Dormitory Daze

 

1980s dorm room

 

I lived in the dormitories during my undergraduate days for one year; I then lived in rental housing close to the campus (a small Catholic liberal arts college), but I spent more time on campus than in my humble room with a hot plate.

I was pretty naïve, having grown up in the Catholic ghetto where sex and especially homosex was a no-no until the marriage bed, even though I knew in high school that some of my bigger and stronger and definitely more jockish compatriots were screwing girls.

However, my first year in the dormitory was something of a daze (that freshman year is more of a social rather than academic transition), but I did notice one particular social norm in the dorms: heterosexual couples would move in together; the double bed in the guy's room signified that he had a steady girlfriend.

Now, some of the female students had outside campus boyfriends; in fact, one student, a bit older than the 18-19 year old age range, had three children already by a rather large in size black guy named Wade. I was floored (my naivete) at this situation, not so much the interracial part, but that she had sex. And had children. And she wasn't my parents or a friend of my parents.

Gay sex? In the early 1980s (and AIDS had not really manifested itself in suburban Chicago at that time) not so much, though one guy who was had transferred to another school named Howard was supposedly gay. The evidence? He did not wear underwear beneath his jeans. Huh?

The underwearless guy dated a heavyset girl, who was also dating another guy who ended up being gay. (The cliché in this case is true.) I went with them to see Victor, Victoria. I still didn't get what was going on.

I did get that Janice was a butch lesbian, but one of her girlfriends, Yvette, was "experimenting" and went back to boys. A friend of mine and I met up with them after a Stevie Wonder concert (in his hotel room, because a sister of a student at the college was one of his backup singers).

Janice and Yvette were African-American, and I don't want to perpetrate any stereotypes, but those girls were wild. And fun. And accepting of everyone (so unlike some of the pre-"bro" jock types around there who muttered fag under their breath when I walked by).

I even went to a couple of what were called "sets," (dances, to hypnotic music which I guess was a predecessor of what today is called "house music") and I even was invited to a meeting of the African-American club.
 

1980s African-American set

(I also went to a disco with a nun until 4 a.m. I vaguely remember dancing with an African-American guy and his girlfriend. The guy told me I was moving around too much. This incident occurred my senior year.)
 

1980s Chicago ad for a disco

But I didn't accept a possible interracial (I being the only white guy) fourway with Brenda (who flunked out after the freshman year), Sandra, and a real hot guy from off-campus after I hung out with them one night. I was invited to come to the bed, but I chickened out.

The closest I came to any type of sexual experience was jacking off with a pair of T.J.'s cowboy boots. T.J., an off-campus friend of another African-American friend of mine, Denise (you could get drugs from him), crashed in my room one night while I slept platonically with Denise in her room. We were all drunk. He left his big sweaty Dingo boots there and I had some fun.
 

Cowboy boots

Even though I didn't have sex in college of any kind with anyone, I must admit the experience exposed me to, at that time, the rather frightening, often confusing, but in the long term ultimately liberating world of guys and girls interacting on various levels of the sexual spectrum.

By the time I came out as an adult, AIDS was in full swing. I sometimes wonder if I had dared to be intimate with anyone if I would have contracted it and possibly not have survived.

Yet coming out was my realization that sex does not equal death. Sex is life at its most elemental level, but for me, it is an integral part of a lively intimacy with another person.

Without an openness to that intimacy, I would have dried up inside. All those people I knew in college showed me that a lively juice in me was there, ready to bubble forth. Ripeness is all.
 

1985 Chicago pride parade
1985 Chicago pride parade
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Bisexual Boxer Emile Griffith and a Deadly Fight

Emile Griffith

On March 24, 1962, bisexual (or gay) boxer Emile Griffith knocked out his opponent, Benny Paret, at Madison Square Garden. In round 12, Griffith trapped Paret in a corner; by that time, his opponent had stopped punching back. Griffith held his opponent's shoulder to keep him in position while using his free hand to hit Paret.
 

Griffith knocks out Paret

The audience was shocked; the famous author Norman Mailer, who wrote about it in his essay, “The Death of Benny Paret,” claimed it was the hardest he had ever seen a man hit another man. At this point, the referee, Ruby Goldstein, stepped in, an awarded Griffith a win by a “technical knockout.” Paret slid to the floor; he was carried out on a stretcher and died ten days later in a hospital.

There's a back story here to this admittedly brutal incident, and it ties into the intense homophobia of the time, and the double life Emile Griffith had to lead. He visited the gay bars during that period, and he even hung out in the then-seedy Times Square where, the time before the fight, according to Donald McRae's book A Man's World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith, he “laughed and danced with the Hispanic gay crowd and the old drag queens.”

Before this fight, Emile was able to live this life: be a man's man in the hypermasculine world of boxing, and apparently hold court with the queens of the period on women's hat styles (in fact, he started out working in a women's hat factory, and his shirtless physique (he requested permission to work that way in the heat) caught the attention of the owner, who got him involved in the world of boxing).
 

Emile Griffith news clipping

But, in the weigh-in before the fight, Paret called Griffith a maricón, which means faggot. Members of the press and officials from the New York Boxing Commission witnessed this exchange. And, in pre-fight interviews with the press, Paret's manager portrayed Griffith as effeminate and thus an unworthy opponent for the hypermasculine Paret. Paret also touched Griffith's ass when he called him the slur, apparently enraging him.

The consequences of this homophobia were indeed deadly. Even though Griffith told a television interviewer that he was proud to be the welterweight champion again, and expressed hopes for Paret's recovery, Paret's death resulted in insults and hate mail. And many sources claim that even though Griffith continued to box for 15 more years, he lost his enthusiasm for the sport. Emile blamed himself for the incident; it always haunted him.

Griffith married a woman in 1971 by the name of Mercedes Donastorg. After retiring from boxing in 1977, he worked as a corrections officer at juvenile detention facility in New Jersey.

But Griffith was still struggling with his overall identity. In 1992, he was viciously beaten in New York City after leaving a gay bar. He was in the hospital for four months with serious kidney damage, and under the care of his adoptive son, began a slow mental and physical decline, but also some serious soul-searching.

He told Sports Illustrated in 2005, “I love men and women the same, but if you ask me which is better … I like women.”

Yet, another reporter for the New York Times, Bob Hebert, about that time, asked him if he was gay, and Griffith struggled to answer. He said he no longer wanted to hide, and he wanted to ride that year in the New York Gay Pride Parade.
 

Emile Griffith older

Other interviews with him do emphasize that he did not like labels about his identity.

Yet the one label everyone remembers him by I think should not just be that deadly fight, but his place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame; no other boxer in boxing history had fought more championship rounds, not even the great Muhammad Ali.

Emile Griffith died on July 23, 2013 at the age of 75.

There's a complex legacy here in Griffith's struggles and triumphs, and documentaries and plays and books and even an opera have struggled to understand and express a turbulent double life that exploded savagely in a literal arena which glorifies a violence it claims to sublimate.
 

Ring of Fire, a film about Emile Griffith
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Glenn Burke: African-American Gay Baseball Player

Glenn Burke

Pride Month is upon us, and in these admittedly troubled times, I sometimes find it inspirational to compare and contrast what was going on in 1978, forty years ago, in the world of LGBTQ persons.

1978 was a year of hope and tragedy; the gay icon Harvey Milk was assassinated, but the Briggs initiative, which would have banned gay and lesbian persons from being teachers in California, was defeated.

But something else was going in the world of sports, which resulted in an action spontaneously made by the first openly gay major league baseball player becomming a common physical expression in our culture.
 

Newspaper article about Glenn Burke entitled We'll Never Know How Good He Could Have Been

Glenn Burke, known as “King Kong” by his colleagues because of his massive biceps, was the first openly gay Major League baseball player. And he was open about it.

According to an NPR interview, “Because you'd look over in his locker, you know, and he had his red jock in his locker. You know, nobody wore a red jock, you know? And Glenn wore a red jock and, you know, he'd be dancing around in the clubhouse.”

Hmm … I did not know wearing a red jockstrap was indicative of one's sexual orientation, but times were different, and also according to the interview, the teammates in the minor leagues really did not know.

But then, also according to the interview, the Latino guys figured it out, and started calling him “maricón” (which means, essentially, faggot), perhaps jokingly, and they supported him when he entered the major leagues.

Glenn played on the Dodgers, and when the management found out he was gay, they offered him $75,000 to get married. To this offer, Burke replied with acerbic wit, “I guess you mean to a woman.” Burke did not get married.
 

Glenn Burke Dodgers baseball calrd

He was traded to the Oakland A's as a result, close to San Francisco, at that time the gay mecca of meccas. But Glenn was not able to thrive. Billy Martin came over from the Yankees to manage the team soon after, and his homophobia was apparent. During the spring training, he was introducing all the players to the new players that were coming in. When he got to Glenn, he said, “Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke, and he's a faggot.”

The discrimination and harassment continued, and Glenn was demoted to Triple-A ball. He retired at the age of 27.

The story gets sadder, but there's a happy twist. Glenn Burke invented the high five! Yes, he did!

According to an article in the Advocate, Burke was waiting for his chance at bat on October 22, 1977. The Dodgers were playing against the Houston Astros. Left fielder Dusty Baker had just hit his 30th home run, putting the team into the playoffs. As Baker came back from his circuit around the bases, Burke thrust his hand out into the air. Burke instinctively slapped Baker's palm. Voila! Right after that action, Burke, his his first major league home run. When he returned to the dugout, Baker gaive Burke that high five.
 

Glenn Burke giving a high five on the baseball field

Glenn Burke died of AIDS-related complications on May 30, 1995, after struggles with drug addiction and homelessness.

If it wasn't for the legacy of Glenn Burke, Jason Collins and Michael Sam would still be unable to be their true selves in the sports world.

And Glenn's integrity makes those high fives, that expression of pride and jubilation, so much more meaningful. There's a history behind all of them them, and a history we should not forget in a time when one doubts that the arc of the universe curves toward justice.

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