Photo by Anton Mislawsky
Whether it’s athletes in the Olympics or characters in books, it is highly important that people are represented both in the media and in their world. Studies have shown that minorities are more likely to consider careers in fields with low minority numbers when presented with actual people like themselves in those fields. As a young, queer person in the 90s in rural Alabama, I had few queer role models. In fact, I didn’t know any queer adults at all. So I lived in a little bubble of heteronormativity with my handful of queer and queer-adjacent peers, unsure of what it would mean to be a queer adult in the world.
In the spring semester of 1999, I took a class on Gender and Religion at Florida State University with Dr. Kathleen Erndl. Anyone who has taken a class from Dr. Erndl will tell you that she was a brilliant scholar, an engaging teacher, and quite simply, a wonderful person. It was my favorite class that semester and remains one of the best I’ve ever taken. Dr. Erndl brought in guest speakers including a local lesbian pastor (which I never thought of as a possibility) and was open about her own identity as a queer woman. My final paper in that class was a (terribly written) short play being outed to a church youth group. It was horrible. But for my presentation I simply told the story of what had inspired it. It was the first time I had ever told my story to people who hadn’t lived through it with me. It was, by far, one of the most powerful moments in my queer life. I was allowed to use a space to tell people who I was and how that had colored my world. It gave me agency I’d never had.
I took every class Dr. Erndl taught and eventually managed to convince her to be the director for my honors thesis. The semester I defended that thesis was possibly the worst few months I’d had since high school, and I was convinced I’d never be able to finish the thesis, let alone my degree. Dr. Erndl did everything in her power to help me finish, and she is the reason I learned about Point Foundation. Even after I was no longer taking religion courses, she remained my mentor and friend.
During my time at FSU, I also had the great fortune to also take courses from Dr. Martin Kavka, another brilliant queer scholar in the FSU Religion department. Prior to meeting these two, I had no real world representations of what it was to be a queer person in academia or anything else. As a child, I knew what a PhD was (somehow) and have always wanted to earn one, but as a queer teenager, I was unsure how that would ever work. As far as I could tell, being a queer adult meant silence, and I had no idea how it would be possible to exist that way without going completely out of my mind. Drs. Erndl and Kavka showed me that my life could be different. They gave me a picture of queer adulthood that remains one of the most valuable things I’ve ever learned, both in and out of the classroom.
Point Scholar Dawn Betts-Green (center) with Drs. Erndl and Kavka
Through my continued studies, I have been blessed with a multitude of queer role models and mentors. My dissertation advisor, Dr. Don Latham; outside committee member, Dr. Petra Doan; and my Point mentor, Genie Taylor, are brilliant examples of the possibilities of being all shades of queer in the South; my mentors and the crew at Point continue to show me new possibilities.
As I was finishing high school in ‘97, Ellen Degeneres came out on her show. She appeared on the cover of Time with “Yep, I’m Gay” scrawled across her picture. I cannot describe to you the awesome feeling of seeing that cover in my school library and on the shelves of my public library. I was also obsessed with My So-Called Life and Wilson Cruz’s character Rickie, but as amazing as it is to have famous, media present representations of ourselves, having people in our immediate world who look, feel, and live like us is even more important. Drs. Erndl, Kavka, Latham, and Doan and my Point folks have shown me that I can thrive and do what I love without hiding who I am—something I never thought would be possible.
When my wife and I finally got legally married in 2016, Dr. Erndl came to the dinner with one of her (as always) generous gifts. Less than a year later on February 19, 2017, she passed away unexpectedly, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been as grieved to lose someone who was not related to me. I was sick the day the university held her memorial and was unable to take part, and so I’m presenting this as a long overdue tribute to Dr. Kathleen Erndl, but also to queer mentorship and the power of representation. May we always be the people our younger selves needed.
This post was written by Point Scholar Dawn Betts-Green.
Dawn finished her undergraduate education at Florida State University, with a bachelor’s degrees in Women’s Studies, Religion, and Creative Writing. She went on to earn a Masters in Library and Information Studies with a certificate in Youth Services. Read more about Dawn here.