‘Professionally gay’

Matthews’ mission is to be a role model


Teresa Gaines

Jeff Matthews teaches ENGL-095 Accelerated Reading/Writing/Critical Thinking on Thursday 8/18/16 from 12:30-3:20pm

“I did get an egg thrown at me once, which hurt a lot. You wouldn’t think an egg would hurt so much but it did.”

Jeff Matthews recalled the one time he was truly harassed — while walking down a Southern California street in the ’80s and receiving an egg to the temple. Although an upsetting, if silly, gesture of discrimination, the Los Medanos College English professor says it is the only time he remembers ever feeling threatened for being gay.

Now, as the most prominent gay figure on campus, Matthews can laugh at the time 35 years ago when he was just coming out of the closet. Once a knowledge-thirsty 20-year-old who changed his major several times before deciding on English, the now 55- year-old professor is designing a new LGBT Studies degree expected to be offered at LMC in the fall of 2017.

His identity as a gay man and his passion for social justice have become the strongest forces in shaping the curriculum of the courses he teaches, his presence at the college, and his dreams for the future of his career.

Although many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals from his generation are known to have felt the societal prejudices and stereotypes of the ’70s and ’80s, other than the egg attack, Matthews said he never really experienced any personal attacks that greatly affected him growing up.  He was raised by accepting parents who, when he came out to them at 20, claimed they had “just figured.” He said he has since been out and proud.

“My parents were very accepting, no horrible things that a lot of gay people go through when they come out.” he said. “I was lucky that way.”

If you’ve seen him around campus, you may understand why he is grateful for his non-stereotypical demeanor as a gay man.

“I’m a big man who can look pretty scary if I need to,” said Mathews. “Because of my gender and size, I’ve been able to live a life pretty free of personal attacks or violence.”

But as a young boy, Matthews naturally acted against traditional male gender roles. He loved music; he loved to dance and the other boys made him nervous so he played with girls. He was resistant to the norm — the expectations that were placed on him early on — and he didn’t like it. This was the first sign that told him he was different.

In his own different fashion, Matthews started taking college courses during high school and to this day has not stopped. He attended five different community colleges before advancing to a state university.

“I wasn’t in any rush to finish college. It took me seven years to earn my four-year degree,” Matthews said.

However, colleges weren’t the only things he changed excessively.

“I was a dance major, I was a film major, I was a journalism major, I was a photography major,” he said. “Every time I took a class and liked it, I changed my major to that.”

The reason he was finally able to follow through in any area was because of the counselor who pointed out to Matthews all of his completed credits in English.

“I kept taking English 101 over and over again even though I kept getting A’s. I would retake the course — weird kid that I was. I liked it,” he said. “I liked courses that I got to write essays in.”

And Matthews’ essays were just as different as he was. He always got A’s, but not without throwing in his own provocative twist on assignments. While taking a humanities course he was assigned to explore a sub culture of San Francisco. So Matthews proceeded to write about the underground leather culture. In another class, he wrote an essay on non-verbal communication— thoroughly indulging his professor on the gay colored handkerchief code, with “a chart and all.”

He said of his college essays, “I did everything the assignment asked, but was essentially writing gay porn.” And then Matthews laughed, “I’ll never forget the comment my teacher wrote. She said, ‘Everything I wanted to know about this topic and then some.’”

Matthews was such a good writer that he was free to explore the incredibly controversial, volatile topics that so consumed his curiosities. He was always pushing buttons, “seeing how far I could ‘be gay’ and get credit for it.”

“I took a kind of pleasure in shocking my teachers. In hindsight, I know there was this part of me that was seeing if I could get a rise out of them.” he said, “Man I would love to have me as a student.”

Now in the shoes of those teachers, he thinks it would be fun to read papers from his students that creatively intrude comfort zones. He wants students to think outside of the box, just as he did on assignments.

Before deciding to become a community college professor, Matthews knew he couldn’t face the day of a normal nine-to-five job.  He may have taken seven years to complete one degree, but not because he was slacking off. He was working jobs that allowed him to rule out what he didn’t want to do with his life.

“This may sound silly, but I ruled out ever having a job where I had to wear a tie,” he said.

And Matthews has stuck to that motto ever since. He wears slacks or shorts and a casual button up shirt to work.

Since Matthews had taken so many classes with so many teachers at so many community colleges, his career soon became clear to him. He found himself fantasizing about being in the place of his teachers, wondering what it was like to work their jobs.

With his B.A. in English, he entered a teaching program at San Francisco State that focused on how to teach writing and English composition. He was training to become a community college professor.

Today, having worked at LMC for 24 years, Matthews said he has always felt supported on campus. He did, however, take it upon himself to be the gay presence in the ’90s when it wasn’t so common in school communities.  He recalls that other teachers were “out” to him, but that they weren’t going to take on the responsibility of the gay role model to students or involve themselves in the politics of LGBT issues.

“When I was hired at LMC, there was no visible queerness at all. There were no faculty that were openly gay, no student club, and no discussion of LGBT issues,” he said. “And I was very out and proud, so after being here I was like, where are all the gay people?”

So just like his essays, with no blessing or permission from anyone, he decided to decree himself the out and proud token queer teacher: “I just said this is now part of my job. I took it upon myself to become professionally gay.”

And once he did, other teachers followed suit. Never receiving any push back from the department kept him going and let him know that was he was doing was acceptable. He was the light of visibility the college needed at the time.

He got a sign, labeled his office the LGBT Resource Center of LMC, and thus became the man he is known as now — the teacher who oversees the Q-Spot club for LGBT students.

Matthews has always made his identity known in his classes. He comes out, applies queer content to his courses and is completely comfortable doing so.

However, he knows not everyone is able to do what he does. It isn’t always every queer adult’s dream to be “loud mouths, professional agitators,” as he describes it.

It’s apparent that his loud mouth, talent for agitation, passion for social justice and practice of pushing buttons has ultimately led to a positive outcome — designing the new LGBT Studies degree for the fall of 2017 at LMC.

The field of LGBT Studies is one Matthews naturally grew into. Students who have taken a class of his know that politics, social issues and history are all near and dear to his heart. Writing the new degree has allowed for all these subjects to combine with an LGBT lens.

He began pulling from courses to create an outline for the degree a few years ago. Although he never actually saw it becoming a reality, other people were supportive, a coalition formed and the Shared Governance Council has recently reviewed the plan and Matthews fully expects them and the Academic Senate to approve it.

Of the proposed degree, most of the classes are already offered at LMC. Except for one new class needing approval from the Curriculum Committee, students may already work toward this degree before it is officially offered in 2017.  It is only 18 units, quick, easy and transferable.

“It prepares students in multiple areas of work toward social justice. It pulls from history, politics, arts and sciences, and looks at them in terms of LGBT people and culture,” said Matthews, “A degree in this shows employers not only are you comfortable with interacting with diverse people, you’ve studied aspects of various cultures.”

Matthews is excited and grateful that he is able to put together such a program on a community college level. In hindsight, he says he may have even considered studying it himself had it been offered to him at the time of his seven-year college stint. He knows it is a privilege for students to major in such a topic now — one he did not have in the ’80s.

With too many English classes under his belt to count and a whole new degree as his likely legacy, Matthews said he is nearly ready to retire.

But until that time comes, his activism will remain prominent in his classroom.

“My ability to move students, motivate them politically and socially through the course content is probably the way my activism most manifests itself.” said Matthews, who is also involved in the LGBT community off campus and active in the artistic community of San Francisco.

Although he has no children of his own with his husband Christian of 27 years, Matthews said he is satisfied influencing the students he gets to teach.

Long time student and now close friend, “He really wants you to succeed. That’s his goal, to help you learn and understand the subject.”

Jeff Matthews’ career as a community college professor has left him feeling fulfilled.

“In terms of feeling like I’ve made a mark, left a legacy, I feel like through teaching, I’ve done something of lasting value.”