Fifty-two years ago today, I was finishing my junior year at Kent State University. Over these years, much has been written about the facts and events that led to the shooting deaths of four students on our campus.
I cannot extend that factual knowledge base here. Yet, throughout my adult life, I often reflect on that day, its impact on me, and what it has taught me about the world.
Then, I was not involved in organized campus life, let alone political life. It wasn’t a good place or time to be gay. It wasn’t uncommon to see handwritten signs on bulletin boards about the campus, “x is a fag.” I was trying to survive as best I could with the skill set of a young person from the fiercely straight football town of Massillon, the product of first-generation Greek American parents.
Despite all the sexual liberation of the 1960s, the openness of the drug culture and the “peace” of brotherhood seemed to be the exclusive domain of heterosexuals. My junior year began with the ending of my last dating relationship with a woman. She retaliated by telling my roommate I was queer. He was quickly moved from my room, reporting me to the residence director, who called me into account.
Today, I can laugh about that incident, and yet it is a story worth re-telling for my younger friends. As fate would have it, the residence director was, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, a “closeted homosexual.” He warned me “we can’t be open about who and what we are” concluding the conversation by at least offering help “if I were bothered by anyone.”
Thankfully, the problems I had were quickly addressed not by the closeted old “auntie” of a residence director, but by a straight friend (we call them allies now), David. David was my protector. I’ve now lost track of David. I’m sure he’s long married and had many kids. But it was a lesson to me, sometimes the kindness of strangers is indeed better than kinship.
A straight girlfriend of mine, Cheryl was an artist. We clicked, I believe, because she had a physical disability, and I had mine. Often, she would try to cheer me up. One day, she sent me a lovely pot of beautiful yellow mums. It was scandalous for a boy to come to the front desk of that dorm hall to pick up a pot of flowers. Not deterred, I took the flowers and put them in my dorm window facing the education building. The straight boys tried to knock the mums off the window sill by throwing snowballs. It always snows in Kent, Ohio.
Against this backdrop came the events of the day May 4, 1970. Yet, oddly, maybe because I lived near the commons, I could see a view of the assembly. I could hear that football bell ring – not for a victory, but a call to action. At that moment, I became aware of a much broader world. I knew I had witnessed something very rare, something historic. Selfishly, I was glad I did. Not that I was happy for the loss of four peers, but that my notions of justice were forever challenged.
We were evacuated at 3 pm from Kent State University that day. A friend of mine, yes, a gay friend, Bruce, and I decided to hitchhike out of town. We didn’t take our clothes; rather, we filled an old Army duffel bag with books and papers. Each of us picked up an end and walked about three miles to the edge of town. Bruce and I remarked it was like Scarlett fleeing as Atlanta burned. Someone picked us up and took us to Canton, where both of us lived nearby.
What did I learn? Freedom is a very fragile thing. If the state chooses to revoke rights and declare martial law as was done at Kent State University, the overwhelming power of the state is sudden, and swift to suppress the individual. Sadly, the abuse of power resulted in the death of four students.
© Michael Chanak Jr. May 4, 2022