A Gay President Says 'I Do'

September 19, 2007

Like many college leaders, Ralph Hexter opens up the presidential home each fall for a party for faculty and staff members. At a Tuesday evening garden party, Hexter told his guests that on September 1, he married his co-host for the event (and many such events at Hampshire), his partner of 27 years, Manfred Kollmeier.

As one of a small but growing number of gay and lesbian college presidents, and as one who has lived in Massachusetts since he became Hampshire's president in 2005, Hexter had the option of getting married -- something he is quick to note most gay people lack. Not only is he in the only state with gay marriage, but Hexter works for a college and in a college town where "people are so welcoming and accepting," he said. In an interview Tuesday, Hexter talked about why he and Kollmeier got married now and how that choice relates to Hexter's career as a scholar and as a college president.

Hexter noted that "we didn't rush to get married," even when that became a possibility in Massachusetts. Previously, Hexter taught at Yale University and the University of Colorado at Boulder and he became an administrator at the University of California at Berkeley. Early in their relationship, "marriage wasn't even on the horizon" as a legal possibility, Hexter said. Their commitment was long settled, "but marriage wasn't part of the vocabulary."

When they arrived at Hampshire, Kollmeier was welcomed (and put to work) in similar ways to many a presidential spouse. He was included in the press releases and official biography, he accompanies Hexter to many events, and at fund raising dinners, "he can be the head of a table just as I do when we've got more than one table of guests," and he "works the room and represents me," Hexter said. "I could not do the job without him." (Kollmeier is retired after a career in real estate and home renovation.)

Given the role they have already played as a couple, Hexter said he didn't anticipate that marriage would change anything in terms of the extent to which the couple works on behalf of the college. But he said getting married -- and announcing it Tuesday (the wedding itself was small and private) -- were important things to do.

"We feel that we have a very precious right. We are fortunate to live in Massachusetts and in the Five College area where people are so welcoming," Hexter said. "We're celebrating the visionary boldness of Massachusetts and Hampshire College for being an accepting and warm place." A party for students is scheduled for today.

Hexter also said it was important for others to see gay people in long-term, loving relationships, as opposed to judging gay people by "a Republican senator who shall go unnamed and the sorry display of so many people in that case."

Kollmeier said of the marriage: "Ralph and I made a lifelong commitment to one another many years ago, so marrying is not about marking a new stage in our relationship.... Discrimination should end and all couples who wish to be civilly married, wherever they live, should have the right to do so."

At the announcement Tuesday, Hexter wasn't able to get to the words "we got married": Cheers erupted as soon as he said that he and Kollmeier had just done something "we could only do in Massachusetts."

For Hexter, the marriage also marks a personal milestone that relates to an important part of his scholarly career. While he was at Yale, he was a close friend and colleague of John Boswell, a historian whose two books on gay history in medieval Europe are considered to have been path-breaking for gay history. Hexter, a classicist, at various times helped with research and proofreading for both works, and especially worked on translations of documents in Greek.

The second book, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, argued that not only had male couples formed partnerships for centuries, but that these partnerships had been blessed in church ceremonies. While the book was praised by some historians for its discovery of long forgotten ceremonies, the work outraged Roman Catholic leaders and many opponents of gay rights. It was published in 1994, the same year Boswell died from complications from AIDS. It fell to Hexter, as a collaborator, to do some of the public speaking and letter writing defending Boswell.

"The book was very poorly treated when it came out, and was dismissed by many," Hexter said, because they just couldn't grasp the idea of same-sex unions. "It was at a time of organized resistance to the gay rights movement."

While the debate over gay marriage today still has plenty to frustrate Hexter, he said his announcement and the push for gay unions in several states show how much progress has been made. Some of that is because people's views were challenged by Boswell's book. "I don't think we would be where we are with marriage today without that book," he said.

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