Tuesday, November 28, 2006

My own day of infamy: Tuesday, Nov 28, 1961


Tuesday, Nov 28, 1961, occurred 45 years ago to this date, on the same day of the week, according to the Perpetual Calendar. It is my own personal day of infamy. My first full day on campus as a college freshman had been September 11, 1961, exactly forty years to the 9/11 event, in an era when we would soon associate 2001 as a far-off year that would have Pan-Am flying to the Moon and Howard Johnsons hotels on the Moon.

At 9 AM that (1961) morning, I went to my last class at William and Mary, Chemistry 201, qualitative analysis, in what was then Rogers Hall on the Sunken Garden. At 10 AM, my parents drove down Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg (it was open to cars then), swung onto Boundary Street (where Jamestown Road angles into Richmond Road in front of the Wren Building), beckoned me into the back seat, where, as we approached Brown Hall, where I "lived" (by my count, I had spent 79 nights), my father said, “Bill, this is going to come as a blow to you, but we have to take you out of school.”

That day was sunny and windy, temperature in the 30s, and the first cold day in Tidewater in the late fall. In a few minutes, we had a meeting on the second floor of the Wren Building with the Dean of Men, then Carson Barnes, where I was told formally that I had to leave the campus. I could return next spring if a psychiatrist certified me as OK to live in a dorm. There was actually a harrowing discussion of “fixing it” quickly, over at Eastern State! That afternoon, I rode back home to Arlington in a twilight zone, with a sense of disgrace.

What had happened? William and Mary did not have a Thanksgiving break. Thanksgiving Day, my parents had taken a college friend of mine and us to dinner at the Williamsburg Inn, and we had taken a walking tour of Jamestown, “The New World.” Black Friday, we had classes as usual, which had included Physics recitation on Friday afternoon. I don’t recall the late Friday afternoon, but when I got back to my dorm around 5 I found a handwritten note on the door to report to the Dean of Men immediately. He had been waiting for me there all Friday afternoon, and we still don’t know why for sure. The note mentioned patent medicines found in room inspections, but his obvious concern was my social relationships in the dorm. I confessed to him that Friday evening that I regarded myself as a “latent homosexual.” My parents were visiting friends in North Carolina, and it must have been traumatic in those days to get an operator-assisted call from campus.

There would follow an attempt to get me to “change” at National Institutes of Health in1962. At least that’s what it amounted to. That was the same place that would become a world leader in AIDS research twenty-five years later (whatever the controversies about the science of HIV). There would be another twist, however. I was the only inpatient on Three-West allowed to go to college (then George Washington University) on my own by bus at night. I would, in October of 1962, be able to watch all of the horror of the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold on television sets in the cafeteria or Student Union on G Street at GW in Washington. I would shock all of the other patients and staff when I talked about it (in terms of what would happen to us “mental patients” in case of war) when I came back to the hospital ward.

That is one point of this blog posting, how external history affects and molds our social values and how we must interact with each other. The autobiography available on my websites takes me into contact with many other issues of history with a certain sweep over several decades. The two most important interactions, however, may have been by my involvement with the debate over gays in the military and “don’t ask don’t tell”, which bears a rather obvious parallel to what happened to me as a civilian at William and Mary as a civilian. (I would always have to explain my "psychiatric treatment," as late as 1979 when getting a company health policy in Texas; I never could get a Top Secret security clearance in those days. But in fact, I would take the draft physical three times, we progressive results of 4-F, 1-Y, and 1-A, and actually serve in the military from 1968-1970 as a known homosexual, although I did not go to Vietnam; there is considerable irony in all of this.) Then, as a speaker on the web, I would become involved in the constitutional challenge to the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), starting in 1999, whose arguments, despite the government’s desperate attempts to narrow the meaning of the law, parallel those of larger social issues in curious fashion. Sandra Day O’Connor, as a justice, heard the case in the Supreme Court , and in Oct 2005 she accepted the ceremonial position of Chancellor of the College.

In recalling this personal apocalypto, I think it reminds us of what was expected of young men in that era. Although John Kennedy was a liberal Democrat, the opening up of family values that would follow the Civil Rights Movement was not far along yet; Stonewall was still seven years off. You were supposed to prove that you could protect women and children and fight or compete “like a man” to protect family and, if necessary, your country. A sissy was a burden to others because he did not carry his weight. All of this fits into the mentality of the era, of wars that go back in the past, including World War II and Korea. Just before my incident, in late October 1961, there had been a major confrontation with the Soviets in Berlin. The draft and the idea of deferments already weighed on young men’s minds, and the idea that a geek could be more valuable for his brains than his brawn on the football field was just starting to be noticed in more progressive urban areas.

There was, of course, even a more subtle problem in the dorm (to parallel the barracks in the military debate decades later) – the idea that the presence of gay men could remind straight men that they too can fail or become inadequate. That idea may matter more than anything else, and even affects the thinking behind COPA. Ironically, the first time that oral arguments about COPA were heard before the Supreme Court, the date was Nov 28, 2001 (the 40th anniversary of my own day of infamny, although a Wednesday, 79 days after 9/11/2001).

There are people who would ask why I bring this up now, when it could be seen as a source of shame. If so, it is a shame that is defined by society, often by exogenous circumstances of history (McCarthyism and the Cold War here), and yet, civil libertarians today often forget that notions of "public morality" often do come out of a sense of fear and threat, and an idea that family and community loyalty (and patriotism -- "my country right or wrong") are more important than Truth -- or that Truth itself must be dictated from above (as by the Church).

I remember my father's saying, a week or so after the incident, when I got home, that from now on, we had to worry about what "everybody thinks." Today, that sounds like an old-fashioned preoccupation with appearances and "reputation," but that concept has come back as a controversial topic on tne Web (see Nov 30 posting on this blog).

The whole incident, and all the history that follows, plays in my mind like a CinemaScope movie. The incident obviously lends itself to being dramatized and filmed, and I visualize it as a flashback in a bigger movie, shown in black-and-white, though wide screen. Colonial Williamsburg in black and white would make an odd presentation, as it looked in 1961 -- especially since the recreated history (mostly the 18th Century) is timeless. (It's interesting that Smallville -- a series in which the teen hero Clark forever hides who he is -- has a retrospect back to 1961, to show the marquee for Rebel Without a Cause).

How many other students were harmed by colleges with incidents like this in those days? Randy Shilts describes at least one in Illinois in 1965 in Conduct Unbecoming. There must have been many.

The longer discussion of the William and Mary incident is here.

Update: Feb. 12, 2008

For a news story about the resignation of William and Mary president Gene R. Nichol, see the Richmond Times Dispatch, here. His allowing of a controversial art show was a factor in leading to objections from conservative donors.

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