When David Wertheimer DIV ’84 set foot on campus in 1980, he was one of the few openly gay students at the University — let alone at Yale Divinity School.
Four decades later, DivOut — a YDS student group dedicated to supporting the school’s queer community — celebrates the legacy of students like Wertheimer. Now, queer history will be featured in the school’s upcoming welcome video for incoming students. Alicia Fowler DIV ’21, one of this year’s DivOut co-presidents, advocated for the history of queer activism to appear in the school’s video. According to Fowler, the film will highlight a variety of identities and intersectionalities at YDS, but there will be an emphasis on the LGBTQ community.
“Queer voices — whether they were alumni, faculty or staff from generations past — whisper through the walls of our quad,” Fowler said. “In our tenure at DivOut this year, [Fowler and her co-leaders] look forward to lifting up the voices of prophet students who walk among us right now.”
According to Wertheimer, who became an early queer activist at YDS, the predominantly Christian professional school was not inclusive of all genders and sexual orientations when he was a student in the ’80s. Administrative silence toward issues facing queer communities prompted a cohort of student activists to organize protests.
Organizations like DivOut — the queer student coalition at YDS — inherit this legacy of civil disobedience and mindful confrontation that they incorporate into their ethos today. Former president of DivOut Graham Bridgeman DIV ’20, said he hopes the group can galvanize the school’s LGBTQ legacy of activism.
“DivOut has historically been involved in New Haven and thought about what it means to be a citizen here,” Bridgeman said. “A lot of my work was about rebuilding our community and telling our stories and our history.”
As DivOut advocates for LGBTQ voices, the group and YDS Associate Dean of Student Affairs Jeanne Peloso pointed to Wertheimer as a notable leader in the queer community during the school’s past.
Wertheimer, a Quaker, was not the kind of student that typically sought a master’s in divinity. For one, Quakers rarely sought degrees for ministerial practice, and Wertheimer was openly gay.
“The school was not a safe place at that time for gay students,” Wertheimer said in an interview with the News.
In 1982, Wertheimer and other queer activists took issue with the University’s nondiscrimation policy, which did not address LGBTQ identities. Dubbing themselves the Gay-Straight Alliance, they sought a meeting with then University President A. Bartlett Giamatti to discuss the policy. Giamatti rejected their request. He responded that there was no need to protect queer students, as they did not experience discrimination on campus.
In order to secure a meeting with Giamatti, Wertheimer said he and his partner at the time looked to an unorthodox solution: the Yale Charities Drive Dance Marathon. For finishing first, they received a lunch at Mory’s with the President. At this lunch, the pair brought up their concerns regarding the policy and opened dialogue that would continue into the coming decades.
Wertheimer recalled that “one of the cornerstones of activism is making activism in ways that make people stop and think.”
Bridgeman, former president of DivOut, said that Wertheimer informed his purpose as the group’s leader. He added that the activist’s memorable stories gave him a sense of responsibility to the community. According to Bridgeman, the legacy of the ’80s at YDS informs DivOut’s work, whose members celebrate Christian traditions while countering aspects of the faith that have “attempted to strip [queer people] of their humanity.”
Fowler co-leads DivOut with Victoria Slabinski DIV ’21 and Geronimo Desumala DIV ’21.
John Besche | firstname.lastname@example.org