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October 24, 2006 Sgt Denny's Rant: A Dubious Distinction

The National Coming-Out Week Commencement Speech at Brown University

In mid-October, as the early afternoon train barreled onward northeast of New Haven, the Autumn leaves burst into riotous glory; and I sat entranced by the beauty.  All around me, other riders clicked away at their laptops, oblivious to the lovely scenery of forests, lakes, harbors, rivers and estuaries filled with migrating birds.  "Oh dear," I thought, "I must be the only one old enough, aboard, to have the time to enjoy this." 

I was on my way from New York City to Brown University in Providence Rhode Island to give the National Coming-Out Week Commencement Speech.  The students' Queer Alliance, there, had invited me to come and speak about my lifetime as an activist and the history of the LGBT rights movement to an audience of 18-  and 19-year-olds.  Delighted as I was that they wanted to hear our history, I realized that I had somehow achieved the dubious distinction of having become the wizened old activist emeritus, at age 60, with "stories of the old days" to tell.  Oy!

The marker of my generation was, "what were you doing on the day Kennedy was shot?"  Today's youth will likely ask one other, in years to come, "where were you on September 11th, 2001 when America was attacked by terrorists?"  For both groups, who were in their early to mid-teens at the time, the events were a similar shattering of the innocence of the youthful belief in the security and safety of American freedom.  Suddenly, were were no longer lonely teenagers just beginning to realize that we were queer; we became a part of a nation in unified shock sharing a common reality experience of horror and anguish.  Each event may have shaped us, in our youth, to suddenly think beyond our personal moment of self-discovery, to our responsibility as Americans to speak up for freedom and to consider volunteering to defend it.  Then as now, some of us took it upon ourselves to protest war as pointless; and some of us to want to serve as valiant warriors, despite being queer.

As I considered the words that I would use to pass on the torch of activism to today's youth, I began to realize that we are not so different at all, they and I, in our coming of age experiences.  After all, back then if, as a brave and courageous member of America's armed forces, you were discovered to be queer, you'd be kicked out.  Today, 40 years later, if as a brave and courageous member of America's armed forces you are discovered to be queer, you're still kicked out!

Demanding rights is, alas, still necessary.

The speech: I began by discussing the meaning of "Coming Out-Day" in terms of the need for visibility by members of the LGBT community.  If those who know us as fellow students, sons, brothers, nephews and nieces, learn that we are gay, most will realize that we are not alien.  I then described the history of gays in America's armed forces from the Revolutionary War to the present (see history.html and An Inconvenient Hero on this website).

The Queer Alliance had specifically asked that I tell the tales of my own experiences; and so I told of coming out at the 1964 Worlds Fair in New York with a friend as we walked under the stars on a sparkling summer night at age 15.  And I told the tales of the demonstrations: my first activist march with the NAACP in 1960 at the age of 13, the 1972 protests during the Miami Republican and Democratic national conventions, The 1979 White Night Riot in San Francisco, and so many others.  I spoke of the rocks, the tear gas, the batons smashing heads, the shouts of "out of the bars and into the streets!"  I told them of the days when the gods of gay revolution walked the Earth like ordinary mortals. Oh dear God, I had to tell them who Harvey Milk and Leonard Matlovitch were; how could they know, they weren't even born yet!

Tears come to my eyes as I hear the echoes of those heady days; all those heroes and friends long dead in the mist of time and memory, all the battles against hate and ignorance.  And so I sat there on the stage in a chair, my hand on my cane, and I told them all the stories; and they listened and listened as I passed on the torch.  Some yawned; but I could see other eyes sparkling as they sensed the adventure and outrage of the early days of the battle against discrimination, as told by a grandfather who had stood on the blood-spattered streets, back in the day. We spoke about what is being done now by legislative and legal negotiators in MEA, AVER, and SLDN; and what SoulForce is doing today on the streets as we continue to demand freedom. 

Before the speech, I had been invited to 'dinner with the Queer Alliance Executive Board.'  I joked with friends that they would probably have pizza and that I'd have gas throughout my speech.  In the Queer Alliance lounge, full of old sofas and the comfy disorder of a college space, we had pizza.  I got gas during my speech.  Well, not to worry; someday 40 years from now, one of those former students will be called upon to tell the tales of his or her youth to an audience of young people who have just served pizza.  Grit your teeth, life is a passage, as it were.