Oral History with Helene Vachon, February 9, 2019 (Ms2019-001)

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0:00 - Introduction/Childhood

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Partial Transcript: Forte: This is a recording in a series of oral histories being gathered around the 40th anniversary commemoration of denim day...

Keywords: Animal Science; Catholic school; Daughters of Bilitis; Fitchburg Massachusetts; French Canadian; Lake Megantic; Luk Crisis Center; Quebec City; Southern Seminary Junior College

Subjects: Coming out to parents; LGBT; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

10:33 - Coming to Virginia Tech/Involvement in Gay Student Alliance

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Partial Transcript: Forte: Ok. So that's why you came south and you transferred because of the Animal Science department here?

Keywords: chosen family; community; conservative; Gay Awareness Week; internalized homophobia; Nancy Kelly; Southern Seminary Junior College

Subjects: Denim Day; Gay college students; LGBT; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

21:35 - Denim Day

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Partial Transcript: Forte: So, how active were you in the planning of those events?

Keywords: disappointment; expectations; gay rights; Meat Judging team; Organic Chemistry; raising consciousness; subtle

Subjects: Denim Day; LGBT; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Animal Science Department

37:31 - Progress/Life after Tech and retaining connections

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Partial Transcript: Vachon: About ten years after I graduated I came on Virginia Tech campus and I was walking...

Keywords: activism; business associations; Durham NC; Evangelical Christians; gay marches; marriage equality; politics; progress; Raleigh NC; roomates; Safe zone; tolerate

Subjects: LGBT; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

54:35 - Meat Judging team/Rugby

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Partial Transcript: Forte: Let's talk just a little bit more about your life generally at Virginia Tech.

Keywords: Aksarben contest; antiquarian; Auburn; Block and Bridle club; experimental farm; hooker position; intercollegiate competition; Joyce Harmon; Meat judging; Pam Tobbins; slaughterhouses; Texas A&M; vegetarian; Women's Rugby

Subjects: Gay college students; LGBT; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Animal Science Department



Interviewee: Helene Vachon

Interviewer: Joe Forte

Date of Interview: February 9, 2019

F: This is a recording in a series of oral histories being gathered around the 40th Anniversary commemoration of Denim Day, an event sponsored by the, what was then called the Gay Student Alliance in 1979 at Virginia Tech, and we're speaking with alumni who participated or somehow were adjacent to that event. My name is Joe Forte. I will be the interviewer for this segment. The narrator is Helene Vachon. It is the ninth of February at 11:10 in Newman Library on the Blacksburg campus of Virginia Tech. Welcome Helene, would you give a short introduction of yourself?

V: Thank you, I'm Helene Vachon and my official name is [Full name in French], I was born in Quebec City, Canada and my parents are from a small town in the 1:00eastern townships [inaudible 1:08] Lac-Megantic, Lake Megantic and we immigrated to Fitchburg, Massachusetts when I was three and a half years old. But it was six of my mother's brothers and sisters that immigrated. She came from a large family of fifteen and six of them had immigrated to Fitchburg, Mass. So, I was raised in very much the French-Canadian culture. Spoke French first and-- I went to school at Southern Seminary Junior College in Buena Vista, Virginia. It wasn't a seminary, it was really called Southern Sem. Junior College, but it was a small women's college of three hundred and they had sent me a brochure about animal science, and it was a on the cover there was this girl that was jumping a 2:00fence. She was [inaudible 2:06] she was jumping a fence with a horse and I was just drawn to that. It was at the time I liked horseback riding and I liked animals and that's why I was drawn to that.


F: So, you attended a junior college?

V: I went to a junior college first, it was just a two-year college and the reason I came--it was a lot much more than just the animal science thing. I was fifteen years old when I came out to my parents. I knew at a very early age I was gay, and it was--I was absolutely tormented inside when I discovered within myself I was gay and this is early 70s, early 70s, and I went to Catholic school 3:00for twelve years. So, I would go to the Catholic school library, find everything I could on homosexuality, and it was very very negative and so I couldn't relate to anything. Sometimes I'd borrow a book in a Catholic school library and put it in my backpack and I'd bring it back and I would go through this literature at home. I was like, "oh my goodness that's not me, that's not me, that's not me--I'm a good person." I knew there was something with homosexuality and I couldn't find myself in that. At one point I called the crisis center in Fitchburg, Massachusetts the Luk Crisis Center and they happened to be just two streets over from where I lived and I said, "I'm a lesbian." This young man talked to me at the other end and he goes, "Well how do you know?" So, we had this conversation and he says, "Look, I'm going to tell you whenever you feel 4:00like coming down here, I'm going to put in a paper bag a couple books for you to come get them within the next couple of weeks whenever you feel comfortable. Nobody's going to know, and you just borrow 'em and bring them back at your leisure." Two days went by and I went and got those books and in it was a book the Daughters of Bilitis had written. It was a couple of women in California and I think the title was Lesbian Women, I can't remember exactly. But these two women that had formed this group called the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco area had written this book and within it there was a definition of a lesbian is woman who is capable of loving another woman and I had a lightbulb moment, "That's it, that's me that's me" and I went to the mirror and was like, "You are a lesbian." Oh my god and I was freaking out. What are you gonna do? What are you gonna do? I thought, "I have to be the only one here in this area." 5:00I thought, "Well you're gonna have to keep quiet about this and you're gonna have to marry, have children and live a normal life." I felt like I had been given this gift. I didn't know why. I knew I was a good person. Being raised Catholic, to me it was a gift from God. I was like, "God why did you give me this gift?" Oh, my goodness and I'm like, "I was so born on the wrong planet, in the wrong galaxy. You made a mistake." [Many false starts] It was so much pressure and I thought I would hide it and never say anything. Almost every night I would cry myself to sleep, this went on for a month or two. I had a 6:00close relationship with my mother. My parents loved me. My mother, I couldn't lie to her and I felt like I was living a lie. So, I'm fifteen years old. I wake up one morning and I felt I can't live like this anymore. I can't lie to my mother. She thinks I am this way and I'm not. I need to let her know this not me. This is not me. So, I wake up and it's a school day. It was early, my dad was still sleeping. My mother was in her rocking chair, drinking her tea. I come out crying and she says, "What's wrong?" and I said, "Mom, [I'm a lesbian in French] I'm a lesbian." She was very cool and she goes, "What's that?" I knew 7:00[laughter] she was testing me. She was thinking she doesn't know what a lesbian was. I said, "Well you know how boys like girls?" I said, "I like girls like boys like girls." She went, "Oh" and she said, "You gonna tell your father?" I said, "No, I can't tell dad. You tell dad." Well she got up and I went in my room and she went in her room and it was a bathroom in between both of these rooms. I thought to myself in one of those books I had read, that guy had let me borrow was 'coming out to your Catholic parents when you're gay' and it was good information but I--my mother goes in the bedroom and my father's name he's Lorenzo and she goes in there and she goes, "Lorenzo wake up, your daughter thinks she's a lesbian, wake up!" He wakes up. He's laughing and he's like, "You really don't wanna go to school today, do you?" and I said, "I'm a lesbian." He goes, "No you're not." He goes, "I know you. You're a good kid. You're not 8:00vicious. You're a good kid. You're not a lesbian." So, we had this argument back and forth and I was thinking, "How am I gonna prove to him that I know I'm gay?" I'm fifteen years old, you don't talk about sex with your dad when you're a fifteen-year-old girl. I said, "Dad, I'm fifteen years old. I'm supposed to be having crushes on little boys, am I not?" and he goes, "Oh yeah." I said, "Well how do you account for the fact that all I think about is little girls?" He says, "Well, maybe you have tendencies." I said, "Will you give me tendencies?" He goes, "I'll give you tendencies. Now go to school." So, I went to school. I come back home that evening, open the door and my mother says, "You got an appointment with the priest tomorrow." My first thought was like [sighs] inside I was laughing I said, "Oh my God, he's gay anyway." I knew the priest was gay. Four years later my father goes, "I don't know why we made an appointment with that priest, he's was gay anyway." I laughed I said, "I knew he was." But that 9:00priest helped me, and I want to thank him. He helped me and he advised my parents. He said, "You're going to go through a really tough time. When you're ready I'm going to talk to your parents and you just say the word and you can go into therapy and I'm going to arrange this." The point I was making to get back at why I came south, and it took me years to realize I came south because I ran away. I wanted a totally clean slate. I wanted to go somewhere where no one knew me. I had been so tormented as a child. Now, I was surrounded by love in my family. I was marinated in love. But I was so tormented that society would not get you and how am I gonna to deal with that? I had this idea, I'm going to have 10:00to get a motorcycle jacket, a motorcycle, leather jacket, some leather boots, motorcycle, go to New York or San Francisco. I had New York or San Francisco in my mind. It's like how else am I going to find other gay people? They have to exist. But nobody was coming out at that time. So, I came to Virginia Tech as a transfer student after two years at Southern Sem.

F: So that's why you came south, and you transferred because of animal sciences department here?

V: Animal science department. Yeah.

F: So, what was your experience like then? I mean you're moving south to be around people who don't know you and how did that change your experience, both initially and then with the change to moving to Blacksburg?

V: Well I was totally naïve of the fact that the south was more conservative, 11:00and I was naïve about a lot of things. For the first year at Southern Sem. the local people did not understand me. I spoke a Bostonian English with a French-Canadian clip. It was interesting and I didn't understand them. After about a year later, all of a sudden, I could understand everybody. That was fascinating. Southern Sem. was fantastic, of course there was no coming out at Southern Sem. When I transferred to Virginia Tech there were four of us from Southern Sem. who were transferred and we rented an apartment, a two-bedroom apartment. We were on the third floor on Main Street of some building, the top floor. There were two guys living downstairs. Leroy and Owen lived downstairs of 12:00the apartment. After I get settled in about a week or so I said I knew there was a gay student alliance at Virginia Tech [sighs] I'm so calling the gay student alliance, I'm ready for this 'cause I was not out to anyone. So, I call the gay student alliance and Leroy answers and I'm like, "Leroy is that you?" He goes, "Helene is that you? Come one down." So downstairs I went. There was Leroy and Owen and he said, "Let me call Nancy Kelly." She was assistant president of the GSA. We got another one. Let me call Nancy Kelly. I'm thinking, "Oh my god, I never met a lesbian before. I wonder what she looks like?" All of this internalized homophobia we're raised with at that time and she walks through the door and I'm like, "She doesn't look gay or odd." I don't know what I was expecting, Medusa with snakes coming out of her head. I realized my own internalized homophobia, this is crazy. All of a sudden, I had like 13:00fifteen/twenty friends. My roommates were wondering where did you get all of these friends all of a sudden? [laugher] Hush, hush. One of them was gay, also. She knew I was gay. I found my tribe. Oh, my goodness, I had found my tribe. I'd found people who spoke my language and I found--we called ourselves chosen family way back then. I was high for months. I had finally found people that were like me, that I could relate to. It was a social thing at that time, more of a social thing.

F: I'm sorry, say what year was that?

V: That was 1978. I came here in 1978, 79, 80, 81. I took my time.


F: Finishing, you mean?

V: Hm?

F: Took your time finishing?

V: I took my time finishing because I was a work study student. I worked on one of the experimental farms here at Virginia Tech. I was an animal science major, of course, and I was interested in all kinds of different things. I wanted to take my time. I was part of the block and bridle [clears throat] block and bridle club, excuse me. I loved the animal science side of things and I threw myself into the whole meat science. I had a hard time with it, slaughtering animals. I became vegetarian. Nancy took me under her wing. She was an 15:00instigator and she inspired you to-- She raised you. She used the term consciousness raising. It was the first time I ever heard the term, consciousness raising. We've got to raise your conscious. I was like okay. One day she calls me up she goes, "I need for you to be on this panel of gay and lesbians. It's not in the animal science quad." 'Cause the thought of coming out in the animal science quad just freaked me out. It was across the quad and it was a deviant in society class. She goes, "I want you to be part of a panel of deviants in society." I said, "What's a deviant?" She goes, "You're a deviant and you're coming." So, I said, "I really don't like that word, deviant." I just finally embraced the word lesbian and I do not like deviant. What the heck? They're calling us deviants now? Ya know? What is going on? She goes, "I need 16:00you to be on this panel and it's going to be five of us. Come on, do it." I said, "Okay." She says, "Nobody in animal science is going to be there. This is a different college. This is more like sociology and psychology." I had a sense of somebody's got to do it, somebody's got to show their face, we got to start coming out to some people because we are not these monsters. We're not, ya know, crazy. Got on that panel and I look over and people start talking, asking you questions, and it dawned on me that Nancy Kelly, she got me out here 'cause I'm the only virgin on this panel. She was smart. She had everybody represented. There was the bisexuals and all of this different diversity and I was the virgin. So, it was kind of--you would engage with these students and it was kind of funny 'cause you'd get some funny little questions and of course, they would 17:00come to me and they were like, "Well, how do you know--how can you be sure you're gay? You're a virgin, you've never even slept with anybody." So, at that time in 1978-79 there was a lot of virgins on campus. [giggles] So then I said, "Well is there any virgins here in this class? My goodness, how do you know you're straight?" and you'd come back with those kinds of things. By the end of the class, you were like--you had become buddies with 'em or friends with 'em and they liked you. Some of them were angry about it. But you were able to calm people down and make them think. You could tell you had some lightbulbs would go out. Some lightbulbs would go off. I did about three of those classes and that was good for me.

F: So mostly those were positive experiences?

V: Positive experiences but I felt like I could not do it in the animal science. I was like walking two different worlds. I was totally in the closet when it 18:00came to animal science, in my animal science fraternity. I was on the meat and animal judging team, meat judging teams and I loved being there. But I was totally--I walked within two different worlds. As gay people at the time you really had to do. You had to put your mask on.

F: But you felt like those panels were--through your participation in those panels you were making some kind of a difference in folks' perception?

V: Yes--It was the first-time people stood up and said "I'm gay." I knew, I would wish we'd wake up one day and the whole--everybody that was gay had 19:00different colored hair or a dot on their head. That would identify them, who they were, and people would just have to get over it. Because there was so many of us and we were all amongst everybody. So, somebody had to start putting a face on it.

F: Yeah. I'm curious about the GSA and your taking your time, sticking around right? So, you've talked about the social aspect of instantly twelve friends and so now you have a group of folks who are like-minded and accepting you for who you are. Instant friends and lasting friends, right? So, strong friends and also the rise of the sort of activist way of being with the GSA. To what degree do 20:00either of those things, for you, define the value of the GSA at the time and your tendency to sort of hang around because of your comfort level?

V: GSA at the time was my life saving raft. It was the place that I found--there was no other how do you find your tribe? You didn't have social media or anything like that didn't exist. Virginia Tech is a large campus. They were just the beginnings of some of these campuses having Gay Student Alliances. The people, I don't know who started GSA in the 70s, but I have to honor them that they started it. It was a place to go first and there were some people that were moreso activists than others. But I think it started as a place to meet people 21:00at first and then there was a lot of social activities. Every now and then there was something that needed to be done, addressed, for--we had gay awareness weeks on college campus. That biggest one that we had was in 1979 where we had a whole week of gay awareness.

F: And part of it was Denim Day

V: Denim Day. It was Denim Day on Wednesday, yeah.

F: So, how active were you in the planning of those events?

V: Well, I was more or less a bit of a worker bee, but I was active in--I was at the meetings, the GSA meetings and I gave my two cents. I thought it was a wonderful idea they had come up with because there was some other college that had done it. I think it was San Francisco that had done this. We wanted to make an impact of how we can get people to think. A few days before Denim Day we had 22:00other activities that would lead up to that and Wednesday, being the big Denim Day, we had these fliers that we were going to put under every dorm room. I kept one of the fliers and it was a picture of a closet with "Wednesday is Denim Day. Wear your jeans and support our gay rights." We didn't say wear your jeans if you're gay. [laughs] Wear your jeans if you support gay rights. I helped passing those fliers out in the middle of the night in the dorm room. 1,2,3, or 4 o'clock in the morning we're doing this and we're running as fast as we can because everyone--now and then somebody would open up their door and come out and scream, "Lesbians! Oh my god, there are lesbians on the hall," and we'd run. At one-point Nancy [blows kiss] she blew somebody a kiss and she screamed. I 23:00thought, "Oh my god that's so silly." We wanted to be taken seriously. I think our biggest fear was that they would ignore us and just wear their jeans because everybody on Tech campus wore jeans. I mean it was ninety-nine percent of the people every day, day in and day out wore jeans. So, we wanted them to think there was a lesson in oppression, 'cause we woke up every day thinking, "You're gay" and "Put on your mask." We wanted them to think. After we passed out all the fliers, we'd go have a little breakfast and we were like, "Oh we did it. We did it." Some of the guys had been chased 'cause guys at that time could get beat up. You were really putting yourself out there. We were afraid we were gonna--we could have gotten beat up too. Could've been kicked off or something. So, we got away with it. We'd wake up the next day, it's like we went to bed for 24:00a couple of hours. We'd wake up and I put my jeans on. I walk into my organic chemistry class. I walk in at the bottom and I look up and nobody was wearing their jeans. I was looking and looking and my eyes caught--there was this one guy there and he's in the middle. He looks down at me and we look at each other like, "Ah, found one." We kind of gave each other--smiled at each other like, "Wow. I'm okay. I got one." We were okay. I sat down and the professor made some kind of a joke as if you weren't wearing your jeans today, you'd have to do some homework or something like that. I thought about it and it [inaudible 24:50] me and I'm like another joke at the expense of homosexuals. You're always living with this. I thought, "Is there any professor on this campus that's going to 25:00speak up?" I was like--I was hopeful. Say something nice. Say something nice. But you just had to joke at the expense of us. I would sit next to this guy in organic chemistry class and we would walk back and forth to class together. This guy was very good looking, very nice and I think back, and I thought why would he--he would talk to me and engage with me because men, good looking men never talked to me. Because I knew I was going around--I had this psychic sign of don't you look at me, don't talk to me. Here's this guy I had befriended, and we would walk back and forth to class. After class I said, "Hey you're not wearing your jeans today." I wasn't out to him. He goes, "Yeah they were dirty. I didn't have time to wash them." He goes, "But I think it's an abomination to God. Gay 26:00people are an abomination to God." He went on with this litany, on and on. I just went, "ugh, ugh" and I said, "Well I'm wearing my jeans." He goes, "Yeah but I know you're not gay." I didn't say anything, and I thought, "I'm going to let him think on that." We walked off, walked away. What makes you think I'm not gay?

F: Did you resolve that with him?

V: No, I never did. No, I couldn't it's like I had--it's like I'm just going to keep--I'm going to let him think. I don't know to this day--I thought because he had gone on and there was no talking to him because he gave me the whole religious arg.--I was an abomination to God. I was just like I can't go there. I 27:00can't, so I'm just going to let him think. He must of thought it was either a little odd that I was okay with gay rights or maybe he did think later on, "Maybe she was gay. I don't know."


F: The question that has been occurring to me, as you were telling these last stories. For Demin Day, you came into the class wearing your denim, no one's wearing denim--

V: Except for one guy.

F: Except for one guy.

V: So, one guy we lock eyes--

F: So, the first think I'm wondering is at this point then have you been out to your animal sciences colleagues or--

V: Oh, good God no. No, I could never feel like I could come out to any animal science people.

F: Did you have a sense of--did you worry about wearing denim into those classes?

V: You know what? I didn't have any animal science classes that day. That would 28:00have been a whole other--I didn't have any animal science classes and I did not go there. That would have been-- it's not like we wore jeans and we were proud, and we were marching. It was so much more subtle because you just couldn't do that. You couldn't come out like that. You'd get crucified if you do. You were really putting your life on your hands, I felt, if you did something like that. So, it was subtle, and I was just saying I agree with gay rights. And we were hoping that--just give us gay rights. Is it okay for us to have some rights? If it had been animal science classes, I would've gone. I don't know what it 29:00would've been like for me. It would have been much, much, much harder. It was an organic chemistry class and it was some animal science students in the organic chemistry class. That was hard and it was hard being within a two hundred students to be one of two wearing jeans. That was a statement. I didn't see anybody wearing jeans hardly at all. We estimated, it was probably twenty people who wore jeans.

F: Twenty, yeah. That's the other question that occurs to me about when I hear that moment about walking into class, seeing the one other person. What were your expectations?

V: You know, I didn't have any expectations because it was all new territory for us. I didn't know how people were gonna respond. But I was absolutely shocked at 30:00the level of not wanting--that anybody didn't wanna give us gay rights. I was like wow there's so much misunderstanding and hatred. We're just asking for rights to exist. The same rights. [sighs]--It was disappointing, very disappointing, and yet it was very successful. We had succeeded in making them think. Pissing people off. We made people so mad. We shook that tree. We rattled it-- it was a beginning. It was this beginning of something. You never know how 31:00many people's lives you've touched. I know there was a lot of gay people that didn't wear their jeans. They couldn't. They couldn't. It was too dangerous for them, they couldn't do it. I mean, especially some people if you just realized within yourself you're gay and you go out there and wear jeans for gay rights. It was like over the top. They were people within in a relationship, were friends, a couple friends of mine they were in a relationship. They had a big fight 'cause one of them wore jeans and the other didn't. Couldn't get the other one to wear her jeans. Well I was disappointed, but I got it. She was afraid--You were brave if you wore your jeans. You were brave and you stood up. 32:00You stood up for yourself and you were gay. If you were jeans you were gay. I can't imagine if you were heterosexual and you wore your jeans and you did it. You were an amazing person to me. You were quite evolved.

F: Are you saying that you don't know for sure any folks who weren't gay who wore jeans or--

V: I don't know personally. I mean, they went to the opposite extreme. People went to the opposite extreme. There was guys wearing dresses. I couldn't believe people had gone out of their way because we advertised it weeks ahead of time. 33:00People that wore their jeans and they had special t-shirts made these are straight jeans, not gay jeans. Their response was so negative, so negative. Some was positive. But the response was so negative and so silly. It had to start--this conversation had to start. I think of the people that have come before me and I've gotta honor them. They had it even so much more harder. I knew I was standing on their shoulders because I couldn't imagine being born gay in the 20s and 30s and 40s and 50s. I couldn't imagine because it's like there was no place. You couldn't breathe. So, I knew we were standing on their shoulders. I was always forever the optimist. I was disappointed in how many people just--oh my goodness--they don't get it. They don't get it. I didn't 34:00choose this. I was born this way. I'm okay and I like myself. I'm a good person. I'm born this way. You don't choose this. It took time. People had to get to know you. It's amazing how far we've come but still we got some way to go.

F: You mentioned the guy who you were friendly with who you had the conversation about you didn't wear your jeans they weren't clean, and you talked about the GSA, an instant group of friends and community. This whole notion of folks, 35:00allies or supporters of gay rights and you're saying there weren't many of them, if any at all. It makes me wonder, so did you have friends that weren't gay who knew you were gay? Like people you actually considered friends.

V: Yes.

F: You were out to them?

V: Well, yes. Uh, no. I did have some friends in the animal science department, who I was not out to. Who I considered friends. I walked in two different worlds. I would go to my animal science world on the meat judging team. I loved my animal science world. I was on the Virginia Tech meat judging team and we competed intercollegiately. We'd get on a bus; a bus load of people and you get to know people when you're on the bus. We'd have a ball. I was myself, but I was not. They knew a part, a big part of me. This other part of me--they didn't know 36:00that part of me. So, it was compartmentalized life. You had this little compartment. I loved my animal science friends and I hung out with them within the animal science and some of the block and bridle stuff that went on but not too much outside of that. I socialized on the weekends, it was with my gay friends. We socialized.

F: Were there no straight folks attached to that circle at all who--

V: No.

F: So, it was just completely--

V: Completely two different worlds. At that time, it was LGB, gay, lesbian, bisexual and the bisexuals had it rough. We had, I think, like one bisexual.

F: In the GSA?


V: In the GSA. The gay and lesbians, a lot of them at that time were like well the bisexuals why don't they pick? We had a lot of consciousness raising within ourselves that had to go on. We're just discovering thinking about ourselves and how is this gonna go. It's evolved. About ten years after I graduated, I came on Virginia Tech campus. Ten, fifteen years, and I was walking the schools and I was walking the faculty dorm rooms. I noticed there were some little stickers on the faculty rooms that there was a gay friendly place. A safe zone for gays and that blew me away. I was like wow if I had that. Oh my God, that was amazing that you had a safe zone. This is great. This is progress.


F: Are you surprised by how much progress or does it not seem surprisingly significant?

V: I'm pleasantly surprised. I'm pleasantly surprised when I meet some young people, the LGBTQ, and they're amazing to me. They're delightful to me. It's like a lot of young people coming up are born with a consciousness. They're born with it. It's just no big deal to them and they give me a place to--if I'm not out to them or even young straight people like they know I'm gay. They give me an alley way to just--the conversation will lead to I can come out and it's no big deal. It's no big deal and that's so refreshing. That is so refreshing, and 39:00I think it's interesting that it took a black president for us to get marriage equality. It took a black president that was--their daughters were friends with some young girl, some girls that had mothers, two mothers as parents. Michelle and Barack Obama had them over to their house and embraced them. They realized we can't discriminate like this anymore. But, for years and years and years in politics gay people were not--we were silent. They just wanted us to go away. Virginia Tech campus at that time you felt like it was okay for you to have your little GSA but you just keep quiet about it. Do whatever you gotta do, keep it to yourselves. You had that sense, you just keep it to yourselves. There are 40:00words that I love to throw out of the dictionary, the word tolerate, which rhymes with hate. It was used a lot. We tolerate you and we took that. It was like we got tolerate and I don't want tolerate anymore. So, as time went on it's like no, what can be better? What can be better? Consciousness was raised and to me we're still evolving. A lot of young people are pushing the envelope. They make you think and it's like wow I never thought of it like that. This is interesting. There's less fear about it but there's still a lot of fear and a lot of misunderstanding. And a lot of crazy ideas about how people are. So, once 41:00you get to know people and love them--

F: The sense of activism you developed with the GSA in this time, did you bring that forward with you into your life after Tech?

V: Yeah, well some. I've been to a lot of gay marches, of course. My first march in 1981 in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. That was great. That was great fun. People looked at you like--I still 'member people looking at you downtown that they didn't know there was a gay march. It's like they look at you like you were some kind of a bug or a detritus. [disgusted gasp] They were shocked and it's like gotta do it. We're here, we're queer. Get used to it. We'd chant all these chants. Fly your freak flag. You had to do it. There are people throughout my 42:00life that I've come out to because I felt like they needed coming out to. Because they were so--these people that got to know me and love me and it was so silly in their ideas about gay people. They needed coming out to and I would take a bullet for the cause. There were people that I met that were obviously gay, that to me that were obviously gay and was like if you don't know you're gay somebody's gotta help you. I would come out to them and it helped them come out. So, I would do some stuff like that. So, I did come out to some people that needed coming out to for the cause. Some religious people I came out to some. We 43:00had a big ole' religious conversation. That was very interesting. I got them to think and next time I saw them he's like, "I couldn't stop thinking about what you said."

F: That's interesting. So, you used coming out as a tool to facilitate activism?

V: I have, yes. Because it's sometimes like ugh, I need to come out to that one.

F: What about the compartmentalizing? You described your life as Tech as two different worlds. The animal sciences folks to whom you were not out and I'm assuming you're mostly out to everyone who's in your life now or--

V: Who's close to me in my life, who wants to get to know me. If you want to get to know me as a friend, I'm gonna come out. I'm eventually--but I still, I can't walk down the street holding my partners hand in small town America or large town. I can't do that. I don't feel safe doing that. I'll do it in San Francisco 44:00and Province Town, Massachusetts but...

F: Are there parts of your life like animal science was a big part of your life and your identity when you were at Tech and you choose specifically to stay in the closet with them that there's no parts of your life within which you hold that information back intentionally or--?

V: Oh yeah there are parts of my life when I do, absolutely-- When I'm around evangelical ministers and evangelical people that assume I'm a Christian. I'm just gonna be my wonderful personality who I am, but I would never share that part of me because they can't hear it. They're not ready for it.

F: But are those associations that you have--


V: Those are business associations. There are certain business associations that I just don't come out and they just assume I'm a certain way but who knows? One of these days I might say, "Hey you've been doing business with a big queer." [laughs] Hate to tell ya but. That's one the things some of the women did and I did there was like this little stamp that said lesbian money, gay money. You'd slip a dollar bill to a what have you to somebody when you did business in business transactions. You want people to know that you were here. You did little stuff like that.

F: What about some of those animal sciences friends? Do you keep relations up with them?

V: No, I do not. I do not. I've gone back and seen some--visited some of my animal sciences--Dr. Francis Kelly, I love him to death. Dr. Norman [inaudible 45:56] I'd come back and say hello to them. They would just--we were like family. They would just embrace me. "How are you?" They would sit down and talk 46:00to me, but they had no idea. It didn't matter to me at that time. It didn't matter to me cause that's just something I couldn't--you couldn't share, and I didn't want to be treated any different. I was too afraid that I'd be treated differently. It wasn't important for me to share at that time. When I was the first year, in the apartment we shared, there was four of us. I shared a room with one other woman that was from Southern Sem. also and having all of these friends I thought, "I'm gonna have to tell her that I'm gay." Hey, wanna come out and play? With some of that, I said listen I told her I was gay, and I was met with a lot of coldness. We didn't discuss it. There was no discussion about it. But a few days went by, I come back, walk into my bedroom and there's a 47:00piece of duct tape right down the middle of the room. I said, "What's that?" She goes, "This is my side. This is your side. Don't you step across that line." I have totally forgotten about that until the Demin Day. This year we start thinking about Denim Day reaction and what it was like. I totally put it in the back of my mind cause most of my remembering is really, really positive, wonderful. That's one of those--ugh. So, I would like to think that if I were to meet her today, we could sit down, have a conversation and talk about this. I 48:00would like to think she's in a different place. We never talked about it but the energy was awful. So, I would go study somewhere else. I'd come to eat at the apartment, and she would go study somewhere else. I would sleep in my bedroom, but can you imagine sleeping [laughs] I didn't cross that line. She built this wall. Sometimes I'd come home and my other roommate who was gay, I came out to them too, they were perfectly fine with me. Sometimes I'd go and step on a little piece of duct tape and go, [gasps] "Look, look."

F: How much longer did you share that room?

V: Well it was the year. It was the year and after that year we were all--I was outta there. I was gonna be--

F: But the line held throughout the rest of the year?

V: The line held. I did not cross that line. I don't know what she was thinking 49:00but she had her own ideas about it. There was no conversation that you--it was so cold. I think back how the heck did I live through this? I wouldn't stand for this today. And we're gonna have to talk about this duct tape. That wouldn't happen but I wouldn't have the wherewithal to talk about this. Just don't cross that line. I was like, "okay, okay, goodnight."

F: What about your GSA friends, have you retained those connections?

V: Yeah, I've retained some connections and more have come back in my life. People I haven't seen in thirty years. Thirty, thirty-five, forty years. Nancy Kelly and Lisa Rose, I saw her not long ago, the other day. Karen Harris. The 50:00people that you were first friends with, when you first come out, they're like oh my goodness it's--they're precious. They're absolutely precious to me. There's this sort of--maybe it has to do we were in the trenches together. We were doing the battle together and they're so dear to me. There's this love that goes. You just love one another. These are the people that knew me and loved me way back when, that loved me just as I am. So, it's really, really special.

F: Then when you think back on that time and how important the friendships in 51:00GSA were to you, how important the activism was, do you have a sense of how you experienced it then? Is it any different from how you look back on it now given the life experience you've had and the changes in the broader social context for living a homosexual life?


V: I've gone on. Everything has changed so much for the good and it keeps on getting better and better. I'm more myself than I've ever been. I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid to come out to anyone. If I feel the need like I feel like I need 52:00to come out, I don't have any problem with it. But it's not always necessary either, I'm just myself. I also think people see you more as yourself first not so much as what your sexual identity and people engage with you. We were at--I think I told you this story last night. We were at a little gathering in Roanoke and it was nine of us. Here we are women of sixty and a little older in their sixties. We had a group and one of the women I hadn't seen in about thirty-five 53:00years. It was just this gathering. It was delightful and wonderful. We'd raise a glass to what this and raise this glass to whatever. When I first got there, everybody was there, and it was so wonderful to see everybody I hadn't seen in years. I started, "Hello, hello, hello" and the waitress came up and I was, "Oh I almost hugged you, you're not one of--" She was young. I said, "You're our waitress." Sat down and we're just having this wonderful evening and just being ourselves and telling these stories. Lesbian this and that. We're just not filtering ourselves like we used to. We were just ourselves and it was so great. At one point, towards the end of the night, I was like, "To the dykes at the round table!" Everybody raised their glass to the dykes at the round table. I thought I've always wanted to say that. There's the knights at the round table and we're the dykes at the round table. We got up to leave and there was this young couple, you man and women, he says, "You guys are awesome." That's amazing 54:00to me. "You guys are awesome." Then the waitress came up, she goes, "I want to hug you." That's progress. People heard us. The people that heard us around and they embraced us. It's touching. These things are touching.

F: Let's talk just a little bit more about your life generally at Virginia Tech. First, just sort of tangentially and this maybe sounds a bit naïve but, so meat judging, is that the animal or like piece of meat?

V: What it is it's a well you'd go to the slaughterhouse and it was carcasses hanging up and you learn how to judge the meat. Also, you learned how to look at 55:00an animal, a cow, and you'd learn how to figure out what kind--the grade, the back fat, the marbling. These different things that a cow would come out when they were slaughtered. So, it was a meat and animal judging team and we'd compete intercollegiately and we went out west in Nebraska. We'd judge cattle, sheep, and hogs. Hams, we'd just hams. We would compete against all the other agriculture colleges throughout the United States. We'd travel and one year I was on the meat judging team, and Dr. Kelly made some jackets for all of us. That particular year, we were all women. We were all girls. We'd call ourselves Kelly's girls. We'd go walking around Virginia Tech campus with these jackets 56:00that said, "Virginia Tech Meat Judging Team." We were proud of it but then I didn't realize until I was walking on campus people would laugh, guys would laugh. They'd go, "Oh my God that's so funny." I said, "Well there really is a meat judging team." They'd say, "There is?" I was like, "Yeah, animal science department." They're like, "Oh okay." They thought it was just the weirdest thing. But, we were the Virginia Tech meat judging team in the 70s and 80s.

F: So, it's carcasses uncut?

V: It's carcasses uncut.

F: Those who set them up have a certain idea of the quality and then the folks that were competing--

V: Yes, and you would go to a slaughterhouse to--you'd go to slaughterhouses on Saturdays and learn how to judge these carcasses. Sheep and hog carcasses and how to grade 'em.

F: Tournaments like they're tournaments, are you against another team?


V: Yes.

F: How did you guys do?

V: Well, we had a lot of fun doing it. We were okay. We would party with the Auburn team. The Auburn coach and the Virginia Tech coach at the time were big buds. So, we would always hook up with the Auburn coach. It was great fun, learning how to do it.

F: It's characteristically women or was that just happened to be the team?

V: No, it was men and women. There was men and women. One of the things that we did was the Aksarben. The Aksarben is Nebraska spelled backwards. Nebraska. It was the Aksarben meat and animal judging competition, mid-west, and it was a big competition. What they did--here you were. You were in this coliseum, they'd put like four cattle in a pit and they had numbers on their back. You were supposed 58:00to figure out all the different ways they were gonna cut out as a carcass. Then they'd put the hogs out. The Aksarben contest was a three-day contest. They would actually slaughter these animals and you were graded upon how they would cut out. It was a little disgusting really when I think of it. I became a vegetarian 'cause all that time in the slaughterhouses and seeing all that meat, we'd come out of the cooler being there all day long. Somebody would say, "I want a steak." I'm like, "I want a baked potato and a salad. I can't look at another piece of meat." So, there was intercollegiate competition with that. That was part of being in the animal science department, if you wanted to do that you could go that route. We got to travel, we went to Chicago, and Wisconsin, and all these different places and compete. Texas A&M. Texas A&M was 59:00probably the best team. You couldn't beat them. They were really tough. Texas Aggies. [laughing]

F: So, it sounds like it was a lot of fun for you but also, you're saying that it was directly responsible for your move to a vegetarian diet. Is that correct?

V: Yeah, 'cause I couldn't--I saw the animal industry firsthand and that's a whole other thing. That was hard for me to take.

F: Well, did you work in the field of animal sciences out of school?

V: I worked for a veterinarian in town I worked for. I also worked on a--the experimental farm here at Tech. I helped a lot of the graduate students. Some of the graduate students would do their sheep feeding trials and they'd do all these different experiments. I was one of like the worker bees that would work at times with the graduate students. I threw myself into it, 'cause I was trying 60:00to get over the fact that we were actually eating all these animals and we were raising all of these animals in this particular way. A lot of the experiments that went on at Virginia Tech at the time were difficult to watch, I can't believe we treat animals like this. So, I had a hard time with it. I would talk to my professors from time to time and they were like, "You really need to get over this. You really need to get over this." The only way I need to get over it is just go, dive in the swimming pool and go I'm gonna be on the meat judging team. That's what I did and I slaughtered--I was on the slaughtering thing. Oh, my goodness. It bothers me more today than it did way back then. I don't know if it's post-traumatic stress syndrome or what. [giggles]

F: So, what else did you do sports and club wise?

V: Well I did--there's a friend of mine named Joyce Harmon and she was a first-year veterinary student here. The first year the veterinary student opened 61:00up, Joyce Harmon was here. We would jog every day just about. Joyce and Pam Tobbins--the women's rugby team. Joyce says, "Helene, you need to play rugby." I said, "I'm not that athletic." She goes, "There's a position for everybody and you'd make a great hooker 'cause you're small." Hooker. So, I was like, "Okay, kind of sounds interesting but--" So I joined the Virginia Tech women's rugby team. I was on the Virginia Tech--the first women's rugby team. That was a lesbian magnet, oh my goodness, during that time.

F: To be on the team or to come watch the games?

V: I was on the team. I was a hooker.

F: No, I'm saying the lesbian magnet aspect.

V: No being part of the team. There was a lot of lesbians that came out to play rugby. There was a lot of women that were on scholarships like lacrosse and soccer scholarships. They were excellent athletes and they were on the Virginia Tech women's rugby team. They were amazing athletes. Of course, they didn't want 62:00to get tackled, they could run like crazy. A couple of them would just run. So, I was a part of the scrum. I was a hooker in the scrum. There was straight and gay women. The straight women they weren't bothered, we would eventually come out to them. It was like no big deal, it didn't bother 'em. But also, when we played intercollegiately for other colleges that would come, it was funny 'cause you'd see another college and you'd look at them and there was a whole bunch of lesbians on the team. You would kinda have this recognition, you'd go, "Look at all the lesbians." There was the second year, the last year I played, we were at a party and somebody told me--there was this one girl that had played with us and she was straight. Her boyfriend played rugby and her boyfriend got her into-- "You gotta play on the women's rugby team." So, she did. She was a really 63:00good athlete. Somebody said, "We're really concerned about her because she doesn't know we're all gay." She says, "Everybody else is gay." Oh, my goodness I didn't realize that. We would treat her--kill her with kindness. We were so sweet to her. We'd make her laugh. She thought we was so much fun and we're just a bunch of crazy bunch of girls. Somebody was afraid that she didn't know we were gay, and we were concerned about it. Come to find out, a couple women finally told her and she kinda went, "Everybody?" She knew some. She goes, "Everybody?" We were like, "Everybody's gay." [nods] So it was one of those things, but she just loved us.

F: She stayed around after that?

V: She stayed around. She stayed around. She was like, "Okay, okay." She was a little bit surprised that we were all--


F: So, in the yearbook you meat judge, hooker?

[both laugh]

V: Yeah, I'm all over the place. Yeah, I was on the meat judging team. I was on the rugby team. I was on the brock and bridle club, the animal science fraternity. I have a lot of fun memories.

F: Sounds like a pretty full experience, yeah.

V: It was full. It was full. There was so many things I was interested in learning. It was just better and better and better as time went on. I was fascinated by histology, microbiology, and I loved it. I was one of those students who wasn't ready to leave. I wanted to stay. Finally, I get a phone call and they're like, "You can graduate. You got like thirty extra credits. You 65:00can go." I was like, "Okay." I guess I better graduate now.

F: Did you leave town when you graduated?

V: Yeah, I left town. I got a job selling industrial chemicals. I got a job selling industrial--I got a job in sales and I've been in sales ever since.

F: And that's what you do now, you're in sales?

V: I own my own business. I'm an old and rare book dealer, antiquarian book dealer.

F: Great. Anything else?

V: No, I can't think of anything else.

F: Well, thanks so much for talking with us. It's been a real pleasure.

V: It's been a real pleasure. Thank you so much for doing this. For passing on the history.

F: It's our pleasure, yeah. We've been having a great time.


[end of interview]

Transcribed by: Kaya McGee, February, 2019

Audit edited by: John R. Legg, March 4, 2019