Chancellor honors LGBT community, and vice versa, at ‘historic’ gathering

“You’ve set the bar high for your successor,” Berkeley music professor Davitt Moroney told the host of a celebratory campus gathering Thursday afternoon.

Speaking at University House, the campus residence of Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and his wife, Mary Catherine, Moroney addressed close to 100 students, staff, faculty and retirees who have helped to improve the campus climate for the LGBTQI community at Berkeley in recent years.

LGBT reception

Attendees applaud Chancellor Birgeneau’s efforts on behalf of the LGBT community.

“UC Berkeley is on the forefront of the principled stand for equity and inclusion,” said Moroney, who came out to his Berkeley students as a GSI in 1978, when the anti-gay Prop. 6, or “Briggs Initiative,” was on the state ballot. He noted that he had lived to witness the creation of a faculty research cluster on LGBTQ equity, and numerous other concrete advances, under Birgeneau’s leadership.

Emcee Sarah Gamble called the reception for the queer community a historic “first” for University House. A health educator for University Health Services, Gamble serves on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on the LGBT Community at Cal (CAC-LGBT), which co-sponsored the event with Birgeneau.

As attendees mingled — many still in their late teens and early 20s, others who remember 1969’s Stonewall uprising — research projects on LGBT issues, challenges faced by queer people and signs of progress, as well, were all part of the conversation.

Longtime staffer Jonathan Winters, now also a student, recalled Bay Area ACT UP during the height of the AIDS epidemic, a topic he’s writing about for his history studies. Sociology Ph.D. candidate Rafael Colona said he was slowly making progress on his dissertation, based on more than 50 interviews with lesbian and gay parents.

Faculty member Juana María Rodriguez and Robert Birgeneau

Faculty member Juana María Rodriguez presents a plaque highlighting LGBT-related milestones during Robert Birgeneau’s tenure as chancellor.

“This is the most scintillating LGBT gathering at Berkeley since Oscar Wilde visited alone in 1882,” quipped staffer Steve Finacom, riffing on a famous statement by John F. Kennedy, as he approached law archivist Bill Benemann, with whom he once created the online exhibit Gay Bears, on the campus’s “hidden history.”

Benemann, who first came to Berkeley as an undergrad in 1969, when homosexual activity was still a felony in California, recalled that he was last at University House, with his mother and aunt, for his 1971 graduation.

Committee co-chair Mari Rosas, a senior, said Birgeneau’s public opposition to Proposition 209 and support of the DREAM Act affect the LGBT community. “Queer students hold multifaceted identities,” she told those gathered. “I hope the next chancellor will be a similar ally,” when CAC-LGBT makes proposals to support transgender athletes.

The director of the campus Multicultural, Sexuality and Gender Centers, Billy Curtis, presented Birgeneau with a glass trophy inscribed with thanks “for outstanding leadership to promote diversity, equity and inclusion for LGBTIQ people everywhere.”

Juana María Rodriguez, associate professor of gender and women’s studies, said she studies queer kinship — which is “not about reproduction, but shared commitment to caring.

“Thank you for being in kinship with this beautiful, large, welcoming community,” she told Birgeneau.