Thom Cardwell, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocate and activist, was the keynote speaker May 9 as a part of Pride Week, hosted by Drexel’s Foundation of Undergraduates for Sexual Equality. Cardwell visited Drexel to share his life story and experience working in QFest and LGBT media.
Cardwell introduced the latest project that he is working on with his partner, James Duggan, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first organized gay protest in the United States. The project, which will launch in 2015, will focus on the evolution of LGBT movements in Philadelphia from the beginning to the present day.
The exhibit will have a supplementary book to accompany it. Currently, Cardwell and Duggan are looking for curators, writers and artists to volunteer and assist with the project. Pictures, personal narratives and articles from the LGBT movement will be used to demonstrate the progress made over the last 50 years.
“The LGBT Civil Rights Movement … started in the City of Brotherly Love and sisterly affection in the cradle of liberty,” Cardwell said. “We’ll also be very responsive … because in our country, in the corporate world in Philadelphia, there are a lot of corporations that have LGBT employee groups such as TD Bank, Comcast, GlaxoSmithKline, etc.”
Cardwell also brought up the issue of different cultures within schools. He said, “A number of years ago, I spoke at the first Pride Day at Community College of Philadelphia, and I didn’t know that much about the school. Two faculty came to me and told me they weren’t out as school professors. They didn’t feel comfortable enough in the environment.”
From that perspective, Cardwell asked the students how comfortable they feel in the LGBT community at Drexel and if the school is LGBT friendly.
Kate Wisniewski, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering, said that the engineering school is dominated by straight males. “Going off is not great; it’s not terrible, either.”
Maureen Nolan, a junior studying communication and the president of FUSE, said, “Our community at Drexel is phenomenal, very progressive, I think.” She introduced that there is an LGBTQA professional staff network at Drexel and the I-Forum for people with diverse backgrounds.
To add on to that, Kenny Wittwer, a sophomore sociology major at Temple University and a former Drexel student, said, “There’s a big disconnect between how progressive our community is — and how intersectional and inclusive of all identities it is -—versus Drexel’s University policies, which haven’t quite caught up. FUSE is really the only resource for queer students.”
As a 68-year-old LGBT activist who has witnessed changes in the LGBT rights movement, Cardwell brought his concern of prejudice and mentoring to the table: “If we were going to become mentors, what would you want from us? What can we do?”
“I honestly think that the whole concept of mentoring is … not something I’m familiar with or really ever had,” Wittwer said.
Wittwer said he hopes to learn from other generations “so that this generation won’t make the same mistakes that the previous generation has made or just to make sure we are on the right path.”
“I think the further I progress in my career or whatever path I choose to take, being out and proud is something that I will do,” Nolan said.
Along that line, Rebecca Reyman, a senior studying civil engineering, wanted to learn from the experience of older mentors. “The biggest part that a mentor could give this new generation would be just stories or experience,” she said.
Cardwell shared the challenge of himself coming out. In an interview with a magazine, a journalist asked when he knew he was gay. “Five years old and I really felt that [be]cause I always felt different when I was growing up,” he said.
He was officially out at the age of 15. At that time, Cardwell was on a bandstand in a boys’ school in Delaware County, Pa., and dancing was not much of a masculine activity. Therefore, people started spreading rumors, and Cardwell received negative reactions and was bullied by peers.
“So then I just finally told people, ‘Yeah, I am. What’s the big deal?’” Cardwell admitted it was a very difficult lifestyle to lead.
Cardwell recounted how being gay in college meant he was “underground.” In Philadelphia back then, LGBT dance clubs and bars were hidden.
Cardwell decided to pursue his graduate education in Manhattan in the mid-1960s. “I knew I could be out in New York,” he said.
He followed a career path in education and got a job as an assistant headmaster of a private boarding school in New Hampshire.
“Then I had to go back in the closet, and I had two lives. When I was at the school, I was ‘flamboyant,’ as people said,” Cardwell said. But when he was not at school, he had his true identity. “[It was] a bit challenging to deal with when I think about it now,” he said.
After 12 years he left the boarding school and worked at a day school in central New Jersey, where he was able to come out to those around him. The head of that middle school decided to repaint teachers’ homerooms, and they painted Cardwell’s room lavender.
“That was how I came out at my school, at least to the administration. I looked at [my room] fondly.”
Cardwell is serving as the publisher and editor-at-large at QUEERtimes.net, a nonprofit news website about LGBT topics, and he is the developmental director at the Philadelphia Cinema Alliance. He also produces QFest, the Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, and works on pride events in festivals in various cities.