On the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, Williams Magazine highlights four alumni activists who are helping to reshape LGBTQIA culture on campus and in the world.
By Liz Leydon
Here is how community grows: someone sees an empty space and imagines it full.
Mike Dively ’61 grew up in an era when being gay wasn’t discussed openly—not with family, not with school friends in Cleveland and not at Williams, then an all-male college. The impact of so much silence was stifling. Dively didn’t come out until he was 42 years old.
“The world was terribly small compared to today’s world,” he says.
Indeed, much has changed around LGBTQIA awareness in America. And Dively has had a hand in inspiring that change at Williams. In 1991, he funded an endowment intended to promote access to and understanding of LGBTQIA culture on campus. The fund helped enable the college to become a place where Gina Muñoz ’94, now chair of the Trevor Project, a youth suicide prevention organization, felt supported enough to come out. Where Sean Saifa Wall ’01, now an activist championing the rights of intersex people, developed a passion for social justice as co-chair of Williams’ Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Union. And where Carina Vance Mafla ’99, who went on to fight for health rights and protections for the gay and lesbian community as Ecuador’s minister of health, flew her first rainbow flag from a dorm room window.
Influenced by their time at Williams, these alumni and countless others are reshaping the landscape for the next generation. Dively says he’s proud of that legacy: “I have a lot of joy about it.
Growing up in Cleveland in the 1940s and ’50s, Mike Dively ’61 says he knew he was “different.” But he didn’t know what that meant.
“It’s perhaps sometimes hard to relate to or be able to understand,” he says. “But I basically don’t remember ever talking to anybody about, quote, being gay, probably until I was in my early 40s.”
By the time he came out, he’d already attended law school at the University of Michigan, won a seat in the Michigan State House of Representatives and served three terms. He worked in the Michigan Commerce Department and the Energy Administration, taught government at Albion College and, despite uncertainty about his sexuality, married a woman.
But, eventually, Dively reframed the question he’d long struggled with.
“The question wasn’t ‘Am I gay or not?’” he says. “The question was, ‘When am I going to accept that I’m gay?’”
In 1989, at the age of 50, he moved to Key West, where he helped found a community center for gay residents and established the Key West AIDS Memorial. Then came the fund at Williams, and, to oversee it, a group of students, faculty and staff known as the Dively Committee for Human Sexuality and Diversity. He later created a Summer Opportunity Grant to help fund internships, summer courses, research and other projects for Williams students to gain understanding of LGBTQIA life experiences, issues and expressions.
“I have a deep love of Williams,” Dively says. “My four years there shaped a lot of me.”
Dively’s gifts came with no strings attached, just the guiding principle that they fund programs and projects that help spread an inclusive message about human sexuality and create a vibrant and visible community on campus. The more people that message reaches, he says, the better.
He named the programs for himself to make the point that gay benefactors need not be anonymous—to show “that people are proud of being gay and proud of funding an endowment,” he says, adding, “and maybe to serve as a role model for others.”
The committee hosted its first event on Oct. 3, 1992, with a performance by Pomo Afro Homos, a gay African American theater troupe from San Francisco, that drew hundreds of people to Adams Memorial Theatre. Since then, the fund has sponsored queer film festivals and a summit for college students from across New England. Students and faculty have commissioned lectures on subjects ranging from how economics intersects with sexual identity to the themes found in British condom ads, with speakers including graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, scholar and Against Equality founder Ryan Conrad, author and cultural critic Roxane Gay and transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox. the Dively Committee hosts Halloween balls, lunches and, each May, a Rainbow Graduation ceremony honoring LGBTQIA seniors and their loved ones.
This past June, the fund helped send 19 students to New York City for World Pride, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. It was the largest known Williams contingent to take part in the Pride March yet, with 120 alumni, faculty, staff and students registered.
Students spent two nights in the city, visiting the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and attending an event with queer alumni. Alejandro Flores Monge ’21, who took part in the weekend, praises the Dively Committee for helping to build community and raise awareness at Williams.
“The more you’re able to build a sense of positive, inclusive presence, the more you’re able to build a foundation for community, and the Pride weekend did that really well,” he says. “It was the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, and we all went and had that experience together. It’s a story we can tell, and it’s a part of the Williams archive.”
That archive is ever-deepening, fueled by the experiences and opportunities provided by the Dively Fund.
“The whole purpose back then was to provide acknowledgement on campus for gay and lesbian students that they were important and to expose non-queer students to what queers were all about,” Dively says. “And I think it’s done that.”
For her 44th birthday, Gina Muñoz ’94 invited one hundred friends to a Hell’s Kitchen theater in New York City. There were cheesecake cups and balloons, but this birthday bash had a larger purpose.
During a night of musical performances about love and survival, friends celebrated Muñoz by donating roughly $13,000 to the Trevor Project, the largest organization in the world focused on suicide prevention and crisis intervention for LGBTQIA youth.
Muñoz, who juggles two full-time jobs—overseeing provider information services at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center and running a real estate law practice—joined the Trevor Project’s board in 2015. She says the organization is the center of her life.
As chair, Muñoz works to increase Trevor’s visibility, leading fundraising efforts and initiatives to promote the organization across the country. The goal, she says, is to make sure kids who feel dangerously alone know that Trevor’s toll-free, confidential hotline is just a phone call away, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 24. Among this group, gay, lesbian and bisexual youth seriously consider suicide at three times the rate of their non-LGBTQIA peers.
Roughly 5,300 people call the Trevor hotline every month. Another 1,000 connect online through chats and 2,000 by text messages.
“That’s a lot of kids reaching out,” Muñoz says, adding that she can understand the pain they’re experiencing. Muñoz grew up in Laredo, Texas, a small, closely knit border town. As a young girl, she knew that the local hairdresser was beat up because he was gay. As she got older, Muñoz recognized she was different from her peers, too.
“I started to realize this isn’t just ‘I don’t like dresses,’” she says. “It was deeper. And I also felt extreme pressure to not have that come out in any way.”
At Williams, she says she found a “very liberal, very open” atmosphere that provided her with the support to figure out her sexuality without shame. When she came out her sophomore year, “No one even blinked,” she says.
“Without Williams, I don’t know that I would’ve become who I am,” she says. “Williams basically opened the literal and figurative doors to my life.”
Muñoz began paying attention to LGBTQIA health issues she encountered in her work at Montefiore and started supporting local nonprofits that served the community. She got involved with Trevor after attending a fundraiser where transcripts of hotline calls, altered to be anonymous, were read aloud. Hearing those stories evoked memories of her childhood. She says she was never suicidal or depressed, but she understood the isolation.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” she says. “And I feel like these kids should be lucky, too, and if we can give them that, I’ll take it.”
That Muñoz ended up on Trevor’s board makes perfect sense, says Erin Law, a friend and chair of the Ali Forney Center, which provides housing and support services for New York City’s homeless LGBTQIA youth.
“Gina is someone with so much empathy, it makes sense for her to be affiliated with this organization, because that’s what it taps into,” Law says.
In the future, Muñoz hopes to expand Trevor’s hotline to receive international calls. But for now the group continues working to support LGBTQIA youth in the U.S., from advocating for training for school nurses to providing life-saving messages of hope and love to the thousands of young people who call, chat or text each year.
At this year’s Pride March in New York City, the Trevor Project was selected as one of the grand marshals. Riding along the parade route, Muñoz was overwhelmed hearing the cries of gratitude as Trevor’s car passed.
“People know this is important,” she says, adding, “It was just an incredible, beautiful experience.”
One evening, during a slow work-study shift at the Office of Career Counseling in the fall of her sophomore year at Williams, Susanne Wall ’01 was alone with a computer and her curiosity.
At the time, Wall believed she was a daughter, sister and young woman from the Bronx. But certain things about that life—her body, her sense of gender identity—nagged at her.
Wall thought of the surgery she had at age 13 and the vaguely explained reason for it. Without fully understanding the questions she was seeking answers to, she began to type words into a Yahoo search engine.
She discovered something called androgen insensitivity syndrome. Affecting people born with the XY chromosome the syndrome is an intersex variation caused by the body’s complete or partial inability to synthesize male hormones, sometimes resulting in ambiguous genitalia.
Wall, who gained facial hair and a deepening voice during puberty, and whose genitals were not like other girls’, immediately recognized the characteristics.
“I thought, ‘That’s me,’” Wall says of the information found online. “That’s my body.”
The surgery Wall believed was to treat an underdeveloped uterus, as a therapist later explained, had instead removed undescended testes. “I felt betrayed,” Wall says.
But the discovery provided a clarity that would change everything. Over the next decade, Wall embraced a new gender identity as male, chose a new name—Sean Saifa Wall—that felt truer to the self that was emerging and became a prominent advocate for the rights and dignity of intersex people.
According to the U.N. Human Rights Office, experts estimate that between 0.05% and 1.70% of the population are believed to be born with variations of genitalia, reproductive organs or chromosomal patterns that do not fit binary ideas of male or female bodies.
Today, Wall, an Atlanta-based public health researcher and co-founder of the Intersex Justice Project, is on a mission to erase any stigma associated with being intersex. He has led trainings for health and government officials, including the DeKalb County solicitor’s office; addressed queer conferences, medical students and news programs like Nightline and outlets such as BuzzFeed about the reality of having a surgery he didn’t agree to; and given a TEDx talk encouraging people not to be afraid to simply ask him questions.
“It’s about establishing that intersex people are real, not mythical, and that intersex variations are normal,” he says. “I am a normal person. My intersex variation is a normal part of human anatomy. And what happened to me was wrong.”
At the heart of Wall’s advocacy—and the goal of the Intersex Justice Project—is ending medically unnecessary genital surgeries on infants and children.
These surgeries, undertaken with the intent to avoid possible future medical issues and to “normalize” and assign gender identity to intersex children, have been practiced since the 1960s. But attitudes are changing. The World Health Organization, the United Nations and Human Rights Watch now oppose such surgeries for children who are too young to give their consent.
This shift has occurred because of activists like Wall, who urgently tell their stories in hopes that a new generation of children will be given the choice about their bodies that Wall and others were denied.
“This is an issue of body autonomy,” Wall says. “We have to acknowledge the harm of what’s been done, and what happened to me and so many other people I know has been harm. We have a responsibility to address that.”
Wall advocates in every venue he can, from Twitter to public demonstrations targeting medical conferences and hospitals where surgeries are performed. In 2013, he was invited to a global intersex forum in Malta and was part of a group that met with the prime minister to share their stories. Later, the small country became the first in the world to ban medically unnecessary genital surgeries on infants.
Hida Viloria, a human rights activist and the author of Born Both: An Intersex Life, said when s/he first encountered Wall, s/he was struck that Wall highlighted both the struggles and the celebration found in intersex lives.
“His energy wasn’t just focused on trauma, and I feel that is so important for emerging communities, because it’s really difficult to stay focused on trauma,” Viloria says. “It’s much better to have something to gravitate toward, and I felt Saifa had such positive energy speaking as an intersex person.”
In June, Wall carried the Intersex Justice Project banner at the Pride March in New York City. It was a sort of homecoming. The sun was shining, and Wall was eager to celebrate life as a queer man who was out, proud and, most of all, happy. After nearly 20 years, he was also ready to reconnect with Williams alumni at events that weekend.
“I’m solid in who I am,” he says. “And who I am, and who I was at Williams, are the same person with a very complicated story. I’m here to reconcile both parts of my life. I want the full story to be out there.”
As a teenager in Quito, Ecuador, Carina Vance Mafla ’99 grew her short hair long—an attempt to protect herself from widespread homophobia and contempt for gender nonconforming people.
“I felt, honestly, that I must be one of the very few people in the country who was a lesbian,” she says.
At Williams she encountered a different world.
“The policies Williams had, in terms of making sure it was a safe space for LGBTQIA students, were so clear,” Vance says. “That was amazing.”
On campus, she found the space to accept her sexuality, the support to come out and the inspiration to work as an advocate. She joined the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Union and proudly flew a rainbow flag from her dorm room window. People questioned why she chose to make such a public display, and her answer was simple: “Because we need to be able to be out,” Vance says. “The flag was important, because it gave people a shared sense of creating a society where everyone is included.”
After graduation, she moved to California to work with HIV-positive individuals in some of San Francisco’s most disadvantaged areas. She returned to Ecuador in 2007 a different person—she wanted to be seen.
“I didn’t want to go back into the closet in any sense,” says Vance, who nevertheless found that many old friends would no longer speak to her.
She became executive director of Causana, a feminist lesbian-rights group, and earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley. When President Rafael Correa appointed her as Ecuador’s health minister in 2012, she used her first press appearance as an opportunity to announce she was a lesbian. Her announcement left an indelible mark on a country still struggling to reconcile a conservative society with new, more progressive laws.
In addition to making health services more accessible and inclusive, Vance is known especially for her fight against “conversion” clinics that spread, hydra-like, throughout the country. Ostensibly drug treatment programs, the unregulated clinics held people against their will, implementing “treatments” that often amounted to torture, including cold showers, shaved heads, electric shock and, according to some reports, rape.
Within a month of her appointment as minister, Vance wrote regulations banning treatment for issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Her crackdown ultimately led to the closing of 100 clinics.
“Every time we closed down a clinic, we would make a public announcement,” she says. “We tried to make them socially unacceptable. But part of the problem is the fact that families think a lesbian daughter or gay son can be subjected to treatment in order to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Lía Burbano, an Ecuadorian gay rights activist, praised Vance’s achievements as health minister and her “visibility as a lesbian.”
“Simply, what is not named does not exist,” Burbano wrote in an email. “That’s why, every time I saw Carina on the news, I knew that other lesbians like me had our hopes placed on her. We expected her to make us feel proud of her work, her words, her struggle. We were not disappointed.”
In 2016, Vance became executive director of the South American Institute of Government in Health, a think tank focused on challenges to regional health systems. This past summer, she began a Ph.D. in public health at Tulane University and, in September, returned to Williams to receive a Bicentennial Medal for distinguished achievement.
“Williams was such an important part of my life,” Vance says. “For Williams to recognize the work I’ve done is a tremendous honor.”
Vance plans to return to Ecuador eventually and continue working on behalf of marginalized communities.
“There are so many issues to be resolved,” she says. “There’s so much to be done in achieving a just and inclusive society.”
Liz Leyden is a writer living in New Jersey. The people interviewed for this article have self-identified their names, pronouns and gender identities (as is Williams Magazine’s practice).