This is part of an on-going series.
Eric Griffis didn’t have to ‘come out’ to his mother. She asked if he was gay.
“Coming out is a process. It doesn’t just happen in one day,” said Griffis, professor of costume design. “With my Mom, it didn’t happen by choice. Mothers just know. We were driving down the road, and I thought: Either I admit it and come out or I throw myself from the car.”
His mother was “fine with it” and so were his adoptive father and step-father. In fact, being pansexual has never been much of a problem for Griffis, aside from occasional hateful comments he chooses to ignore.
Now Griffis advises and mentors LGBTQ+ students at Georgia College, who don’t know how to share their identity news with family. Students who know Griffis’ own battles with depression also seek his advice.
This is partly due to a shared background. But another reason students feel comfortable opening up is Griffis’ easy affability and the personal nature of theatre.
“When you work on projects that take on such heavy issues like social justice, diversity and inclusion—you make yourself a little bit vulnerable,” he said. “They see that vulnerability in us, and we see it in them, and we end up having a closer relationship.”
Griffis knew there was one incident he wanted his young college students to know about: the shocking death of Matthew Shepard in 1998. A gay student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Shepard was brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. Griffis had just come out to a few friends as an undergraduate at Southern Arkansas University, majoring in theatre with a minor in history.
The news of Shepard shook his world.
“He was only 2 years older than I was at the time,” Griffis said. “It was pretty alarming. It woke me up that there are people in the world who could have that kind of hate. I had not experienced it or seen such hatred in my life.”
“It didn’t make me rethink my decision to come out. But I was cautious about who knew,” he said.
The episode impacted Griffis enough to keep his LGBTQ+ status fairly quiet at Georgia College, after joining the faculty in 2008. It would be five years before he officially came out to the campus community. He did it by commemorating the 15th anniversary of Shepard’s death in 2013 with Moisés Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project.”
Eight chairs were used for the staged reading, along with two music stands and enough costumes to distinguish between characters. The play—and its message—is simple, incorporating real words from friends, teachers and police in Laramie. Griffis continues to use the script to teach students the importance of tolerance and will stage “The Laramie Project” again Nov. 22.
“It’s an important story to share,” Griffis said, “so it doesn’t happen again.”
“When Shepard died, students in the play were only about 5 years old. Today’s students weren’t even born yet. I tell them Laramie’s very similar to Milledgeville. I tell them it could’ve been me, and it could be someone they know,” he said.
When Georgia College began offering suicide prevention and safe-space training for LGBTQ+ individuals, Griffis jumped at the chance to make a difference. By 2013, he was a Safe Space trainer. Now, training is called S.T.A.R. Ally (Support, Teach, Affirm, Respect) provided by LGBTQ+ Programs and the Women's Center. Anyone can become an ally, making their office or classroom safe for LGBTQ+ students during moments of vulnerability. Griffis continues to be involved with Safe Space and is on a committee that gives out the yearly William & Gussie Krinsky Safe Space Award to LGBTQ+ students or their allies.
In addition to mentoring students about suicide, depression and LGBTQ+ issues—Griffis guides theatre students toward successful careers, especially in his field of costume design. Students from all majors take theatre, and some like it so much they stay.
“It’s great to mentor someone who goes on to do great things,” Griffis said. “Some go to New York to do their thing or work professionally in Atlanta. Some start their own theatre companies. This degree gives you a lot of marketable skills, and it prepares students for working with people.”
Sometimes students provide new opportunities for faculty too. One of Griffis’ students, Justin Kalin, got a job at Out Front Theatre in Atlanta. It produces plays about LGBTQ+ issues. When they needed a costume designer, Kalin recommended Griffis. This will be Griffis’ third season working at Out Front.
Getting out into the ‘real world’ makes Griffis a better educator. He meets people that become a networking base for his students. He picks up on innovative ideas and invites professionals into the classroom.
“There’s always something new to learn,” Griffis said. “That’s one of the things I love about going out and working. I see how other people do things, I learn from them, and I also teach them some tricks I’ve picked up over the years. It keeps my teaching current.”
Griffis got started in theatre by accident. He didn’t want to do it but needed extra points for a high school speech class. He got them by auditioning for a play and was cast as the little brother in “Our Town.” Once in theatre, like so many others, he never left.
Throughout productions, Griffis would find himself hanging around the costume shop, helping out. Eventually, he became the “go-to person” for costume and make-up. It was a good fit.
“Looking back, I should’ve known costumes was where I was headed,” he said. “Little things—like playing dress up with my cousin, where I dressed her and she’d go out and show it off—were telltale signs. She became a model and I became a costumer.”
After getting a master’s in costume design and technology at the University of Southern Mississippi, Griffis worked with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival dressing actors backstage. He moved on to the Norcostco-Texas Costume Co., but his dream was to teach. At Georgia College, Griffis works in the costume shop—an “underground world, a hidden place in the basement” of Porter Hall.
It’s become his safe space—where Griffis designs, mentors and teaches students their worth, as well as a craft.
“That’s one of the good things about theatre,” he said. “It draws people from all backgrounds. It tends to be a very open and accepting group, which is one of the reasons I love it.”