Being out while teaching is a tricky proposition no matter what level the classroom is at. It’s less so these days, but not by much–especially if you work in certain parts of the country or perhaps even the rural areas of the state in which you live. After all, bigotry is big again post-T—p, and nothing brings the bigots to the backyard like we do. So, Paula Martinac’s Testimony, inspired by the real life story of UCLA’s Martha Deane, is as timely as ever–even though it shouldn’t be.
Professor Virginia (Gen) Rider teaches history at Baines College, a private school for nice, young white ladies in Virginia circa 1960. She’s just gotten tenure, but she’s still shaken when one of the male professors gets arrested for sex in the park–with a Black man, no less–causing the anti-queer brigade to descend on Baines with a vengeance. Although she’s just broken up a long-term relationship with a woman, she still feels unsafe and unsure, as does her best male friend, Fenton, who teaches theatre and used to date the prof who got arrested. Determined to carry on with her life, however, she attempts to begin a new relationship with a fellow professor only to be seen kissing her by a neighbor doing dishes at a window facing her home. Gen’s career is suddenly in jeopardy as she becomes the subject of a schoolwide witch hunt.
The story is old and sickeningly familiar, but Martinac’s telling packs quite a punch. She’s particularly adept at capturing the foreboding, tense atmosphere of the college once the inquisition starts. She does this not only through Gen, but through Fenton as well.
Fenton is a particularly interesting character who has some typical reactions of gay men threatened with discovery during that time period. He’s not discovered or outed, but he wants to head off trouble any way he can. He tries dating women unsuccessfully, tries celibacy, even tries therapy–but he doesn’t go along with the home shock aversion equipment the therapist recommends. None of these work, but he finds the reserves within himself to come up with a solution of his own making. It might not be the ideal outcome, but at least it’s not one forced on him by discovery and discharge.
Fenton aside, this is really Gen’s show. But rather than meekly quit and simply go away as some suggest, she finds a lawyer and decides to fight. It would be a spoiler to relate exactly what happens, but she’s faced with a big choice, even though her fight results in a partial victory. As Fenton does, she devises a resolution that may not be ideal, but neither does she lose as much as many in her position have.
Full of fine characters, heartfelt decisions, and gripping, tense scenes, Testimony is a great read that provides both a lesson in history and a lesson in how to survive history.
© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler