“Looking Backward, Looking Forward: A OneEastern Reflection” by Dr. Betsy Morgan

BetsyMorganWe are very excited to share this reflection from Dr. Betsy Morgan who has look been part of the Eastern University family as a student, professor, and dean. In this reflection, Dr. Morgan reflects on her experiences, but also shares her dream from what EU could become.

My name is Betsy Morgan, and I have been associated with Eastern University since 1961. (Of course, then, it was Eastern Baptist College.) I graduated in 1965, came back to teach in 1974, became academic dean in 2006, and retired in 2009. In addition, I am married to an Eastern alum.

To begin at the beginning, the sixties were a wildly energetic time. And if you think a small Baptist college was isolated from all that was happening, you are wrong. An English professor (and Mennonite pastor) brought the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee into chapel so that we could hear first hand was happening in the civil rights movement. One of my classmates, Brian Wilson, became a famous peace activist of the period – refusing to fire on an unarmed fisherman in the free fire zone in Vietnam and protesting the shipment of arms to Nicaragua during the Contra War. As a freshman in Doane Hall, I encountered and roomed with a lesbian Christian from Boston. I had never before met anyone who put those two things together, but it was seamless for her. Eventually becoming a nurse, she attended the birth of my son and is still a close friend. She and her partner are celebrating their 40th anniversary in 2013.

In terms of sexual politics, I think of the 60s as a time of strained innocence. I mean, we all pretty much knew who the gay students were (Eastern has never had admissions barriers based on sexual orientation) but no one marched and we didn’t talk about it publicly. When I returned to teach in 1974, the same ethos prevailed.

But then came the 80s and 90s – a time of awareness, advocacy and AIDS – which provided a synergy affecting us all and rendering the implicit explicit. AIDS was both a frightening and a galvanizing force. At first it was seen as a gay disease, bringing down the wrath of televangelists all too ready to tell us that God was punishing a sexually profligate nation. Of course, since lesbians suffered less incidence of the disease than either gays or heterosexuals, they could be perceived as God’s chosen according to that logic. But it was no laughing matter. Children receiving blood transfusions and babies born to HIV infected mothers were vulnerable, and many persons watched their friends and partners die long agonizing deaths. This was a medical crisis, not a sexual crisis.

But the closet door was open, and, of course, with openness and advocacy for gay rights came push back. At Eastern the assumed policy was made crystal clear: sex is only legitimate within marriage between a man and a woman. All were expected to comply, regardless of sexual orientation. And at one point in the 90s, the president, at the urging of the then provost, was persuaded to inform the faculty that one need not simply comply with the sexual standards but to endorse them as well in order to be part of the teaching community. As moderator of the faculty senate, I went to her office right before the faculty meeting where the new policy was to be laid down and handed her a list of the tenured faculty whom she would need to fire the following morning, all members of welcoming and affirming faith communities. To her credit, she never made that pronouncement. And the offices of faculty who were on that list continued to be safe places for students to ask questions and talk earnestly about sexual identity.

At the turn of the century, issues around sexual orientation became more complex everywhere. Research indicated that homosexuality had a whole network of causes – genetic, physiological, psychological and volitional. Interpretation of biblical passages became increasingly textured with discoveries about language, the origins of words, and the deep impact of cultural context. We could no longer say that homosexuality existed outside the church with the advent of gay pastors, priests, deacons, and the appointment of a bishop or two in quite prominent denominations. Even the surety of male and female was brought into question with the discovery that one in 1,500 children is born with indeterminate genitalia and that hormonal differences as well as expanding social expectations render us all to some degree or other omni-gendered. Maybe it’s OK to be a boyish woman after all!

This does not mean that there are no sexual barriers. Rape and child sexual abuse are criminal and should stay that way. Incest and promiscuity are dangerous, often exploitative, and sometimes criminal. But that ought not to preclude the loving commitment of same sex persons trying to be faithful to who they are. There are Eastern alums living in gay and lesbian partnerships who give generously to their communities, create memorable art, raise children in loving households and who might at some point like to give back to Eastern by teaching there. Not allowed!

My dream for Eastern is that that might be possible. That the university would not shut itself off from faculty and supporters who embrace, and practice, an expanded notion of family. That open discussion of sexuality and gender, an important part of the creation of God, might be encouraged.

After I retired, I became active with the New Sanctuary Movement, and accompanied a human sexual rights activist from Zimbabwe who was seeking (and received) political asylum as a result of the homophobia perpetuated by her country’s government. It struck me as ironic that people are getting political asylum in the United States for human rights violations perpetuated by Eastern University where I spent most of my adult life! To be fair, Eastern does not incarcerate sexual minorities, but the disallowing of their lives has a cruelty all its own. Toni Morrison talks powerfully about disallowing in terms of race; there is much to be learned from her articulation of that pain.

And there is much to be learned from one another as we take this journey together. Keep talking; keep asking questions; keep listening!

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