Martinac, Paula. “Testimony”, Bywater Books, 2021.
History professor Gen Rider is tenured at Baines College, a private school for white women where she teaches “Negro” history in 1960s Virginia. However, she is also dealing with the end of a long-distance relationship with another woman, something she has kept hidden deep inside.
When a male instructor is arrested for having sex with another man in a park, the town is beset with “homosexual panic” and begins a “Know Your Neighbor” campaign. The investigation following the arrest threatens Fenton, the gay theater director who is one of Gen’s friends at the college. Gen realizes that she, too, is vulnerable especially when mysterious gifts, including a pulp novel and romantic card, are left for her.
Most of us have never faced “homosexual panic” and what we read here, we can be glad that is the case. Gen really feels that when, upon beginning a new romance with another woman, she is seen kissing her by a neighbor who reports her. Gen must decide what is more important to her— her career or her private life.
“Testimony’ by Paula Martinac is Gen’s story, a story of discrimination and civil rights and it reminds us that our community has suffered greatly in the past. It was very different back then and I remember it well having also been an academic at the time and even though I was in a society that was much more accepting, we still felt the need to hide who we were or risk the chance of losing our faculty positions. Professor Rider was dedicated to her career and worked hard at it. Here she was at a Christian female college and she was teaching a minority history to white women. She was well aware of the danger of being out and that suspicion could cause great harm. She not only worries about herself but about her friends and colleagues as well. Yet, there came that night when she gave into her feelings and then has to defend herself. In the process, she learned the power of hatred and homophobia.
This is such an important look at how we once had to live and it is beautifully told in gorgeous prose. While this is fiction, it could very well happen today in places with an uneducated populace and those who are willing to destroy. It certainly comes to us at a time when we really need to be reminded that there are many who refuse to accept people as they are.