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Dan Dowhower Oral History Interview, March 2, 2020

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WYNTON SKOWRUP: Today's date is March 2nd, 2020. My name is Wynton Skowrup. This an oral history interview with Professor Dan Dowhower in Corvallis, Oregon, for the OSU History 368: Lesbian and Gay Movements in Modern America Oral History Project. Our first up prompt is: Where and how did you grow up?

DAN DOWHOWER: I am from the Midwest. I'm a Wisconsin boy. Grew up in southeastern Wisconsin, in a city called Racine, Wisconsin. I was one of four kids, the third in line. My mom was a stay-at-home mother. And my father worked in a factory. So, we were pretty much a blue collar, lower-middle-class family. And lived in one house for my entire life. In fact, my parents still live in the same house I grew up in. Growing up, I was sent to a parochial school, K-8th 00:01:00grade. And then after that, I went on to public school, which is probably the best decision I've ever made in my life and categorized myself as a recovered Catholic. So, that was kind of the formative years growing up. Where I grew up, pretty blue-collar neighborhood, kind of inner city.

WS: How would you describe your family while you're in a close family life growing up?

DD: We're pretty tight, actually. I think that my parents really made sure that we worked together as a family, that we had meals together every night. Mom being the traditional mom, of course, she did the domestic thing during the day and then made dinner so the entire family would eat together every single night. And we had conversations. Looking back on it, I think that one of the 00:02:00interesting differences, when I think of myself compared to other friends, is that ever since we were kids, all four of us had a voice in our house. And what we contributed was taken with importance by our parents. I think that there was a lot more communication than I realized, growing up between my family and my siblings. And to this day, we're pretty much still in contact with each other all of the time. We now have a family text so now it's a little bit more technologically based.

Growing up, it was straight forward. I mean, you had your brother and sister argument. But I think at the end of the day, it was definitely a place-in my home, at least for me and my family-that if everything else was failing me, I knew I had a place to go and have safety.


WS: Could you give us a quick survey of your coming out story?

DD: It's kind of a funny story. So it's really complex because I think if you think about that formal statement that you say "Hello, guess what? I'm gay," that didn't happen till I was 30. But the irony was I didn't feel like I had to come out. So, growing up, I've been in a relationship with my partner since the age the 19. It was pretty clear that-at least I thought it was clear-there was this relationship that was being acknowledged by everybody in my family. And as we grew up, we went to graduate school together, we moved to another city 00:04:00together, we bought a house together, it was a single-bedroom apartment before that.

So, what was very interesting was one day, my mother called and she-and this is a story you'll hear me tell in public too-called to let me know she was upset that Sonny Bono had died in a skiing accident. And I said, "Well, that's very interesting." I said, "But do you know Sonny Bono?" And she said, "No, but I was more upset with Chastity's response." At the funeral, she talked about being a lesbian and how her and her father weren't seeing eye-to-eye on this. And it was at that time, my mother said, "I don't understand why she would have to do that. She could've corrected that for herself."

And it was at that point I'm kind of like, "Um, what?" I said, "Hey mom, you 00:05:00know what? Can I give you a call back in a minute," and hung up the phone. And I talked to my partner-at that point, 12 years-and said, "Here's the interesting thing. I don't understand what's going on." And so I wrote a letter to everybody in my family. Everybody got this letter. And I sent out letter out. And a couple days later, of course, I got a phone call. And my mom was really distraught. She didn't realize, in her words, that I was gay because I didn't act gay. And I joked with her, I said, "Well, you just need to talk to the right people."

But I think for her, it wasn't that she had a problem with me being gay. In fact, my partner, and my sister, our partners that very much been incorporated into the family as much as anybody else. And it was something that you guys were 00:06:00mentioning with regard to some of the history that you've been exposed to in this class-is that I came out in 1981. So this is in AIDS crisis that hit the United States. And I think, for my mother, she was more thinking if I wasn't, then I was safe. But once we talked about it, she was like, "Oh my gosh. Put your partner on the phone," and talked and everything was fine. And of course, my father got on the phone, and I said, "have you heard any good secrets?" And he said, "Nothing I haven't known for a long time." So, all of this was really to help support my mom understand that this was the case.

So I guess, technically, at the age of 30 is when I came out. But it was, I 00:07:00think, for a very different reason. Not because I had to come out, but I think I had to let my mother know that I was okay.

RAY WOLF: Alright. I'm Ray Wolf and I'm gonna ask you some questions. We know that you have kids. And we were wondering how the adoption process went. What did you have to do?

DD: Well, we lived in Ohio at the time. And one of the things that was amazing-this was of course almost now 20 years ago-that in Ohio, they didn't recognize same-sex partnerships. In fact, most of the effort was to prevent anybody who identified as a member of the LGBTQ community from really anything. 00:08:00So what happened is when we decided that we were interested in adopting kids, we actually had to find an agency who was willing to work with us. And as we went to different agencies, for example, we went to Catholic charities and they told us, "No. We're not going to work with you," because basically our life is a sin, right? So why would they expose a child to that? But we ended up with the Jewish Community Federation. And they were so incredibly welcoming. And they totally lived up to their mission that families are based in love, not in terms of gender distributions. But that being said, the entire process, my partner had to 00:09:00go through as a single parent adoptee. I was not recognized by the law, nor was I recognized in any of the paperwork as something other than just a friend that happened to live in the house. But what we did was, I crossed out "friend" on every part of the document, and wrote "parent two" above it, which really kind of helped when you get further down the road. And the Jewish Community Federation did not say "You can't do that." I think they were like, "Do that," because this is how change happens. You've gotta identify yourself properly.

But as we move forward, even though I wasn't being recognized as a potential parent, we had to go through the same process as anybody else who was interested 00:10:00in adopting or even doing foster care. And that included FBI background checks, we had to give our fingerprints to see if there's any history of crime or ill-intended behavior, whatever that might be. We actually even had to have our dog reviewed. It was a small 18-pound West Highland White Terrier. And we had to confirm that even the animal was safe for a child to be in the house, and along with about 39 hours of parenting training which was a really eye-opening experience for us. Because what was really amazing was how much more we knew, but how little people who could be parents without adoption didn't know about 00:11:00nutrition, exercise and emotional wellbeing, and these kinds of things. So it was a real eye-opener. But we knew we were kind of breaking the new frontier so we just headed down and powered through. And, geez, maybe a year after we did all of that paperwork and work, we were identified for our first child. And then three years later, we got our second.

Then, living in Ohio, what happened was they decided to change the definition of marriage in the constitution that it was only between a man and a woman. And it passed. So, what that meant for us was they were going to, then, prevent anybody who wasn't married from being able to do adoption, much less foster care.


So at this point, even though my partner adopted the children, there was no legal connection to me. So, I might joke about it, but as a citizen of the United States of America, I had to become a political refugee. And we moved to Oregon because in terms of job opportunities, Oregon was the only place that would permit me the ability to adopt our kids. And so after six months here, I adopted the kids. And the state of Oregon asked Ohio to reissue the birth certificates, at which point, upon the receipt, my partner was identified as the father and I am listed as the mother of my children. They couldn't even change the form. So you know, that's fine. I get Mother's Day presents now, and I don't 00:13:00care. A parent is a parent.

So, that's that whole adoption process. The thing that was really interesting for us as we got more support from the community of color than we did from the Caucasian community around adopting our child. Of course, we had dear friends, but in terms of outside in general public realms, it was often people of color would approached us and said "Thank you for taking care of our babies." And I said, "Well, I think your babies are also taking care of us."

So, it was an amazing experience. And when both of these children became available to us, in terms of having to go before-cuz it sounds like a sales 00:14:00pitch, to be quite honest with you. Adoption is unlike "Oh, here. We found one and we're gonna give it to you." Your social worker has to go in front of a number of other social workers. And they all discuss their families and try to figure out what, and who, would be the best fit. So even though you might have seen a child, the toughest part of it was that you couldn't get excited. You didn't walk down the aisle. You had to wait.

And that was an interesting process because being two men, we couldn't, obviously, get pregnant. So we had no maternity or parent leave. So, when the first adoption occurred, we were given eight days of leave to be able to take care of matters. Now, think about this, so you have people who have carried this 00:15:00child for ten months. They deliver and then they get an additional six months off. We got eight days to transition and an established person into a completely strange environment with two people that this person, these people don't know. And we got eight days. And we were able to arrange things because of the kind of work we're in. But it was still very much an amazing difference that adoption is not treated as an equal kind of thing when it comes to having a child, biologically speaking, your own child. So that was a real trip.

And in my class, I talk about gender roles. And I think the one thing we heard 00:16:00so often was "Well, who's going to be the mother?" And the irony was, in many of these cases, they didn't know who the father was. So all of these children are being released for adoption, and it's clear that from a male perspective, the message is fathers don't matter, but mothers matter more. So that was always kind of an interesting experience because, as two men raising two children, that we had-and we did it cuz it was fun-to really learn a whole different part of life. And I will tell you if I saw you on the street and you were a person of color, female, I'd walk up and say "Here's my story. This is what's gotta 00:17:00happen." I even learned how to do hair thanks to YouTube. I could cornrow and plait and straighten and braid. But all of that was all on us. There was no real community that was available to us, to gay men with children. But we certainly built a community that then led to a very different kind of existence-not only for us, but for our kids-that was much richer and deeper than we ever imagined.

RW: Thank you. So, what challenges have you faced raising kids in this environment? Like stigma?

DD: We've actually been pretty lucky. I think that anybody who knows us as a 00:18:00couple, and us as a family, very quickly understand that. We'll talk about it. And if there's a reason to have to have deeper conversation. Then we're gonna do that.

But in terms of being gay parents, like I said, we were actually really, pretty lucky. We didn't get much backlash. There was a time, however, where we were out with our first child and getting into the car. And we got pulled over by the police cuz they thought we were kidnapping our child. So, that was an 00:19:00interesting thing because people are like "Well, that's a good thing, right, that they pulled you over?" Sure, it's a good thing. But are you pulling over everybody who doesn't look like a typical family, like two white parents with an Asian child, or a single parent father with the kids? Are they all getting pulled over? And that was kind of the conversation we ended up having to have-is that I appreciate that you're looking out for the safety of this child, but are you looking out for the safety of every child? Because if you're pulling us over-and I quote-"cuz we looked different", you've gotta admit we look different. I said "Well, then you have to admit that we are not the only ones that look different. Then are you pulling over everybody that looks different?"


The thing is you can either get angry about it, or you can be productive. We always chose to be productive. Sure inside, you get really angry, like, "Come on, yet another time I have to do this." It's like when they talk about coming out, right? You have to come out multiple times in your life. You don't just get to come out once, right? So sometimes it gets tiresome. And it gets old because it's really irrelevant at some point. Like, "What does this have to do with what we're doing right now?"

But we also saw the value and decided that this was-and I love Michelle Obama-so we chose to go high rather than go low because high always turned out better for us. And people appreciated hearing our story. It wasn't like they're doing things on purpose. I had never been able to fault somebody for something that 00:21:00they've never been exposed to. If you've not had an experience with a family like ours, then how can I expect you to rely on anything other than stereotypes or weird expectations? But once you get to know us, then now you don't have a reason to rely on those anymore. Now, you've been converted, so to speak. Does that...?

RW: Yeah. And what made you and your partner want to adopt kids or have kids?

DD: Actually, it's kind of funny. My partner always wanted kids. I knew this right out of the gate. Me, I'm like "I don't know." And it wasn't cuz I don't like kids. It was "I don't know if I'd be a good parent." Sometimes I get a little short. I was like "I don't know that I'm a good parent material." And 00:22:00then we spent a long time talking about it, which is really interesting because when we talked to other friends that have children that they've had biologically, when we tell them the kinds of conversations that we were having, they were like "We never even thought about any of that. We were just happy we were pregnant and then we had a little party, and then we figured it out from there." But we really needed to have our ducks in a row, because we knew that we were up against-might be a strong term-but we were up against a lot of people who were against what we were doing. And I remember we were sitting on a beach, and we sat and we talked about parenting style, what do we feel about in terms of how you take corrective action. Neither one of us ever believed in any kind 00:23:00of corporal punishment. So what's the common language we want to use to say "Okay, look, this probably wasn't the best choice to make." So, we really talked about all of those things. Parenting and nutrition, what our expectations of each other as parents were. There were some compromises. One of us, me, I'm more comfortable having to deal with diapers so it doesn't bother me. The other one, sometimes he could get a little gaggy. [Laughs]

So we did that. We had a lot of conversations about it. So when we walked into this process, and the social workers would ask questions or the service would 00:24:00ask questions, we had the answers. And we had the answers immediately because we did a lot of reflection. And ultimately, I relented because after all of those conversations, I thought "Maybe I am gonna be an okay parent." And we reflected on the way that we were raised and what liked and what we didn't like, and we want to do differently. We talked about education, we talked about how do you create an independent being and what age should we start doing that. We really talked about all of these things.

So, yeah. That was, I think, the difference. I guess we were just ready. So we 00:25:00decided that we had answered our questions, and we were ready to go. And so we did. We did right away. As soon as we got back from that beach, we started hunting down people who'd work with us. And we haven't stopped since.

RW: So, I'm gonna shift a little bit the theme. I want to ask you about your experience with marriage. What was your life like before marriage?

DD: I always-and we always-joke with our friends who could get married, is that we've been together for 36 years, so we outlived many of our friends' first, second-and even in some cases-third marriage. Because for us, we didn't have a legal document tying us together. There was no magic thing. We literally were 00:26:00like, "I wanna spend my life with you, so we are going to do this." And if we're going to do this, there's gonna good times, there's gonna be rough times, and there's gonna be shoot, bad times. But it's what you do. That's life. So, for us, we always have felt married. There wasn't anything that we didn't do that didn't "approximate" marriage, if you will.

So, when the option even became available, the only reason we wanted it was for tax purposes. The term marriage, in terms of what's being "protected", held no value to me, none whatsoever. Because that was clear, to me, that its really bad 00:27:00success rate was not something I was interested in investing in. In fact, when we decided to get married, one of our friends said "So, are you excited?" I said, "I'm not sure." I said "I haven't had any good role models for marriage." And they're like, "What do you mean?" I said, "Everybody I know has gotten a divorce," I said, "so I don't have any good role models because a good chunk of the people I know never survived it."

So, for us, it was just a chance to have some of our closest friends together and have this interesting ceremony, and celebrate and have fun. In fact, we got married in Washington because at the time Oregon hadn't made marriage legal at 00:28:00this point. And we're sitting in front of the TV. And it was the IRS that came out and said, "You know look-particularly from veterans with same-sex partners-if you get married in a state-and at that time there were only 5 states that you could get married in-that if you got married in a state that allowed same-sex marriage, that that what other state you lived in, they had to recognize it too." So this is kind of the beginning of the end of DOMA and this fight against same-sex marriage.

So, we looked at each other, and I'm like "So what do you think? You wanna get married?" And he goes "Eh, I think about it sometimes."

And then he goes, "How about you?" I said, "Ah, I don't know. I kinda got commitment issues. I'm not sure we're gonna be able to make this."

So it's just all in fun and good. And it was an amazing experience that then when we went to organize this activity, the person on the phone that was a 00:29:00marriage planner at the location said, "So, tell me, what does your ideal wedding sound like?" And I said, "That is a question I never expected to be asked." I said "So, I don't have an expectation." I said, "I don't even have a dream" because I've been told my entire life that that dream was not mine to be had. I said, "It's gotta involve martinis for sure." And I said "But I don't know beyond that because we were told we could never do this. But guess what, we're gonna do it now."

And we had to go get our marriage license in Washington. And it was this little teeny tiny town in Washington. So we were like, "Oh boy. How is this gonna go over?" When we walked in, to the license bureau and we said, "we're here because 00:30:00we're getting married and we need to get this marriage license," you would've thought celebrities walked in. These people were so welcoming and so lovely that they were like, "Everybody, everybody! We've got a couple! We've got a couple!" So, the thing is that if pain and suffering are all you expect, then all you're gonna experience, right? So we just went in thinking "It is what it is and just, same with adoption-" But it's just been good. It's just been good. And life's got haters in it. They're about as important to me as nothing so I don't have time for haters. And we just keep moving on.

So, that was marriage for us, and has been for us. And folks would say, "Well, now that you've gotten married, how many years have you been married?" And we'd 00:31:00joke "Oh uh-uh, that piece of paper doesn't mean anything." We have done our tour of duty, cuz we were at 30 years when we got married. And I said, "So, we're going into our 31st year." There's no "one" anymore. This is our tour of duty, we've been here. And in fact, we should probably count ours like 210 years, in gay people years, cuz we've had a lot more to stay together than most people have ever had to, right? So it's all been very fun. It is what it is.

RW: Can you talk about the changes in cultural mindset from when you guys first got together and present day?

DD: Well, yeah. I can remember as a kid that there were no words for this. I remember as a kid, growing up thinking something's not the same about me and the other guys. "I don't know what it is but they're all going right and I'm coming 00:32:00on left over here. I don't understand what this is." And growing in a Catholic church-and boy, we're seeing it rear its ugly head again-I was told that a relationship between two men is a sin, blah blah blah, all that stuff, right. And yet, here is this priest in front of me who was clearly not straight. But then when we were growing up, things seemed to start maybe moving in the direction that we saw the Stonewall thing catching. And it was growing and growing and growing.

But in 1981 when AIDS hit, it's almost the same thing that's happening with the 00:33:00Asian population and the coronavirus. All of a sudden, someone needed to be blamed. And someone needed to have to deal with all of this anger from society. So as a country, we did no favors for anybody buy calling it a gay disease. Because we knew around the world that that was in fact not true, that there were hemophiliacs and heterosexuals, people who represented something other than men who have sex with men, that were getting this disease. So we're still fighting that.

So, for us, it really was kind of this thing that you had to learn to be very cautious. So, what's interesting is that people will throw this word "queer" 00:34:00around. Every time I hear it, it upsets my stomach because that was not a nice word. And I understand taking the ownership of it, and I'm all about it. But you will never hear me refer to myself that way. Not because I'm embarrassed but because I have been on the receiving end of that word, and there was nothing but pure venom and hate being delivered with the use of that term, right. So, it was a very different world.

And then, in the 80s, it was very different with HIV on the scene. One of the, I think, interesting benefits of meeting your life partner at the age of 19 was that we were never really part of the scene. We didn't go out to bars. We didn't hang out. We weren't even part of that. So, in a lot of ways, we kinda skipped over that because we're like "Well, we can go to graduate school, or we can go 00:35:00out." And we're like, "Well, we're going to graduate school." So, that's what we did. So, in some ways, our experiences as a gay couple were -or even as gay individuals was-very different. Because we always were kind of in the shadows of an academic world. And we were very careful with our identities then too because there wasn't any protection even then. And you would think, "Look, you're in literally this liberal location." But that's not necessarily accurate-you can't make those assumptions. And we certainly couldn't do that, because we saw people losing their jobs and getting kicked out, and not getting their leases renewed, and getting beaten up for being who they were.

So that just made our resolve even stronger. In fact, we came to react with the human rights campaign and started doing a lot of work to bring more light. And 00:36:00we decided that we needed to come out stronger so that for those younger folks coming up, that they needed to see somebody. They needed to know that this is gonna be okay. Because we all carry baggage that someone's not gonna like, right? So, the idea is, you know what, own it and walk proud, cuz what else have you got? And if you do that, if you're not acting ashamed, then I think it takes power away from everybody else. Then there's no reason to be ashamed. It's just it is what it is.

RW: For our last main question, I wanted to ask what drew you to the profession of teaching, and how do your life experiences inform your teaching?

DD: Wow, that's an interesting question. I've always enjoyed teaching. I've 00:37:00always enjoyed it quite a bit. And my entire life was not necessarily higher ed or education per se. I was very much involved in training and development and selection system development, and working in organizational settings. And that, I really enjoyed. But what I started feeling a little creepy about was that I was helping organizations make sure that these people were as happy as they possibly could be to maximize profits for the organizations. And I'm like, "Hmm, I don't know if this is really what I wanna do." That's when we lived in Chicago.

But then when we moved to Ohio, I got into higher ed in the area of-I was 00:38:00involved in-research for a while in mental health issues. Then got into career services, and then advising. And then I got into the world of admission. And I became a director of admission. Then we relocated here. And I was back to advising. And then while here, I actually became lucky enough to get this job that involves issues around accreditation. And one of the things was-before it was the College of Public Health and Human Sciences-and they wanted to make that transition. I was the person that reviewed some of those documents to help them get ready for that transition. And it was in that that I learned about public health. And I'm like, "Oh, this is it." So I went and I got my master's. And then got a Ph.D. at the age of 52 when I was finished.


And during that time, I used my training because I really think it's important to communicate and to work with people, and to be really open to not saying "What I'm telling you is right," but saying "This is what I know and how does that resonate with you," and with that, where do I get to learn and grow, and where do you get to learn and grow. So, I've never-even when I was a trainer-ever walked into a room thinking that somehow I held the keys to the kingdom, cuz I just don't believe that that's true.

So while I was in graduate school here, I was able to teach. And it was just something that really resonated with me and became my passion. So, that's really how I got into higher ed from a faculty side. I'm not your traditional faculty 00:40:00member cuz I started out in administration and then came over to faculty, where often it's the reverse is what happens. But all that to say is that it really has informed who I am as a teacher, my life, the kinds of things we've been talking about. Like I said earlier, it's not for me to judge whether you've had the right or the wrong experiences.

All I can say is that I assume you've had some experiences. And I've had some experiences. And some of those experiences might be similar, and some might be very, very different. But what is the common ground and what are the things that we can take from that information? And then when you contextualize it within a class, like one of the classes I teach, then that's the same kind of process. I 00:41:00teach really uncomfortable course topics. I teach STIs/HIV, human sexuality, and then drugs, behavior in society. These are not Thanksgiving dinner table conversations. So, I think that I shock a lot of people, because I have no business teaching this class if I'm not gonna be honest, transparent and comfortable teaching it, right? So I think, for me, those are really core values to who I am as a person so it jibes well and makes teaching these courses very easy for me. So I think, in some ways, I've always been destined to work as an educator. Of where that was, was more to the fates rather than my active choices that I was making. But I think that my life experiences certainly had brought me to the right place and time, and content and topic. Does that make sense?


WS: Totally. Unless you guys have any more follow-ups, I think-

RW: I think that's pretty much it. Do you have any questions for us?

DD: No. I think this is a really exciting thing. And it'll be interesting to see the final product. But I think, you know, what you guys are doing is really important. That people need to know our stories. And it doesn't just need to be the LGBTQ story. It just needs to be stories. And I think that we have forgotten how to share our stories with other people. I think we rely a lot on technology. And we don't have conversations. We just Google what we think we need to know, or we text without really thinking about what's going on. I think this human 00:43:00connection piece is really important.

Really important if we want history to reflect-how do I say this. How we behave now certainly sets our future. But when we look back to say what have we learned, having our stories being told teaches us "Wait a minute, have we remembered to share our stories." Because I will tell you that far more often in my life, I have more in common with people not because I might be gay or I have kids. But it's that I have had to live through policies and laws that have 00:44:00worked to hurt rather than improve humanity, and that I have learned how to manage a great life within the constraints of some of these very restrictive kinds of things, and running across people who have exactly the same stories but their stories are not because they're gay or they've adopted. Their stories are because of whatever they're bringing to that table.

And I think that the connection that we get is so much stronger because we're not connected because we're both gay. We're connected because we both are humans that have had these experiences and can reflect on these things that worked against both of us, and to say, why? Why would we continue to do this? So, your 00:45:00allies become broader and deeper in many of these areas. And I think this kind of project helps with that. Now I'll get off my soap box. [laughs]

INTERVIEWERS: Thank you so much.

DD: Thank you very much. Thank you.