Ed Strickler Remarks
Outstanding Service Award
2012 Award Winner – October 20, 2012
Thank you for being here this evening, thank you for helping to build a community of broader and deeper respect for diversity at the University of Virginia, and thank you for including me in your program this evening. I appreciate this honor. My partner Jim and I appreciate your welcome. Thank you.
May I briefly share some considerations under our evening themes: courage and power.
Power connotes strength aimed at something to accomplish, large or small, in the short term or longer term. The aims, tactics, and strategies of power may be discussed, debated, and contested. This semester I’m participating in a University Dialogue Group where we’ve been discussing issues of power involved with the University’s Summer of 20-12. One of President Sullivan’s early innovations back in 20-10 was to support dialogue groups of faculty, staff, and students together. Now, that seems prescient. Who’d have guessed that hundreds of us outside the Rotunda – singing the Good Old Song – would be a tactic of power.
Courage is the other part of the evening’s theme. Courage connotes inwardly-residing strengths that can be manifest, and witnessed, but for which there is not some standard measure. We have courage in our particular embodiment and in our particular contexts. Rosa Parks’ was courage-ous to sit down on that bus. The courage of a gender-questioning youth to go out dressed as she or he feels deeply inwardly: that is courage. The lone man in Tiananmen Square confronting tanks with his body was courage-ous. The courage of a University student who joins the LGBT Resource Center’s speakers panel: that is courage. We call all these ‘courage’. One courage is not greater than another courage. It’s all courage!
Power can be measured, since we can ask how well or how quickly power achieved its aim. But courage does not have a ‘volume’, a ‘weight’, or a ‘distance’. Courage is im-measurable.
Among her many lovely thoughts, Maya Angelou said: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently“; erratically, yes, but consistently, no; not without courage. Courage is a strength that en-courages other strengths: its essential. Another lovely poet, e.e. cummings, said: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are”. Courage makes us fully human.
Courage has always been essential for the formation of GLBTQ individuals, families, and communities: questioning and knowing oneself is courageous; examining and challenging stereotypes and prejudices is courageous; balancing roles of outsider and insider, normalcy and deviance, depending on where we’re at and who we’re with is courage-ous. [ Being queer is certainly exhausting! ]
Poet Angelou said that courage is the most important ofall the virtues. I agree that courage is among the most important virtues that help form GLBTQ communities. May I suggest several other virtues that I believe are critical as we continue to build powerful LGBTQ communuities: (1) Defiance, (2) Connectedness, and (3) Transfiguration.
Defiance means purposefully to oppose anything that harms LGBTQ persons, families, and communities out of bias, prejudice, fear or hate. Defiance might even be considered a synonym for ‘queer’. ‘Queer’ with Queer derives from ancient roots meaning ‘off center’. Queer folks are ‘off center’ from the codes, rules, and prejudices of heterosexual normalcy. Writing about his life in Germany between the wars, Christopher Isherwood clarifies his identity under the virtue of defiance. He asks the political and cultural ideologies competing for his attention: “All right, we’ve heard your speech. Does that include us or doesn’t it?” … [we] must never again give way to embarrassment, never deny the rights of [our] tribe, never apologize for its existence …”
Connectedness means loyalty among all the L-G-B-T-Q and our allies; and respect for all the differences we bring to community beyond our sexual and gender identities. The color stripes of the Rainbow Flag describe the virtue of connectedness that remembers and respects intersections of diversity. Audre Lorde describes this for herself: ‘As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother … and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain “wrong” … but there can be no hierarchies of oppression.”
Transfiguration creates liberation out of oppression. A queer gaze may see a transfigured reality that others do not see – where we are included not hidden – and queer work may achieve wholeness and excellence in our communities – which others had abandoned. Countless GLBTQ artists, performers, writers and others have transfigured experiences that others called filthy into something glorious; ACT UP and others transfigured ostracism and despair into countless lives saved (after so many had already been lost); the Pink Triangle that meant destruction, came to mean liberation. Transfiguration often takes account of the very ordinary things.
Jim and I were traveling through rural eastern Kentucky and found a small gallery with objects of a local artist Robert Morgan. Morgan had been part of a rural Southern queer collective involved with experiments in artistic and cultural forms. The room of Morgan’s art was filled with assemblages of mementos, cast off items, and everyday objects, particularly and purposefully collected from young gay men that he had known in New York City. Many had been homeless, with AIDS, devastated by alcoholism and other drug abuse. The objects that Morgan used were things he remembered these men wearing, keeping, and treasuring in their lives, but that others had disregarded as worthless, or that had been thrown out by others who feared disease. Morgan assembled the objects into complex figural arrangements, as both structure and adornment. The entirety is then wrapped, glued, and nailed together and covered in a thick layer of polyurethane making them glisten, achieving a spectacular shining effect. Morgan’s transfigures garbage – including garbage associated with disease, distress, and suffering – into icons that are visions of new wholeness. Achieving wholeness and excellence out of the everyday is one thing I mean by transfiguration, that I believe should be a virtue of LGBTQ communities.
Transfiguration, Connectedness, Defiance, and Courage. I propose these as ‘queer virtues’ for our work ahead. Think about it.
Thank you! – each and all – Courage!