The following series of vignettes constituted my senior honors thesis in the American Civilization major at Williams College. The document was written in the spring of 1972 and describes events before and after my October 1971 coming out as a gay man on the front page of the Williams Advocate, a student newspaper. Professor Frederick Rudolph of the College's History Department supervised the honors project.
The meetinghouse of the Gay Activists’ Alliance of New York is on the southeastern fringe of the West Village. At 99 Wooster Street, specifically. Directly south of New York University’s Washington Square campus, the neighborhood reeks of decay, with old factory buildings and boarded store fronts. A few hip, poverty-stricken couples rent lofts in surrounding buildings, but generally the streets are deserted by Manhattan standards. Only the ubiquitous garbage on the roads and sidewalks denies the lack of any inhabitants in the district. Occasionally a waft of smog brings along a sickeningly sweet aroma from a cheap bakery company at the end of the block; but New York pollution and dog manure usually provide the most reliable olfactory stimuli.
On a Thursday afternoon, late in May 1971, gathering a tenuous courage to meet the unknown, I took a Lexington Avenue subway to Fourteenth Street and walked down toward NYU. Luckily stumbling on Wooster without difficulty (finding any named street in the Village is a miracle, where even the ostensibly parallel numbered streets intersect), I hesitated at the gloom that tall lifeless buildings imposed on the scene. The street was totally deserted except for a few junky cars and a late-model Cadillac, belonging to a landlord I guessed. Walking down the first wretched block, I wondered whether this were a second Wooster and I had missed the right one. Everything was so undistinguished. My middle-class expectations didn’t allow for such an important organization to be housed in such dismal obscurity. In looking for number 99, I spotted a newly painted, fire-engine-red building squeezed in between taller, more placid structures. Since I knew GAA had rented a converted firehouse built late in the Nineteenth Century, I figured now I could either keep walking and go back to the Williams Club or stumble nonchalantly into New York’s most militant homosexual civil liberties coterie.
Walk by the door. Hesitate. Turn around and look as though by chance something on this desolate block has caught your eye, although there’s not a soul on the street to see you. Read the tiny sign pasted on the door, “Gay Activists’ Alliance, 99 Wooster Street,” act like the inquisitive tourist always willing to see a new show, boldly uncatch the lock, and walk in.
And be greeted not by a mob of disheveled, grimy, beady-eyed little men working over their latest bomb for the financial district, but by no one. Merely a tall, deep, empty, gloomy space with one ornate spiral staircase to the right to mock the nonbeing of the rest.
So what to do now? No welcoming party or band to greet me. No one, for that matter. Some gratitude that! Here I work up the courage to arrive and no congratulating hordes flow by to shake my hand.
But maybe they’re hiding at the top of the staircase to surprise me. On the second floor someone is walking across the room as I arrive. Dressed in tattered levis and work shirt, he comes up to me, offers his hand. “I’m Marty,” his quick, nervous voice adds to the message. As I go to take the hand, he removes it, and smiles “It’s too dirty.” Obviously having done quite a bit of repair work on the firehouse, he indeed is dirty, but I wonder if I look that pristine.
Mumbling something about being new in town, I ask when GAA’s next meeting will be. “Tonight, at eight,” Marty replies. “Everyone’s welcome.”
This Thursday-night meeting was my first in a large group (i.e., over a hundred) where I knew everyone to be homosexual. Which can be quite a mind-boggling experience, if you think about it: being in a crowd which doesn’t assume heterosexual mores as the norm, indeed which has few established social patterns at all. Gay bars, to be sure, have developed a milieu of their own: standing around, striking poses, drinking, eying one another across the room, conversing only as much as necessary to make the requisite contact to leave for an apartment. But with an intolerant society’s prohibition of any significant social intercourse beyond the bars, no ritual more than that has flourished.
Thus there I was at GAA, which stridently rejects bar life and the ethos it nurtures. Yet inevitably some bar flavor seeps into a group whose members have their social roots originating in that past world. At the Firehouse, therefore, people inadvertently cruised – gay slang for seeking a sexual partner. Cruising is an art developed over decades of stifled sexual self-expression. The problem has always been a simple one: to convey erotic interest in someone in a culture where such interest is taboo. And communicating this desire so subtly, furthermore, that the act wouldn’t offend the other person if the interest is not mutual. Traditionally, then, the big difficulty in gay “courtship” has been identifying other homosexuals, since conspicuous “fags” only constitute ten or fifteen percent of the gay population. Various institutions have evolved to alleviate the problem: certain metropolitan areas become known as cruising spots – bus stations, specific parks, and gay bars, most obviously.
But back to the meeting. The organization’s founders envisioned GAA as a political pressure group. By the summer of ̓71, however, the one-year-old alliance had acquired its Firehouse and a membership in excess of 250. These ostensibly propitious developments caused serious problems: since the organization now had a spacious community center, it held Saturday-night dances, which provided GAA with its first steady income (usually over $1,000 each week). Thus capitalism got a strangle hold on the activists’ attention: how would this money be spent? And with the large membership, furthermore, the once well defined conception of GAA’s purpose broke down: more people offered more definitions of the words Gay Liberation. I came to Wooster Street, therefore, just as these growth pains became acute. And thus these Thursday-night meetings were incredibly litigious. The old-liners saw big-business economics and the resulting internal ideological hassles tearing the organization apart. They argued for a renaissance of activist spirit, yearned for the time when everyone tacitly understood the goals of Gay Liberation. The founding fathers watched these self-styled activists expending energy on dances to raise money to fight over, rather than zapping Mayor Lindsay and city councilmen to take stands on gay issues. The system they had vowed to change was changing them.
I left the meeting impressed by the vigor of the activists’ commitment, but surprised at the lack of tactical unanimity. Their goals were alike, but their means countless.
On a Friday night the last week in May, I ventured to a GAA orientation meeting somewhere in the east 40's in Midtown. The apartment building was an old one with a courtyard that perhaps was quite posh long ago. Now the walks and foliage are shabby, and a few old people sit around gaping and gossiping.
My heart pounded as I walked through the open door: in this small gathering of gays I would have to be a participant, not just some anonymous observer. I ran into a mass of coats suspended from some pipe or rail in front of the hall door. Struggling to add mine to the jumble, I saw on each side a room full of people, some fifteen to my left and maybe twenty or more on the right. Someone ushered me into the smaller crowd, and I looked for a corner in which to hide.
A disheveled double bed dominated the room. On it lay a beaming guy in his twenties who appeared to be in charge. Around the bed stood, squatted, and lounged a motley gathering of young, semihip, middle-class men. Most of them fairly undistinguished, they too were probably acting as politically conscious homosexuals for the first time, and thus as self-consciously as I.
The radiant guy on the bed introduced himself as Peter Steinberg, Orientation Committee chairman. Some class-conscious gays would readily describe Peter as chicken – which isn’t a reflection on his courage but rather on his physical type: slender to the point of ostensible malnutrition, small-boned, possessing little physical strength, somewhat diametrically opposed to the he-man. The term is generic. Certain gay bars are known to attract chicken, and other guys with a particular appetite for chicken cruise them. Maybe these latter ones are called chicken hawks, I don’t know. Anyway, Peter is chicken.
I found him thoroughly dynamic and enchanting. His effervescence charmed me and I think everyone in the room. If the Orientation Committee’s mandate was to attract new blood to GAA, Peter Steinberg was unquestionably a magnetic force. By the meeting’s end, I wanted to see more of him and wondered whether the rest of the group were as charismatic as he.
The orientation session was essentially informational, describing the Gay Activists’ Alliance: a militant, nonviolent, single-issue, homosexual liberation group. Orientation Committee members described the scope of its activities: from political “zaps” of city councilmen to radical journalism to gay dances to consciousness-raising groups. The prospective members asked the anticipated questions: What are membership requirements? (Attendance at a designated number of general membership and committee meetings.) Do government agencies have access to membership lists? (Officially, no. But what the authorities want badly enough can usually be obtained in some nefarious way.) What can I do for the organization while still coming out of the closet? (Most committee work is of a clerical nature.)
One event of the evening disturbed me a little. About a half hour after my arrival, a man in his late twenties came into the room carrying a baby with a plastic bottle. As the meeting progressed, he responded to questions from the initiates as though a GAA member, which indeed was the case. Apparently the guy had not come out until after marriage and fatherhood, which seemed vaguely pitiful to me. That society has forced untold numbers of male homosexuals to marry women and raise children I find an unconscionable injustice: the psychological harm that the hypocrisy of leading two diametrically opposed lives engenders must be incredible. One of the few times I went to a New York gay bar I met a twenty-seven-year-old accountant with a wife and family living in Brooklyn. During the weekdays he plays the respectable, married-man role, and on weekends, haunts Greenwich Village bars. I’m appalled to imagine waking up and asking myself “Who am I today?” No wonder suicide is so common among gays.
But I left the orientation meeting in very high spirits: I was coming out before social pressures forced me into some psychologically paralyzing corner.
The cops raided the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village gay bar, on the night of June 27, 1969, or early morning of June 28. The bar’s youthful clientele, not content to follow the traditional scenario of slinking off through alleyways back to lonely rooms, congregated outside and threw rocks and garbage at the invading officers. Eventually the latter retreated into the building and called for reinforcements to disperse the angry mob. Since that rebellion by the street people has become the shot heard round the world for Gay Liberation, the Movement celebrates its Fourth of July each June 28. And I took part in the second independence day parade, otherwise called the Christopher Street Liberation Day March. Indeed, it was my first public demonstration of my gayness, having just come to GAA at the beginning of the month. This was when I was to prove my true commitment: whether I’d get out of the closet and into the streets with the troops. I read somewhere much later in a gay publication that one demonstration is worth a thousand hours on a psychiatrist’s couch, and I thoroughly agree.
The day was gorgeous, a Saturday. I wore shorts and tennis shoes, and arrived at Sheridan Square some twenty minutes before the designated hour. Christopher Street was blocked off to traffic, and a mob loitered between the rows of junk buildings on each side. Banners of numerous Eastern groups bulged above the mass: Radicalesbians, HUB (Homophile Union of Boston), New York Mattachine, and on and on. I spotted a few GAA acquaintances helping to hold the Christopher Street banner and chatted with them about the day’s festivities. Then wandering back through the mob to find the GAA contingent, I again marveled at the diversity of homosexuals: the ostensibly ultrastraight, the Fire Island beauties, the leather set, the freaks, the drag queens, the butch lesbians, the fems, and the remaining nondescript horde.
The crowd oozed forward toward Sixth Avenue. Everywhere parade marshals hawked at the demonstrators to stay in line, allow for pedestrians and traffic. Then the chants started:
Two, four, six, eight,
Gay is just as good as straight!
Three, five, seven, nine,
Lesbians are mighty fine!
Ho! Ho! Homosexual!
The ruling class is ineffectual!
Say it loud: Gay is angry!
Say it loud: Gay is proud!
As the march shouted north up Sixth Avenue, moving away from the Village, the crowds became less and less hip. The Silent Majority came to stare from windows and dared to walk out of doors and gape. No overt hostility though. At Forth-Second Street a skyscraper was going up, and hard-hats lined up along the steel beams to watch and jeer. A cry of “Join us! Join us!” went up from the mob, and the construction workers did a number of fairy impersonations, some very convincing. The march did swell, though, as lookers-on joined the ranks, the mob spirit infecting all.
Jack Hoppen, soon to become Social Committee chairman, organized a kick line of GAA regulars to perform in front of Radio City Music Hall. Their song went:
We are the Lambda Girls,
We wear our hair in curls,
We pick up lots of tricks,
That’s how we get our kicks!
I found myself raising my fist in cries of “Justice! Justice! Justice!” Not that I’ve ever had any blatant injustice perpetrated against me personally, but because it seemed right at the time. And laws do exist on the books against sodomy and solicitation, which the authorities selectively enforce against homosexuals. And homosexuals do lose jobs and are asked to vacate living quarters if they’re found out. But yet that was far back in my mind; I felt we were protesting all those subtle injustices against gays: the staring or jeering or rock throwing at the couple perchance holding hands; the insinuation of living a life less than human, being some vermin to be exterminated; the psychologically crippling hypocrisy the straight-game-playing inflicts on the closeted homosexual.
And I thought we were protesting our society’s intolerance of its heretofore acquiescent minorities. Putting aside all the endless arguments of whether homosexuality is right or wrong, normal or abnormal, sick or great, we were proclaiming our right to exist, to embrace that homespun pursuit of happiness we’d heard so much about. The march came down to a denial of the heterosexual majority’s historic reign of terror: we were putting forth our bill of rights.
I was convinced I had to start a group at Williams when I returned in September. For two reasons. One was altruistic. At the end of my sophomore year, almost inadvertently I had fallen in love with a straight senior. My anguish was unbearable, I not knowing where to turn for counsel. The College’s psychiatrist offered little consolation other than clinical, unsatisfying questions. What I needed was peer-group guidance, perhaps from someone who had gone through a similar experience. But out of 1200 peers, no one offered himself. Thus with the experience I had gained by the summer’s end, I felt competent to advise less self-confident gay students on any number of problems that might arise on campus.
My second reason was selfish. I wanted an identifiable gay community in which to socialize. I was tired of celibacy.
The Williams Advocate appeared as a significant means toward accomplishing my aim. Since out of necessity I had come to run the paper almost singlehandedly my first semester as editor, I didn’t want to worry about problems of printing any article I wrote. Yet I was sensitive to potential criticism the paper’s readership might have to my using the periodical for my own purposes. Although I felt a Gay Lib chapter’s establishment at Williams was sufficient justification for any avenue I chose to use, I wanted to get the entire staff behind me before any article appeared.
Charlie Rubin, whose idea it was originally to found the Advocate, was well aware as my roommate in New York of my activities in GAA and of my plans for Williams. In fact, he helped crystallize many of them.
Oddly enough, though, Mitch Rapoport, the paper’s cofounder and my second closest friend at school, didn’t know about the new Dan, the reason being that I thought he didn’t want to know. After the intercession break of that year, I had ridden back to Williamstown from New York with Mitch. At a fortuitous turn in our conversation, I casually brought up the subject of homosexuality on a purely academic-intellectual level. Mitch, always the great debater and rational being, spoke candidly of his ideas, uninformed and incompletely shaped as they were. I posited the ostensibly hypothetical case where one of his best friends was homosexual and asked Mitch whether he’d want his friend to tell him. He said he’d prefer not to know. Obviously he had never considered me as such and thought out talk only had philosophic implications. Thus I hesitated to enlighten Mitch, waiting until the last possible moment. Yet I’m sure my unexplained, all-time-consuming activities in New York that summer made him curious. By the time Charlie dropped some hints the week before classes began, Mitch was becoming wise.
We planned an Advocate staff meeting the night before school officially opened. On the agenda was discussion of a series on blacks at Williams and of some yet ill-defined major homosexual inquiry. Everyone on campus of any past or present importance to the paper was there: Mitch and Charlie, the founders and first editors; Chris West, the first business manager; David Kehres and I, the then current editors; John Enteman, the business manager; and John Ramsbottom, a future editor.
The black series went down with little problem. Mitch pitched hard for it, it being his pet project. The staff agreed the campus ought to know past and present developments in the black community at Williams: the Hopkins Hall occupation and its results, the present questions on the Afro-American Society’s funding, the controversy over an exclusively black house on campus, and so on.
Then the fit hit the shan, as Charlie Rubin says. The evening had droned on, but ears pricked up at mention of a heretofore unmentionable subject at Williams. Immediately John Enteman vowed the advertisers would revolt: Cary Walsh would have nothing to do with queers or even the mention of them. Such an article would end the House of Walsh [a Spring Street clothing store] patronage for which, John claimed, he had worked so hard. Tempted to say to hell with Cary, I only replied that a paper’s first responsibility is to its readers and not to its advertisers. Well, John announced, don’t plan on any funds from advertising then.
Next came the problem of where we’d get reliable information about homosexuals at Williams. Which indeed was a first-rate question, as I fully learned later on. Not yet sure of the wisdom of presenting myself as a source, I responded that faculty of long-standing in the community might be knowledgeable on the subject and that surely the College’s psychologists and deans would have information. And I hinted I knew some gay students who might be willing to talk. (Little white lies don’t hurt anyone.)
Then Charlie added that other campuses had established gay groups and that we might do a feature on one of them to see what they offered their communities.
Obviously the other people there hadn’t thought much on the subject. They were uninformed, their arguments undeveloped. Since the three of us quite apparently had mulled over the issue, the staff deferred to our judgment and gave its tacit approval to research the delicate matter. John Enteman warned that he would want to read the result before its publication. To which remark I partially lost control and said there would be a homosexual feature in the Advocate. Period. Meeting adjourned.
But what kind of article became a persistent problem. Originally Charlie suggested we print a series of stories over two or three weeks. The first would delve into the history of a homosexual community on campus: what traditionally has been the gay student’s condition at Williams? The other articles would recount the founding of gay groups on other campuses, ending with the proposal of a chapter here.
That was all very good, we thought. I had interviewed key people at Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Colorado [my home state]. Thus the follow-up stories were no problem. But the first story proved impossible. In my interviews with faculty, I discovered almost no one knew anything about homosexuals at Williams. Former dean John Hyde, for instance, recalled a few times when students came to him seeking counsel, whom he referred to the school’s health service. But the clinical psychologist offered no tangible information whatsoever; he was apprehensive of a press that would cite him as a professional, who, therefore, ostensibly must have all the answers. And he wasn’t about to assume that position. Thus he said nothing quotable. A very frustrating interview, for that matter.
Senior faculty, although having nothing substantive to offer the story, were sympathetic to the paper’s cause. Professor Gates, for example, vowed to back us up if the College’s administration gave the paper trouble. Yet when I left his office, he had learned more about homosexuality and homosexuals than I had. Frederick Rudolph, the historian of the College, offered the only concrete information obtained from anyone: an ambiguous comment by President Tyler Dennett recorded in the faculty minutes of September 24, 1934, and the tidbit that a football captain in the 1920's, who later taught at Williams, was discovered to be a transvestite homosexual.
Thus, originally wanting to trace the development of a gay community at Williams, we found only one known individual to report. The College’s homosexual skeletons in the closet were not about to open their doors to our sleuthing.
Concomitant with problems of ferreting out information came those of timing. Of course I wanted the articles printed as soon as we could write them, thus giving me the maximum time to get people out of their closets and establish a group before my graduation in June. Yet one major consideration held us back: how would the Advocate staff react to the knowledge that their editor was a militant homosexual? That September we attracted to the paper a good number of new people on campus, so that freshmen and transfer/exchange students comprised over half the staff. Mitch and Charlie, who had imperiled their academic careers to establish the Advocate, wanted these initiates to know me first as an individual rather than as an abstraction (that is, a Homosexual); they wanted my radiant personality to captivate the trainees and squelch any potential adverse responses in the bud. Thus we had to wait at least four to six weeks before advertising my coming-out party.
When our interviews with Messrs. Booth, Crider, Frost, Gates, Hyde, Rudolph, Talbot, and Van Ouwerkerk proved almost bootless, I decided that an attempt to dredge up any campus gay history was futile and that I knew more about the homosexual’s plight at Williams than anyone else. Since I then knew who the expert was, I sat down one afternoon and interviewed him. And that, along with minor revisions and additions Mitch recommended, became the Advocate’s homosexual lead article.
Many months later, Provost Kershaw told me I had pulled off quite a coup with that pseudo-interview. To which I admit I was not unaware of the psychology involved in its publication. Not only had I to introduce discussion of homosexuality on campus but also to undermine any negative reaction so that closeted gays wouldn’t be scared even more into the depths of their closets. Thus I had to play on the reader’s humanity and present “Roy,” my interviewee, most compassionately, not without a touch of melodrama.
Yet I thought my heart-rending interview with myself insufficient for my purposes. To propose the inception of a Gay Liberation chapter at Williams wasn’t enough: I had to show what such a group could offer the community. Thus the second interview, with the founder of Boulder Gay Liberation. His story presented the activities a militant Williams gay community could do: counseling, educating the populace, consciousness raising, and socializing.
A few people outside our close-knit coterie found out about the lead article before its publication. Charlie told Paul Isaac, who had worked on the staff on and off for over a year, that an unmentioned homosexual student was writing an article on his experiences at Williams. Paul responded that the student must be either one of the most courageous people on campus or one of the most foolish. John Enteman also found out beforehand and singlehandedly began to dig the Advocate’s financial grave. John was always dependable.
The Advocate was due for campus distribution around 6 p.m. I ate dinner at Baxter Hall at 5:30 even though Garfield House, formally my residential eating unit, had guest meal that night. I didn’t want to be around to see initial responses: although liberated enough to print an article revealing myself, I didn’t feel up to watching people read it. Besides, since I had given my phone number at the interview’s end, I wanted to catch any calls that dared come in after dinner.
To say I was excited is a gross understatement. For the entire evening I paced up and down my room, literally unable to sit or lie down.
I called Mitch to bring a copy of the paper to my room. Briefly he described over the phone how well the hou-bros had responded to the article at dinner.
While Mitch drove over, my phone rang. The caller asked for Roy. To which request I explained the use of that pseudonym for the article’s format, and that indeed, I, Dan Pinello, was Roy. He asked what things such an organization could do. Enumerating the activities revealed in the article on Byron Sullivan, I ended that ultimately the group’s members would decide what to do – I only could make suggestions. Then he asked how many other people had responded so far. His voice cracked in doing so. Naive as I was, I said he was the first. Yet quickly added that the paper had been out only a few hours. My voice cracked, too. Was there some way I could reach him after others called? No, he’d have to call back in a few days or so. Which he failed to do; I never again heard from him.
Mitch came with the Advocate. I skimmed the issue and thanked heaven the printers hadn’t made any last-minute mistakes. Mitch continued his description of my house brothers’ favorable response. Then I told him about the call I got.
The phone rang again. Immediate silence as I picked up the receiver.
“Hello, Dan?” a drunken voice inquired.
A tentative “Yes?” in reply.
“I hear that you’re fuckin’ gay.”
A more feeble “Yes.”
“Hang up on him, Dan!” Mitch advised, apparently hearing the last remark. But I didn’t.
“Well, why don’t you come over here and blow me?” Uproarious, drunken laughter from the background.
A very cold “No, thank you.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” he smirked and hung up.
Dead silence for a few minutes as I put down the receiver.
“The bastard!” Mitch offered.
And I didn’t know how to respond. My friend’s witnessing the event made me ambivalent. First, the prankster’s call demonstrated the deep-seated prejudice to Mitch. But now, besides having to fend off the drunk, I had to deal with Mitch’s commiseration: martyrdom is no sinecure.
The event in itself depressed me: people can be so stupid and inconsiderate of others. Yet I was outraged, emotionally and intellectually, that I should be liable to such bigotry. But people like that caller and his friends were most in need of liberation, I thought. Perhaps then an attitude of complacent annoyance and vigilant toleration was the tactic to embrace.
Mitch consoled me some more and then saw fit to leave. Which I welcomed since I preferred being alone at the moment.
I paced my room thinking about the heckler and how I should have responded to him. I jumped as the phone rang again.
A cautious “Hello?” on my part.
“Hello, Dan?” It was Lewis Steele. “I just wanted to call and offer my help if you need it. Or if you ever want to talk to someone, please don’t hesitate to call me.”
That was the gist of his message although we talked over events in general. I had known Lewis since he lived on the floor beneath mine in Morgan West, our freshmen entry. We had a lot in common: lower-middle-class backgrounds, from conservative families with widowed or divorced mothers. The two of us, in essence, sensed how the other “ticked.” Yet I expected at best an apprehensive reaction to my coming out. Instead, Lewis had infinite compassion: suddenly I had become, it seemed, a long-lost, dear relative who was dying of cancer.
Before that Thursday night was over, some two or three other drunken students called to heckle. But now I had a scenario ready for them. Inevitably each propositioned me. To which I responded that, well, that was very generous of him, but how could I seriously consider the offer without knowing who made it. My God, I just couldn’t go around tricking with any Tom, Dick, or Eph! So would he be kind enough to tell me with whom I had the pleasure to anticipate fulfilling this tempting proposal. To which each answered with some pseudonym (Eph Williams was one) or not at all. Then I replied that, really, I couldn’t put much faith in the offer since I didn’t have any interest in cowards. Coward? Coward?! Who’s a coward? Why, of course, you, big man, who refuses to tell just one person your name when I could let mine be known publicly. And with that, the flame of passion went out because none dared go beyond that point.
One freshman heckler was a curious case. Initially, he pleaded “Why did you do it?” And I spouted reliable truisms – how hypocrisy withers the soul, how stereotypes have to crumble before diversity, etc. Then he became assertive and belligerent and screamed at me after my planned response. Then he hung up – only to call again, scream again, and hang up again. Several times.
A week passed after the issue’s publication, and my plea to start a Williams gay group got no takers. Discouraged but not defeated, I hit on another ploy to pull people out. Playing on the liberal conscience of the College Council, I got $200 to sponsor three speakers from GAA: Marty Robinson, Arthur Evans, and John Francis Hunter. The first two, who helped found the Alliance, are articulate, hell-fire public speakers. The third, the author of a fascinating guide to New York’s gay subculture called The Gay Insider, is a suave, seductive, former professional actor. That combo ought to persuade any reluctant celibate, I thought.
When the Williams Choral Society toured New York and Washington with the Detroit Symphony the following weekend, I ventured down to Wooster Street to make the arrangements for the coup de grâce of closetdom at Williams. A week later the terrific trio was scheduled to arrive.
To insure the attendance of anyone who had the slightest interest in the discussion, I flooded the campus with publicity. Since the lecture’s title had to attract attention, why not be blatant about it? Two chants from my New York demonstrating days would get the message across: “Two, four, six, eight, gay is just as good as straight!” and “Hey, hey, whaddaya say, try it once the other way!” That would get ̓em.
It did. It also got me into the Dean’s Office. Neil Grabois wanted to know just what I had planned up my sleeve; the College had to protect itself from any illicit activities in Jesup Hall. John English, the News Director, was somewhat disturbed to see that slogan submitted to the Williams Register’s Calendar of Events.
I defended my choice, saying that the effect the title had on Mr. English was exactly the reaction I wanted from everyone who read it: to sit up and take notice. Well, what about antagonists, Grabois wanted to know. I assured him that GAA regulars were used to hecklers and that a few might give life to the meeting. Well, just make sure the College isn’t liable for any illegal acts, he warned.
The title didn’t get printed in the Register.
Undaunted, I had the McClelland Press print up posters – the printer chuckled at the title – and I put leaflets in every student mailbox on campus. To hell with English.
Thus everything was set for that Tuesday night: I had concise introductory remarks to present the speakers, and I planned to brief them over dinner before the speech. Two problems developed though. The three New Yorkers arrived two hours late, with barely enough time to get to Jesup, and were none of the people I was expecting – one I had never seen before. Morty Manford, Gay People at Columbia’s active leader, Cora Perrotta, a vivacious, diminutive lesbian, and Charlie Burch were my guests.
I was devastated: since I didn’t know any of them, I had no confidence in their powers of persuasion. So much for Gay Liberation at Williams College, I thought. I trundled over to meet the man-eating lions in Jesup, heart in hand.
And the event went beautifully. Easily 100 to 125 people or more attended, and the speakers were great. Charlie Burch, the new one to me, turned out to be the most eloquent: “. . . in contrast to his companions, he was not forcefully activist, but fantastically lyrical.” (Dick Langlois in The Williams Record.) And I realized how wise the Alliance had been to send a woman: Lesbians are homosexuals, too. After two hours of talk we formally adjourned and invited anyone who wanted to initiate gay activism at Williams to reconvene in Griffin Hall. Ten to twelve people met there, even a few from Bennington College. Talk was animated, though disjunct, and I was exhausted, though ecstatic: here was a nucleus – my flock.
We agreed to meet again two weeks later after the Thanksgiving recess and discuss concrete details of an organization and its activities at Williams. In that time, the ten to twelve people dwindled to four. Yet we faced the issues: what our group could offer Williams, what we should do among ourselves, and most important, how we could get more members.
That last one became our perennial problem. Attendance at publicly announced meetings varied from three to eight. Everyone who came was gay – an inevitable result, I guess, although not my original intent. Straight students have little to offer discussion beyond usually superficial, sometimes insensitive comments on the homosexual’s plight. The best intentioned aren’t able fully to appreciate the gay’s problems, and then feel out of place.
Each of us in the group knew of other students whom we thought to be gay. Indeed, we could come up with lists and lists of names, but to what avail? Coming out into activism is a totally personal decision. And at Williams especially, it’s a commitment on which you can’t go back. Maybe some of us should have approached people, laying the cards on the table. Yet we might have done harm, might have scared them further back into their closets’ depths. All we could reasonably do then was to offer opportunities for indoctrination at functions where closeted gays could take part anonymously. The lecture-discussion in November was a great example. Peter Moreland and I, therefore, arranged to speak at a Chapel Board supper-discussion early in February. And we had a similar success: the place was packed, food ran out, and we talked for two and a half hours. During Winter Study, furthermore, we sent a letter to faculty offering our services in any courses where the discussion of homosexuality and Gay Liberation was appropriate. Ms. Solzbacher-Rouse and Ms. Hendrix responded to the note. The former taught an anthropology course on American minority groups, and the latter had a unit in her expository writing class on emerging liberation movements in America. Each class went exceptionally well.
At last summer’s end, I felt a responsibility to tell my relatives about my activities in New York and my plans for Williams that year. In returning home to Denver, I wasn’t seeking my mother’s approval because I knew that to be futile, but I thought she had a right to know what was happening before the grapevine enlightened her. Her response was to be expected, I guess: a variant on “What will my family think?” or “How will I be able to face my friends? Do you realize what you’re doing to me?” Justly though, I was annoyed that she thought first about the revelation’s social impact and not about my welfare. We argued unendingly, to little avail. Her firm opinion was that I was doing all this to spite her. Finally, she begged, “Let someone else do it.”
My sister, eight years my senior, had more reason to be compassionate and understanding. Having gone through a useless marriage, she then was foraging out into the business world on her own, feeling the discrimination of being a woman in a man’s arena. She wondered though whether the College could expel me for coming out. “Don’t ruin your career,” she advised.
My mother’s admonition incensed me and points up the necessity of militant homosexual groups in our society. As with blacks, no one cares to improve an oppressed minority’s condition if first those oppressed don’t help themselves. The German and Italian Jews sat back to watch the coming of their own annihilation in the 1930's. For years, homosexuals have let heterosexuals denigrate and impoverish gay life, timidly slinking off to wretched bars and baths, tails between their legs. Thus, if through nothing but my own example, I had to show all the closet cases on campus what could and has to be done for our own humanity and sanity.
And my career? Unquestionably Gay Lib has changed my plans. When I came to Williams four years ago, I thought at last I had made it into the upper-middle class and looked forward to a lucrative professional future. Now, something like civil liberties law appeals to me, both because I think more personal satisfaction offers itself there and because that may be one of only a few fields in which a militant homosexual can fit. I just can’t imagine myself in some comfortable Wall Street office building worrying over whether Company X will make such and such profits this year. Our financial-industrial structure intimidates and repulses me.
The success of my experiment at Williams is difficult to judge. The two most important indicators are beyond my reach to measure. First, how have my actions affected other gay people on campus? With 50 to 100 or more homosexual students at Williams a statistical probability, why did just about ten chose to become active in any way? How will the other 80 to 90 percent react in the next few years when the conditions for their coming out are most favorable? Are they seriously considering the alternatives open to them? These and other questions I have no way of answering.
Second, how has Gay Liberation affected the other people at school? Have they critically examined their attitudes towards homosexuals? Lots of signs of positive psychological change have appeared on campus. Students have been candid and open-minded in discussions with me and in large groups. Innumerable spontaneous talks about Gay Lib have sprung up which come back to me through the grapevine. Yet are these reliable indicators? I recall an article in Harpers of September 1970, written by Joseph Epstein, a self-styled liberal Jew, in which he longed for the genocide of homosexuals. How many “liberals” at Williams deep down in their very inner beings have the same feelings?
I think the few people who did join the group benefitted from their involvement. About two of them are well enough politicized to carry on the fight next year (I hope). And all have an idea what is available to them in the movement.
Yet we never really developed a group consciousness. Few bonds, if any, tied us together. We were a conglomerate of fairly militant individualists who felt little group responsibility. Peter Moreland, for example, refused to identify himself as a member and to give public discussions with other people in the lot whom he didn’t respect. And when he did act, his reasons generally were totally selfish. Yet I don’t mean to defame him: no one had any commitment to do anything in Gay Liberation. Peter, for that matter, probably did more than any other person on campus (excluding myself) to further its interests at Williams. I only give the example to demonstrate some of the inherent difficulties we had in establishing a true cohesiveness.
My personal liberation has been great. Just over a year ago, I had difficulty saying the word homosexual. That was something never mentioned in my experience: the word was almost foreign – too specific yet nearly meaningless. Hazy, nefarious connotations sprang up at its sound. My own prejudices thus were one of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome. GAA exposed me to the gay world’s diversity. My coming out at Williams forced me to defend my actions, to scrutinize all my past assumptions about human phenomena. When confronted, say, with Biblical quotations, I had to know the answers. When eyed in the Snack Bar or on the street, I had to evaluate my commitment. When heckled on the phone, I had to find the spunk to face the oppressor and fight back.
Then, too, come the incidental benefits. I’ve become aware of my body as worthy of my attention. Last summer I developed a keen interest in nutrition and physical fitness, things in my freshman year to which I was totally oblivious. If I can maintain the rigor of exercise and diet I have this year, I should be in top physical condition in another year or two – again, something completely out of my comprehension just a short time ago.
I’ve become much more sensitive to the needs and condition of other minority groups, too. Through contact with Lesbian feminists in GAA, for example, I now continually inspect my attitudes and actions toward women.
As a freshman, I was a political hick, as my campaigning for Nixon in Williamstown proved. My participation in a radical social change movement brought me to the other side of the spectrum. Before the Massachusetts primary this year, I canvassed for McGovern in Adams and North Adams for three days. And while working in Williamstown this coming summer, I plan to help campaign in the New York primary.
Gay Liberation, therefore, has made me much more dynamic, more open-minded and reflective. And much more interesting a human.
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