Founder and First President of
Lambda Toastmasters of Chicago, IL
December 12, 1982
In the following chapters I will describe the development of Lambda Toastmasters, club # 4820-30, from its earliest beginning to our First Anniversary Celebration on December 12, 1982. But first, what are some of the impressions gay and non-gay people have of us?
“Learn to Speak Up …”
The other day I called Mrs. Myra Williams who, together with her husband Harvey, regularly advertises in Chicago’s widely-read The Reader (“Learn to speak up … join Toastmasters.”) Mrs. Williams’ enthusiasm for Toastmasters outdid mine—and that takes some doing! The good lady, not knowing who I was, suddenly lowered her voice a bit and said, “… and do you know, we even have a gay Toastmasters club in Chicago!” “No, really,” I said and cleared my throat, “actually, I’m the president.” It didn’t take Mrs. Williams long to get used to the new situation: “You know,” she said, “we’ve heard a number of nice things about Lambda and I was wondering whether we could visit your club. Perhaps you’ll have something special for us?” We do: Our first anniversary. Welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Williams.
Lambda at Lambda
At a recent reception for the Lambda Resource Center for the Blind we met Paul, a young doctor, who said, “I can’t believe that your club is only one year old. Going by all the news items in Gaylife and Gay Chicago I was convinced that Lambda Toastmasters had been around for quite a number of years. My friends often talk about your organization. It sounds great.”
Thank you, Paul. Come and participate; see for yourself.
Lambda Wouldn’t Exist Without the Help of the Ayatollah Khomeini
I often get asked, “How did a gay chapter of Toastmasters ever get started?” “Because of the Ayatollah Khomeini,” I frequently reply. To be more precise: I was teaching at a Persian university and would probably still live in Iran had it not been for the revolution which forced me out of that land and, eventually, led me to America and this country’s finest organization for communication and leadership skills.
“The Arse of the World, Darling!”
After travelling and working around half the globe, I ended up teaching at Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Oklahoma—“The arse of the world, darling,” as I had been forewarned by a well-bred English lady. Her point was well taken, with one exception: the Stillwater branch of Toastmasters International. Their weekly meetings turned out to be not only an excellent training ground for communication and leadership skills, but a place of sanity, an island in the sea of the Moral Majority. Yes, learning the ropes of toastmastering can compensate for many losses.
A Topic Worse Than The Plague
On the day that you have successfully conducted your first meeting, you know that you have become a Toastmaster. But on the day that your fellow Toastmasters tell you that they never had table topics as tough, as challenging, and as moving as the ones that you handed out, you know that you have integrated toastmastering into your system. On that evening in the spring of ’81 when I was Table Topics Master for the first time, I was shaking inwardly because I did not know how my “straight” fellow Toastmasters would react to a topic which to some people is worse than the plague: ho-mo-sex-u-al-i-ty. But try I did.
Anita Bryant vs. Civil Rights for Gays
“Mary,” I said to our first participant and plucked up all my courage, “you have just heard Anita Bryant sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic and her infamous aria on “queers” ruining the country. Tulsa Television has asked you to present a two minute rebuttal. After you have sung the praise of Toastmasters, you’re talking about the civil rights of gay people.” Mary rose, full of unexpected enthusiasm: “Gay rights,” she said, “are part of our civil rights. I’m proud of our heritage, even if we haven’t always lived up to it. But times are changing, as witnessed by my chance to answer Ms. Bryant …” The club members applauded right there. Had I underestimated my fellow Toastmasters?
Homosexuality: Variation or Deviation?
A few minutes later I asked Scott, a young biology professor, what he would tell his students about homosexuality: deviation or variation? The man who looked like a redneck blushed for a moment but then delivered an excellent speech: “…and so, as shown by my definitions and my examples the answer is clear: homosexuality is a variation of human sexuality.” I couldn’t believe it; the applause wouldn’t end.
“I Believe in Equality, But …”
Well, everything went well, including a fine speech on “If my daughter had a lesbian friend,” until the club president got up to tell us in all seriousness that he would veto any attempt of the gay and lesbian students at OSU to start their own support group: “I believe in equality,” he said, “but most American students are too young and too immature to decide about their sexuality.” I asked him afterwards about his age and that of his wife when they got married at college, and about the age of most Americans when they are asked to risk their life during a war. “That’s all quite different,” he said.
God and Gays
Cooper, our youngest member, won the table topics trophy that night for his moving speech on “God and Gays.” At the end of our Toastmasters meeting, nobody wanted to go home right away. And during the following days, several members called me to tell me of their relatives and friends who were gay. I hadn’t come out, but, at least, I had made a number of new friends.
“My Gay Brother—The Most Loving Person I Know”
Two weeks later, Barbara, my favorite Toastmaster, gave her manual speech on her gay brother in New York: “He’s the most loving person I know, but he’s also a hard working American citizen—like you, and a tax-payer—like you.” Barbara won the speech contest that night and I began to long for the day on which I could speak freely about any subject in the world.
That Moment, the Idea of Lambda Toastmasters was conceived.
Thank you, Oklahoma.
Lambda at Discovery ‘81
A few months later, in the summer of ’81, I moved to Chicago. As soon as I had discovered the Williams’ ad in the Reader, I called them and asked for information. Slowly, the idea of a gay-oriented Toastmasters club began to grow in my mind. In the fall, I presented a workshop at the Discovery ’81 conference (“Gay life in Europe, Asia, and America—How to communicate better”) and told the participants about a gay-oriented Toastmasters group. The response was excellent and very promising.
Lambda at the Chicago Toastmasters Fall Conference ‘81
At around the same time, Karen Dowler of Chicago Toastmasters called me (the Williams connection) to ask about my joining a Chicago-based Toastmasters club. “I’d love to,” I heard myself say, “provided it’s gay.” I then shared with Karen my ideas about founding a new chapter; she promised to discuss it with the governor and the leading lights in Toastmasters and to contact me to tell me of their response.
Shortly thereafter I received an invitation to attend the Toastmasters conference. I never found out what exactly went on before the decision was made to invite me, but all I can say is that I was treated very well. I even received an invitation for the recognition luncheon. Everybody at my table wanted to know what type of a club I was representing. “The club” didn’t even exist yet! All there was of that club happened to sit at the dinner table. I felt honored yet uncomfortable for the fact that I had to change my name to “Martin Thomas”—for security reasons. Otherwise, I loved being amongst my fellow Toastmasters.
“When Can We Start Lambda, Martin?”
Of the many wonderful people at the conference, I particularly remember Dick Storer, our former International Director, and his unashamed enthusiasm for helping in the establishment of a predominantly gay Toastmasters club: “When can we start Lambda, Martin?” he asked and would have liked it the most if I could have started the next day. Actually, I did, but things went differently from the way I had planned them. Someone important said to me, “We can’t ask Dick Storer to help. He’s too enthusiastic.” I was too inexperienced and in no position to reply. But if ever I were to get into a similar situation, I would always ask for the advice and active assistance of the Dick Storers of this world, the enthusiasts who actually deliver the goods.
November 22, 1981: Lambda’s Preliminary Meeting at Gay Horizons
I had made several hundred telephone calls within the gay and lesbian community—sometimes speaking to the same people several times over a period of time—until I had created enough interest to call for a preliminary meeting. Ma Bell was in its heydays. My friends responded enthusiastically, and the day after the Toastmasters conference the meeting took place at Gay Horizons. They didn’t have enough chairs for all the participants. In short, the meeting was a roaring success, what with all the mini-workshops and the fun. I was convinced that everybody was going to join Toastmasters that very night.
Disaster, or: The Influence of Right-Wing Homophobes?
And then disaster struck. No sooner had I handed out the official Toastmasters pamphlets, when one participant discovered names and photographs of some American business men and millionaires whose apparent right-wing and anti-gay attitudes had led to a lot of injustice in the past (Coors et al.). Within seconds, I found myself confronted by a critical audience: Was I misleading them? Was I getting the gay community involved with a professional John Birch society? Besides, where was our membership money going to go? Would it help to pay for further publicity which featured “right-wing exploiters”?
Toastmasters Non-Political and Non-Religious?
I saw the Lambda baby die during its delivery. Frankly, I felt like almost giving up, but Toastmasters never give up when they believe in a worthwhile project. And so I struggled on, explained that we were neither a political nor a religious organization, although I had my own doubts: why does Toastmasters International feature mainly personalities which reinforce a very conservative image, to say the least? Why do many clubs start or end their meetings with a prayer and the pledge of allegiance to the American flag—clearly two very obvious political/religious statements?
In short, what had started as the greatest club-initiation-success-story in the annals of Toastmasters International turned out to be a rather difficult and even painful process. But I promised the 20 potential Toastmasters that I would check out all the facts and that Lambda would be as good a club as the members that joined it.
The First Few Lambda Apostles
And join they did: The first one was Adriel from Gary, Indiana. I walked home that night with his check for Toastmasters in my pocket, finally convinced that Lambda would come to live. During the next few days the mailman brought it in the checks of Patrick, Hubert, Carl, and Jim. And with it, the baby was making noises: always a good sign.
December 6, 1981: First Official Lambda Toastmasters Meeting
On the first Sunday in December ’81, the first official Lambda Toastmasters meeting took place at the Good Shepherd Parish/MCC, a branch of the world’s largest gay church and our home ever since. I conducted the first meeting together with Karen Dowler: I as Toastmaster, she as general evaluator, and both of us together as table topics masters.
“Hearing a Different Drummer”
The first speaker was asked to talk for two minutes about Thoreau’s famous quotation: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Maybe I should have chosen a less symbolically “appropriate” topic. At any rate, our first volunteer froze and sat down. I felt terrible, in spite of all the applause which we gave him as a sort of consolation prize; I realized that it wasn’t easy to start a club from scratch.
Fortunately, the rest of the meeting went smoothly; not that people would wait behind the lectern for the Toastmaster; not that people would shake hands or go in for eye contact, voice variety, etc. etc. But so what? This, our first meeting, with all its shortcomings, was like a baby learning to crawl from one side of the room to the other. But move it did, our Lambda kid.
“Join the Successful People”—Lambda’s First Article in GayLife
At the same time, Bill Williams, the editor of GayLife, wrote a wonderful article about us, called “Join the Successful People” (Dec. 4, 1981). It covered almost a whole page, including an attractive illustration, introducing Toastmasters to the gay and lesbian community for the first time. In addition, I placed ads in both GayLife and Gay Chicago which ran for many months, initially with my own telephone number and, a few months later, with Hubert’s. From the very beginning the phone wouldn’t stop running: “Could you tell me more about your workshops?”
Lambda at Officers Training at Sears Towers
Although we were too young to have had elections, we were invited to send our officers to the annual Toastmasters training session. Of the first six members, five actually showed up: each one an officer from that moment onward. As it turned out, we had one of the largest teams at the training session, but we kept as low a profile as possible. Everybody treated us nicely, and afterwards we celebrated the first public appearance of a gay Toastmasters group with champagne and X-mas cookies at my apartment. We reported on the many suggestions from our respective workshops and brainstormed relevant Lambda topics: how to get more publicity, how to present useful workshops, but above all, how to get more members and, as the ultimate goal, how to get chartered.
Membership Growth, Paperwork, and X-mas 1981
Making Illinois Bell richer by calling non-stop paid off: at almost every meeting we welcomed new members and guests. And with it came an avalanche of paperwork. Thanks to Hubert’s organizational talents, things went smoothly. Jim invited us to his house to celebrate our first success, to hold our board meetings and to discuss possible charter dates while decorating his X-mas tree.
Lambda and the Coldest Day in Recorded Chicago History
After two meetings with us, Karen Dowler decided not to return any more. I saw myself faced with the task of raising the Lambda kid all by myself. Looking back, I am grateful to all those members who attended our meetings regularly every second and fourth Sunday afternoon from 2:30–5, including those like Patrick and Carl who were so enthusiastic about our Toastmasters sessions that they insisted we even meet on the day on which Chicago came to a standstill. Yes, I am proud of all you regulars. As it turned out, we never missed any other meeting.
The Lambda Rocket, or: How to Encourage Prospective Members
Spring arrived and with it the deadline for our charter application. According to the rules of Toastmasters International, we had to have at least 20 paid-up members before we could even apply for a charter. But that’s easier said than done, especially when your annual membership fee is $60.00. To encourage prospective members, we sent out two rocket letters with the number of paid-up members written on its body and the offer to join us for half the price for a six months trial period.
That special offer, together with regular telephone calls and a first-class program every second week, achieved the necessary results. We managed to sign up 23 members and sent our money and our application to Toastmasters headquarters in Santa Ana, California, anxious to know whether we would get accepted. After all, we knew that everybody at headquarters knew that we were a somewhat unusual club.
April 26, 1982: Toastmasters International Charters Lambda
Our group had become a great success in the gay community, thanks to our constant publicity and our programs, including workshops on assertiveness training, procrastination and time management, and interpersonal skills, but there was no response from Toastmasters headquarters. I was determined to continue my work with Lambda, even if it would not get accepted by Santa Ana. Some of us even developed emergency plans: What if ...?
Finally, tired of waiting, I simply called California. “Oh, yes,” said a woman, “your club has been chartered on April 26. Your club number? Let me see—4820-30. Someone is just lettering your official charter.” That day was probably one of the most exuberant in my life: having managed to convince a large international organization that a gay and lesbian chapter would be an asset to them.
Word spread in Chicago like wildfire: Lambda Toastmasters had been officially chartered (and beaten Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York). I am proud of Toastmasters International: they are way ahead of Rotary International, Lyons International … organizations which still bar women from membership, let alone gay and lesbian chapters.
Preparations for the Celebration of Celebrations
We were fortunate in having Dr. Dan Henderson as the chairman for our charter committee; he set up 399 subcommittees (or were there 4,711?) and made numerous invaluable suggestions. Hubert and I, together with Earl and the majority of our club members, helped Dan in bringing about what we considered to be the best of both worlds: the best of Toastmasters and the best of the gay community.
With a flow chart which took into consideration details as minute as the lighting over the piano and the type of print on the name tags for our guests, we tried to get at least some control of the uncontrollable. In the process, which stretched over many weeks, tempers flew, personalities clashed, threats of resignation outdid the intake of new members, but, lo and behold, the event of events finally did take place.
June 19, 1982: Lambda Toastmasters Charter Celebration
It so happened that our event coincided with Gay Pride Week. “Lambda Toastmaster Charter Celebration—coat and tie,” I read on numerous posters outside restaurants in Newtown; the same was true of GayLife and particularly Gay Chicago. It dawned on me that, apart from the Windy City Gay Chorus, we’re probably the only group in our community which always dresses professionally. When I arrived at the Bismarck Hotel in downtown Chicago, way ahead of time, I was greeted by live music from Tom H., one of the first members. Earl’s dinner jacket together with his welcome smile, the fresh flower bouquets on the table (one of his presents to us), the dimmed lights, and, above all, the air of excitement and expectation made me realize that my Lambda Toastmasters, when working together, outdid any group of professionals that I had come across in a voluntary organization.
But how would our guests from Toastmasters International react? And what would the many representatives of the gay community say?
“One of the Happiest Days in Our Life”
From the moment Lou Kiriazis and his wife walked in and greeted our parents who were sitting together with their Lambda sons at a special table of honor, I knew that we would experience a very harmonious evening. And when the head of Gay Horizons and the editor of GayLife began to converse with Sherry Sala, our governor, I felt mightily relieved. The two families had come together, at long last, to celebrate the union by chartering Lambda Toastmasters, the world’s first gay and lesbian Toastmasters club.
When the governor officially handed over the charter to me, I felt like jumping to the ceiling with joy (but that you reserve for your talk on, say, body language.) And when all 75 participants stood together and toasted, then held hands to say “Guten Apetit” before eating their dinner (to the music of Tom H., who probably went hungry that night)—gays and non-gays peacefully sitting together and communicating—I pinched myself secretly: had my dream really come true?
After several interesting speeches, including one by Ron Eheman, the lawyer and GayLife columnist, his colleague (in both capacities) and our dear friend, Paul R. Goldman, and Bill Kelley who did an excellent job in representing Chuck Renslow, and after a moving program by fellow Toastmasters (“Guess who’s coming to dinner—Famous gays and lesbians in history”) and a surprise speech by Terry Gorman, the director of the Lambda Resource Center for the Blind—somewhere in the middle of the performance of Garry Jones’ Blackstreet USA Puppet Theatre and the Windy City Gay Chorus’ concert—I realized that, yes, the union had taken place.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everybody who has contributed to this beautiful and historic event by quoting Lou Kiriazis, our International Director and Toastmaster of 14 years’ standing: “We’ve been to many charter celebrations but none could even be compared to yours. Your professionalism and your kindness overwhelmed us. It was one of the happiest days in our life.”
Earl, our editor, managed to get the first issue of our new newsletter out on time for the charter celebration and has kept producing one monthly issue ever since. A selection of the many different subjects reflects our development:
Famous Gays and Lesbians at Maturity; Hall of Fame: Lambda Rewards for Outstanding Achievements to Toastmasters and Leaders in the Gay Community; Griping Session; Regular Maturity support; Goldman and Renslow fellowships; Lambda Workshops at Discovery ’82; Lambda at Toastmasters Fall ’82 Conference; Lambda at Third Annual Gay Arts Festival; Lambda buddy system; Quotes from our visitors; Material on Lambda in America’s largest gay paper (The Advocate #356); Election for 1983 Lambda president and board members; and, for the Dec. 12 issue, an anniversary special: “Lambda Dialogue—Things which one usually doesn’t say.”
Again, many thanks to Earl (and Hubert) and to all those people who have helped with the newsletter, if only by creating Lambda Toastmasters news.
Paul R. Goldman & Chuck Renslow Fellowships
Two of the most active and influential people in Chicago’s gay world are attorney Paul R. Goldman, founder and president of Maturity, and GayLife publisher Chuck Renslow, gay rights activist, and owner of some of the most famous gay establishments (Goldcoast, Man’s Country). After I had successfully obtained a free vacation for two at Big Ruby’s in Florida (won by Adriel) and at the Saugatuck Lodges in Michigan (won by Chuck Renslow’s representative Bill Kelley), I tried to convince both Paul Goldman and Chuck Renslow of the importance of financing gays and lesbians to improve their communication and leadership skills and to pass them on to members of their own gay churches, synagogues, clubs, libraries, or clinics. Both Paul and Chuck agreed immediately.
In order to discuss the details, I tried to get through to the famous Renslow for many weeks—in vain. My letters were not answered, my calls were not returned—yet the charter celebration was about to take place and with it the announcement of the fellowships. In my desperation I tried a daring act of communication: I called his office and, when told for the umpteenth time that Mr. Renslow was in a conference (which, no doubt, he was), I said to the secretary in a stern voice, “This is the German ambassador. I have to speak to Mr. Renslow at once.” A few seconds later, the King of gay Chicago came on the line and agreed immediately to all the requests and details: the fellowships were secured. I have never found out whether Chuck Renslow was more puzzled by my chutzpah to ask for such an expensive gift or puzzled by my ambassadorial daring. At any rate, we received our ten fellowships on time. Thank you both, Chuck and Paul.
The First Three Fellowship Recipients
The first three fellowship recipients have become valuable club members: Sharon Davis, co-chair of Northwestern University’s Gay and Lesbian Alliance; Carl Offutt, active member of Dignity (the Roman Catholic gay group) and Black and White Men Together; and Tom M., a young lawyer and member of the Newtown Writers Group. In the future, we will continue to select carefully the recipients, give them our Toastmasters training, and hope that they will apply their skills both in their own life and in their respective community organizations.
Women and Lambda
Elaine was the first woman ever to participate in our programs; later, Eleonore, Britt, Arneda, Marge, and Harriet joined us. We were delighted. Unfortunately, most women did not stay for long, perhaps because they hardly ever came on the same day and probably felt isolated—a minority within a minority. However, when Faith joined, we all had great hopes that she would help to build up the number of women in Lambda.
Faith was probably one of the most loved members, whose enthusiasm for our club was infectious: she played Sappho at our charter celebration without being even a club member at that time, she represented us at the Toastmasters training session for new Toastmasters without having a portfolio, and she created a dialogue amongst both men and women which represented the best in Lambda Toastmasters. Unfortunately, she moved to Minneapolis. Let’s think harder of how we can make our meetings more attractive to women in our community.
From the Present to the Future
The last paragraph already indicates that we have some way to go before we are fully integrated. But, a good beginning has been made. The same goes for our programs. I believe them to be amongst the best in Toastmasters, especially after reading 44 essays by my students at UIC who had visited two different Toastmasters clubs each. Our mentor and friend, Jim McNitt, shared with me the other day what he had told Toastmasters: “Lambda is as good a club as any. They’re doing a fine job.” Thank you, Jim. I am delighted that we have found Jim Merrill who has been elected to serve as the new president in 1983, together with a dynamic new board, all of whom have promised to help the Lambda kid to grow from adolescence to adulthood.
Dialogue, Instead of a Final Farewell
Before this short history turns into book length—it easily could, just look at the many minutes of our board meetings, let alone the best and the worst which happened and went unreported—I’d like to come to a close by saying that my experiences with Toastmasters and with the gay community in America have opened my eyes to some of the most beautiful aspects of human interaction. For that I’m grateful. But they have also made me aware of some of the traps which await anybody who’s dealing with a large group of people. I have learned a lot. For that, too, I’m grateful. This past year, the year of Lambda, has presented me with more friends than ever before, but also with a few extra gray hairs; I’ve experienced more joy than before, but also more unexpected pain. But that’s life.
Sappho & Plato: Lambda Heritage 2500 Years Old
Dear Lambda, our “baby,” now that you’ve come of age let me explain your heritage. It dates back 2500 years when all citizens of Athens were required to develop their oratory skills in order to better serve the community—a kind of obligatory Toastmasters society for all adults. Plato, the philosopher who had stressed the search for truth rather than the mere technical approach to the persuasive aspect of rhetoric, and Sappho, the famous poet from the island of Lesbos who taught her art to “a group of maiden to whom she was devotedly attached” (Funk Wagnalls New Encyclopedia 21:109), are amongst the first people in recorded history who have contributed to our gay and lesbian heritage and awareness.
Lambda: From Greek Letter to International Symbol
Lambda, the eleventh letter of the Greek alphabet, stands for love, learning, liberation, and leadership. During the last few years, the international gay and lesbian community has adopted the name Lambda as a significant symbol which links us with all gay and lesbian people in the past, in spite of all the historic documents which were either manipulated, destroyed, or never written in the first place. Lambda stands for gay and lesbian sensitivity and awareness, and so, dear Lambda kid, carry your name proudly, for you represent the best of both worlds.
From Lambda to Stonewall and Triangle Toastmasters?
In the years to come, dear Lambda, you might even grow and mature in such a way that you want to spawn and raise your own children: Toastmasters clubs which you might want to call Triangle, or Stonewall, or. . . Remember, the future is yours!
Happy Birthday, Dear Lambda
I hope that all of you at Lambda Toastmasters and you, our gay and non-gay friends, will continue to give us your support. We need you to grow. We need you to become the club we really would like to be: not the best or the biggest, but a Toastmasters club which works consistently, professionally, and effectively, made up of members who care and who show an active commitment to Toastmasters and the communication and leadership program—a club which is open to all people who believe in equality and growth through dialogue. Once more, many thanks to all of you who cared for the growth and development of our kid. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEAR LAMBDA.
I Will Always Remember
I have been honored to serve you as the founder and first president of Lambda Toastmasters. I will always remember this year, and I will always remember and be grateful for your encouragement and your support.
With all my love,
Martin Thomas [my pseudonym at the time]