It was lunch. We were heading down the hill towards the dorm, a modern building with a soaring glass dining hall ahead of us. I was nineteen, perhaps, maybe twenty. The hall was a big, bright space, with round tables and classic Eames chairs. I loved that space. I was with my friends, though I can no longer recall exactly which ones. I can imagine us laughing and joking as we took our seats, trays in hand.
That day there would be an interruption during lunch, a small disturbance. We didn't know it was about to happen and, when it did, it was a surprise. You see, someone had written a letter to the college newspaper, an anonymous letter, announcing the formation of a gay support organization on campus. This was the late 70s and we didn't have such organizations at our small, elite college. People didn't really announce their sexual orientation there. We didn't really even say sexual orientation. Looking back, I doubt I had even seen the letter when I sat down to lunch that day.
A student stood up on a chair, on one of those white, cool Eames chairs, wire frame with orange seat cushions. He stood up on a chair and began to read the letter. We could all hear him and we stopped talking, I imagine. As he read this letter, this letter about starting a gay support organization, he read it with a lisp. His tone was mocking. The letter was a joke to him and he was making it a joke for us.
I sat in my chair and I didn't say a word. As I remember it, no one really said a word. Perhaps there was some laughter; there was also certainly some shocked silence. I sat in my chair, but please, imagine me for who I was: not a closeted gay student watching this horror, not a young man struggling with his sexuality, but a student, nineteen, twenty, deeply repressed and deeply repressing thoughts in his mind. A young man not sure about himself and not ready to engage with his confusion.
I don't suppose the student's performance on the chair that day helped me in any way toward resolution of my own inner conflicts.
I think of this incident--this student bashing gay people on a chair, unchallenged as far as I can remember--as I read today of the Notre Dame newspaper and the charming cartoon they chose to publish this week. "What's the easiest way to turn a fruit into a vegetable," it asks.
"A baseball bat."
The cartoonists apparently had constructed an earlier version, which they deemed offensive and ditched. In their first version, the baseball bat punch line had been "AIDs."
Gay bashing. At college. Standing on a chair, lisping, mocking, belittling. Publishing a cartoon, joking, threatening, dehumanizing. Two incidents, both at colleges, separated by some thirty years. Yet, as I think about them both, these incidents live on. That story about the student standing on the chair? I've wondered for some years if I'd remembered it correctly, had my mind made it up, altered it, dramatized it? Well, some time ago I did a little search on the internet and I found references to it, clear, exactly as I recalled. This small incident lives on. The young man on the chair isn't named but he is there. He could find himself. He could do a search and quickly discover the tale of his transgression: the day he stood on the chair.
And these young cartoonists from Notre Dame? They are named. We know their names.
Every time these three cartoonists, these clever, overachieving, witty cartoonists from the big Catholic university out there in South Bend, every time they apply for a job, move into a neighborhood, announce a run for school committee, they will be googled. And their cartoon, those three frames which suggest the best way to turn a fruit into a vegetable will appear. Tough, tough at such a young age.