Lyndon President Joe Bertolino: Gays don’t bite

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Lyndon President Joe Bertolino: Gays don’t bite

Lyndon State’s President Joe Bertolino

Lyndon State’s President Joe Bertolino

Kayla Friedrich

Lyndon State’s President Joe Bertolino

Kayla Friedrich

Kayla Friedrich

Lyndon State’s President Joe Bertolino

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“People always ask me, ‘Joe, when did you first know you were gay?’ Like I have a special gay day, or something,” said Lyndon State College President Joe Bertolino. “Happy gay day to me, happy gay day to me with cards and a cake, a flaming cake of course. Well, I’d like to ask you, when did you first know you were straight?”

Johnson State College hosted Bertolino as part of healthy relationships week on Tuesday, Feb. 11 in Bentley 207. He began his presentation of “When the Gays Move into Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” with a little humor to get the energy flowing. “I’m the gay. I have my little, almost Mr. Roger sweater, so I’m all set,” he said.

At the age of 26 he came out about being gay and said his family was shocked; his mother even cried. But many of his friends told him they knew before he did. In high school and college, Bertlino said he thought that if he dated enough women, the feelings that he was having toward men would go away, but later realized that nobody chooses to be gay.

“When I came out to myself, a burden was just lifted off of my shoulders,” he said. “It’s a very freeing experience. It [being with my first man] was exciting. Quite frankly, it was liberating. I felt whole. It made sense to me. It’s not all about intimacy either; it’s about an emotional connection.”

While not married, he recently celebrated his 20th anniversary with his partner, Bil Leipold. Bertolino said 20 years for a gay couple is like 60 years for a straight couple, eliciting laughs from the audience.

Leipold could not make it to the program.

The main point of the presentation, according to Bertolino, is to try to learn as much as you can, because knowledge and experience equal change. He invited JSC students who attended to ask any question they wanted, but advised not to ask a question they would rather not know the answer to. He’s heard them all. He was willing to answer anything, including what he and Bil like to do in the bedroom, because, according to him, some obnoxious person in the back of the room usually asks.

He also emphasized he doesn’t know everything. “I can’t tell you, for example, what it’s like to be a lesbian,” Bertolino said, looking at his fly and down his shirt. “That equipment is not here, and let’s be honest. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

After the introduction, the program continued with a word game, in which the audience had to come up with words people use to describe those in the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning) community whom they have never met. What words would be used to describe friends or family members who are gay?

The list included pillow biter, faggot, fanny bandit, rump ranger, carpet muncher, fruit cake, fairy, queer, pole smoker, dyke, sperm farmer, anal invader; and to the credit of JSC, because Bertolino had never heard it before, fish licker.

On the other hand, the list to describe family members and friends brought humanness to being a member of the LGBTQ community. This list included closeted, charismatic, beautiful, fabulous, awesome, colorful, intelligent, classy, flirtatious, and sassy.

It was an exercise to show that what people say and how they refer to others matter. One can’t assume that everyone in his mix is heterosexual, and must avoid anti-gay remarks in conversation.

Bertolino said everyone wants to be known as a person and wants to have the same rights as those around him. Heterosexual privileges are slowly becoming available to the LBGTQ community. Currently, only 17 states have legalized same-sex marriage and same-sex couples generally can’t get child custody, employment benefits for family, immediate emergency room access, or joint credit.

Homophobic behavior must be confronted head-on. He said you’re not trying to change someone’s mind, but you must speak your side. Conversations are powerful and can spark dialogue, discussion, and change in a community.

“What do you do when you meet gay and lesbian folk?” Bertolino asked. “First of all, don’t run screaming from the room. This is rude. Secondly, don’t assume they are attracted to you. This is important, straight boys always think we’re attracted to them. Listen to me carefully. I want to let you in on a secret. We have something. It’s called taste.”

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