Gay rights activist and filmmaker Pam Walton '66 reflects on early days at Whitman
By Gillian Frew
Walton describes life as a filmmaker, reception to her 1992 documentary "Gay Youth," and what it was like to be a gay student at Whitman in the early 1960s
"I am a lesbian. My most important emotional and sexual relationships are with other women. And I couldn't have said that 50 years ago at Whitman."
This is how filmmaker Pam Walton '66 kicked off her workshop with students involved in Whitman Teaches the Movement, the college's flagship volunteer program committed to improving civil rights education in Walla Walla public schools.
Walton, who has two master's degrees from Stanford University in education and film, is the owner of Pam Walton Productions. Since the late 1980s, her award-winning independent films have challenged intolerance and homophobia in American culture and advocated for gay rights. Her work, which includes titles such as Out in Suburbia (1989) and Family Values: An American Tragedy (1996) has screened at the Museum of Modern Art and the Margaret Mead Film Festival, and aired nationwide on PBS and Logo.
During her latest visit to Whitman in early November, Walton met with LGBTQ students on campus and was a guest in Assistant Professor of Rhetoric Studies Heather Hayes' class, Rhetoric, Race and Film. She also screened her popular 1992 documentary Gay Youth, which explores adolescent homosexuality by contrasting the lives of two young people struggling to come to terms with being gay. The first, Bobby Griffin, kills himself at age 20 by jumping off a freeway overpass in Portland, after years of trying to reconcile his sexual identity with his religious upbringing. Gina Gutierrez, a high school student in California, is able to find acceptance after coming out to her more supportive family and friends.
Walton spoke about her life as a filmmaker, her time at Whitman, and some of her greatest personal and professional accomplishments.
Whitman College: What inspires you to keep producing films on the gay and lesbian experience?
Pam Walton: This is a really important time for gay and lesbian rights. We can marry each other, for one thing, which is astonishing. There are still places all over the country that are struggling with that. For example, Kim Davis and her friends are struggling with it and not wanting to issue marriage licenses to gay people. Most of my audience is educational. It's surprising that Gay Youth continues to sell to colleges and high schools, but I think it's because the issues it raises are still important. There's this wonderful quote by Kenji Yoshino: "If a human life is described with enough particularity, the universal will speak through it."
What are some the challenges and rewards of independent filmmaking?
Filmmaking is fun and scary, because you don't always have the money to pay the bills. You're always fundraising. My partner, Ruth, is also a filmmaker and she makes films about the manufacturing of the integrated circuit, which is a big seller in Silicon Valley, so she pays the mortgage [laughs]. For me, it was a risk to do this, and they say risk is a good thing. One of the nice things that happened to me recently is in my neighborhood in Mountain View, there are two women who live down the street—partners—and after the Supreme Court legalized marriage equality, they came to me and said "Pam, you're part of that."
What was it like to attend Whitman as a gay student in the early 1960s?
When I was a student at Whitman, there was no talking about it. There was no support for gay and lesbian people. It was like living in the dark. I was an Alpha Chi Omega—there I am in the 1964 edition of the Wailatpu yearbook—and I was happy-looking: pearls, big smile. It was the first time that I had been away from home in my life. I was a leader in my sorority. I had a good scholarship. To look at that picture, you would never know that it was the most suicidal time of my life.
My friends were dating boys—young men—and falling in love, and talking about getting married. Remember, this was 1964. And I was falling in love with a young woman who lived across the hall from me in Anderson. So I thought, "This is something that I will never share with anyone. I'm not going to tell anybody this." I hadn't told my parents, I hadn't told my teachers. And it didn't help when the dean of women, which we had back then, gave an orientation talk to the freshmen women in Anderson, and during that orientation talk she mentioned the "evils of lesbianism," and how we should all beware of that. Everyone in the room was nodding along and I was nodding along too, but inside I was going "Oh, no. What's going to become of me? How will I get through this?"
I used to walk over to that bridge that's behind Anderson and look at the water rushing by underneath, and I used to think about dying. It's not as though, if I had jumped off of that bridge, I would have killed myself—I would have maybe broken my ankle—but still, I was thinking that way. And so after two years, I got out of here. I went to the University of California at Riverside, which honestly wasn't much better in 1965 than it was here at Whitman.
But today I went back to that spot on the bridge, and I stood there and I thought to myself, "It's time to let go of this. It's time to forget the grudge you had against Whitman, because for one thing, 50 years is long enough to hang onto something, and also, Whitman has done some very wonderful things with gay and lesbian people since I was here." And it is a much different place. I've met some wonderful students. The world has definitely changed. And here I am. It's really pretty wonderful.
You taught high school English for 20 years from the mid-'60s through the mid-'80s. What's your perspective on how things have changed?
For years, I worked with high school teachers in a program for at-risk youth. Every year I would go to this conference, and the conference didn't consider gay and lesbian youth at all in their at-risk groupings. Drugs, alcohol, homelessness, absent parents, all those kinds of things made students at-risk, but they didn't even mention the gay and lesbian thing. So later on I thought, okay, I'm going to show Gay Youth. And so I would come in and I would show Gay Youth to these high school teachers, and—I'm not kidding—some of them would sneak into the room because they were afraid to come to this meeting. In the end, I could tell from the way they were looking at me that the most they could do was to just take a few small steps.
Most important, I think, is don't assume heterosexuality. Not everybody is heterosexual. From there, you can just go however far you can with it. I used to advise teachers to put up a sign in their classroom saying "No Hate Speech Here." Don't tolerate those horrible words. Don't laugh at stupid jokes about race or homosexuality or other things. And you know, that's really the way culture changes. I think the reason that gays and lesbians have made such astonishing progress in the last 10 or 15 years is because, since the '90s, we have been coming out at the Thanksgiving dinner table, at breakfast time, with friends at reunions. Just little private moments of, "you know, I'm gay. And you love me. And I'm gay." Those moments change the world.
What's your proudest achievement so far?
I think the thing I'm most proud of is my marriage to Ruth. We met at Stanford and we've been together 29 years, and my life with her has been a wonderful adventure. You know, when I was young and I used to think about being a lesbian, I thought, "well, I don't want to live the life of a lesbian!" What even was that? I thought it meant I could never have a committed relationship, that I would never be married. Now, it's legal in all 50 states for same-sex couples to get married. Ruth and I got married in California in 2008, and I can tell you, as a feminist who never really thought much of the idea of marriage, I was so moved when I got married in the Santa Clara County courthouse in San Jose. I cried. It was just such an amazing experience. It's hard to even describe.
How was your experience at Whitman this time around?
It feels amazing to be here this time, because I think somehow, somewhere, I made peace with the past. I can let go of it now. And it's so nice to know that gay and lesbian students have a community here. They have a place they can go once a week and talk about their lives. It's nice to know that people like Heather bring gay and lesbian issues into the classroom and into their coursework. When I hear about some of the courses that people are taking now, it just sounds wonderful. And I also think a part of my being able to let go of the past is that old thing about being thankful for the problems that you faced, because they taught you something huge, and that's really true.
Pam Walton lives in Mountain View, California, with her partner, Ruth Carranza. Her latest film is Triptych: 3 Women Making Art.