by Sasha Shapiro ’15
The last time Emily Newberry ’66 was at Dickinson, the Holland Union Building was still being built. As Newberry, whose poem “Signs” was recently nominated for a prestigious Pushcart Prize, addressed the crowd of students, faculty and community members who huddled together against the blustery wind on Oct. 9, she declared that “Dickinson today is a very different place than it was in the 1960s. It feels more open and inclusive than it did back then.” She paused. “There is still a long way to go.”
Newberry returned to campus after 50 years to be the keynote speaker at Out on Britton, an annual event hosted and sponsored by the Office of LGBTQ Services traditionally held on the Thursday preceding National Coming Out Day. Community members and organizations are invited to set up stations to disseminate information about their resources and services. “Students, faculty and staff also have the opportunity to share their coming-out stories and voices of support,” said Erica Gordon, interim director of LGTBQ services.
An Out on Britton tradition includes an honorary closet door symbolizing the coming-out process coated with multicolor signatures and messages from students and staff. “I can’t tell you how happy I was to see that door over there!” Newberry said, beaming.
Newberry also noted how much the social scene had shifted since she was a student. “[I learned] how to build allies among people, many of whom were not like me,” Newberry said of her Dickinson experience. “The ability to make connections with people who were different from me was life-saving, and it helped me later on when I had to grapple with my own being as a transgender woman.”
During her speech, Newberry recalled feelings of isolation that had followed her since childhood. The 50 years it took her to come out as a transgender woman were marked with discrimination and misunderstandings, but she continued to seek out resources and support systems. “By having people get to know me before I came out, [I was able to make] friendships,” she said, “so by the time I came out [people understood that] they were dealing with a real human being and not an abstraction.” She stressed the importance of having a safe, supportive space in helping her gain confidence.
The decision to come out, Newberry stressed in her speech, was very personal and one that took her half a century to feel comfortable making. “That was the right thing for me,” she said. “It’s part of my life’s work. Other people have their own journeys and their own life’s work, and we all have the right to be just who we are and not have to live up to somebody else’s ideas.”
The safe social space that Newberry called for is one that Gordon is working diligently to provide for students, faculty and staff. “I think that many students feel like they do have a community [at Dickinson], but there are other[s] that don’t feel like that,” she said. “We can do more to provide a supportive environment for students.”
Gordon has focused her efforts on solidifying communication among students, faculty and staff that will ultimately serve as the foundation for the safe space that was missing for previous students. One such event was a casual dinner in Allison Hall, where students were able to connect and informally converse with “out” faculty, staff and administrators. Gordon hopes to continue this informal discourse every semester and is excited about launching Queer Peers, a peer-to-peer mentoring program.
Gordon also wants to continue strengthening connections with LGBTQ alumni. Newberry’s visit to campus was one of monumental significance, Gordon says. “I think [Newberry] was really touched by how welcoming and supportive the campus was,” said Gordon, “while recognizing that we still have work to do.”
Read more from the winter 2015 issue of Dickinson Magazine.
Published January 20, 2015