October 19, 2003 - The Olympian: Costa Rica RPCV and Gay Rights activist Jose Gomez says Cesar Chavez inspired him to join his cause

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Costa Rica RPCV and Gay Rights activist Jose Gomez says Cesar Chavez inspired him to join his cause

Read and comment on this story from the Olympian on Costa Rica RPCV Jose Gomez, a professor at The Evergreen State College, says Cesar Chavez inspired him to join his cause and later become Chavez's right-hand man. Gomez recently was honored by Harvard Law School for starting a gay civil rights group 25 years ago. Read the story at:

Harvard to Evergreen*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

Harvard to Evergreen
Professor's path to South Sound filled with years of worldwide travel, activism, education

Caption: Jose Gomez, a professor at The Evergreen State College, holds the original Time magazine cover on Cesar Chavez that inspired him to join his cause and later become Chavez's right-hand man. Gomez recently was honored by Harvard Law School for starting a gay civil rights group 25 years ago.

Ron Soliman/The Olympian

On the Web

The Evergreen State College: www.evergreen.edu

Jose Gomez is an unassuming man with piercing eyes, elegant, expressive hands and a book-filled office at The Evergreen State College.

This year he is co-teaching a course called "Dissent, Injustice and The Making of America," and he is a long way from where he started.

Just how far became obvious in September when Gomez received the Harvard Law School Lambda Distinguished Alumni award, honoring his bold efforts to start a gay civil rights group on campus 25 years ago.

A colleague of civil rights and labor leader Cesar Chavez and veteran of the California farm worker conflicts of the early 1970s, Gomez was no stranger to controversy when he slipped an invitation to fellow law students to form a committee on gay legal issues in their mail boxes Sept. 19, 1978.

"Why a Committee on Gay Legal Issues?" he asked in all capital letters.

Beyond campus at that time, gay gathering spots were being raided by police, and anti-gay laws were being promoted around the country.

Gomez, who had no idea how his invitation would be received, nonetheless asked concerned students to gather to discuss how they could work to protect the civil rights being denied to gays.

Barbara Kritchevsky, then a law school colleague, said Gomez took a courageous step considering the level of ignorance that prevailed about homosexuality.

During one debate over adding sexual orientation to the law school's nondiscrimination policy, Kritchevsky recalled an administrator confusing homosexuality with cross-dressing. She told Gomez that if he went to an interview in a dress, he couldn't expect people to take him seriously.

"Jose was really ahead of his time. He got the whole thing going," said Kritchevsky, now a professor of law and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Memphis (Tenn.) Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.

"There certainly was some risk there," she said.

Despite the risk, a dozen people showed up.

That showing emboldened still others to join, and a sympathetic constitutional law professor agreed to sponsor the Committee on Gay Legal Issues, or COGLI. Kritchevsky became one of the original officers.

COGLI later changed its name to the simpler "Lambda."

The alumni award was presented on the 25th anniversary of that first meeting. For Gomez, returning to campus to celebrate the accomplishments of the many lawyers who passed through the group in the intervening years was surreal and gratifying.

"It was the highlight of my professional career, knowing what this organization is doing," Gomez said.

Far from home

Gomez was 33 when he enrolled at Harvard. He was, by all accounts, an unlikely candidate.

One of 10 children of Mexican-American parents who had completed only the second grade, Gomez was born in Colorado and raised in Wyoming, where his father worked in coal mines.

When that dried up, the family went to work in fields. Gomez remembers sleeping on his side at 11 because his back was too sore to lie on.

Later, he would work with Chavez and the United Farm Workers to pass laws against the short-handled hoe, the crippler of so many agriculture workers.

Compared to the fields, school was paradise, and Gomez was determined to succeed. Still, while his parents supported his high school ambitions, his father balked when he said he wanted to go to college and become a teacher.

His father said he needed to help support the family.

He went to the University of Wyoming anyway and graduated with degrees in education, journalism and Spanish. He wanted to teach Spanish, but a professor encouraged him to think about teaching in college instead of high school.

A Fulbright Scholarship allowed him to travel to Nicaragua to study Spanish and Latin American literature. His year there awakened his political consciousness.

After Nicaragua, he spent time in the Peace Corps and teaching at an American-style school in Costa Rica.

His next big awakening arrived in the form of a Time magazine, dated July 4, 1969. The magazine published a cover story about Cesar Chavez and the grape boycott in California, "The Grapes of Wrath, Mexican-Americans on the March."

He joined Chavez's effort, working on East Coast boycotts and, for two years, as Chavez's personal assistant.

Like everyone else, he worked for room, board and $5 a week.

Paul Chavez, president of the National Farmworkers Services Center and a son of Cesar Chavez, remembers Gomez as the "glue" that held the movement together at a time of great turmoil.

When the union went from nothing to 70,000 members after the five-year grape boycott, Gomez helped administer the workload. Later, when credit unions, day cares, health clinics and other services sprang up to serve farm workers, Gomez helped coordinate their efforts.

"Jose was really the glue that kept that together while my father was out of the office," said Chavez. "It was difficult and it was amazing."

Gomez later left the UFW for a job with California Gov. Jerry Brown, where he organized support for the Agriculture Labor Relations Act.

Pursuing law

Working in the political arena stirred something new in Gomez -- a desire to go to law school. But not just any law school. For Gomez, there was only one option.

"I saw getting a Harvard law degree as a credential to prove to myself I could do it," he recalls.

Solid grades, a good showing on the Law School Admissions Test and his activist background clinched his admission.

Right from the start, he was interested in civil rights and civil liberties. "I wanted to explore how injustices have led to dissent," he said.

Once in law school, Gomez noticed the legal community remaining silent as anti-gay initiatives advanced.

"I thought this was not right," he said.

His first summer, he clerked for a gay rights association in San Francisco, where he researched gay and lesbian legal issues. That meant studying cases using rudimentary computer systems. "Repugnant social concept" was one phrase that came up in case after case.

There were few positive outcomes.

"It was a different era," he said.

The Committee on Gay Legal Issues formed his second year. Its first challenge after being recognized by Harvard was to persuade the law school to add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy.

There were arguments and threats of picket lines. One administrator objected on the basis that Harvard included its nondiscrimination policy on its official stationery and adding new categories would take up too much space.

Still, the school eventually conceded.

"It went on the letterhead," he said.

The group took on the military next, asking Harvard to refuse to host military recruiters since they reject gay candidates.

They won that battle, but temporarily. The government now requires any institution that accepts federal funding to allow recruiters on campus.

Why pick on the military? For that, Gomez concedes, he picked a page from the United Farm Workers playbook -- that strength comes from adversity. Also, the military at that point had an explicit policy against gays, making it an inviting target.

For Kritchevsky, elevating the status of the debate over civil rights for gays was COGLI's chief accomplishment.

"It's a serious issue that deserves serious attention," she said.

Coming here

Gomez ended up in the Northwest about 15 years ago when he moved to Portland to help care for his dying father.

Later, savings exhausted, he turned to the newspaper want ads in search of a job and discovered a dream position at Evergreen.

Now 60, he says there's something satisfying in teaching after so many years as an activist and advocate.

"Teaching gives me the opportunity to bring together in the classroom my experiences in the farm worker movement and the gay rights movement," he said.

"I think there's nothing more important than training the future activists -- not that that's just what we do at Evergreen."

Wendy Culverwell covers education for The Olympian. She can be reached at 360-754-4225 or wculverw@olympia.gannett.com.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Costa Rica; Advocacy; Politics; Hispanic Issues; Law; Gay Issues



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