Saturday, May 4, 2013

Student Bodies

May 4. 

It's a day I avoid thinking about, a day somewhere in between the May Day protests that usually end up at nearby Civic Center Plaza, with resultant noisy media helicopters overhead, and Cinco de Mayo, with its accordant bar party invites.

But as someone who grew up in Ohio, and attended Kent State University, May 4 is a haunting morbid anniversary, historic proof of just how awful America can be.

These days, you can Google "campus shooting" and see dozens of horrifying events documents in thousands of news stories. Deranged students have been the culprits, usually.

But back in 1970, at the peak of U.S. anti-war protests, after several days of increasingly crowded student rallies, Ohio Governor Rhodes called out the National Guard, and after a tense stand-off, 60 shots were fired, four students were dead and nine others injured.

It's almost impossible to convey the utter shock and horror felt by Ohio residents at the time, considering how many more brutal massacres have taken place since then.

It's also utterly confounding to see the rightwing continually, and rabidly, arguing for more guns as a solution. While the same rightwingers pontificate and equivocate about the harm of accessibility to guns, thousands more people continue to be wounded, permanently injured, or killed by one-on-one handgun violence.

But let's go back in time, ten years after the Kent State attacks.

My two years as a theatre student were exciting, fulfilling, yet eventually not my chosen path. But in recalling those years, I see so many connections to what I do now.

a member of "the tribe"
One of the favorite productions was being an ensemble member in a rare (at the time) production of Hair. It was in this production that a sense of community formed in the Theatre department. 

Although I didn't even have more than a few spoken lines, if that, it bonded our recreation of the idea of peace and love. As shown in the photo, I'd stopped shaving and worn a long wig, yet ironically shaved my head military-style to keep it attached with spirit gum.

Along with seeing how darn skinny I was, I also see connections to my upcoming (nearly finished!) sequel to my fourth novel, Every Time I Think of You. While I'm remembering the emotions and situations of being a freshman and sophomore year at KSU, I'm distilling common experiences into literary devices.

While there is a student protest of sorts in the sequel, it's nothing like the tragic events of 1970 in Kent. In fact, by the time I got to KSU, the ghosts of the tragedy were still remembered, but diffused.  The TV movie about the events was being filmed.

one of my illustrations for the Daily Kent Stater, 1980
One of my sidebar activities at Kent State was as a sometime editorial cartoonist for the Daily Kent Stater. 

Usually, my cartoons were inspired by campus issues, the national election (remember John Anderson?), or topics in editorials put together by the (very cute) news editor.

I enjoyed visiting the Journalism Building, despite the proximity to the hill and parking lot where the most iconic moment of the shootings is documented in "that" photo.

There was still a bullet hole in the metal abstract sculpture outside the Journalism Building. At the time, news would arrive via a teletype machine, and photostats of my ink-drawn comics would be pasted up on cardboard.

But what may surprise some people is the fact that some students during my time there were not at all sympathetic to the victims nor the protestors. 

a section of the campus sculpture with a bullet hole
There was a dorm meeting where a Resident Assistant conducted a talk for guys in Leebrick Hall. I recall being surprised when one guy who lived down the hall from me expressed sympathy for the ROTC students "forced to retaliate" against the protesters. A heated discussion ensued, and the R.A. calmed us down. But I also recall a casually uttered homophobic remark from another student.

It was then that I sort of "re-closeted" myself and avoided mentioning that I was a Theatre major (despite having already been glowingly reviewed for a few performances by a student critic).

Gay identity on campus was tenuous. The Kent gay student organization's window at the student center had repeatedly been broken from tossed objects. While scanning my political comics, I read a few articles about the group, where even in interviews, representatives did not use their names.

Nevertheless, I had a great time performing in plays and studying at Kent State. Fortunately, a Facebook group of alumnus helps us reconnect (although, having left KSU, I'm not an alum).

Certainly, there were difficult moments; lugging groceries bought at a supermarket far downhill from the campus, with cautiously-written checks from my meager savings. There were the awkward bathroom encounters, including a handsome RA who gave me a few confusingly flirtatious towel dances. Two other hunky students, roommates and boyfriends, were rather open about their affections, while most were more shy.

And while my gay male theatre major pals were flirty and open through those in/out of the closet years, sadly, nearly all of them have since died of AIDS.

I owe my survival to my own internalized homophobia, perhaps. My romantic choices mostly happened from encounters with jocks at the gym, where I took my first official dance classes. Swimmers, gymnasts, wrestlers; yep I dated them, albeit incompetently. Would that we could remain connected somehow (A few of them, I later discovered, are thankfully alive).

police in riot gear at the 1977 gym construction protests
Built seven years after the shootings, Kent State's oddly designed circular gym could not have been more poorly placed. Deliberately placed on top of the hill where most of the 1970 violence took place, the gym's architecture confounded logic, being placed on that hillside. Its design was one of obfuscation and removal; "Eliminate the site of tragedy, and we hope to eliminate its memory," the university trustees seemed to be saying.

Even the construction of the gym drew protests before and during its construction in 1977-1980. KSU's archives have photos by Deborah J. Andersen, and documentation.

But inside, when I made use of the gym a few years later, the controversy had been swept under the rug (or gym floors), and the game of discreet flirtation led to my revolving closet door swinging open and closed, depending on the bravery of my suitors, and their proximity in the showers. 

one of my Daily Kent Stater cartoons, 1980
Along with political and campus issues, one cartoon I was asked to draw had to do with dormitory guest policies. While never telling my editor, it was a very important issue for lesbian and gay students (the LGBT acronym had yet to appear in my world then). If not for an RA's turning a blind eye to overnight guests -even in coed dorms- our collegiate sexual explorations would have been relegated to less comfortable settings.

In fabricating this very different, young life environment in my next novel, where my fictional boyfriends Reid and Everett navigate the social geography of early 1980s university life on a different pair of campuses, I'm daunted by the task of recreating this fluctuating social world. A gay 20something's closet door shifts from open to closed, depending on the situation.

Some environments allowed openly gay acceptance, while even my dorm-mates probably guessed it, but never made it an issue. Yet, in my second year, I asked for a few more dollars from my parents to get a single room, which thankfully afforded a few more convenient encounters.

Certainly in modern life, gay teens deal with these problems. But back then, it was all so different. You didn't text or Grindr a potential date. If you didn't act fast, you might never see him again, or simply long for him across a classroom lecture hall.

It's strange to consider that my gradual, and specifically sexual, coming out took place on top of the site of this tragedy. On the site where student's bodies were sacrificed in war protests, a decade later, student bodies were later casually sweating and flirting.

May 4, 1970 at Kent State; the Journalism Building's in the background
The significance of the Kent State shootings may seem antiquated to a cynical culture overwhelmed by tragedies greater than a historic state-sanctioned murder. Even then, while sometimes I spoke out against militarism and homophobia, as a young man, more often, I just kept my mouth shut and moved away from conflict. 

But perhaps that environment planted a seed of my later very public AIDS and anti-war activism, when there was no choice but to participate.

Kent State has certainly evolved since these days. Only a few years ago, a member of the university's LGBTQ student group (yes, they've got the full acronym now) emailed me about a fundraiser, and I was honored to donate a few signed copies of my books for their auction.

For those who are too young to remember, here are some resources that archive the events of May 4.

Brandon Weber's video with the still-chilling Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song "Ohio," posted on Liberals Unite, includes media images from Kent State.

Dean Kahler, one of the students injured at the shootings, remains determined to teach peace, despite having become a paraplegic, and suffered subsequent health problems related to being shot. In an feature, he discusses life after Kent State. also includes other features and photos.

Rich Labonte's web page
includes essays from former students and shooting victims.

The May 4 website nonprofit includes expansive historical records of the events.

The May 4 Archive documents the lives of victims and survivors, as well as subsequent essays and conferences about the events.

Activist Kainah offers her perspectives from the 40th anniversary of the shootings, and on-campus commemorations, on DailyKos.

While it's easy to be nostalgic for younger times, it's harder to remember the difficult conflicting days and nights spent in and out of that revolving door. I'm thankful for those who remember.


  1. What a great piece, Jim. I like to think that whatever dysfunction that existed at KSU when we were there (so soon after the shootings, in hindsight), we were ahead of the curve in our ability to have those heated conversations and awkward flirtations due to the psychic wounds not healed from 1970. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Andrea!

    While today is a day for focusing on remembering the tragedies, for me, its history is obviously mixed with a personal journey that hopefully speaks for others. What a strange and amazing time.

  3. I visited the site of the shootings when I did a reading at Kent State in 04 and I was appalled at the erasure of the site as you've if these students weren't heroic in the stand they doesn't say much for our society's constantly bragging about freedom of speech when those who were shot down expressing it are erased...hopefully a monument can be built there - I had expected to find one. Rip out the parking lot, though sadly I suppose most americans prefer a parking space to having soul

  4. Thanks, Trebor.

    Yes, there is a small monument, now. But even ten years after it, as I wrote, not all students understood the horror of it. The gym construction was the subject of months of protests before I attended Kent State. It was a strange time.