Ryan Kendall's journey to Columbia and this year's commencement began in January 2010, when he was called to a San Francisco courtroom as a witness in Hollingsworth v. Perry — the federal trial that would help seal the fate of California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.
"That’s the moment my life changed," says Kendall (GS’14), who graduates with a bachelor’s degree in political science. "I was surrounded by some of the most brilliant minds in the world and they treated me as an equal… They said 'You’re smart, Ryan. You need to go back to school.' And so I did."
Kendall, who was 26 at the time, was in court to counter the claim that homosexuality was a matter of choice. When his parents discovered he was gay some 11 years earlier, [they signed him] up for conversion therapy. The treatments, also known as "reparative" therapy, claim to change sexual orientation from gay to straight.
“It was a horrific experience,” said Kendall. “It was a year of tearing Ryan down. It just reached a point where I knew that if I did not remove myself from the situation I was not going to live.”
“I spent six months on my application, and I only applied to two schools...the right school picked me, obviously.”
He surrendered himself to Colorado's Department of Human Services, which revoked his parents' custody and assigned it to another family member. After periods of homelessness and several years of self-destructive behavior, Ryan rebuilt his life. Kendall earned a GED, went to work as a civilian support staffer at the Denver Police Department, and was appointed to the Denver GLBT Commission—which is where he came to the attention of the team fighting Prop 8.
Columbia's School of General Studies came to his attention through the Phi Theta Kappa national honor society, where he was inducted while taking classes at Arapahoe Community College in 2011.
“I see this e-mail about General Studies and it was me: nontraditional students, you can transfer in credits, people who have had a disruption in education,” said Kendall, who fondly remembers the rounds of applause from General Studies students who were lining the ramps in Lerner Hall to welcome new students during orientation. “I spent six months on my application, and I only applied to two schools… the right school picked me, obviously.”
Arriving in New York with just two suitcases after having sold or donated everything else he owned, Kendall has spent many of his extracurricular hours working with the National Center for Lesbian Rights as an advocate for bans on conversion therapy in California, New Jersey and New York. A Columbia education, he says, has been “mind-expanding — especially the University's emphasis on primary texts.”
“I read what Aristotle wrote, not what someone is telling me is what Aristotle wrote,” he says. “All the great texts of history are mine to explore, and they’ve changed the way I think.”
Kendall appeared on Anderson Cooper 360 twice to discuss how he survived conversion therapy, and has that show to thank for initiating a family reconciliation. His mother called him shortly after his first segment aired in 2011.
“It was the first time we’d really talked in a long, long time,” he said. “We had an opportunity to write a different future, and we’ve done that.”
After graduation, Kendall hopes to attend law school, become a civil rights attorney and continue fighting for the causes he believes in, from LGBT issues to economic inequality, which he says is one of the biggest problems facing the world right now. “I would love to work on that because it really is a civil rights issue,” he said.
—by Ted Rabinowitz