Gays, lesbians learn that the campus life is one of contradictions

November 18, 1990|By Diane Winston

Meet Keith. He comes from a good, Christian home. His parents were strict about dating. But he didn't care -- their fears of sexual immorality kept him from exploring some funny feelings.

Until he went to college.

"I didn't think I fit the image my church had planted," said Keith, now a junior at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, recalling his biases toward gay men. "I imagined a guy walking down the street in flaming pink with swaying hips and a high voice, having sex for money and dying in despair.

"When I finally went to a support group, I was surprised to find people who looked human."

The support group gave Keith the confidence to "come out," claiming gay identity, among close friends. But along with the joys of community and self-discovery, he also discovered hatred. Unseen hands scribbled "faggot" on his door and hung up posters of attractive men. Whispered comments and unsigned graffiti left him feeling targeted and exposed.

If common estimates are true, that one out of every 10 Americans is gay or lesbian, Keith's experience resonates with hundreds of students on Maryland campuses.

Reports from College Park and Baltimore schools describe contradictory trends. There are more gay groups, a growing acceptance of diversity and tough ordinances pledging to end discrimination based on sexual orientation. But the high incidence of homophobia -- spoken and written slurs against gays and lesbians -- makes it hard for young people to come out on college campuses.

"The results of greater visibility and more organization is that hostility can take sharper and clearer forms," said John D'Emilio, associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a co-chairman of the National Gay

and Lesbian Task Force's board. "The campuses are a good microcosm -- there is both progress and frustration as we move toward tolerance in our institutions."

The gay-liberation movement hit American campuses around 1970. Swept up in the crusading spirit of the times -- the anti-war movement, the women's movement, civil rights -- students were buoyed by the belief that society could change.

Sometimes, it seemed true.

Two states and several cities passed ordinances protecting gay civil rights, and half the states repealed their sodomy laws. The American Psychiatric Association stopped listing homosexuality as a mental disorder, and some religious denominations no longer called it a sin against God.

Gay groups formed on more than 300 campuses, and courses in gay studies are offered at several schools, including San Francisco City College, Yale University and -- in Maryland -- Towson State University. Recently, dozens of campuses have begun campaigns against ROTC's policy of excluding gays and lesbians from full participation.

But most say visibility demands courage. Incidents have included:

* Graffiti at the University of Maryland College Park have proclaimed "Faggots get off campus" and "All faggots should die of AIDS."

* Gay and lesbian students at the Johns Hopkins University, UMBC, Towson State and the University of Maryland College Park report that fliers advertising their activities are torn down within hours of being posted.

* Last year, students at UMBC hung homoerotic photographs and photographs of people with AIDS in a bathroom they believed was frequented by gay men. Posters mounted on the stalls suggested that gay sex caused AIDS and that gay men who used the bathroom were placing students in danger.

When gays protested, the school's administration removed the photographs.

"We sent a letter to the university community saying no one wanted to condemn free speech but asking students to be sensitive to their audience," said Wilbur C. Hicks, UMBC's assistant vice president of student affairs. "We also told the students they were showing a lack of sensitivity and ignorance on the subject. People don't get AIDS from casual contact."

For some students, fighting ignorance is a battle to be joined. The goal is twofold: educating straights that stereotypes aren't true and helping closeted gays and lesbians claim their identity.

"I have been out long enough that if someone yells 'faggot' or 'queer,' I just let it go," said Jonathan Polanin, a senior at the University of Maryland and president of the Gay and Lesbian Student Union. "What gets me is some kid who is not out hears it, internalizes it and gets more depressed."

Mr. Polanin's group, whose campus address is a cramped cubbyhole with two desks and a tattered couch, wants to bolster female membership. Several dozen regulars -- representing diverse races and religions -- are mostly men. At most campuses, groups tend to be predominantly gay or lesbian. Students say that's because, in the past, interests differed: Women tended to political activism and men wanted to organize dances.

Recently, the sexes have sought to work together.

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