studying Geology, think about this: the Civil Rights movement served as a seed to raise public consciousness about many social issues, not just race. If you are a woman, or if you are Hispanic, Native American, or a member of any other group that historically experienced discrimination in the U.S., you can in large part thank Dr. King for the opportunity to study at a public university and the opportunity to compete successfully for jobs in your chosen field. But stereotypes persist, and the trivialization and marginalization they support is harmful to all of us, individually and collectively.

Whether in economics (as we’ve seen in our studies of mining towns), in biotic systems, in professional work groups or in other human communities, diversity is not just a “good” thing, it’s critically important to survival and success.

I ask you to have the maturity to get beyond stereotyped assumptions.

How will you ever learn about our common humanity and the ways we can work together, if your words and actions scare people away and make them hide their true selves from you? In your words and actions, respect and nurture diversity.


Adrienne wants me to let you know let that: "1) it's a small class (12 people), and it's mixed undergrad and grad students; 2) my Geology professor was incredibly supportive, and gladly allowed me class time to do the presentation; and 3) the class burst into applause at the end of the talk; at least one person cried, and a number of people came up and hugged me afterwards; one woman said I was brave, and a number of folks thanked me for doing the presentation. One of the guys who made the Brokeback Mountain comments came up to me, hugged me, and apologized; the other person wasn't in class that day.

"And the class doesn't know it yet, but I am going to use the Broken Saddle 'dude ranch' as a featured example in my final project: The entire class will be doing short presentations on issues surrounding the proposed oil & gas drilling in the Galisteo Basin, and I will be discussing its impact on tourism (which is a very big economic driver in New Mexico); after the field trip, I went back the next day and took photos and interviewed the owner of the Broken Saddle, who is vehemently opposed to the drilling."


kat said...

how timely. A couple of days ago, a woman wrote to Feministe seeking advice on how to head off sexist/homophobic comments in the classroom. She's about to start teaching.

Most of the advice given tried to be this thorough, thoughtful and complete but didn't quite get there.

letsdance said...

As a gay "icon", your classmates would miss the juice of getting to know you..... As a person who happens to be gay, they feel connected with you.... That makes all the difference.
thank you.

Maggie Jochild said...

This may embarrass Adrienne, but she's a raised poor/working class kid raised by a single mother who managed to get a full academic scholarship to Harvard. She's THAT smart and hard-working, folks.

And, she's a map geek like so many of us here. As well as a language aficionado. Takes great photographs, especially of roadside attractions and neon. Adores animals. An all-round star to have on our team.

Adrienne Booth said...

My Geology professor had originally offered to speak to the class herself, but what she had in mind was essentially a stern reprimand of those who had made queer jokes on the bus. So I asked if I could give my "Diversity Talk" instead. The structure of my presentation is explicitly designed to build empathy with my audience... Why would anyone pay attention to my words, or care about and try to understand my fear, if I simply opened up with both barrels and told them that I thought what they said was rude and offensive? I want them to make a human connection with me, and I can't do that by simply lecturing at them.

Some of the communication techniques I use in this presentation are things that I learned (or at least had reinforced) when I took a class to become a Certified Interpretive Guide via the National Association for Interpretation (NAI). Two of the main goals of "interpretation" are to provoke and inspire, rather than simply lecturing or regurgitating a string of dry "factual" information.
For more info about NAI, see http://www.interpnet.com/.

The presentation itself was developed in response to a situation that repeatedly occurred during a Cultural Diversity / Interpretive Training exercise that was part of a manager training program I worked on for Texas State Parks. What had happened was this: In the exercise, students were asked to pair off, regardless of gender; stand facing each other with hands pressed together, and try to get the other person to move his/her feet. The point of the exercise was to reinforce the notion of "dancing" with your audience (in this case, diverse visitors to the State Parks system). But as students faced off and placed their palms against another person's hands, there inevitably was one person (or more) who nervously and loudly, ostensibly joking, made it clear to the group that this was a "queer" kind of pairing/activity, and that they weren't gay. Sigh.

So I developed the original version of this talk and subsequently presented it as my personal "intro speech" during opening-night activities at later training sessions: We sat in a big circle after dinner and went around the room and had all students and staff (about 40-60 people) introduce themselves to the group. At the subsequent training sessions, after I had given my presentation on Opening Night, there was little or no nervous joking during the Dancing With Diverse Cultures exercise later in the week.