Honoring diversity and courage

Donor endows chair in lesbian studies

Photo by Jack LiuPhoto by Jack LiuCarla Blumberg, right, has made a bequest to the UO to honor her friend Sally Miller Gearhart, left, by establishing the Sally Miller Gearhart chair and lectureship in lesbian studies.

 

When Carla Blumberg and Sally Miller Gearhart first met in 1963, they shared a secret they couldn't talk about.

Blumberg was a drama student and Gearhart her teacher at a small private religious school near San Antonio, Texas. They would later become lifelong friends but, at the time, neither knew the other was a lesbian.

"We never mentioned the one big thing we had in common because Texas closets were very deep and dangerous," remembers Gearhart. "I was terrified, as was every lesbian I knew, of being accused of being what we really were."

Gearhart came out of the closet in the 1970s. She was the first open lesbian to obtain a tenure-track faculty position when she was hired in 1973 by San Francisco State University, where she helped establish one of the first women and gender study programs in the country. She later became a nationally known gay-rights activist.

To increase knowledge about lesbian history and issues and to honor Gearhart for her courage and service, Blumberg has made a $1.2 million bequest to the University of Oregon to establish the Sally Miller Gearhart Chair in Lesbian Studies. It will be one of the country's first endowed chairs in the field. Blumberg, who owns a restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota, has also made a matching gift of up to $25,000 for contributions to the Sally Miller Gearhart Lectureship in Lesbian Studies, which started this year.

"I wanted to honor Sally because she is one of the bravest women with the most integrity of anyone I have ever met," says Blumberg. Also, she hopes the enhanced research and teaching in lesbian studies at the UO "will continue to shine light upon all the issues connected to human sexuality in general, and gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender sexualities in particular."

Neither Blumberg nor Gearhart is a UO alum. They chose the UO for the chair and lectureship partly because Gearhart had already donated her papers to UO Libraries Special Collections and because she knew some faculty members here.

Also, both were impressed with the national reputation of the UO Department of Women's and Gender Studies, where the chair and lectureship will be housed.

"I was delighted" about Blumberg's gifts, department head Ellen Scott told the Oregon Daily Emerald. "It's not often that small programs find people saying ‘I'd like to establish an endowed chair here.' Having that kind of focus on your program and that kind of appreciation . . . it's an honor.

"It is important to acknowledge how unusual an endowment in lesbian studies is. This constitutes a radical act, even in 2009. Carla Blumberg should be congratulated for the statement she makes in creating this endowment."

Gearhart, who now lives in northern California, is an author of science fiction and feminist utopian novels, including Wanderground: Stories of Hill Women (1978), which Blumberg describes as "a kind of Bible" for lesbians and feminists of the time. Gearhart fought alongside the late Harvey Milk, the nation's first openly gay politician, to defeat the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 California ballot measure that would have banned gays from working in public schools. She appeared in the 1984 Academy Award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk.

Blumberg and Gearhart hope the UO chair and lectureship will not only preserve the history of lesbians' struggle for civil rights but also help ensure that people of all sexual orientations can be who they are without fear of losing their jobs, families, and personal safety.

"The closet was an awful place to be," says Gearhart. "I want to do anything I can to help free all people from such limitations."