June 20, 2005
Far from over
BY Eric Rangus
Cathi Wentworth first realized she might not be like all of the other kids the day her junior high biology teacher gave her class “The Talk.” The teacher’s methodology may have had the same scientific relevance as reading tea leaves, but young Cathi’s reaction was nonetheless immediate and life-defining.
Hold out your hands and look at your fingernails, the teacher instructed. If you look at them this way—she held her hand palm up, knuckles curled inward—you have masculine tendencies. If you look at them like this—she held her hand palm down, fingers outstretched—you have feminine tendencies.
“I was just checking to see if I had dirt under my nails!” Wentworth recalled. She had looked at her hands in the “masculine” manner. A Baptist preacher’s daughter growing up in south Alabama in the 1970s, Wentworth’s next hand motion was as instinctive as it was instantaneous: She hid them under her desk.
“At that moment, I knew I was different,” she said. “I didn’t understand fully what that was, but I began to pay attention to how I carried my purse, how I walked—I had messages from my grandmother about how I should wear more dresses. My femininity came into question.”
But Wentworth wasn’t questioning who she was in her mind or her heart. As she got older, she better understood her sexual orientation. But she remained in the closet for years. “It’s not just that I thought was ‘sinning,’” she said. “I was conflicted. I knew what seemed right. I knew what I was told was right. And the two things just didn’t go together.”
She lived her life, had relationships, successes, failures, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that she decided to come out—and it took awhile. One of the most memorable steps was when she was a graduate student at Florida State University. (She previously earned a bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State and a master’s at the University of North Texas). Wentworth read her first lesbian-themed book. Sitting in a Tallahassee park, she began in the daylight and had to move under a streetlight as night fell so she could finish it.
Another huge step was her sister’s wedding. Her sister invited both Wentworth and her partner. Wentworth decided that she would come out to her father before the ceremony. After Wentworth told him, they didn’t speak for several months. They are talking now, and he’s doing his best to understand, she said, but the road remains difficult and long.
Oxford, where Wentworth is director of academic services, at its core is a small Southern town. It’s more tolerant than the Alabama and Mississippi burgs of Wentworth’s youth, but the sailing isn’t always smooth.
It’s hard to keep secrets on an intimate campus, but even though Wentworth has a pretty high profile and has been here since 1997, not everyone knew she was gay. Her 2002 presence on an Oxford panel about spiritual and sexual identity development changed that. There were 80–100 students in the audience, and Wentworth spoke frankly about her experience growing up. Afterward, she received unanimous support.
Her coming out process continued later that year when she joined the President’s Commission on the Status of LGBT Concerns. Wentworth isn’t an activist in the firebrand sense of the word, but she’s devoted to what she believes in. She prefers to work within the system for positive change. That’s the perspective Wentworth brought when she chaired the organization this past year—a year that proved to be one of its toughest.
In November, Georgia voters overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the state constitution that defined marriage as solely between a man and a women. It was a severe blow to the states’ LGBT community, and the vote hit commission members hard; many had lobbied against the amendment both on campus and off. The loss made a tough job even tougher.
Of all the president’s commissions’ responsibilities, LGBT’s is arguably the most challenging, in part because of certain inherent difficulties the commissions on women and on race and ethnicity do not face. Wentworth spelled it out in a meeting earlier this year that brought Provost Earl Lewis together with the commission chairs and presidents of the University Senate and Employee Council.
“You can look across a room, most of the time, and tell that there is a woman sitting there,” Wentworth told them. “And for the most part you can look and tell there is a person of color sitting there. But I can’t look across the room and know without a doubt that there is a gay person sitting over there. We don’t know our whole constituency or how to easily communicate with them.”
For instance, the commission hosts an information table during freshman orientation. It’s one of the least visited—not because there is no interest or there are no gay freshman, but it takes a very confident teenager (likely one who already is out of the closet) to pick up an LGBT brochure when his or her parents are standing nearby. Often the best the commission can hope for is that students will note the table’s existence and follow up later. With freshmen’s lives such as they are, that frequently is a lot to ask.
For years, the commission has struggled to define its role—whether it’s an activist body, a sounding board, a programming leader or all of the above. This year, much of that came into focus primarily because the commission is learning how to communicate. This newfound skill goes up the ladder as the commission is President Jim Wagner’s window to Emory’s LGBT community.
“I know I can give President Wagner a call and I would have his ear,” Wentworth said. “He may not agree with me, but he will listen to what I think are the issues. And if something comes across his desk that might affect us, and I trust he would pick up the phone and call us.”
LGBT also has become a more prominent voice in the wider Emory community. While LGBT’s voice was heard prior to election day, it really didn’t find a focused strength until after. Ironically, the devastating result of the marriage vote seemed to rally the commission.
“We needed to lighten the load,” Wentworth said, recalling the commission’s first meeting after the vote, a somber, demoralized occasion. An idea was floated to hold a social event—a holiday gala—to invite the president, members of the LGBT community and its allies, and see then what happened.
The commission had held many mixers previously—usually a handful of people, mostly commission members, sampling snacks and sipping drinks—but last December’s event was altogether different.
Wagner was there, along with some 80 others. It was a success in every way, and most importantly, it raised the commission’s campus profile significantly. An administration-based, campuswide membership call for all the commissions helped too. (The LGBT commission still doesn’t have as many women members as it would like, but one issue at a time.) So, a year that brought the commission perhaps its most painful defeat also provided it with a much more vibrant future.
Wentworth’s work with the commission, though, is only part of her life, albeit a major one. In her role as chair, Wentworth attended 68 meetings or other functions—a commitment level bordering on a part-time job. But that workload doesn’t approach the 200-plus meetings she attended as Oxford’s director of academic services (it also doesn’t include the nearly 200 students she sees individually each year—nearly one-third of Oxford’s student body).
After working in campus life positions at Texas Christian and Florida State universities, as well as her first three years at Oxford, Wentworth was promoted to her current position in 2000. Her primary responsibility is academic advising; not only does she meet with all those previously mentioned students and help them with difficulties in the classroom, but she also assists faculty members by providing them with any information they need throughout the course of their advising activities.
Currently she is putting together an “academic success program” that would encompass academic workshops, one-on-one student tutoring and tutor training. It’s just one of the many things she has put together at Oxford.
In 2003 Wentworth proposed that Oxford create a way to reward those on the Atlanta campus who have gone out of their way to collaborate with Oxford faculty and staff. That’s how the Friends of Oxford awards were born, and since then both Atlanta-based faculty (biology’s Darrell Stokes and music’s Will Ransom) and staff (Daniel Teodorescu of institutional research and, most recently, student activities’ Karen Salisbury) have been honored.
“We’re always appreciative of anyone at Emory who keeps Oxford on their radar screen,” Wentworth said. “It’s really hard for anyone to look beyond what they do in their job. ‘Friends’ is a way to thank those people for going out of their way to do something. We’re sometimes easy to forget due to our location.”
In none of those comments was Wentworth talking about herself—but she easily could have been. Whether she meant to or not, Wentworth very nicely brought all of her personal, professional and extracurricular experiences together at the annual PRIDE Banquet in March. As commission chair, she had the honor of taking the podium and saying a few words. She didn’t waste them.
“The outcome of that November election was both frightening and sad,” Wentworth told the more than 200 people in attendance in the Carlos Museum reception hall. “But I was fortunate to have several heterosexual friends reach out and offer their condolences. I think they got it. They understood.
“The outcome of that election was also an opportunity to further educate our friends, family, colleagues and neighbors, and it was a call to action,” she continued. “This part of our journey is far from over, but the wonderful thing is that we are not alone. We have each other, and we have lots of allies here at Emory.”