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Five years ago I received a letter from a reader, evidently elderly. “You are female, Class of '81,” she wrote, “and have no idea of the real meaning of what Yale has stood for.” She didn’t explain.
Editors of alumni magazines sometimes cause pain. They have little if any influence over reality on campus, but much over image and perception. When an article in an alumni magazine clashes with readers' memories and ideals, editors may get letters that sound as if the readers feel their actual mothers were insulted, not their alma mater.
Our last cover story, “Why They Call Yale the ‘Gay Ivy,’” clashed with the memories and ideals of many alumni. We received more unhappy letters and comments than for any other story in recent years. One alumnus left a furious voice mail declaring, “All you women” should “get the fuck out of Yale.” Another wrote me personally to say that he suspected “a very strong vested interest.” (I take it he thinks I’m gay, but I’ll let him Google me.)
And yet we also received more joyous letters and comments than for any other story in recent years. They included: “I have rarely been as moved reading the magazine,” “Hearty congratulations,” and “I’m prouder of being a Yalie now than I have ever been.” The counts of pro- and anti-gay letters are neck-and-neck. There’s even a certain balance to the content. One reader was mortified that his postman saw the issue; another was so proud of it that he showed it to people he'd never shown the magazine to before. One worried that the issue would discourage straight people from applying to Yale; another thought it would be a selling point. Several people complained, for religious reasons. Several people celebrated, for religious reasons.
The median age of the pros is about 52; of the antis, about 75. Many pros are straight, and one anti had “struggled with homosexual desires.”
All this may help answer the question some writers asked: why publish 16 pages on the history of gays at Yale, knowing conservative alumni might be offended? For the same reason we published 22 pages on William F. Buckley Jr. '50, knowing liberal alumni might be offended. We serve a readership that spans the spectrum in age, politics, religious affiliation, race, cultural heritage. We don’t enjoy causing pain or polarizing our readers. But if we suppressed or downplayed topics that some alumni find important, for the sake of some who object, we would soon have nothing of interest or consequence left to say.
We're an unusual alumni magazine—run not by Yale, but by a small nonprofit. We're charged to report on Yale “in all its complexity.” This is important here for two reasons. First, those who wrote that they would never again donate to Yale should know that what we publish is our responsibility—not Yale’s. Hold us to blame. And second: all alumni—whatever they think about gays or Buckley—should keep in mind that an independent alumni magazine honors its readers' intelligence, puts their interests first, and will never overlook or gloss over any campus issue or controversy the alumni should know about.
In 1951, Buckley excoriated this very magazine for ignoring major issues on campus: “The editor has made it clear that controversy is out, “ and therefore, the magazine “presents very little grist for opinion or discussion.” If there’s one thing Yale alumni might agree on, it is the value of opinion and discussion. The Yale Alumni Magazine has a responsibility not to shy away from controversy. That responsibility has everything to do with the real meaning of Yale.
Please count me among those who applaud you (and Yale) for the July/August cover story on the “Gay Ivy.” For the record, I’m male, straight, and old (73 years).
Thank you for your editorial. You, your staff, or the magazine did not “cause” anyone pain. What you did was tell a story, and the reactions were not surprising. What you may have started was a discourse on the state of Yale and the diverse fabric of its students. I applaud your truthful story and encourage you to continue to tell us what Yale is like today. While it is interesting to some to consider the past, in this everchanging world the current and future state of affairs is far more interesting.
And to the Yalie who wrote, “This cover story is bound to … discourage straight students from applying”: are you kidding me? I would invite him to talk with some prospective students and ask them if they are at all concerned about their peers being gay or straight. I would wager that the majority don’t really care. This was such a sad commentary on fear and hatred in the Yale alumni community.
Again, people’s hateful comments were made on their own behalf. You, your staff, and the magazine have nothing to do with their disappointing behavior.
“Not what I want to read”
I found your July/August 2009 cover story on gay students at Yale mildly interesting, but reading the September/October 2009 issue I am astounded at the letters you received from my fellow alumni about it. The strident homophobia professed, even proudly, in some of these letters was more than depressing, it was cause for reassessing just what progress this country, and Yale, congratulates themselves for achieving.
Is Yale “gay"? Well, yes, homosexuals are found on campus in greater numbers than demographics might predict. But so are Jews, and I doubt that any Yale president would rush to reassure alumni that Yale is not a “Jewish” university, as Benno Schmidt did in the face of entirely accurate publicity twenty years ago stating Yale is home to a large homosexual subculture. (His notorious public letter to that effect marked the low point of my affections for Yale.)
That people such as myself elicit a “visceral” repulsion in others is not what I want to read in the letter section of the Yale Alumni Magazine, any more than I want to read (or am likely to) opinion to the effect that African American Yalies have offensive body odor, or that women undergraduates are less intelligent than their male classmates. I ask that you think more carefully about the letters from alumni that you publish, and more carefully about how your many gay and lesbian readers may understandably react to them.
Error in judgment
Your explanation for printing the “Gay Ivy” story is persuasive and compelling. Judging from the letters printed, however, you made an error in assuming that all Yale people value discussion. It was disappointing to see so many letters that simply resorted to name-calling to oppose the presence of gays on campus and/or the magazine’s printing an article on current reality. Is that because there actually is no persuasive case against gays?
The Buckley analogy was apt. Many of his actions did offend me but that is no reason for the Yale Alumni Magazine not to cover his impact on Yale. I did not call you names but actually sent in some examples (which I thought important) of his impact during my time which the article left out.
How sad it is to learn that the Yale Alumni Magazine has received so many letters advocating the continuance of homophobia. One would hope that graduates of Yale, working their way through what they have been made to feel about gays, would come to see the parallel between the struggle for civil rights for homosexuals and that of other oppressed groups, including blacks, Irish, Jews, women, and (still in the offing) atheists.
There is an obvious answer to Martin L. Fackler’s question: “Why must gays feel compelled to broadcast their sexual preferences?” They do so, sir, for the same reason we have had “black power,” the NAACP, and similar organizations for other peoples subject to prejudice. Like Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, these groups realize that if they are to gain equality, they must first be recognized.
As for Paul Loomis’s "disgust and repulsion,” the gentleman might look to himself to understand why he has these feelings. Heterosexual couples have been know to perform the same sexual acts as gays; do they disgust him, too? Is his repulsion innate, or has he been, as the South Pacific song puts it, “carefully taught"?
Missing from every homophobic letter printed is any careful, clearly reasoned explanation of why gays should be repressed. If it be argued that their sexual preference is not “natural,” the writers might like to to know that there are a few hundred other species which regularly practice homosexuality. And if the Bible be cited, we should note that that holy work also advocates slavery, sexism, mass slaughter, and a few other acts we no longer find acceptable.
I am not happy with the erotic acts of some couples, but do not think my personal feelings should be enacted into laws depriving them of their civil rights. It is time for all of us—yes, even for Harvard men and women—to leave behind us the bigotries that in the end cause damage to us all.
What are the horrible, hateful comments doing on this website? Please take them down immediately. I’m ashamed and offended, and I know I may sound extremist and hypocritical, but you know these comments would never fly if they were about an article called “The ‘Black Ivy.’”
For some reason people seem to have more trouble identifying unacceptable behavior when it is sexist, homophobic, or heterosexist than when it is racist. But that doesn’t mean the former kinds of intolerance are any less reprehensible.
Thank you for both the article on homosexuality at Yale and for your letter justifying it as being well within the perameters of the magazine’s mission. I could not agree with you more that the controversy surrounding the subject, so interestingly illustrated by the reactions to the piece, is clearly worthy of Yale’s longstanding tradition of open-minded inquiry. I read and was moved by the article, just as I read and was appalled by many of the letters it elicited.
But how many of the people who wrote negative replies (it was hardly surprising that the median age for this group was 75; the statistic, while promising in a sense, was superfluous and did nothing to penetrate the real and enduring problem at hand) do you believe actually read beyond the title (which was a bad one and provocative in an unhelpful way)? “Why They Call Yale the ‘Gay Ivy’” immediately draws an unnecessary line in the sand between a “they” who think of Yale as a “gay school” and another “they” who do not, and then it explicitly sides with, and creates an implicit majority of, those who do.
Was the point of the title to encourage people to think about what life has been like for gay students at Yale? Or was it to force out of their own sad closets of prejudice a lot of old people (you provided the statistic) who, for good or ill (and in fact even whether they are gay or not), naturally have never thought of Yale as a “gay school” and now are made to feel that they are not even a part of the general “they"? In other words, the title makes an easily-dismissed and dwindling minority of the very people whom one would surely prefer to bring to think of things in larger terms. It simultaneously makes those people dismiss the article without reading it. A missed opportunity, and too bad all around.
I was a graduate student at Yale in the 1980s and came to understand and accept my sexual orientation during that time in large part because I belonged to a community of good and open-minded people, some of whom were gay, most of whom were not, and all of whom shared with me—and therefore lessened for me—the ongoing panic and despair of the AIDS crisis as well as the uplift of a visibly growing movement of public attention, tolerance, and support. That’s why, rather than an article that undermines itself at the outset, I would like to have seen a more thoughtful approach to the presentation of the piece. Something a little less “magazine” perhaps. In any case something other than that smug, disingenuous cover which, I fear, forced the benighted deeper into the dark.
I am truly struck by the significant differences in the comments about “Why They Call Yale the ‘Gay Ivy,’” especially when they are sorted by graduation year and the assumed respective ages of the graduates. Graduates from earlier years—with a few notable exceptions—find the issue of gays at Yale to be anything from distasteful to a degradation of Yale’s reputation. More recent alums are far more supportive, and recognize that the LGBTQ community deserves its place and visible role alongside of every other constituency that comprises the diverse population of a great institution of learning.
Rarely has a social movement for basic equality gained so much momentum in single generation. We have come so far, so fast, that I am stunned by the progress. That the insecurities and hostilities of so many in older generations are being so rapidly eclipsed by the openness and acceptance of those who are younger is a tribute to the capacity of human understanding to grow and increase as we continue to evolve as a community, a culture, and a species.
Back in the 1980s, when we were organizing LGBTQ issues on the Yale campus, I never would have dreamed that the Yale Alumni Magazine would run an issue such as this one. And I never could have imagined that the perspectives articulated by older Yale alumni would so quickly become outdated and antiquated when contrasted with those who have followed.
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