Gary Thomas, one of my undergraduate mentors at the University of Minnesota, passed away on 29 August. I happened to be in town for the memorial on September 28th (I was at a conference upstairs!), and Richard Leppert–my undergraduate advisor and Gary’s close colleague, friend and confidante–asked me to speak as a representative of his students. I tried to reach back into my age 19-23 mindset to write this….
I’m here talking with you today because of how I met Gary. Back in 1989, the U of Minnesota honours program had installed a 2-credit course called “Intro to the Arts and Sciences” where profs from different department would come speak to us about their discipline. I was a first year undergraduate that year, trying to figure out what I was going to do in university. About halfway through the term, Gary came in to talk about the new humanities curriculum they were installing. He was spellbinding lecturer on any subject, but I remember the hook that got me interested when he did a psychoanalytic reading of Star Trek that involved Spock being the brain, McCoy being the heart, and Kirk being the penis. My immediate thought was “you can do that in college?” It wasn’t too long before I was a humanities major.
My first class with Gary was his first ever offering of Gay Men and Homophobia in the modern West. I think in 1991. This was the first time he’d taught it and it was offered at night so that people who weren’t full time students could take it. It was a major community event. People from all over the queer community flocked to the class. I was maybe one of two straight men in the class, and in 1991 homophobia was still very thick and powerful, and it was still probably a rare or odd thing for straight men to mix with gay men. When classmates asked why I was there—which was a frequent event in the first couple weeks—I replied that it was my first opportunity to take a class with Gary. Everyone seemed satisfied with this as a plausible answer. That class was incredibly important for me as a teacher now, with students who are not only queer but genderqueer, gender fluid, and all shades of different. On one level, they need to learn how difficult and dangerous it was to be gay way back in the 20thcentury—and I make a point of reminding them of the hard work of ACT UP, queer nation, and the queens at Stonewall (whose rebellion has taken on new meaning in the wake of trans liberation). On another, the envelope-pushing nature of the class got me ready to make the same kind of space for my own students. And I have also tried to use my professor position to be useful to communities in Montreal.
Gary was a role model for me — a self-actualized adult, living the life of the mind, but with plenty of other interests besides his job, and who was confident in who he was. When students came to his home at the end of a term somewhat later in my career, I remember being impressed at the kitchen and the organ. Our tastes run differently, but I now live in a place with a nice kitchen and a lot of musical instruments. Draw your own conclusions. And he was totally unpretentious. I remember he once said to a group of us that he was proud that he had students calling him at home—remember, this was in the days before email at universities, and he was unusually accessible. He encouraged students to be themselves around them and he made things easy for us in the right ways.
Gary also gave me some of my first tastes of academic research: I helped build a bibliography for his then brand-new Music as Discourse class. Later when he suddenly had another research need, I got the call to go through old issues of Christopher Street in an archive in St Paul. That was for Queering the Pitch, the first book of queer musicology. I remember being over the moon when I opened it up and saw my name in the acknowledgments. But Chip Whitesell, another Gary student who is now my colleague at McGill in the School of Music, reminded me that that work was a revolution in musicology, and that for gay musicologists, it wasn’t just the academic substance that mattered, it was about making space in the field to be out.
We didn’t keep in touch that much after I went off to grad school, but I remember visiting him once in Folwell Hall, with my partner Carrie, and we were joking about the awkwardness of some of our straight male professors. In fact, my education at Minnesota had failed to prepare me for graduate school in only one important way: large swaths of the rest of the world had not caught up with what was happening at Minnesota in those days. Gary was a huge part of that. But more importantly for me, he was something every university student fresh out of their parents’ home needs: an adult I could look up to. He wasn’t perfect—more that once we had to reschedule an appointment because he wasn’t so good at keeping a calendar—but even his faults spoke to his love of life. I will never forget his power as a lecturer, the gentle way he made space for us to just be, his unending kindness, and his love for life. Rest in power, Gary!