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Travels in a Gay Nation

BU Academy’s Gambone kicks off 2011 OUTlook Lecture Series

Travels in a Gay Nation - Portraits of LGBTQ Americans book by Philip Gambone

Philip Gambone interviewed 102 LGBTQ Americans about their lives, their careers, their struggles and victories for his book.

In July 2007, Philip Gambone began a two-year-long journey, traveling from his home in Boston to Texas, California, Florida, South Carolina, New York, and numerous other states. His goal was both straightforward and enormously complex: to create a snapshot of what it’s like to be an LGBTQ American at the beginning of the 21st century.

“I wanted to create a mosaic, or tapestry, of the diversity of LBGTQ life in America today,” says Gambone, an English teacher at BU Academy and a lecturer at the Harvard Extension School. “I wanted to include young and old, geographic diversity, occupational diversity, ideological and religious diversity.” Gambone interviewed 102 LGBTQ Americans about their lives, their careers, their struggles and victories, and about the role of their sexuality in forming their identity.

Tonight, Gambone will read from Travels in a Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBT Americans (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010), a compilation of 44 of those interviews, at the first of this year’s four-part OUTlook Lecture series sponsored by the LGBTQ ministry at Marsh Chapel. Tonight’s talk is at 7 p.m. at the Stone Science Building.

Gambone says he was troubled by the narrow vision of LGBTQ life that was emerging in America when he began his book. “The queer stories that are out there…are too often the ones that many of us can least identify with,” he notes in the book’s introduction. “They’re the technicolor stories of the big, loud, splashy celebs du jour whose lives and antics crowd the pages of the glossies, gay and mainstream.”

What readers will find in Travels in a Gay Nation is a more complicated and nuanced portrait. The book includes interviews with many people whose stories are familiar: Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop elected in the Episcopal Church, comedian Kate Clinton, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), and humorist David Sedaris. But Gambone also interviewed ordinary people: Russell van Kraayenburg, who cofounded one of the first gay fraternities in the South as a University of Texas student, partners Malik Gillani and Jamil Khoury, founders of Chicago’s Silk Road Theatre Project, and Sharon Kleinbaum, a rabbi at New York’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the world’s largest gay and lesbian synagogue.

There is the story of Greg Millett, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who recalls crying himself to sleep as a preadolescent boy. “I was attracted to boys,” Millett says. “But I didn’t think there was any framework in my world for me to be attracted to men…I felt that I was destined to be completely lonely and celibate. I felt trapped.” And poet Joan Larkin, now in her 70s, recounts a childhood where one was “punished” for being attracted to other women, her two marriages to men, motherhood, and alcoholism, all of which foreshadowed her coming out.

Philip Gambone author Travels in a Gay Nation - Portraits of LGBTQ Americans

Photo by Katie Sullivan

Gambone (right) says, he initially felt a sense of near paralysis at the scope of his undertaking. “I wondered whether I could do it,” he says. “I wondered whether I had the time, the stamina, the expertise in so many disciplines.”

But as one interview led to a dozen and a dozen to 50, the author found that people loved telling their stories. “One thing I experienced was the absolute generosity of people being willing to talk to me,” he says. “Not just to talk to me, but to open their hearts to me. Someone was saying to them, ‘I’m interested in you and I’m interested in your story and I’m interested in telling your story in a way that captures your dignity and your humanity.’”

Gambone says he came to understand his subjects as heroes of their own lives. “That’s especially true of the pre-Stonewall folks, who, without benefit of the gay rights movement, put together lives of dignity, importance, and courage for themselves,” he says. “I was often moved to tears by what people went through in their quest to be authentic and true.”

Underlying Travels in a Gay Nation is Gambone’s commitment to preserving his subjects’ stories. “Storytelling is what allows us as human beings to experience ourselves as unique, valuable, worthwhile, as having a sense of place in history and geography,” he says. “The LGBTQ community—like all oppressed and minority communities—has survived, and been strengthened and emboldened, by our brave determination not to let our stories be forgotten.”

The book is dedicated to Gambone’s students. “I wanted my LGBTQ students to know of the possibilities in the world for them and I wanted my non-LGBTQ students to understand what it’s like to be LGBTQ. I hope to break down stereotypes that still exist.” He credits BU Academy, which awarded him a Metcalf Fellowship in 2008, for giving him the time and resources he needed to write the book.

Liz Douglass (STH’09), Marsh Chapel chapel associate for the LGBTQ community at BU, says the OUTlook lecture series was created to foster connections between students and faculty and those outside of BU who are concerned with LGBTQ issues. “I hope everyone learns something new from these lectures and comes away thinking about issues differently,” she says.

Philip Gambone will discuss Travels in a Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ Americans tonight, Wednesday, November 2, at 7 p.m. at the Stone Science Building, 675 Commonwealth Ave., Room B50, with a Q&A following the discussion.

The other three lectures in this year’s OUTlook Lecture series: On Tuesday, November 8, at 7 p.m., Catherine Connell, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of sociology, will present Out of the Closet and into the Classroom, at the School of Education, 2 Silber Way, Room 130. On Tuesday, November 15, at 7 p.m., Robert Volk, a School of Law associate professor and director of the legal writing and appellate advocacy program, will discuss The Demise of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, in SED 130. Finally, on Tuesday, November 29, at 7 p.m., Abigail Gillman, a CAS associate professor of modern languages and comparative literature, will discuss Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires: Hearing the Voices of Observant Jewish Lesbians, in SED 730. The lectures, sponsored by the Marsh Chapel LGBTQ Ministry, are free and open to the public. For more information, contact Liz Douglass at lmd@bu.edu.

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John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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