Over the summer, Rethinking Schools editors were saddened to learn of the death of our friend Eric Rofes. Eric was just 51 and died of an apparent heart attack on June 26 while on a writing sabbatical in Provincetown, Mass. Eric was a longtime writer, educator, and activist. His contribution to Rethinking Schools includes the powerful article “Making School Safe for Sissies.” Eric was once fired from a teaching job for being gay and subsequently founded the Boston Area Gay and Lesbian Schoolworkers, the first organization of its kind in the United States. Most recently, Eric was a professor at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., and was the central organizer of the Northcoast Education Summit, an outstanding annual conference on the intersection of education and social justice. Anthropologist and historian Gayle Rubin writes, “Eric was an absolute giant of the gay movement — as an intellectual, an organizer, and an activist… He was a massive presence, whose influence was felt across a broad range of constituencies and issues and organizations. It’s as if a mountain has suddenly vanished.” Rethinking Schools mourns his passing. — editors
I spoke with Eric Rofes at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference in 2003 on a panel we titled “Queering Teacher Education.” It was the first time I’d met Eric in person, but not my first experience with him.
When I came out of the closet in 1993 I already had 12 years of teaching under my belt. I had just finished my doctorate in education at West Virginia University and, like many self-proclaimed nerds, I had tried to research my coming out process through the transformative power of literature. In my small West Virginia town, in a small local bookstore, on a bottom back shelf, there were 10 books in a gay and lesbian studies section. It took a great deal of courage to buy all 10 of them at once. I literally hid them in my bedroom closet and began to devour them one by one. The first book I read was Eric Rofes’ Socrates, Plato, and Guys Like Me: Confessions of a Gay Schoolteacher.
The impact of Eric’s book on my personal and professional life was stunning. Here was a vision of the authentic person I desperately wanted to be in this world. As a somewhat frightened closeted teacher, it was the very first time in my teaching career that I realized I would be OK, that being honest, truthful and having integrity were indeed cornerstones of being a good teacher.
His book also had another impact that was a turning point in my life. When I read Eric’s experience as a gay teacher, penned in his own hand, I suddenly realized that everything I knew about being gay had been taught to me by white, conservative, Republican, evangelical, heterosexual men. And I remember saying out loud to myself, “No wonder I feel so messed up. How can someone who is not me, name me?” I made a decision that day to read only literature written by gay and lesbian people for gay and lesbian people.
Adrienne Rich once wrote, “When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” When I looked into the mirror after finishing Eric’s book he was looking back at me, but it was my self I saw.
In the 13 years since then, I have read as much of Eric’s work as I could get my hands on. I would hear from him once in a while, but more often I’d hear about him from queer colleagues he had influenced and was mentoring. He was generous and was one of those rare people who always realized that it was never about him, but about what he could give to the many communities with whom he collaborated. The impact of his life work on education is global. I know this because it was a friend of mine who teaches in rural Australia who wrote to tell me of Eric’s passing.
He leaves many legacies behind. The legacy he leaves with me is the question I most often ask myself. Whether
I am being an activist, an educator, or talking with my partner about our lives as a gay couple, I think of Eric and ask, “Is this radical enough?” In other words, does it push the boundaries of working toward equity and social justice enough to elicit real change? Does it take us out of our comfort zones?
Eric was one of the very first to show us the wholeness of the out gay educator. His work will continue to be transformative for all of us.