Under the Rainbow

Today, there are thousands of LGBTQ groups on college campuses around the world. In 1966, there was only one.

by Bill Retherford '14JRN Published Summer 2016
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Illustration by Brian Stauffer

Unlike Dorian Gray, whose portrait festered in an attic, the photograph of Stephen Donaldson languishes underground, framed yet unhung, placed unceremoniously on a tile floor and shoved uncelebrated next to a bookcase in a basement room of Furnald Hall, a century-old dorm on the Columbia campus. Sunshine-yellow walls and Caribbean-blue support beams brighten the room, known for twenty years as the Stephen Donaldson Lounge. Little happens here until Sunday afternoons, when the students of the Columbia Queer Alliance meet. They “vaguely” know about Donaldson. “He started the precursor of our group,” said one, which is true. And he “looks jaunty in his portrait,” which he does — half-Italian, young, grinning and buoyant, his dark curly hair topped by a sailor hat.

The queer lounge, in a delicious historical paradox, actually functioned as a closet for quite some years, a place for the building’s janitors to stash supplies. When the room was posthumously dedicated to Donaldson in November of 1996, its namesake had largely been forgotten. Donaldson surely would have hated that. “He was very self-promoting,” said Wayne Dynes, a friend and former Columbia professor. “And very solicitous of his role in history.” A role indisputably singular: a half century ago, in Columbia’s 1966 fall semester, twenty-year-old Stephen Donaldson, a sophomore, founded the first queer student organization ever on a college campus. Undercover, unofficial, and unfunded — the Columbia administration dithered a while before coming around — but still, the first of its kind in the “whole wide world,” as Donaldson liked to say.

For a man adoring of attention, a glaring absurdity exists. Stephen Donaldson was not his name. But the pseudonym reflected a sensible precaution; in 1966, one rarely revealed his real name in a gay bar, and absolutely never as the de facto president of a clandestine queer club at Columbia University. Donaldson, actually Robert Martin, was interchangeably called Bob, Stephen, or Donny by friends, acquaintances, and lovers, all of whom repeatedly corroborated one thing about him — Martin, the gay activist, wasn’t gay. Not by the rigorous definition of the word, at least. Wildly adventurous sexually, yes. Crazy about men, sure. But exclusively gay — no. “He always claimed to be bisexual,” said Dynes.

The pummeling Martin took, whether physical or psychological, never stopped him.

Something else about Martin, and this too is completely contrary to his supposed self-aggrandizement: he’d always take the hit, and usually without a shield. “Terrible things happened to him,” said Ellen Spertus, a colleague during the mid-nineties, and now a computer-science professor at Mills College in Oakland, California. “But then he would try to fix the problem. He was always fixing things for the people ahead of him, to make sure it never happened to them.” And as Martin’s activism accelerated, and the fallout landed, the pummeling he took, whether physical or psychological, never stopped him. “Just an extraordinary figure,” said Peter Awn, the venerable Columbia professor of religion who spoke at the Donaldson Lounge dedication. “He fought the culture.”

“That was the thread of his life,” said the Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Churches, and Martin’s friend from the sixties. “Bob willingly gave of himself to see the movement grow. He was actually a very gentle man. In the weirdest way, he was almost Christlike.”

Under The Rainbow

If Bob Martin was a martyr, consider the following a national act of veneration: in 2016, thousands of LGBTQ student organizations endure on US college campuses. Any university without one is now the deviation; Columbia currently maintains more than a dozen. “Each school has its own group,” said Chris Woods, assistant director of multicultural affairs and LGBTQ outreach. “Like Lambda Health Alliance — that’s the medical school.” Also OutLaws (Columbia Law School), Queer TC (Teachers College), Cluster Q (Columbia Business School), and Q (Barnard College). And then, subcategorizing: GendeRevolution (transgender), Proud Colors (queer/trans people of color), and JQ (Jews). No one knows exactly how many queer students attend Columbia — there’s no data — but educated conjecture suggests at least three thousand, about 10 percent of the total campus population.

“Inclusion is now a core value,” said Dennis Mitchell ’97PH, a Columbia professor for twenty-five years and vice provost for faculty diversity and inclusion. “Today you can’t achieve excellence without diversity.” Or without investment. Mitchell’s $3 million LGBTQ faculty-diversity initiative, a plan to hire four professors focused exclusively on queer studies, is “a very big deal,” he said. “A first. No other university has ever supported a cluster hire of scholars engaged in LGBTQ studies.” The new faculty could be in place as early as the fall semester of 2017.

“This really changes the game for queer students,” said Jared Odessky ’15CC, an LGBTQ advocate and legislative aide to Brad Hoylman, New York’s only openly gay state senator. “The hires are a clear message from the university that this is a priority.” Right now, the school’s LGBTQ classes, though out there, aren’t always available; ferreting out Columbia’s fitful offerings is chancy. “I had to hunt them down,” remembered Odessky. “But now we’re going to see a robust program. This may encourage more Columbia students to pursue research on LGBTQ topics.”

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