Jose Rodriguez: Spreading goodwill on campus

Jose Rodriguez: Spreading goodwill on campus

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PGN receives many recommendations for this column, but this was a favorite.

We received a letter from a student at Penn State Abington. The letter read, in part: “I am the captain of the men’s cross country team and I want to tell you a little about my coach. He is well known and very popular on campus. Many students go to him for help with schoolwork or just help in general. He is also head of the FLAGSA group on campus, which discusses issues of sexuality from a gay, lesbian and bisexual viewpoint and sponsors educational programs and social-awareness events, which allows students to learn about and/or discuss sexuality issues in a confidential and supportive environment. He also supports many other groups and programs on campus ... He is an icon to this campus.” We took his suggestion and spoke to coach Jose Rodriguez. A friendly guy with an easy laugh, we can see why he’s a campus icon.

PGN: Tell me about the Rodriguez family. JR: My parents are from Puerto Rico, but I was born in Manhattan and grew up in Bayshore, Long Island. A very suburban upbringing. I have a brother who’s a year and a half younger, though he thinks he’s older — until it comes to big decisions!

PGN: What did your parents do? JR: My dad worked for an aluminum company, but he loved to build things and do carpentry on the side and my mom was our school bus driver.

PGN: Did you have to behave especially well on the bus? JR: Yes. But back then, everyone knew everyone, so we all had to behave. If someone got loud, my mother would just say, “Suzi, I’m going to tell your mom if you don’t keep it down!” And that was it.

PGN: What was your favorite thing to do as a kid? JR: Soccer. I lived and breathed it, which is typical for someone from a Latino background. We had soccer balls everywhere. My bedroom, the kitchen, in the yard. If you opened a closet door, they’d fall out on you.

PGN: What was your favorite class? JR: I was into the sciences — math, chemistry, physics. I loved them all.

PGN: Did you go to Puerto Rico as a kid? JR: Not until I was an adult. Most of my mother’s family came to New York too, but my father’s family stayed there. He was the second youngest of 19 kids! We spent a lot of time with relatives on my mother’s side.

PGN: Did you study sports in college? JR: No. I studied economics at Allegheny College. But I was very active in track and field.

PGN: So, coach, you’re not a gym teacher? JR: No, I’ve been an administrator at the school for 16 years. I’m the director of Cultural Affairs, which means I’m responsible for infusing diversity in the curriculum and making sure campus is a welcoming environment for all. I coach on the side.

PGN: I was just reading about the racially motivated attacks against Asian students in Philadelphia. JR: Yes. It’s always a challenge. It’s interesting because it fluctuates. Gay folks used to be a bigger target, but after 9/11, intolerance against people who practice Islam spiked. It’s my job to help educate people. Not to just say something is wrong, but to explain why and challenge people to think differently. Thankfully, we’re in a really good place on our campus. I’m no longer the only openly LGBT person at the school. Of course I was never the only gay person here, but for years I was the only out person! Now it’s not even an issue.

PGN: When did you know you were gay? JR: In high school I was on the track team. One September, I remember seeing one of my track mates, and boy had he blossomed over the summer. I remember saying, “Oh my God, Cory, you look really good.” He said thank you and I persisted, “I mean really good.” In my head, I kept thinking how hot he looked and then it registering that guys aren’t supposed to think of other guys as hot. So I knew that there was something going on but I didn’t pursue it. Gay wasn’t something you talked about or even saw on TV back then, except for “Three’s Company” and they made light of it. When I went to college, I joined a fraternity, and being surrounded by all those guys definitely brought it to my attention. I had a new frat brother assigned to me and we spent every Friday together. I started falling in love with him and one week when he wanted to cancel because he had a date, I got really jealous. [Laughs.] He couldn’t understand why it was a big deal and I was like, “No, Fridays are our night!” Then I had to check myself and deal with my feelings. For grad school, I chose Penn because I’d heard they had a large LGBT population. Once I got there, I was involved with all sorts of LGBT groups including the Front Runners, which was a gay running club. And I had my first kiss with a guy at age 26! [Laughs.] I was not his first, by far! But I was lucky and he was really great: We’re still best of friends. PGN: Family? JR: They struggled a little, but it only took my mother two or three weeks to go through the “What did I do wrong?” phase and then she was fine. My dad was OK with it too.

PGN: What traits did you get from them? JR: My father liked to build things. If he’d been better educated, he could have been an engineer, which is where I get my math and science interest. My social-service side came from my mother. We’d watch the news together and discuss it. They always instilled a belief that we should accept and respect everyone, never judge people collectively. We had people from all walks of life in our house.

PGN: Were you ever harassed? JR: Of course! Coming out of Woody’s was the first time I ever had someone call me faggot. A car of guys just drove by and were shouting things out the window as I was walking home to Penn. I was like, “Are you kidding? Don’t drive away from me! I’m from New York, I don’t run, park the car and let’s talk about it.” They didn’t. I’ve had a few job interviews that were going well until I mentioned being gay and suddenly, I could feel the air change. Nothing overt was said, but I could tell what was happening. But that’s why I say something, because I don’t want to get stuck working somewhere that’s not welcoming. I want it out there from the start. Racially? Here in the City of Brotherly Love, I can’t go shopping without having store keepers follow me around as if I’m going to steal something.

PGN: Where did you go after grad school? JR: I went to the University of Toledo [Ohio]. I absolutely loved the school and my colleagues, but it was strange. It was such a closeted area that, being an out gay man, I’d get hit on by straight men in the grocery store while their wives were in another aisle picking out baby diapers. It was uncomfortable, so I left.

PGN: As an openly gay administrator, what impact have you had? JR: I think just being able to be there for kids to approach — someone they feel safe talking to. Even being open to straight kids who may want to ask questions they’ve always had about gay people. I’m a firm believer in education and my students know that if they have the courage to ask the question, I will answer it. How else are they going to learn — other than Jerry Springer or home, where they oftentimes get misinformation?

PGN: Any particular story come to mind? JR: I had one student who came to tell me that he thought he might be gay. When I asked him why, he told me that he’d slept with one of the other male students. I asked him if they’d spoken about it and he said, “No, but that always happens with us.” I asked how often it had happened and he said, “Every night for three years.” [Laughs.] I was blown away and finally said to him, “Uh, OK, you don’t need to question it. You spend more time together than a lot of married couples! You’re in a full-blown relationship.”

PGN: What are some of the racist moments you’ve had to address? JR: We had a kid who was elected as student president. He looked like a Ken doll and came from a very privileged background. I knew from past conversations that he was also very racist, sexist and homophobic, and was shocked that he’d been elected considering how progressive our school is. I sat him down for a talk and made it clear that he was the representative for all students, not just his click of friends, but everyone. I pointed out to him how sexist, etc., his actions were. He resisted at first, but then he started to take note and really came around. One of the lessons he learned was not just to listen to the people who were visible and vocal, but to look out for the ones that usually don’t talk. To ask, who am I not hearing, who is not at the table? He really changed and ended up being a very good leader. By the end, we did a poster about homophobia. We had pictures of 10 people with the tagline that one in 10 people were gay and he volunteered to be one of the people on the poster. It was wonderful. He’s in his 30s now and has grown to be a great guy.

PGN: How did it feel to have the students nominate you for this Portrait? JR: It’s touching. The men’s cross country team and their captain decided they wanted to do something nice for me. When they contacted PGN, it said a lot about them. When we first started, I’d hear homophobic remarks on occasion but put an end to that quickly. It’s not an issue anymore and we’ve become very close. Just for them to do the research to find a gay paper and then to go through the trouble of contacting the paper and following through on it was a lot of effort on their part. Right before our break, Austin Lichtin, the team captain, told me he’d been in touch with the paper. He told me that he’d done it on behalf of the team, that they wanted everyone to know how much they respected and cared about me. It was such a wonderful gift. Don’t take it personally, but I didn’t think anything would come of it. I figured you guys had a zillion other things to cover: I was just floored that this group of heterosexual young men would go through so much effort to do something they thought would be meaningful to me. Actually being interviewed is just the icing on the cake.

PGN: What’s a sporting event you wished you could have witnessed? JR: Without a doubt, Cathy Freeman in the 2000 Olympics. That was so moving. Representing the Aboriginal people and the people of Australia — in her home country — must have been so much pressure and she handled it with such grace and poise. I don’t care if I had the last ticket in the highest nosebleed section, I wished I’d been there to see her win. I was fortunate enough to go to the Gay Games and run on the same track and, even then, I was emotional being right where that historic event occurred.

PGN: What was your worst injury? JR: I pulled my hamstring during the qualifying race for the state championships. It was not my finest moment. I was really disgusted because it was my senior year and I’d been ranked No. 1 in the state and was expected to win. Of all times for it to happen! [Laughs.] It wasn’t pretty. My mother said she was highly disappointed in my behavior! If I could turn back time, I would have been much more sportsman-like than I was! PGN: How do we all get along? JR: The first thing is to assume goodwill. If someone bumps into you, don’t assume they did it intentionally. If someone asks you a question, like are you black or mixed or gay or queer or whatever, don’t get defensive if you’re not. Or, if you are and don’t like the term, don’t react negatively: Use it as an opportunity to educate. Tell them that you prefer African American or lesbian or gay. And present it in a way that welcomes dialogue. Too many people walk around thinking ill of our brothers and sisters in the world, yet most people at heart are good, decent people. Just give them a chance to show it by opening up first. Say hello to the person standing on the elevator with you instead of jabbing the button until you get off. Let down your guard on occasion and good things will come to you. I firmly believe that.

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