Lady Luck has been smiling at me since I was a young girl. My earliest memories include getting a bat, ball, and glove when I was about five years of age. Not only did I get to play with these cool toys, but I could also wear shorts, t-shirts, and sneakers (not dresses) all the time so I would always be ready to play. I did this with the blessing and encouragement of both my parents, from our home in a row house on Flora Street in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia, PA.
Since our street was tiny, two impactful events occurred during the course of my childhood. First, my parents worked with other parents to make Flora a “play street” during the summer months. Saw horses were placed at the entrance to our block so no one could park or drive there, which enabled us kids to play ball every day under safe conditions. The second event came from one of our neighbors, who ended up taking my parents to court to make us stop playing because they were quite cranky and sometimes the pinky ball ended up in their yard. My parents won and we were still allowed to play – though we never did get any balls back from the Hoffmans’ yard. This led to my first opportunity to make up a rule (a skill that has served me very well throughout my life): If you hit the ball into the Hoffmans’ yard, you bought the next one.
My parents continued to support my desire to play ball as I entered junior high school. They were never concerned that I was always playing, competing, and holding my own with the boys on the block or that I was, without a doubt, a “tomboy.” Their support never wavered as I continued to play softball and other sports in high school, and as I chose a college where I could major in physical education and coaching. I was, in fact, a junior lesbian developing a sense of confidence that would help me when I became a full-fledged lesbian and a professional in higher education, with a job that involved working closely with young women.
I began my career in coaching and teaching at Drexel University in the summer of 1979, at the ripe old age of 23. It was a tricky time to navigate being gay and working with young women, many of whom were also gay. At that time, it was a professional death wish to be “out.” Many of the women I worked with in athletics at that time, both at my own institution and elsewhere, found themselves in the same boat. We competed against each other on the playing fields, but supported each other outside of the lines.
We knew who our allies were in this difficult situation by “the look,” or because we knew someone who knew someone, or because of the biggest tell-tale sign of all – a pinky initial ring worn on the left hand. Almost all “family members,” or PLUs (people like us), wore them. We tried to reach out to each other without the world knowing, because the world back in the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘90s (and even in too many states now in 2015) was neither accepting nor tolerant of gay women in coaching. We all lived with the greatest fear that an unhappy student-athlete might accuse us of something inappropriate and we would not only be fired, but end up on the front page of a national newspaper with no hopes of ever getting another job.
That fear changed for me later in my life, when I turned 50 and began to give myself credit for all of the women who came to school and had wonderful academic and athletic experiences under my guidance. I find myself now in a more progressive environment, thanks to the City University of New York and a supervisor who chooses to be an amazing, appreciative advocate. I feel free to be who I am now. My colleagues and students know that I am married to a woman. My wife comes to my events and is welcomed by our campus community. Earlier in my career, I would have never felt comfortable exposing my personal life this way.
I am optimistic for the future, in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage and shifting national attitudes. Progress will continue to be made, but I fear for the many people who do not live in a city like New York. For them, that progress may be painstakingly slow. But slow is better than no change at all and I truly believe that change WILL continue to come. If you are up and coming, hang in there. You will be amazed at how time and the basic goodness of people can help so much.
This post is part of our #SAevolve series, a variety of first-person views of the ongoing evolution of Higher Education from pros who have been in the field for a long time. The goal is to explain how some critical matters in higher ed have evolved over time, to explain the greater context, and to inspire younger professionals to realize that they too are part of the great movement of higher education. All of us more “senior” folks were once junior folks. We were toiling, contributing and observing at critical moments, but perhaps we didn’t realize what we were seeing until we had more experience. For more information check out the intro post by Lynette Cook-Francis. Be sure to read the other posts in this series too!