November 12, 2019
Earlier today, I met with a student who asked “why do I have to take these classes?” We talked for a while. I explained my perspective on a liberal education. I was honest. Some classes will mean more than others. Everything is designed intentionally but we, as learners and students, are not all the same. A class that impacts one person deeply may not have the same effect on the next.
A few hours later, I was scrolling through Facebook and I found an article (link below) about Pedro Zamora (1st person openly living with HIV and AIDS on TV) Today is the 25th anniversary of his death. It reminded me of the day I learned the power of a college education.I didn’t know it at the time. It wasn’t until years later that I understood what had happened.
Queer Meant Something Different
Pedro Zamora died on a Saturday. The Wednesday after Pedro died, I was in Dr. Blackmer’s literature class. English 213, American Authors. This course was one of the reasons I ultimately pursued majoring in English. We were reading Allen Ginsberg and Dr. Blackmer recited the poem “America.” As she read the last line, “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” her voice cracked and she dismissed us and I’ll never forget the way she said, “I’m sorry but I can’t continue anymore today.” Walking from class over to the the student center for lunch, I thought about the poem and the word “queer” kept circling my mind. I kept thinking about the ways I had used that word amongst others that no longer made sense. It was the first time that I thought that someone I knew was really “queer” and how words can move us. I was moved. I was moving in a haze.
I can still see myself sitting in the student center with a steak and cheese, fries and a coke wearing a flannel inspired by the grunge era, a Southern baseball cap and black wannabe Doc Martens boots. On Wednesdays, Programs Council would host programs during lunch. I miss the beauty of a captive audience not swimming in smartphones or deafened by airpods. I’d politely listen while I ate my lunch or attempted to study between classes. But that day would be different. Pedro’s Real World cast-mate Judd Winick was the lecturer. Like so many teenagers, I didn’t miss an episode of MTV’s Real World. This was when reality television was really “seven strangers…chosen to live in a house to see what happens when people stop being polite…and start being real…” This was before reality television was nothing more than typecast caricatures living out their semi-scripted lives. Judd and Pedro were part of a cast that were living their real lives in San Francisco at a time when the world was still terrified of the word AIDS and you may have known one or two people that you thought might be gay. Judd spoke passionately about Pedro’s life and his dedication to raising awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and what it meant for Pedro to be an openly gay man on reality television in the 90’s. Judd was drenched in grief and pouring his soul onto a cafeteria floor in front of a mixed bag of college kids who were either hanging on his every syllable or whispering in between slurping soda and crunching on chips.
I don’t remember picking up my green Nike book bag, walking to my next class or even what class followed but I remember the walk back to my car that afternoon. For a moment– just a moment– Ginsberg’s poem. America, Dr. Blackmer, Judd Winick, the Real World, Pedro Zamora and the word “queer” all meant something different. And, I didn’t know why. I wouldn’t know for years.