Daring to Experiment: Wesleyan's Queer History 1975-2000
Wesleyan University has traditionally been viewed as a liberal institution, both politically and socially. Although remaining solidly within the context of a small, elite, New England college, the University has also managed to maintain a character that is decidedly radical in many aspects. For the last thirty-five years, the large, well-organized, and vibrant queer community at Wesleyan has played a large role in maintaining this character. Queer students at Wesleyan have fought, protested, and subverted their way into the mainstream of the school, in the process revolutionizing both themselves and the institution they gained entry to. The struggle was simultaneously reflective of two different trends: the development of the “Wesleyan character” over the years, and the development of the national queer liberation movement. A look at the history of organized queer life at Wesleyan provides insight into both.
The first advertisement for a queer group at Wesleyan in the Argus came in March 1975:
Coming to terms with gay feelings is difficult in this society, but especially at Wesleyan. About 15 Wes. People have been meeting: two times within the last two weeks, to discuss both what the needs are and what directions this group could take. Any member of the Wes. Community who feels that s/he is predominantly or exclusively gay are invited to the next meeting. For more info, the time and date, Call Bill 346-2448, after 8 p.m. Keep Trying. Your anonymity will be guaranteed. It commits you to nothing.
The impetus for the formation of the Wesleyan Gay Group advertised here came from an article published in the Argus in February of 1974. The article was a reprint of an essay written by Stuart Byron ’63, describing what it was like to be gay at Wesleyan during the pre-Stonewall era. This was the first significant discussion of homosexuality to be published in the Argus. Prior to this article, mention of the topic had mostly been fleeting and in conjunction with reviews of movies like Midnight Cowboy. Like on any college campus, homosexuality was considered a perversion, but a common one. In 1959 Daniel Webster Cory, a noted “expert on the homosexual,” gave a talk as part of a series of lectures about “American Outcasts.” This prompted some campus discussion, and one irate letter to the editor, but no serious repercussions arose from it.
Various spaces on the Wesleyan campus existed to provide unofficial support for queer students. The John Wesley Club, an organization for students who chose not to join a fraternity, was frequently accused of harboring homosexuality; similar accusations were made of the Alpha Delta Phi and Eclectic Fraternities. Such accusations, although negative, were not abnormal, and were frequently applied to any institution with a somewhat liberal reputation. Academically, the burgeoning new field of Film Studies, was an attraction for many gay men. Robert Martin ’63 wrote, in a Hermes article thirty years later, that “film studies provided a space for gay culture.” Stuart Byron himself would later become a screenwriter and film critic for the Village Voice, as well as an early member of the Gay Liberation movement in New York.
By the time of Byron’s Argus article, the Stonewall Rebellion had come and gone, and modern-day gay activism was well on its way. There were several members of the Wesleyan community who were able to live out of the closet—a few faculty members, the occasional student. There was rumored to be one secretive queer organization with as many as twenty-five students, associated with the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity around 1972, but no substantial evidence of the group has survived. The scattering of queer students and faculty on campus in the early seventies were for the most part tolerated, but remained unorganized. Wesleyan was, after all, considered to be a liberal school, and as one alumnus wrote, “people, at least on the surface, had to maintain this open-minded identity.” The relative tolerance of Wesleyan probably helps to account for the tardiness with which the community organized itself.
The Byron article triggered a series of responses, both in support of and against queer issues. One angry student complained that the article had been “the most blatant display of the demonic that Wesleyan has ever experienced,” coming as it did right after a recent screening of Exorcist.
A more positive response, and one that is fairly remarkable given the era, came from Allan Burry, then the University Protestant Minister. He wrote:
“…we ought to be able to affirm that homosexuals face enormous and inhuman pressures which are destructive to the human spirit…Those who wish to change their sexual orientation should be helped to do so. Those who wish to remain in their present orientation, or for whom change is not an option, should receive our support in discovering and living lives of responsible sexual maturity.”
The campus-wide discussion of the homosexuality issue gave many closeted students the chance to discuss issues of sexuality more openly, if still secretly. As a few people began coming out privately to their friends, an underground network of queer students was slowly established. Slowly the group began to hold more official meetings, and then in March of 1975 began publicity, calling themselves the Wesleyan Gay Group. This would be Wesleyan’s first queer organization, and the direct ancestor of a future Queer Alliance.
No full faculty members were involved in the Gay Group. The adult members consisted of a Psychology librarian, a staff member who taught Native American dance, and a member of the music department. These men, who were for the most part openly gay and provided valuable role models for the students who were doing the bulk of the organizing.
The early meetings were small and confidential, and in the beginning consisted mostly of the few queer students who knew each other already. In the first week of March 1975, the group began to advertise their existence with posters and an article in the Argus. The article, written in a remarkably sympathetic vein, quoted two anonymous students and discussed the lack of a queer community at Wesleyan. A follow-up letter to the editor the next week by organizer Bill Koplon ’75 gave a phone number for students to call for more information. The location and place of the meetings were kept fairly secret so that heavily closeted students could visibly attend them. Often meetings were in the basement of Downey House, the door to which would be labeled “The Rear Entrance” for the occasion.
The meetings themselves were mostly social, and mostly male-dominated. A few lesbians attended, but an Argus article a year later would report that the group consisted of twenty-nine men and six women. A lesbian in the same article stated that “I know some women who haven’t become part of the group, because they feel a co-ed group is to a male’s advantage and will be male-dominated.” To a large extent this was true. Fragmentation into separate groups for men and women would eventually occur, but in the early days of the group unity, superficially at least, was more important than diversity. One should note, however, that this unity did not for the most part include students of color.
The Gay Alliance (the name of the group was changed after the first few meetings) grew by leaps and bounds in its first year. In the fall of 1975, the inaugural issue of the student publication Hermes carried an article by GA organizer David Leisner ’76. The article discussed homosexuality from a fairly academic viewpoint, and sparked much discussion. An Argus article the next spring profiled several queer Wesleyan students, including Leisner, Peggy Batchelder, and two anonymous students. That same spring the Gay Alliance, in conjunction with the Woman’s Resource Center, invited famous lesbian politician Elaine Noble to speak at Wesleyan.
At the turn of the decade, the Gay Alliance began to be large enough to produce smaller splinter groups to deal with different aspects of being queer. In 1979 a men’s group began meeting every other week. This group would later become known as GBQ - Gay, Bisexual, and Questioning. The next year, a similar women’s group would form. Both groups would continue in various forms until the present day.
The Eighties were a time of great expansion in Wesleyan’s queer community. Many of the institutions that survive to this day were started during this period. The Administration also began finally responding to the demands of the community. It was also during this time that bisexual students were finally officially welcomed into the community.
In the spring of 1984, the Committee on Human Rights and Relations started work on a report on the experience of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. This was prompted by a growing number of complaints within the GLA that the Administration simply did not recognize the existence of queer people within the University. The general Wesleyan community was largely supportive of efforts to pressure the Administration into action. In April of 1983 over 1,200 students signed a petition urging a non-discrimination clause. Such support for the queer community is commonplace at Wesleyan, thanks to our traditionally liberal student body, but this specific incident is notable for being one of the first successful campaigns by GLA. Prior to 1983 the group had gone through a long period of being fairly dormant. GBQ and LBQ remained active, but were primarily support groups. GLA, although nominally the “political” wing of the queer community, had yet to achieve much prominence.
The Committee’s Report, when finally published, made a strong statement in favor of adding a non-discrimination clause. Although met with some resistance from the administration, most of the resistance came from the sluggishness of the bureaucracy. When the Student Advisory Committee voted unanimously to endorse non-discrimination clauses, eventual passage was assured. Non-discrimination clauses were added to the Blue Book, to the University Bulletin, and in Admissions documents.
The beginning of what are now called BiLeGaTA (then CoLeGa) workshops began during this time as well. The workshops began thanks to the efforts of two students, Charlie Fernandez and Natalie Diffloth. Fernandez started the first workshops in the fall of 1985. By the next year, with the organizational help of Diffloth, the workshops were an astounding success. Then, as now, they consisted of small gatherings of students and staff who were given a chance to role-play in a non-threatening environment. At the time, everyone taking the workshop, regardless of their orientation, stood up and said “I am a gay man,” or “I am a lesbian.” The experience was considered by many to be very powerful, and led to scores of students coming out of the closet and becoming active in GLBA. Within a few months of the start of the workshops, attendance at GLBA meetings nearly tripled.
CoLeGA workshops would also have a far-reaching impact on the entire student body. By the fall of 1987 Resident Advisors were expected to schedule a CoLeGA workshop for their resident halls. Although technically not mandatory, they were very well attended. At the same time, the workshops were also being given to deans, coaches, admissions staff, and faculty. Soon the vast majority of the Wesleyan community had participated in them, and the reduction in campus homophobia and heterosexism was readily apparent.
Another traditional queer event at Wesleyan, Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Awareness Days (BGLAD), also began during the mid-eighties. BGLAD initially began as “Blue Jeans Day” in the early-eighties, a day when all students who were supportive of queer issues were supposed to wear blue jeans. By 1985 Blue Jeans Day had become Gay and Lesbian Awareness Day, still only constrained to one day. Expansion to an entire week of activities did not come until the following spring. The week, which was co-sponsored with dozens of student groups and took place the second week of April, kicked off with a service in Memorial chapel lead by the Hartford Metropolitan Community Church. Several films were shown, CoLeGA Workshops were given, several panel discussions took place, and a “Gay/Straight Rap” gave the entire community a chance to discuss issues.
Campus reaction to BGLAD in 1987 would take a turn for the worse, in a series of incidents of vandalism and harassment. Banners hung from the Campus Center, the Public Affairs Center, and the Chapel were mysteriously removed, culminating with one of the banners being burnt on Foss Hill by unidentified students. Dorm windows with pink triangles in them were smashed, and the materials for making BGLAD t-shirts were stolen from the basement of a student house.
The high level and consistency of the incidents seemed to suggest some sort of organized action, but the perpetrators were never found. The support from the general Wesleyan community was comforting to queer students, however. President Campbell issued a strongly worded letter to the entire community condemning the vandalism, saying that “a university has a special obligation to fight bigotry…to allow the power of liberal learning to work against the ignorance of prejudice.” A speakout, and later a vigil, were organized by the GLBA and were very well attended, with Protestant Chaplain Arnold Thomas giving a keynote speech. In perhaps the most touching gesture, hundreds of students from that year’s senior class wore pink triangles on their robes at graduation. Although occasionally marred by smaller incidents of vandalism, BGLAD thereafter became a Wesleyan institution that continues to the present day.
The mid-eighties also saw the official inclusion of bisexual students in queer groups. An excellent honors thesis by Philippa Rizopoulos ’92 detailed the history of the bisexual movement at Wesleyan. This thesis is still occasionally used in classes and is a valuable resource for information about bisexuality in general.
GLA, prior to the inclusion of bisexuals, had been dominated for several years by a group of lesbians who, in keeping with the politics of the time, stifled any discussion of bisexual issues. Although LBQ included bisexuals in its name, students felt uncomfortable discussing the topic at those meetings.
In the spring of 1986, three bisexual women sent a mailing to the entire campus advertising a meeting for campus bisexuals to come and discuss issues. Much to everyone’s surprise, over fifty students crammed into the meeting. Bi-Focal was thus formed, and would meet regularly for the rest of the school year. The group remained autonomous at first, cooperating with but not joining GLA.
In the fall of 1986, many of the more separatist lesbians who had dominated GLA were growing inactive, and the success of Bi-Focal seemed to point towards integration of the two groups. A tumultuous meeting of GLA devoted to the issue of bisexuality resulted in the change of the name GLA to GLBA, the name under which the group would be known until 1994. The change was mostly by consensus, although there were still those that feared that bisexuals would “betray” the queer community, since they could theoretically pass as being straight. Most students, however, were more concerned with the difficulty of effecting a name change. One student described the controversy as “ignorance rather than resistance.”
The other institutions soon followed GLBA in changing their names. The Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Awareness (CoLeGA) changed its official title to read “Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Awareness,” but avoided the name change issue by keeping the same acronym. The next year, however, the futility of avoiding change was recognized, and the group’s name and acronym was changed to read BiLeGA-Bisexual, Lesbian, and Gay Awareness. The title of the group would change once more in 1999 to include transgender awareness - BiLeGaTA.
As the queer community at Wesleyan neared maturity, new issues would arise. There were the issues that have faced all queer communities in recent years — the question of assimilation, the long-term impact of the AIDS epidemic, and the increasing radicalization of a new generation of queer activists. The nineties would see the disintegration of the old GLBA and its transformation into Queer Alliance. It would also see increasing antagonism with fraternities and religious groups, but ultimately more mainstream success as well.
Firstly, though, it was during the early nineties that several new queer institutions arose. In 1990 Step One was formed. This group, which was under the auspices of GLBA, provided a support space for those students who were questioning their sexuality. Originally LBQ and GBQ were supposed to fill this function, but over the years the “questioning” aspect had largely been dropped from those groups’ activities.
The other major groups to be formed at this time were a new special interest house and a group for queer students of color. In 1991 three frosh proposed a new house that would provide a supportive environment for queer and queer-positive students. Originally called “Our House,” the housing option began in 1992 at 69 High Street with eleven residents. Later the name would be changed to “Open House” in an attempt to be more inclusive and “less catty,” as one resident put it. Also during this time, in the spring of 1991, the organization called Gays, Bisexuals, and Lesbians of Color and Questioning (GBLOCQ) began holding meetings. The group filled a valuable social space, holding potlucks and other gatherings. Organizations for queer students of color are very rare among Wesleyan’s peer institutions, and it is a testament to both student of color and queer communities that one exists.
This period was marked by a number of incidents involving fraternities. A major incident occurred at a party hosted by the Psi Upsilon Fraternity in September of 1991. A number of queer students in attendance were harassed by partygoers who shined lights on them, verbally harassed them, and poured beer on them. The Fraternity apologized for the incident, but claimed that the Fraternity was not responsible for the behavior of the partygoers, even though Psi-U brothers made no attempt to stop the harassment. Relationships with all fraternities deteriorated for several years, with similar incidents at Chi Psi and DKE, until finally several alumni pressured the fraternities for change. Beta began pledging openly gay students within a few years, and Psi-U followed suit soon after. Relations with DKE, however, would remain unfriendly.
During this time, the radical segment of the queer community began to become more visible as well. This was exemplified by a group known as QUICHE- Queers United in Crushing Homophobia Everywhere. This loosely organized group was not affiliated with GLBA, and its membership remained anonymous when the group was first started in the fall of 1991.
QUICHE formed initially as a response to riots in California occurring at the time, after a veto of an anti-discrimination bill in that state. The students, however, soon began to encompass many disaffected members of the community. Inspired by ACT UP and Queer Nation ideology and imagery, the group created a series of ten sexually explicit posters. Late one Friday night in October of 1991, the group literally covered the campus with more than 600 posters, papering over bulletin boards, slipping papers underneath office doors, and taping dozens more to the ground.
This action in and of itself would have created much campus debate, but a Public Safety officer contributed to the furor by ordering all the posters removed. Before classes the next day, public safety officers had removed every single one of the fliers. The supervisor would be disciplined for this act, and the Administration agreed to compensate QUICHE for the cost of the fliers, which were quickly put up once again.
Reaction to the QUICHE posters was largely negative. Some Wesleyan students were offended by the content of the posters, one so much so that he filed a complaint with the Middletown Police Department. The police removed a few posters as evidence, but no charges were ever filed. Many professors were also offended by the posters that had been slipped beneath office doors, for them a breach of privacy. Faculty were also incensed by another incident involving a Professor who had been accused of homophobia. Students unaffiliated with either GLBA or QUICHE, but associated in the public eye with the latter group, covered the Professor’s office with stickers that had slogans such as “Homophobe From Hell.” Many faculty and students felt that the Professor was being unfairly harassed. Although not connected with GLBA, many blamed the organization nonetheless.
The majority of GLBA was unhappy with the actions of QUICHE, although many were also annoyed by the supposed passivity of GLBA’s leadership at the time. Internal dissent came to a head in the spring of 1993, when senior Michael Hanna wrote a widely discussed Wespeak. The argument of his essay was that the problems of GLBA occurred because of the fundamental problem in trying to assign categories to such a nebulous aspect as sexuality. The majority of students at Wesleyan, he proposed, were not gay or straight but simply comfortable being “non-straight” and residing somewhere in the middle. To try to label and politicize these students would be wrong.
The argument resounded with many members of the queer community. A community diary kept in the GLBA office was quickly filled with entries for and against the argument, and many Wespeaks would be published in the Argus. Finally, at a special meeting of the GLBA in May, it was decided to dissolve GLBA and start anew the next fall.
The internal problems of the queer community at this point, when viewed with perspective, seem somewhat odd. The dissent came just as the community was at perhaps its largest and most active point. Over 150 Wesleyan students participated in a GLBA-organized trip to the 1993 March on Washington. GLBA meetings were well attended, and queer students had never before been so visible. The problems, more than anything, were simply growing pains. The community had been fortunate enough to stay united for so long. It was inevitable that such a large and diverse group of people would have eventually become fractured.
One of the primary arguments against GLBA had been that it was exclusive, yet presented itself as the sole representative of the queer community on campus. To deal with this problem, it was decided that GLBA would be split into two different groups. One, to be called Queer Alliance (QA), would focus only on politics. The other, the Coalition of Sexuality Organizations, would serve as an umbrella group for all queer groups on campus, including QA, GBQ, LBQ, Step One, and Bi-Focal. This way the smaller groups would still coordinate activities yet retain their autonomy, emphasizing that there was no dominant queer group on campus.
Soon, however, a natural progress of consolidation would take place. By 1998, Queer Alliance had taken the place of the Coalition of Sexuality Organizations in becoming an umbrella group. Lack of interest in LBQ and GBQ forced these groups to become sporadic events rather than organizations. Step One likewise came within the fold of QA, and Bi-Focal ceased to exist for the most part.
None of these changes were particularly sudden, and should not necessarily be viewed as a negative trend. After nine years of internal rifts within Wesleyan’s queer community, things were finally calming down. The last major incident within the community came in 1998, when a queer frosh erased some of the sexually explicit chalkings QA had traditionally created in honor of National Coming Out Day. In the furor that ensued, the culprit and several other disaffected students formed a group, called the “Very Happy Hour,” whose goal was to provide an alternative to Queer Alliance. An open forum in May of 1999 gave queer students from both sides a chance to air their disputes, and agree to disagree. With new leadership for QA in the fall of 1999, the community was able to put past disagreements behind themselves, and focus their attentions elsewhere. The future of the queer community at Wesleyan was certainly hopeful at this point and set the stage for future advances, set-backs, and changes as the new century began.