Editors note: The following is a speech recently delivered at Eastern Illinois University or Lavender Graduation by my dear friend Danny Mueller, who was a Resident Assistant at the same time as I was at EIU in the early nineties. He was an excellent RA then and has gone on to become a fantastic educator, winning Teacher of the Year at the elementary school where he teaches at in St.Louis. Danny gave me permission to post his speech on this blog so others could share in his message. I am proud to do so.
Good Evening Everyone
I would first like to begin by thanking Brad Green for having the confidence in my speaking abilities to ask me to speak to you this year and also to Jody Stone for finding me a place to stay on campus this evening when there wasn’t a hotel room for miles around. I would also like to thank Benjamin Wilburn, who through many Facebook conversations, helped me decide what to wear. When dealing with someone like me, it really does take a village.
Before I get too far into my speech, I need to warn you that I am not used to addressing a group of people over the age of nine. As a third grade teacher, my days are spent in a small classroom with too little natural light and not enough floor space while repeating the same set of directions over and over and over and over.
I am truly honored and very humbled to be speaking to you all today. If you had told me when I left Eastern back in 1993 that I would be returning 23 years later to speak at the Lavender Graduation I wouldn’t have believed you. This is partly because the idea of Lavender Graduation didn’t even exist until 1995, but also because I never thought I could be brave enough to address a group such as this as an out gay man. You see, back in 1993 things were a little bit different around EIU. Terms like “safe zones”, “Resource Center” and “EIU Pride” didn’t exist. We didn’t have Facebook or cell phones or even the Internet yet. Carman Hall still had people living in it, smoking was still allowed in your room with the door closed, recycling was just starting to catch on, and we still registered for classes over the telephone. Bill Clinton had just become the president and Melissa Etheridge had just come out. A show called Will and Grace wouldn’t exist for another 5 years and Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, George Michael, and Anderson Cooper were all still years away from making such public declarations. And the Golden Girls had finished its seventh and final season just the year before. Times were changing though, both around the world and on our campus.
I’d like to back up though to the previous fall, October 22, 1992, to be exact, when something pretty significant for the time happened here on campus. That was the evening that Eastern’s Student Senate voted 21-3 to allow a new group on campus to become an official recognized student organization. At the time the group called themselves the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Allies Union or LGBAU for short. A few days before the vote, some members of the group participated in a “scandalous” sidewalk chalking on the library quad late one night trying to get their name and message out to the public. Now, writing on the sidewalk with chalk is a regular way to communicate events. It’s no big deal. However, at the time, one student senate member even used this chalking event as a reason for voting against the recognition of the group stating, “…that sidewalk chalking which some of the members were allegedly involved with was against the student conduct code and if the organization is not going to represent themselves in a positive manner than I have reservation about giving them my vote.” Wow!
Sadly, I was not one of the students brave enough to participate in the group at that time. I was still questioning my own self and besides, I was going to be an elementary teacher. There was no way I could be both a teacher and gay at the same time. In my mind, God had dealt me two very opposing fate cards and I never imagined in a million years that I would show the gay one. Instead, I curiously observed what this “radical” group of students was trying to do here on campus. I stayed safely in my room in Ford Hall where I listened to my residents express their outrage and disgust at what was happening across campus. I didn’t join in, but sadly, I didn’t question or contradict their statements either. I felt it was my position as a Resident Assistant to stay neutral, to not express my opinion. Looking back now, I see that I was just using that as an excuse. I just didn’t want to do anything to risk my career as a teacher. Fortunately though, the group became a recognized student organization and then seemed to quietly melt into the woodwork. Not much happened during that first year of their existence. I seem to remember a loosely organized awareness week around December of that year with an information table in the union and one heavily attended forum in the lobby of Taylor Hall. I remember attending because I wanted to see the people whose bravery I couldn’t fathom. Maybe I knew one? Maybe one was in one of my classes. No, that couldn’t be possible. Out gay people didn’t become teachers. After all, at that time, you could be fired simply for being gay in most states. Nobody would sabotage all of their hard work in college and risk never finding a job just to be gay. That was just plain ludicrous.
I went on to leave campus that spring to begin student teaching with little thought of whatever happened to that group of students who stood up for themselves and future EIU students to come. I had bigger things to accomplish. I was going to be a teacher!
You are probably sitting there right now with some vision of the direction you would like your life to head in. I did too. I wanted to return to my hometown and teach at my old elementary school and live in a little house across the street from it like other teachers before me had done where I would be a “confirmed bachelor” for the rest of my life. I secured the job and was getting ready to secure the house when everything changed. My little dream school was suddenly closed and I was transferred to a larger school on the outside of town. There went my plans. What now?
Fast forward to today, 23 years later. I am not doing a single thing I imagined I would be doing when I left Eastern. I now teach and live in St. Louis, Missouri. I am out to my family and friends. I belong to a book club for gay men, am a Union representative for my school, belong to a church that accepts all of me, and am out to the teachers I work with. I can go to the movies or out to dinner with someone who is just like me and then freely discuss my weekend activities with my coworkers without substituting pronouns or generalizing anything. Professionally, I challenge my students and their parents alike, serve on curriculum committees, mentor practicum students, pilot new programs and this past year I was even named the Teacher of the Year! And get this, I celebrated my accomplishment with my coworkers at…my favorite gay bar!
I wish I could tell you that graduating and entering the next phase of your life is going to be easy. I wish I could tell you that it is 2016 and that many doors have already been opened for you. That you will not be judged on anything other than your skills and abilities. But I have some bad news. There are stereotypes out there about you, the members of the Millennial Generation who are graduating from college. I did some very quick and basic research and discovered that even though your generation is on track to becoming the most educated generation in American history, you have also been labeled as being lazy, shallow, entitled and narcissistic. According to my research, you want a trophy for showing up, are easily sidetracked by technology, are job hoppers, only take selfies and don’t do anything good for society. You are cynical, materialistic, and text while driving. Now we all know that these are just ugly stereotypes and assumptions. But they are what you are faced with as you leave Eastern. I know you CAN and WILL prove to the people in your next phase of life that none of my research is true. You are not a label. You are brave, intelligent, strong and unique people. You know your value to society and who you are as individuals. You’ve got this!
Just like those students back in 1992 who bravely began the first organization here on campus, you are going to have to bravely overcome some obstacles and stereotypes through good old fashion hard work. However, you are doing it with a great chest of tools and strategies that you have learned hear at Eastern. Sure there will be times when life will literally suck. You will drive home feeling like everyone and everything is against you. It still happens to me more often than not. On those cold nights though, wrap yourself in the memories you have made here in Charleston. That’s what I do. It’s okay to admit defeat…for a day. Go home, eat ice cream, scream into your pillow and then let it go. Get up and try again the next day. It’s what the rest of us are doing…even the Teacher of the Year. Your life is about to drastically change. But as John Lennon once said, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it isn’t okay, it isn’t the end.” You are a fellow Panther and I am honored to now call you fellow alumni. Thank you.