On a sunny morning in August 1949, Julia Lin snuck out of Shanghai aboard a fishing junk with 20 American dollars and an acceptance letter from Smith College sewn into the collar of her dress. The Communists had come to power, and she knew that if she were going to pursue her dream of a Western education she needed to get out of China right away. Lin would go on to settle in the United States, earn a Ph.D. from the UW and become a professor of Chinese literature at Ohio University. But she would never see her father or her beloved grandmother again.
In 1975, David Kopay made a choice that put a very different sort of distance between himself and his family. For years, he had lived a life of excruciating self-denial as a gay professional football player. Coming out of the closet felt unbelievably liberating. But it would take decades for Kopay to reconcile with some members of his conservative Catholic family; others he remains estranged from to this day. And his announcement cost him more than just relationships. Kopay, who had looked forward to a coaching career, was effectively frozen out of football.
Reading their stories is a humbling reminder of just how much people will sacrifice for freedom, whether from an oppressive government or an intolerant culture. Fathers and grandmothers, brothers and sisters, a hoped-for future—these are tragically high prices to pay, even for something as valuable as an education or as invaluable as peace of mind.
Yet Lin and Kopay express no regret over their decisions, perhaps because they weren’t sacrificing for themselves alone. Kopay wanted to make sure that other gay people knew they had company in the world. Today, that remains his mission. Last September, he announced he would be leaving $1 million—nearly half of his estate— to the UW’s Q Center, a resource for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.
Julia Lin’s act of courage, too, made it that much easier for the generation that would follow her to follow their dreams. And, indeed, they have. Lin’s son, Tan, has published two acclaimed books of poetry in English, and her daughter, Maya, designed the famous Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.—another monument to selflessness and sacrifice.