By Dan Shaw
COLLEGE alumni departments market spring reunion weekends like Caribbean cruises with lectures, barbecues, kids’ camps and dancing under the stars. Many people attend them to relive in some fashion their wild, carefree youth. Others go to show their classmates that they’ve made a success of their lives. When I went back for the 25th reunion of my 1982 college class, I was motivated primarily to show up as my authentic self.
The class of ’82 was part of a reunion parade at Hamilton College in June 2007.
I had hidden my real identity as an undergraduate. I have scant happy memories of those four years, because, I am embarrassed to admit, I never had sex during college. I completely missed out on a crucial aspect of my education. I never planned to return to Hamilton, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. Why would I want to torture myself twice in a lifetime?
Nevertheless, when my alma mater’s alumni office started the steady drumbeat leading up to my class’s 25th reunion, a young voice deep inside me told me that I should go back. I needed, as my Comp Lit professors used to say, to get closure.
I wanted to find the frightened closeted gay adolescent who tried to hide behind long hair, a scruffy beard and a haze of cigarette smoke. I had effectively blocked those years from my memory; I recalled only disappointment and my inability to be true to myself.
While my peers at big city universities were going to college-sponsored gay and lesbian dances, the only gay and lesbian group at my remote college met in secret. The school encouraged you to come out in hiding! The implicit message was that coming out was humiliating and quite possibly dangerous. I internalized that sense of institutionally sanctioned shame, and as I grew older I blamed myself for not having the guts and courage to declare my sexuality while in college.
Though I came out more than 20 years ago, I hadn’t realized how monumental it would be to come out to my college classmates. On a superficial level, it seemed superfluous: I hadn’t known many of them, and why would my sexuality matter to people whom I hadn’t seen for a quarter century and might never see again? However, returning as an openly gay man to the place where I tentatively entered adulthood was more emotional and liberating than I ever imagined. Where was the familiar knot in my stomach that had tightened every time I walked into a dining hall or past a frat house? Suddenly, the straitjacket I had worn beneath my overalls, bulky wool sweaters and puffy down vest had vanished. I could breathe easily, normally. And I could look at other men without having to avert my gaze, no longer fearful that I might be taunted.
At a picnic supper my first night back, I met a classmate I had never known who I quickly decided could have been my college boyfriend. Friends introduced me to two other gay male classmates, and the clock was turned back to college days that I had never known. Like members of a lost tribe who have been wandering in search of their home, we found one another and started to reimagine our collective and personal history.
Although our graduating class had only 412 students, I had never talked to these men. But we had a common past that we could share, if only in retrospect. One of them said to me, “I thought you were so hot with your great long hair,” and I was ecstatic that anyone had even noticed me back then. I had gone through college trying to be invisible, and to know that someone in my class had had a crush on me filled a tiny hole in my heart. It turned out that several straight guys had noticed me, too. Some former frat boys came up to me and said, “It must have been so hard for you to go to college here.” They could see how isolating and painful it had been to be closeted on this rural campus. Their belated empathy was as healing as it was unexpected. In college, I had always depended on female friends for emotional support, and now a whole array of gay and straight men made me feel understood and accepted in a way that had once seemed impossible.
Over the reunion weekend, I revised my college history. For the first time, I saw my young adult self with compassion instead of contempt. I layered new, happy memories over the bitter ones and began to remember receiving a first-rate education from dedicated professors and making a few lifelong friends. I discovered a latent affection for my college and, more important, for myself.