Celebrating ‘Queer History’ at the College

On Oct. 26, alumni and students gathered in the Social Science Building atrium to celebrate “Queer History Month” at the College. Alumni Tobias Grace, Ilene Palena, Jeffrey Kagan, Diane Mauzaurieta and Krista Garofalo recognized the progress that the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) community has made since the 1960s.

Noel Ramirez, senior women’s and gender studies and communication studies major and PRISM president, insisted that his viewers have a duty to be accountable, supportive and responsible for each other. Ramirez envisions Queer History Month as building a bridge between the past and future. “We are queer, and we are not going anywhere,” Ramirez said.

Tobias Grace, editor of Out in Jersey magazine and a member of the Class of 1968, discussed the recent court ruling in favor of gay marriage in New Jersey. Announcing that we are at a historic moment, he stated that the GLBT community had only won a battle of the war and urged the audience to bombard legislators with requests for equality because “separate is not equal.” Grace also spoke of the enormous changes since 1968 and the closeness of the GLBT community to full legal equality in New Jersey.

Ilene Palena, a member of the Class of 1969 and one of the founding members of the Gay Union of Trenton State (GUTS, which was PRISM’s original name), documented major historical events from her college years, including heavy grassroots efforts for feminism and discrimination openly expressed towards gay individuals.

She also discussed the continuing hostility expressed toward gay individuals in her own life. While visiting her partner at a hospital, Palena had brought along her domestic partnership papers in order to claim a parking permit. However, the hospital would not easily provide her with the document.

Palena came out of the closet at a time when gay individuals were advised to take heavy medication and undergo electroshock therapy.

She is now “happy to be here” and urged people to continue fighting for their rights.

Jeffery Kagan, Class of 1990, is the recipient of the Andrew Heiskell Community Service Award and the co-producer of Sports Ball, an annual fundraiser. He is the founder of the New York City Gay Hockey Association (NYC GHA), the largest GHA in the United States, and of Out of Bounds NYC, which promotes and supports GLBT sports and recreation organizations in the New York City area.

During his college years, Kagan was terrified of dealing with his sexuality and immersed himself in activities that would avoid exposure of his sexuality. Kagan attributed his initial fear of being gay to a background of shame that was largely sparked in him by the coming out of a close friend in high school.

Kagan founded NYC GHA after he began to play ice hockey, which allowed him, for the first time, to feel “rugged” and masculine. Building on his mental strength as a result of his strong physical build allowed him to gain the confidence to come out.

Mauzaurieta, advisor of the Gay-Straight Alliance of her high school, spoke of her identity, which she had previously kept hidden. During her younger years, she dated “stupid boys” who reinforced her insecurities and lived the life of a “clueless girl” who could never acknowledge her bisexual orientation despite her strong feelings for one girl. She regrets that her high school did not have a GLBT group, but is happy that the College has PRISM as a resource for the community. Mauzaurieta only began to enjoy life when she surrounded herself with lesbian friends and acknowledged her true identity.

Garofalo and Webber both served as co-presidents of GUTS in 1999 when it received the Student Life Multicultural Program Award for the inaugural Matthew Shepard Candlelight Vigil. They also established the AIDS Awareness Week program and sent a group of students to the historic Millennium March on Washington in April 2000.

As leaders of GUTS, Garofalo and Webber sought to broaden the GLBT community outreach. The murder of Matthew Shepard, which occurred during the two women’s years at the College, radically changed the course of GUTS and the perspectives of other students. The incident started a national conversation about hate crimes and prodded GUTS to hold rallies involving other organizations, including those representing Latinos, blacks and Asians.

Garofalo and Webber are proud that during their time on GUTS, the group built more on-campus awareness, strengthened bonds with other organizations and increased the group’s campus visibility. Garofalo insisted that people must get rid of their stigmas and urged GLBT individuals to get involved on campus in order to build a “broader world of diversity.”

Ramirez offered closing words, insisting that his audience “fight the good fight,” before leading alumni and the audience to the new PRISM space on campus as part of the unveiling ceremony.

Ramirez capped off the event with some motivational words: “We are here, queer, and ready to take the world.”