Staying Busy: A Coping Mechanism

man in suit
Joe McDermott ('89) speaks at the launch of Gonzaga's Lavender Community

December 07, 2023
Joe McDermott ('89)

The following is adapted from a presentation Joe gave at the launch of the Gonzaga Lavender Alumni Community on National Coming Out Day (2023).

At various times during and after high school I certainly wondered if I might be gay. I had a clue, but never considered the possibility for long, not wanting to deal with it.

My own stereotype of what being gay was, and my perceptions of society’s impression of gays and lesbians, certainly deterred me from actively questioning my orientation. It was the 1980s: the AIDS epidemic was raging. I was active in the Roman Catholic Church. And I didn’t really know any fellow students who were out.

When my parents dropped me off at Gonzaga University in Fall 1985, they made a point of introducing me to Father Frank Costello, who had become friends with my parents when they were dating and was on the altar when they married. Twenty-eight years later, Fr. Costello would have a small part of my own wedding day … but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I immersed myself in campus life – I stayed busy. I double-majored in history and political science. I was active in campus ministry and retreats. I was elected to the student Senate. I founded a Young Democrats chapter on campus. In 1986, I interned in the Spokane office of a member of Congress, Speaker of the House Tom Foley and later volunteered on his re-election campaign.

After graduation, I continued to stay busy. I laid the groundwork for my career in public service, volunteering in the community and getting involved in political organizations. I became active in the Young Democrats of Washington, eventually serving as the state’s National Committeeman to the Young Democrats of America. Through quarterly National Committee meetings, I met a man who was very much out and we became fast friends. He came to visit me in Seattle in 1992, and on National Coming Out Day, we joined the march and rally. When I ran into someone with whom I’d served on the Senate at GU, I made sure he knew I was there supporting a friend.

I continued to stay busy, working on a master’s in public administration while working fulltime. I graduated in spring 1997 and soon turned 30. That fall I finally came out. I dealt with my own stereotypes of what being gay was and came to realize that being gay was just one aspect of who I am. I remained the same person, though with a new and significant revelation about myself. And to be clear, I was fortunate to have the unconditional love of my family.

It’s pretty clear to me that I kept myself so busy through my 20s as a way to avoid dealing with my orientation.


graphic that reads Love is Love


Eventually, I met Michael Culpepper, my husband. He has had my back and encouraged me in everything I have done – including running for the state House of Representatives in 2000 – where my election marked the first time there were two openly gay members serving in the Washington Legislature at the same time.

In the Legislature, I joined the efforts to add sexual orientation to our state’s anti-discrimination statutes, which was finally signed into law in 2006 after 29 storied years of effort. I was appointed and later elected to the State Senate about the time we began working on domestic partnerships that led to marriage equality in 2012. In 2010, after a decade in the Legislature, I ran for an open seat on the King County Council, where I was the first openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer council member.

In 2013, Michael and I exchanged vows in our church surrounded by family and friends. Though Fr. Costello wasn’t able to attend, he left a voicemail on our home phone during the time of our wedding, letting us know he was thinking of and praying for us at that moment and wished us well.

Once we received our wedding photos, I spent a Saturday morning sending wedding announcements to my Catholic high school (Blanchet), Gonzaga and the University of Washington. I honestly didn’t expect Blanchet or Gonzaga to publish them, but it was important to me to send them.

In the spring 2021 issue of Gonzaga Magazine, I read a letter to the editor asserting Gonzaga was anti-LGBT. The editor responded suggesting the writer was mistaken and that Gonzaga was “inclusive and nondiscriminatory.” I struggled with my reaction to the exchange in the magazine.

I ultimately decided to take the response at face value and resubmitted my wedding announcement, eight years later. I was elated to have it printed in the next issue – and it warms my heart to see same-sex couples sharing the joy of their weddings with fellow alumni in nearly every issue since.

Joining alumni and staff for National Coming Out Day at Gonzaga feels like coming full circle. Being here and speaking as an out, gay alum, at an official event at GU’s Lincoln LGBTQ+ Resource Center wouldn’t have happened 34 years ago. (Thank you, Joe Lincoln, for your leadership in making this a reality.)

I’m especially pleased that President McCulloh was present and vocal at the launch of this alumni group: It is a clear statement that he and the University value our community and the work of the Lincoln LGBTQ+ Resource Center. And I am profoundly moved that Gonzaga has such a place to support the queer community here. That might have empowered me in immeasurable ways in the late 1980s.

Maybe I wouldn’t have had to stay busy as a means of avoiding coming out.

I am a proud Zag and Lavender Alum.


Explore what the Lincoln LGBTQ+ Resource Center offers to Gonzaga students today, HERE. Want to support these efforts? Give now. 

Learn about the Lavender Alumni community and other Gonzaga Alumni affinity groups