Billy Curtis Is Here Full Time For the Student Heirs of Stonewall
By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
Yet despite visibility and freedoms won since the 1969 Greenwich Village uprising that sparked the contemporary gay and lesbian movement, heirs of the Stonewall Rebellion still arrive on campus with the same basic concerns, says Billy Curtis, the new coordinator of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resources: "'How do I connect? Where do I fit in? Who will be my friends? How am I going to survive this?'"
Berkeley's first full-time staff person devoted to the needs of LGBT students, Curtis, at 33, is young enough to vividly recall his own "coming of age as a gay man" in college. Originally from Nassau, Bahamas, he chose University of Massachusetts, Amherst -- unbeknownst to his parents -- solely because of its visible gay community.
The surrounding area offered a large community of "bold [lesbian] women in lavender shirts, and the campus administration provided support services for gay and lesbian students.
"I know because of that I survived," says Curtis. "I became very out...., increasing my self esteem. My parents saw changes on so many levels, before they knew they had a gay son."
Gay and lesbian artists, activists and cultural figures visited campus -- among them writers Neil Miller and Vito Russo, politicians Harry Britt and Barney Frank, and comic/activist Robin Tyler.
"I was like Alice in Wonderland. I didn't know who I was looking at most of the time."
In the fall of 1987, he heard Tyler again, this time exhorting well over half a million with him at the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights: "'What are you going to say to the 10 percent of children growing up today who are gay or lesbian?'"
A zoology major intending to study medicine, Curtis was moved by Tyler's challenge, and decided to pursue a career in student affairs instead. "I need to continue on down that road," he decided.
"That road" has taken him to Western Kentucky University and Chico State jobs in student affairs; to Cal State Hayward, where he directed student life programs; and to University of San Francisco, where he is studying for a doctorate in international and multicultural education.
Here at Berkeley, Curtis says his "main goal" is to help foster a sense of community that includes LGBT students, faculty, staff and allies -- beginning with the Cal Rainbow Pride celebration this weekend.
"I love my tribe," says Curtis. "For all the good and bad things, I get so much energy at large gay events."
He is meeting with the student-run Queer Resources Center, in the midst of a reorganization, and lends an ear to students who drop in at his office at the Gender and Equity Resource Center (formerly the Women's Resource Center).
"I want to dismantle these systems of oppression," Curtis says. "When I hear 'fag,' it hurts my heart. It stopped me in my tracks."
Although the personal concerns of his "tribe" haven't changed much since Curtis was an undergrad, the terms of the public discourse has.
"We dealt with an ethnic model in '80s," Curtis says. "'I am a gay black man.' When I said that, I was telling you something about myself. Nowadays, there's more of a postmodern backdrop: 'Don't pigeonhole me. I am who I am.'"
Incoming students, says Curtis, "don't feel they've had to choose" among their multiple identities, including their sexual identity and ethnicity, "except when others ask: 'What do you feel more of? What are you?' There's a response now: 'I am who I am.' It's a completely new culture."
Curtis' plans include a student speakers' bureau, made up of LBGT students willing to talk to classes. He also hopes to work cooperatively with two Tang Center staffers -- Patrick Neer, the new part-time counselor for LGBT and "questioning" students, and HIV educator Brian Kim.
"I'm learning how things work at UC Berkeley," Curtis says. "Once that happens, look out! I'm a bold person."