Gay at Yale

Jonathan Warren ’88

Jonathan Warren ’88

The 1986 GLAD rally on Cross Campus, made festive with pink balloons. View full image

Five years earlier, in 1977, a group of us had organized the first such week-long extravaganza, which we called Gay Rights Week. It was basically one long effort to encourage people to come out: first by asking them to staff tables outside every college dining hall -- where, ultimately, we collected 2,000 signatures in support of the Connecticut Gay rights bill; then by asking everyone to wear pink triangles (we were a bit ahead of the curve, so we couldn't buy buttons and had to make them out of construction paper); and then by staging the first-ever gay rally -- and dance -- on Cross Campus.

So there was a precedent for GLAD. But GLAD was different. The rally drew a much larger crowd, filling the lawn of Cross Campus with gay students and straight supporters who leapt to their feet and cheered when Maia Ettinger '83 (see "Generations"), the most visible and outspoken lesbian on campus, gave an electrifying speech about the homophobia students faced. GLAD also marked the maturation of gay politics on campus. Under the leadership of David Wertheimer '84MDiv, the Co-op became an institution strong enough to sustain student activism year after year, and a place where lesbians and gay men, and eventually bisexuals and trans people too, worked together, or at least worked at working together.

Remarkably, there has been a GLAD, or BGLAD, or Pride Month at Yale every April since 1982, and their annual appearance did much to transform the university. Many a frightened student found the courage to come out after going to a GLAD workshop or film, or seeing friends wearing pink triangles, or walking by the Cross Campus rally.

The Co-op, GLAD, and gay life on campus were also profoundly shaped in the 1980s by the spread of AIDS. Its awful history is beyond my scope here: the tremendous losses we suffered -- the friends and lovers, teachers and leaders, killed by the epidemic; the Yale grads who went on to play key roles in the battle against AIDS. But AIDS had a galvanizing effect on all queer organizing, producing a new level of radicalism and militancy in gay politics as well as AIDS politics, as the government's murderous neglect confronted us with how despised and marginalized we still were. Beyond that, it encouraged a generation of people to come out by confronting them with the fact that, as the AIDS activist organization ACT UP put it, Silence equaled Death, and to remain silent was to be complicit with that neglect.

As coming out became a mass phenomenon in the mid-'80s, it had a profound effect on gay-straight relations at Yale, as elsewhere, because many "out" gays sought to change the anti-gay attitudes of their roommates, friends, and families. Their commitment to educating those closest to them led to countless moments of struggle and debate in dorms, living rooms, and workplaces, which ultimately led many heterosexuals to support the rights of people who they now realized were not alien pariahs but were often among those they most loved and respected.

The Co-op also reinvigorated one of the most effective organizing tools on campus: the gay dance. By the height of their popularity in the mid-1980s, Co-op dances were the hippest and biggest on campus, attracting up to a thousand people.

Perhaps even more than the rallies, those dances helped transform the place of gay students on campus. At a time when gay students still risked harassment or at least cold stares if they dared dance together at other events, the Co-op dances welcomed them and gave them a chance to see their numbers. Equally important, their popularity gave gay students a cachet on campus, a coolness factor that caught the attention of other students and brought more and more straight students to the dances. There they found themselves in a gay-defined and -controlled space where they abruptly discovered how many of their friends were gay -- and that part of their coolness was that they really knew how to dance. Except for the occasional gawker, most of those heterosexuals were gay-friendly, and the dances made them even more so.

The fact that a thousand students showed up at a Co-op dance in the spring of 1987 was part of what caught the attention of a 1977 Yale grad and freelance journalist, Julie Iovine -- that, and the astonishing idea that lesbians might wear lipstick. TheWall Street Journal published her shocked and shocking account of the fact that Yale had become "a gay school." Worried about how alumni might react, President Benno Schmidt '63, '66LLB, wrote 2,000 of Yale's biggest donors and alumni fund-raisers to insist that Yale was no such thing.

Schmidt's response was a sign of the growing polarization of American society over homosexuality. Many people, especially college students and other young people in metropolitan regions, were beginning to embrace their gay friends; many others, including many parents, were still horrified at the thought of young people embracing gay friends or becoming gay themselves. Yale had learned this the hard way three years earlier, when GALA placed its first ad in the pages of the Yale Alumni Magazine. It looks innocuous today, but in 1984 the ad produced one of the largest outpourings of hostile letters the magazine had ever seen.

The hostile alumni, though, were on the losing side of history. Even as Yale became more gay-friendly, it moved to the next frontier, playing a formative role in the creation of the new field of LGBT studies. In October 1987, Yale's new Lesbian and Gay Studies Center, one of the first two in the nation, organized its inaugural conference, which attracted 40 speakers and an audience of 200 students and academics. In 1988 and 1989 Yale hosted two more such conferences, each drawing more speakers and many more registrants than the one before it. As academic gatherings of the most generative sort, these conferences played a critical role in building a new community of scholars and a new field of study.

The fact that they took place at Yale -- along with the towering presence of the late Yale medievalist John Boswell and the support later provided by the five-year-long Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies -- had a dramatic impact on campus. Yale now boasts one of the world's preeminent programs in LGBT studies. Students can choose from numerous courses in LGBT history, literature, ethnography, cultural studies, theory, and other subjects. These courses both provide students with critical analytical tools and send a powerful message that Yale takes these subjects seriously.

Yale was slower to provide the administrative support to LGBT students that has become common in the Ivy League and on campuses nationwide. But in January it officially launched the new Office of LGBTQ Resources. Among her many projects, director Maria Trumpler '92PhD works closely with the current generation of student activists, training undergraduates to serve as peer counselors and helping to fund Pride Month (the latest iteration of GLAD) and Transgender Awareness Week.

In the 20 years since the Wall Street Journal article, Yale has come steadily closer to living up to the reputation the article gave it. But there's an irony here. By the 1990s, the Co-op was finding it harder to rally students to the barricades, in part because so many of the old barriers seemed to have fallen. Gay dances declined in popularity as gay students became welcome at almost every dance on campus. Today, openly gay students are more visible on campus than ever, but they are so thoroughly a part of the collegiate scene that the queer political passions and solidarities of the '80s seem to them like emblems of a different era.