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reed magazine logoDecember 2010

Obama’s Gay Mentor

Lawrence Goldyn ’73


Lawrence Goldyn

In April 2009, the Advocate, a leading gay and lesbian magazine, asked president Barack Obama who had most profoundly influenced his ideas about gays and lesbians. The first person on Obama’s list was his mother; the second person was his political science professor at Occidental College, Lawrence Goldyn ’73.

“He was a wonderful guy,” Obama said. “He was the first openly gay professor that I had ever come in contact with, or openly gay person of authority that I had come in contact with. And he was just a terrific guy. He wasn’t proselytizing all the time, but just his comfort in his own skin and the friendship we developed helped to educate me on a number of these issues.”

For Lawrence, the remark confirmed something he had long believed—in theory, at least. “This is great consolation to anyone who has ever been a teacher,” he says. “You never know whom you are going to influence.”

As Lawrence spoke to Reed from his office in Fort Bragg, California, it was easy to imagine him as a dynamic lecturer. He was observantly precise at one moment and bitingly off the cuff at another, and his New York accent was deliberate, measured, and tough.

This style gave Lawrence a high profile at Occidental—he describes himself as a magnet for outsiders at the college. His roguish references to sensitive issues undoubtedly contributed to his popularity among independently minded students in the ’70s. Marginalized groups flocked to him: gay men, gay women, women of color—and Obama.

Obama’s presence was exceptional, Lawrence says. Most straight men did not want to be seen associating with gays because of the social stigma, but Obama was not concerned about what people might think.

Lawrence’s willingness to serve as mentor stemmed from his own undergraduate experience. He arrived at Reed uncertain about his own sexual identity at a time when most gay men kept their sexuality firmly locked in the closet. Dissatisfied with this furtive existence and the limits of social support on campus, he took a leave of absence and traveled around Europe. There he crafted a new identity, developing a greater comfort with the tag “gay” with each new destination.

When he returned to Reed, he resolved to be upfront about his identity, but the response was underwhelming. “Nobody cared in the slightest,” he says. “That’s the flipside of no support—nobody cares. I realized, this is what happens when there’s no mentor. So halfway through grad school I decided to become a mentor. I sort of forced my way though this, and since then I’ve encouraged gay men and women to use me as a mentor.”

Despite his popularity among students—he was nominated for a teaching award—Lawrence’s career suffered from his open sexuality. After teaching for two years, he was denied tenure. “The reason I didn’t get it is because I was ‘too stuck in sexual politics.’ I took it as them saying, ‘You’re gay, you’re too publicly gay.’”

“When I was at Occidental it was an extremely straitlaced white Protestant school, and for anyone who didn’t fit that mold, you clearly stood out,” said Lawrence. “Occidental has changed a lot [since]. That makes me feel good because I think I probably contributed to it. But the price I paid for it was that I lost my job in the process.”

Disillusioned with academia, Lawrence retrained himself for a career in medicine. He earned an MD from Tufts University and now practices in Fort Bragg, where he is the medical director of the Mendocino Coastal Clinics, specializing in HIV.

For many years, he considered his teaching days as a wasted decade. But the rise of his old pupil has given him fresh perspective. Though unwilling to take credit for the president’s path in life, Lawrence remembers that he used to advise students to get their first taste of experience through community organization—Obama’s political starting ground.

Obama actually speaks the words “gay” and “lesbian,” in itself a turning point for the national conversation, and has asked Congress to repeal the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

Lawrence’s tone turns stern when he criticizes the president’s support of the Federal Family Protection Act and reticence on California’s Proposition 8, but livens again when he thinks about the future of gay rights.

Scratch the doctor’s surface, and the political scientist in Lawrence shines through. He says of Obama: “I think he’s been a little conservative on gay issues, but I’m sensitive to what kind of compromises he has to make.”

—Brandon Hamilton ’10

reed magazine logoDecember 2010