Polis ’96, Tilghman address alumni at first U. LGBT alumni conference
As part of "Every Voice," the University's first conference for LGBT alumni this weekend, Colorado Congressman Jared Polis '96 spoke to alumni about his experience as an undergraduate at the University and his position regarding LGBT rights.
The three-day symposium featured a series of speakers, panel discussions, films and mixers meant to re-engage LGBT alumni with the University community. Friday's sessions included a series of panels ranging from a discussion of the student LGBT experience today, moderated by English professor and Rockefeller College Master Jeff Nunokawa, to a talk on Princetonians active in social causes titled "Princeton Activists: Pioneers for Equality," moderated by New York Times Managing Editor Alan Flippen '84.
Alumni discussions were the focus of Saturday's panels, which included a discussion of LGBT parenting titled "The Joys and Challenges of LGBT Parenting: Legal, Medical and Psychological Considerations." Saturday afternoon also featured a reception for Wilson School graduates, as well as a reception for members of the Asian-American, black and Latino alumni associations. A separate reception was also held for trans alumni and current students, with the goal of providing "a confidential space for transgender, genderqueer and gender-nonconforming" alumni and students to meet, according to an email sent to students by LGBT center program coordinator Andy Cofino on Saturday.
Polis delivered his remarks at Saturday's luncheon. He said he did not regret that the campus did not have a large LGBT presence during his years as an undergraduate.
"I don't regret that there wasn't this kind of [LGBT] presence here any more than I would at other things, like maybe I wasn't quite good enough at baseball to make the baseball team and good enough singing to make an a cappella group," Polis said.
"You got what you got from the Princeton experience, and we're here today, and isn't that wonderful?" Polis said, adding that the healthiest outlook is to "never look back."
Polis went on to address his role as an openly gay member of Congress, saying he thought that voters were more concerned with political issues than his sexual orientation.
Being a member of the LGBT community while running for election, Polis said, "really didn't have any impact. I hate to disappoint people with that answer, but people just don't care."
Polis added during the event's question-and-answer session that he did not think that being transgender would be a "barrier to being elected" for an individual running for office.
Although Polis did mention he received homophobic hate mail during his campaign, he chose to put them on his "Wall of Hate," saying, it "wasn't even a bump in the road."
Polis also noted that his more conservative colleagues in Congress might publicly disagree with LBGT equality, but that they've always acted in a professional manner and worked with him on common issues.
Polis explained that his partner, Marlon Reis, is beloved by the other congressional spouses. "Even the kind of conservative, Republican anti-gay member spouses adore, you know, ‘the gay' ... you know, they want him to go shopping and whatnot," said Polis.
Polis concluded his speech by stating that while the political climate isn't favorable for an equality agenda, he hopes to continue to fight for the right to marriage, anti-discrimination in the workplace and an end to bullying in schools.
"The gay and lesbian agenda is equality, equality under law, nothing more, nothing less," Polis said. "This is a phenomenon that Princeton is a part of, neither leading nor lagging. And thanks to the leadership of [University] President [Shirley] Tilghman, we have caught up to where the rest of the world is."
One audience member, Chris Bauer '86, said during the event's question-and-answer session that he felt that Polis downplayed some of the very real challenges facing the LGBT community.
"You have to be an optimist to be in this business," Polis responded to Bauer. "People attack members of Congress all the time for everything."
"To keep your eye on success and continue doing the business of the people honorably, you can't let that get to you," Polis added.
Bauer, however, told The Daily Princetonian that he was not satisfied with Polis' response, saying, "That was not a speech made by a gay man."
He added that "the fact that he did try to minimize [LGBT issues] speaks to the fact that these issues are still out there," Bauer said.
"I wish he was more of an ally," Bauer concluded.
Tilghman was also among the event's key speakers, delivering the conference's opening address Saturday morning.
The inspiration for the event came when members of the alumni council questioned whether the University was really relating to the entirety of its alumni community, Tilghman said. When the council members realized they were not doing everything they could to engage certain marginalized alumni groups, Tilghman said the University decided to re-engage alumni based on how they self-identified. "Every Voice" was created as part of this larger effort.
The name "Every Voice" captured the essence of the conference for Tilghman. "It was through learning about the power of my own voice that I came to champion LGBT rights," she said.
She said she first recognized this vocal power during her 2003 commencement address on the necessity of courage, in which she used the example of the courage it took to identify publicly as a gay individual to illustrate her point. She received a flurry of positive reactions from the LGBT community and its allies.
"That one phrase created a landslide of email the next day. It went like wildfire through the community," she said. "[I] realized the power of my voice and realized there was a community out there that needed my voice."
Tilghman then related the initiatives undertaken by the University to promote LGBT activism. In particular, she noted the construction of the LGBT Center, the hiring of openly gay Executive Vice President Mark Burstein, the burgeoning work on queer studies at the University and the leadership of LGBT Center Director Debbie Bazarsky.
"The progress is permanent. We are in a new era at Princeton," Tilghman said.
One of the metrics Tilghman used to measure that progress was the mood of the Lavender Graduation, an event celebrating the achievements of graduating LGBT seniors and their allies.
At first, the stories told at the Lavender Graduation were "painful and difficult to hear," Tilghman said. But now, the event is a joyous occasion increasingly attended by parents and LGBT supporters, according to Tilghman.
However, noting the perpetual though waning challenge of "incipient homophobia" to LGBT equality, Tilghman stated that the University's motto should be "eternal vigilance" going forward.
"The only defense we have is our culture and building into that culture a self-examination and a commitment to every voice," said Tilghman.