The Education of a Hayseed in Academia

I became a Unitarian Universalist in 1963, a few years before Stonewall, but my contribution to the Rainbow History Project is about my life not in UU settings but in academic ones. My story begins in the late 1950’s when I was an undergraduate at Indiana University and Vice President of the campus YWCA.  We called our staff advisor “Appy,” a sign of our affection for her.

Suddenly, after neither warning nor consultation with us student leaders, the YWCA Board fired Appy.  We had no idea why, and the Board didn’t say.  They hired someone else right away whom we soon also loved along with her often present husband Bob, whom she affectionately referred to as her “Old Sock.” We called her “Solie,” and went on with our busy student lives. We didn’t question the Board’s decisions.  But soon a rumor began to spread that Appy had been fired because they found out she was a homosexual. (We didn’t use language like “lesbian” or “gay” in those days.) I had no idea then and still don’t what was in fact Appy’s sexual orientation, or Solie’s either for that matter.

Soon came a follow-up rumor that the YWCA President, known to all as “Phyd,” was also a homosexual. I liked Phyd a lot and loved sharing YWCA leadership with her.  I will always remember the moment when somebody told me she thought Phyd was a homosexual. I remember that moment because it was the only time in my whole life when I hauled off and smacked somebody hard in the face.  I was that mad at anybody who would dare to tar Phyd with such an untrue and insulting allegation. You might call this opening piece of my story “Before.”

Having left Indiana University with two degrees, I began my professional life teaching in the English Department at Kent State University. One of my best friends there was my colleague Dolores Noll. She and I ate lunch together often, and we were part of a small coterie of English faculty who got together for frequent weekend parties.  On May 4, 1970, our whole Kent world was turned upside down by the National Guard shootings on our campus and everything that happened in the wake of that horrific day.

Maybe one of the things that happened was that people were no longer willing to keep quiet about what they knew to be true.  One day not long after the killings, my friend Dolores asked me to come over to her place. She wanted to tell me about the conference she had just attended in Washington, DC. When I went to see Dolores, I learned that in Washington she had attended not just one conference but two. One was a conference for English professors specializing in her field. The other was a conference of gay men and lesbians. By telling me this, Dolores was coming out to me, something that I had never experienced before. But she wasn’t finished with what she had to say. The conference had started her thinking about how there were surely many gay and lesbian students at Kent State who were in the closet. Certainly none was out. And Dolores kept thinking about how much pain those closeted students surely were experiencing and how much value she could be to them by providing an empathetic listening ear.

She had thought about this a long time. She didn’t yet have tenure in the English Department, so her position was really not secure. Nonetheless, she had gone to see Ken Pringle, the kindly chair of our department, to let him know what she was about to do. And now she was also telling me. She was about to write a letter to the editor of the Daily Kent Stater coming out to the whole university and inviting any students who would value honest conversation about their lives to get in touch with her.

She told me she wanted to let me know about this ahead of time because she didn’t want me to be tarred with the brush that would soon tar her. She was telling me that she would fully understand if I chose from then on to distance myself from her.  Dolores was breaking my heart. I think I spent more time in public with her after that, not less.  It delights me now to be able to report that Dolores Noll went on to be a trailblazing GBLTQ activist not only on the Kent campus but in the state of Ohio and nationally through the Modern Language Association as well as national GBLTQ organizations. In any event, you could call this piece of my story “During – Part One.”

“During – Part Two” also happened at Kent State University in the early 1970’s.  My special teaching area was creative writing, and my standard classroom method was that students read aloud in class what they had written and then we all discussed what we had heard. I gave quite a variety of writing assignments, but it was common for me to invite writing about some sort of personal experience.

One day one of my best students came to see me in my office. She wanted very much to write on the kind of personal experience I had suggested, and she wanted to write with candor. But – and now she let me know that our conversation was more in the nature of a confessional than a student-professor conference – she could not write what she wanted to write and needed to write if she had to read it aloud to the class. She let me know then that she was a lesbian. She was a student in the College of Education, and she was about to do her student teaching. If anyone found out she was a lesbian, she would not be allowed to student teach. She might even be denied her degree as well as her potential livelihood.  And the thing was that she still did want people to know her story.  She appealed to me for both understanding and help.

Together we hatched a plan. She wrote something innocuous for the class assignment, which she did read aloud and which the class did discuss. But that was not the basis for her grade.  Her grade, which of course was “A,” was based on a totally different, totally honest, response to my assignment, which she wrote for my eyes only.

But we did something else besides as a way of getting her truth out in the world.  At that time I was teaching a non-credit course in the Honors College in the field of Women’s Studies. I recorded my student reading out loud what she had written, and then I took the recording to a friend in the Speech Department, who altered the voice on the recording so that it was completely unrecognizable but still clearly understandable. I played the recording for my Women’s Studies class, and I recorded their discussion of it, so that I could then take that recording back to my student. Although she was unable to participate in the class discussion, she was at least able to listen to it. When I gave the original assignment – even though I had learned an enormous lot from my friend Dolores Noll – I was still quite clueless about the implications of what I was asking of my students.  You might call this part of my story “During – Part Two.”

After I left Kent State in 1978 and practiced law for three years, I went back to academia as Director of Writing and Research at Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco.  The faculty, staff, and student body at Golden Gate included many gay men and lesbians. I can’t imagine anybody was in the closet there. And if there was any discrimination based on sexual orientation, it certainly wasn’t noticeable.

When I moved to San Francisco in 1981, I rented a flat on 19th Street, one block off Castro. Walking down Castro Street from the Castro-Market subway station to 19th Street was a delight for the senses, not just the fabulous scents of food and coffee but the perpetual music and fun. People had a really good time in the Castro, especially on holidays. I remember the 4th of July when I saw a group of nuns coming down the Hartford Street hill outside my kitchen window, and then as they went past I saw they had bare behinds. In short order I learned about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.  In those days I wrote long letters back to my friends in Kent, Ohio, that I called “Epistles from a Hayseed in the Castro.”

But the Castro in those days was not exclusively a place for fun and frolic.  Harvey Milk had been assassinated not long before I arrived. I soon learned that the shop on Castro Street where I bought eucalyptus oil had been Harvey Milk’s camera shop.  And then in the window of the drug store at the corner of 18th and Castro appeared a poster with a big photograph of somebody’s arm with a close-up of a very ugly sore. The words on the poster said, “If you have something that looks like this on your body, go to the clinic right away.” Some of my colleagues at the law school were beginning to do research on AIDS. They were not only interested in legal protections for people who were HIV positive or who were living with AIDS or dying from AIDS. They were interested in researching every possible cure that anybody could think of.

My world was now just about as full of gay men and lesbians as it was of straight people. I might be tempted to call this piece of my story “After,” to say that my education was by then complete. But that would not be the truth.

There was a student in the law school whom I paid no particular attention to, that is, until I began to notice that his appearance was somehow changing. At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it was something about his hair. Maybe his hair was a little longer than it had been. And it seemed to have more curl than before, or at least more wave. It looked like he had not just combed his hair in the morning, but maybe he had been to a stylist. Then his clothing changed too, ever so gradually. And then one day it was clear that nearly everything about his appearance had changed. Then he changed his name too. And I started worrying in a big way about this woman whom I had long understood to be a man. How was this law student who used to be a man and was now apparently a woman ever going to get a job practicing law? I truly don’t know what became of that student. I do know that I learned that for this student of the world as it is, there is no piece of my story that can properly be labeled “After.”

Golden Gate University is a private school.  When the law school dean discovered how serious was that school’s financial problem, he determined to help solve it by eliminating the position of Director of Writing and Research. I had been there four years. By that time I had come to love the world of San Francisco and its people so much that I wanted to stay. At that point a new organization came to exist called the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. I applied to become its Executive Director, and I was honored to be granted an interview. I did not get the position, however, and eventually I did leave San Francisco and go on to teach in a very different sort of law school at the University of Florida. And eventually I left there to become a full-time student again at Starr King School for the Ministry.

Education never ends. The seminary is a seed bed for new learning to grow. And every congregation, I hope, is also a seminary. There is no part of my story to label “After.”




Barbara Child

Barbara Child retired from full-time Unitarian Universalist ministry in 2010; most of her parish ministry work was in interim ministry. She served the UUA on both the Commission on Social Witness and the Commission on Appraisal, both of which she chaired. Before attending Starr King School in 1993-96, she had led two other professional lives, first teaching English at Kent State University and then practicing poverty law and teaching and administering writing programs.  It was during her years in academia, before she became active as a UU, that she gradually began to receive her own education about gender and sexual orientation.