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The Silence Is Broken: A History of the First Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual College Student Groups

From: Journal of the History of Sexuality
Volume 12, Number 2, April 2003
pp. 205-223 | 10.1353/sex.2003.0075

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Journal of the History of Sexuality 12.2 (2003) 205-223

THE STORY SOUNDS FAMILIAR: following a 1969 confrontation in New York, a small group of self-identified lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and their supporters created a militant gay rights organization in the United States, one that would help foster the gay liberation movement. However, the individuals involved in this group were not residents of New York City but students at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and the confrontation was not the riot of working-class black and Latino drag queens at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village but the takeover by African American students of Willard Straight Hall, Cornell's campus union. Nor did the group, the Student Homophile League (SHL), begin in the wake of Stonewall; rather, it was formed in 1968, making it the second gay rights group to be organized on a college campus, after Columbia University's Student Homophile League, of which the Cornell group was initially a chapter.

While Stonewall served as a main catalyst for the rise of a new era in the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, the preceding gay activism at Columbia, Cornell, and a handful of other universities played a critical role in laying the groundwork that would enable a militant movement to emerge following the riots. Not only did the student groups take the lead in asserting a sense of pride in being gay, but, through speaking unabashedly to others about their personal experiences (what the Cornell group called "zaps") and developing alliances with those engaged in other struggles, especially the antiwar movement, they made gay liberation an important concern for many nongay people. As a result, in the late 1960s and early 1970s gay politics moved from the relatively insular environment of homophile organizations onto the agendas of many radical student activists. These nongay activists, some of whom subsequently recognized their attraction to others of the same gender and began to identify as lesbian, gay, and bisexual, helped broaden the base of support for gay liberation at Cornell and other schools in the years following Stonewall.

Yet the importance of college groups to gay liberation has been largely overlooked by LGBT historians, who either assume that the movement was born literally overnight following the riots or give too much credit to the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and other mainline homophile organizations, many of whose members were actually opposed to the greater militancy represented by Stonewall. In order to sharpen our understanding of the emergence of the gay liberation movement, I will trace the development of the gay rights groups at Columbia and particularly at Cornell, where the militant tactics of the campus antiwar and Black Power movements encouraged the university's Student Homophile League to become more visible and more confrontational. The transition of Cornell's SHL from focusing on civil liberties to advocating social and political liberation both reflected and contributed to the growing radicalism of the LGBT movement.

The Beginnings of the Student Homophile League

Although students attracted to others of the same gender had developed semiprivate meeting places and informal social networks on many college campuses well before the rise of the homophile movement in the 1950s and 1960s, the activism of the Mattachine Society served as the inspiration for the establishment of the first student gay rights organization. In the fall of 1965 Stephen Donaldson (né Robert Martin) entered Columbia University as an openly bisexual student who had not only been involved in the New York City chapter of the Mattachine Society but lived with the group's president after his mother could not accept his announcement of his bisexuality. During his first year at Columbia he did not meet any other gay students and was forced by school officials to move out of his residence-hall room after his suitemates complained about living with someone who identified as bisexual. Deeply affected by the experience, when he finally met other gay students the following school year he suggested that they form a Mattachine-like organization on campus, what he envisioned as "the first chapter of a spreading confederation of student homophile groups."

Establishing the group at...