Translator: Leonardo Silva Reviewer: Mile Živković So, thank you. Oh! Good, this is on. So – I’m trying to remember the first time I was ever asked, “Why are you so gay?” (Laughter) Probably in middle school, before it actually applied to any form of sexual orientation, right? Because in middle school, you don’t have any orientation, let alone a sexual one. It just used to refer to something, you know, you don’t enjoy. But the funny thing is that, since middle school, I’ve probably been asked this question almost as much as any other question.
If I had a dime for each time I’ve been asked, “Why are you so gay?,” I could maybe pay for one credit at Georgetown. So – (Laughter) But the interesting thing about this question too is the sort of opposing motivations as to why people would ask this question. Some people ask this question as a way to shame me and to shame the identity.
They say, “Why are you so gay?,” as if, you know, it offends them, somehow it smells, I don’t know. But then, also people very close to me, who love me very much, ask it from a place of love and concern: “Why are you so visible? Why would you subject yourself to potential discrimination, when you don’t have to?” And therefore, answering this question involves addressing both of these sorts of concerns and both of these motivations. And really, for me, it comes down to three things. One is my obligations to history; two, the realities of my own identity; and lastly, our obligations for those yet to come. Now, some of you here are guests, so you’re like, “Well, he doesn’t seem that gay to me. His suit’s a little tight, but no gay person would use white text in a Powerpoint. (Laughter) But I assure you, and let me prove it to you – You see, two weeks ago I was on this stage in the Mr.
Georgetown pageant – Mom, cover your eyes – (Laughter) and I was crowned Mr. Georgetown by performing the first-ever drag routine in Gaston Hall, I think, unless the judge would say something I didn’t know about. But – (Laughter) Well, but Brian can confirm later. But the funny thing about this is, as shocking as this is and as scared as I was that day to sort of break ground and bring this performance into this space where it had never been before, before I came out on stage, I was thinking about how scared I would be if who I was eight years ago could see where I was now.
Granted, when I see who I was eight years ago, I’m equally horrified. Give it to me. There we go! (Laughter) Yes, so I admit this is a picture of me in a Harry Potter costume, but I assure you I looked like this every single day, except for the scar on the forehead. But otherwise, every day I was the same. This was the outfit.
That was real tape. Those were really broken glasses. I go to this time in my life because I think that this is where answering the question, “Why are you so gay?” begins, because it was in this point of my life that I started what we know as covering. It was around this time that, even though I didn’t necessarily feel all that different from my peers, other people did. And what had started as, “Oh, you’re so gay!” became whispers, became rumors, became slurs. This is when we, as a community, human beings, have a sort of tendency that, when we detect difference, when we detect something we don’t understand, even if we can’t name it yet – and we were all too young at this age to name what was different, or to act on what was different – we try to correct it through less than honorable means.
And so, people would make fun of the way that I walked, and still do, even though that was really because one leg was shorter than the other. I was born with one leg one inch shorter than the other. So, I always stand like this. It’s not an affect. So, I would suddenly think about every single step that I took. It became deliberate. And people started to make fun of the way that I moved my hands when I talked, which was really just because I’m Sicilian. (Laughter) More to do with that than anything else. And then people would make fun of my voice, even though none of our voices had changed yet. It’s funny to have someone make fun of your voice when it cracks in the middle of an insult. (Laughter) So, you can imagine how difficult, as a New Yorker, it was to walk and talk, and have a conversation while I’m motivating every single motion of my voice and my speech. The things that we take for granted, the ways that we navigate the world in normal ways were critical things that I had to think about every second of the day.
I had to expend all of my creative energy on covering what it was that made me different. When I went to high school, this started to change a little bit. Because I was able to develop the vocabulary, I started to see what it was that made me different than other people, because, as we all know, hormones kick in, and we sort of can see, “Ah! So that’s the problem.” Now, when I went to high school, I was introduced to the director of the debate team, Jonathan Cruz, who was the first gay person I had ever met, who owned their identity unapologetically. Instead of expending his creative energy to change himself, and to cover, and to meet the standards that society wanted him to meet, he instead put his energy into building a community of dedicated students who worshiped him because he was a debate god! The hilarious thing – I didn’t put up a photo because he’d hate me – is, you know, he was a slightly overweight Jewish man from Great Neck, who had a following! How does that happen? And it’s because he used his energy – he didn’t apologize for himself.
By not having to cover, he was able to apply that energy into a community and into students. But that wasn’t quite yet enough for me to own my own identity. I had to start working at a meth lab. Now, clarification: you thought I was going in other direction. By meth lab, I mean a research lab where I studied people addicted to meth. This is what it looked like. It was not a trailer in Albuquerque, I promise. (Laughter) Yeah. It was 726, Broadway. Very, very different than Albuquerque. So I’ve heard. So, it was at this laboratory that I met another mentor. You see, at Bronx Science, seniors and other students engage in these research projects, they email professors all around the country and try to get them to help them with research projects, and then we can submit these papers to all these things across the country, yadda yadda yadda. The only professor who responded to me happened to be the one I’d reached out to just because he held a prestigious position at NYU Steinhardt. His name is Perry Halkitis.
And Perry Halkitis was yet another example of a man who was owning his identity, but also we had a lot in common that I didn’t realize. He had grown up in the neighborhood that I had gone to school, and that my mother was from, Astoria, Queens, – which will explain my parents’ accent, if you have met them, and my own, if it slips out – but also he had gone to the Bronx High School of Science. And meeting another person who had used his creative energy into building a community around him, into building a laboratory around him, made me feel comfortable at least owning my identity to myself.
But it yet really wasn’t enough for me to start owning it to other people. I needed a more powerful force, I needed to understand what the history of this community looked like. The first thing that I’d learned was the reality of my own identity was that I couldn’t cover, and understanding who I was to myself at the very least allowed me to be happy for the first time in years. When it came to showing other people, I was in luck. You see, this lab was only two blocks away from this building. Now, some of you may not recognize this building. If you do, my phone number is on the program. I’m joking. But… (Laughter) For those of you who don’t recognize this building, let me give you some historic context.
This building was the Stonewall Inn, and it was a short walk from where I was working, and I’d passed it nearly a dozen times before I finally realized that I was working only two or three blocks away from the birth of the Gay Rights Movement, and this was important for one real reason: because Stonewall was one of the first instances in American history where the LGBTQ community said, “We will not try to hide anymore. We are tired of using our energies to cover. We would rather own ourselves and use our identities to change the systems around us.” It was there the first time they acknowledged it is easier to change a community, it is easier to change society, than to change your own identity.
And it does much less damage that way. It was those who could not change their identities, those who had the most trouble covering, the drag queens, the effeminate gay men, the queer women, who were the ones to throw the first bricks, the first rocks, the first punches. Being exposed to this history gave me the strength and knowledge that I was joining a community, I was not the first, I had the shoulders of giants to stand on, not just Perry Halkitis, not just Jon Cruz, but also an entire movement.
This influenced the rest of my high school career, where I sort of vowed to be outrageous. There were administrators who were homophobic and who gave pushback during a project defense of the research that I was doing. An administrator, who had known that I was gay, publicly questioned me and said, “Well, you’re only studying gay men and sexual behaviors because you’re going to get the results that you want. Every gay man has hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of sexual partners, and they’re just born to make bad decisions.” First of all, I was disappointed to learn all gay men had hundreds and hundreds of sexual partners.
I had not experienced that, but… (Laughter) A dozen would have been nice, but… (Laughter) Dealing with this pushback required one more understanding: Why would I engage in this work? Why would I fight? Why would I be out, and even if I had all this history, what good was that? What good was it doing if I could still hide away? Right? I had this ability. Why fight it? But it was the work that I was doing in the lab that taught me something else.
You see, my research revolves around men who became exposed to HIV/AIDS in the context of drug use, and the vast majority of the men that I studied were men of color. They also were very unlikely to identify as gay, even though all their sexual behaviors were almost exclusively with men. And this was interesting. Because they were less likely to identify as gay, they were less likely to seek out community resources, they were less likely to identify with testing resources. The fact that the modern Gay Rights Movement at the time had ignored communities of color and been focused on being “mainstream”, “We’re just like you. Look at Ellen. She’s not going to try to convert you. She’s on daytime television” – and we had left out the more radical elements of our communities. Those who have a harder time fitting in, these communities were left behind, they had no one to go to for resources. This was having real health implications, and to this day, the rate of HIV infection in the US, among young men of color, is increasing, and if it increases at current rates, it is projected that 50% of all college-aged men of color who have sex with other men will be HIV-positive by the time they are 50.
Half. And this is a disease that we can treat, and when you are in treatment, you cannot infect other people. This is unacceptable. And so, I understood that being out was not important just for myself, it was not important just because of the debt that I owed to history, but also because of the people that came forward. And so, I made sure that in high school, when I was put in charge of teaching novices, I was my own Jon Cruz, I made sure I was as out as possible, and taught debaters to own their identities as much as possible.
Not enough of them have come out, unfortunately; I think we’ve ruined them. They’ve had three debate coaches. So, they all have all these affectations that are going to really ruin their chances with women in the future, but that’s fine. (Laughter) And if they watch this, I’m sorry. But, you know, really owning your identity was valuable. I eventually owned my identity in debate rounds, and that allowed me to win the NDCA national championship – thank you, Jon Cruz – and then also the project ended up getting submitted and I got to meet the President at the time, Obama. Bush wouldn’t have been as amenable to the project about how meth and gay sex could change the world. So – (Laughter) The time came to focus on my next step.
Where was I going to go to college, after Bronx Science? I had changed the institution of which I was a part, but I was tired. I received an acceptance letter from Georgetown University, and it made perfect sense that I would go here. It was in Washington DC, which, as a New Yorker, is probably the only other acceptable city on the East Coast. The School of Foreign Service is perfect for my academic interests, and my parents again, who are here today, are Irish and Sicilian, so finally getting me into a Catholic school was a huge victory. (Laughter) Unfortunately, in 2011, when I was graduating, in 2010, when you searched Georgetown LGBTQ community in Google, this is what you saw. Story after story, after story of hate crime after hate crime, after hate crime. And while Georgetown was still recognized as one of the most accepting Catholic or religiously affiliated institutions in the country, we still had this huge prospect of violence to contend with.
I remember telling my parents, “I really want to go to this school, but I can’t imagine dealing with violence again. I can’t imagine, you know – In high school, I had people write ‘fag’ across my locker. I can’t deal with that again. I’m too tired.” And they said, “No, this is who you are. This is the stuff that you want to study.” And I realized they pointed out in their wisdom and in their support of me that to not go to a school because I saw the threat of violence was to deny the first thing that I had learned: that my identity could not be hidden. My debate coach said to me, “Thomas, the work that you’ve done at Bronx Science means that you can’t turn your back on other places that, you know, have a history.” And I knew that Georgetown had a very rich history of LGBTQ activism.
And that holds on the second thing that I had learned in high school: that you have to continue the work of history. But then, also, I thought about the third thing, that if I had the capability to go to this school and to be a part of a great history and part of great institutions, like the then founded LGBTQ Resource Center, then I had an obligation to those who would be even less likely to be comfortable, but I would learn more about that later. I’d learn more about what those communities were later. But after the lab, I sort of knew what the community health impacts were of trying to assimilate and deny who you were.
So, I came to Georgetown, and I learned first about how rich our history of LGBTQ advocacy was. So, on the left you see – Well, let’s start with on the right. On the right, you see Lorri Jean. She is the CEO of the LA Gay and Lesbian Center. I think they just changed their name to The LA LGBTQ Center. Communities are always changing their acronyms. And she was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that sued Georgetown University in 1980, settled in 1989, that forced the university to recognize GU Pride, Georgetown’s LGBTQ student group, under the DC Human Rights Act; huge advocacy on the part of saying that Georgetown had a commitment to protect its LGBTQ students, just on the basis of equal protection, not yet drawing on sort of Georgetown’s values quite yet. This was a legal anguish. She’s a Law student, right? So, that’s what she focused on. The faith part wasn’t really here yet.
And on the left, you see demonstrations from GU Pride. Now, GU Pride – what we saw in those Google articles was that, in 2007, there were these series of hate crimes, there were even more incidents before that, and there continued to be bias incidents. In response, GU Pride, the LGBTQ student group, established by Lorri Jean in 89, printed off shirts meant to increase visibility. These shirts said nothing but “I am.” They tried to present a shirt to president DeGioia at the time, and any student who entered this building wearing one of these shirts was removed by campus police. We have printed the shirts every year since, and part of honoring our history was presenting president DeGioia with a shirt the first time he accepted it two years ago. The shirt was pink that year too, so it was good, right? It was a particularly gay shirt. (Laughter) That was honor of the trans flag. Now, we’ve restarted the colors.
So, you know, the “I am” truth has become full circle. So, I was honoring the history of Georgetown, but then, the question came to own, like I said, my own identity. Now, again, I said, I was half Irish, half Sicilian, so that meant I “spoke Catholic” with the best of them. I taught Sunday school for four years, baptized as soon as I was ready. I probably still have the gown somewhere. That was the first gown I wore, it was my baptism. I blame you. I blame you. (Laughter) I don’t want to ever hear anything about drag, ever again. So, I knew that my contribution to this work could be to use the privilege that I had been given as someone who was both gay and Catholic, and be a visible example of, “No, the next institution that I would tackle – not as a whole, but in a little way – would be LGBTQ peoples in the Catholic church.” Now, at Georgetown, obviously there was opposition.
These are two of my favorite photos. One was of a video made by Family Student Action, which deemed me and a few other students as “The Smoke of Satan,” my favorite superlative of all time. It is my overview on my résumé. (Laughter) I’m kidding. I promise, Ma. OK. The other being from an interrogation of the speaker that this campus group, Love Saxa, had brought to campus. The point here is that, again, just like Jon Cruz did, just like Perry Halkitis did, I refuse to use my creative energies to bend myself into an institution.
I use my creative energies to bend the institution to accept people, to accept identities, which really isn’t difficult, as Father O’Brien sort of opened this session. In its purest form, what Pride and what these students were doing was saying, “I am here for me. This is a part of my identity.” And with other Jesuit values, like “cura personalis”, meeting people; mind, body and soul, picking at parts of their identity, community in diversity, it’s not hard to make a visible case as to why Catholic institutions in particular need to embrace their LGBTQ students, and this worked. When you search for Georgetown LGBTQ community today, you see a very different story. You see articles in the New York Times, in the Washington Post. You see stories about million-dollar donations to the LGBTQ Resource Center.
Today, the LGBTQ Resource Center at Georgetown University is a model for all in the country, and it’s the most well-financed in the country. Now, obviously, I was only a small part of this work, but part of visibility, part of Georgetown owning its identity and owning its history means now that other institutions, our peer Jesuit and Catholic institutions and any other faith-based institution, cannot say that they have this irreconcilable difference with their LGBTQ students. Georgetown is more Catholic today because there are fewer hate crimes, and the reason why there are fewer hate crimes, the reasons why our students feel embraced and feel welcomed in a Jesuit community is because we support them and say it is our duty as Catholics to support them. But the work is not done. Oh, wait, no – The work is not done. This photo is from Coming Out Day at Georgetown University this year; that’s why the shirts are red; my last Coming Out Day at Georgetown University. In front of me is the director of the LGBTQ Resource Center.
And I always liked to look to this image as sort of symbolic. Shiva, who you see here, you know, has been at Georgetown since 2008, and she has been a trailblazer for this work at Catholic institutions. I’m honored to have worked with her so closely for the last four years. And as you can see, we’ve come out of the door, we’re here, we are visible, we are supported by this institution. I am on this TED stage, wearing a shirt that, eight years ago, would not even be allowed in this building, but there are still so many behind us, there are so many in our community who do not have the resources that they need, and it is our obligation not to assimilate, not to cover, because we need to keep the community open, so that, one day, they can feel comfortable. At Georgetown, there’s a real culture of complacency. When I came here, the pressures to cover were real. It’s easy to say, “We’re here now, we have this great LGBTQ Resource Center, GU Pride is well-financed. Let’s be normal now.” Were we ever normal? Even if you’re straight. What do you cover? What are the things that you’re not hiding? When you hide these things, you’re not building a community of similarity; you’re losing out on who you authentically are.
And so, all three parts, Georgetown’s history taught me again to embrace and to build upon the work; my own identity needed to be owned to prove that these two things do come together and live in me; but also there is so much work left to be done, and we have an obligation to be visible, so that those folk have the ability to, one day, come out and stand with us. And so, to answer the question in summation, I am so gay because I can be married in 35 states, but we can be fired for doing the same thing in thirty – It changes every day, the laws just keep changing. I can be married in 35 states, but fired in all of the gray ones. I am so gay because 40% of all homeless youth are LGBTQ. I am so gay because 1 in 12 trans people will be murdered. I am so gay because the same systems that say, “Gay people are less, then they need to abide by our standards of what is normal” are the same systems that justify police brutality, discrimination, voter discrimination laws, but most importantly, I am so gay because I had such loving resources that provided me with so much strength, like my parents, that it would be selfish and wrong not to share that with people who do not have them yet.
Thank you. (Applause).
As found on Youtube