FEATURE

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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Not that long ago, the notion of any queer academia at all, much less a burgeoning curriculum, was “a joke, just ridiculous,” said Sharon Marcus, Columbia’s dean of humanities. But today, not only do queer students demand the classes — so do straights. “Students are interested in these issues no matter how they identify,” said Marcus. “No one knows what the sexuality of their child will be. They’re interested in learning about sexuality, period.” Although Columbia has no major in LGBTQ studies, the school may offer a minor “as we go down the road,” said Mitchell. That road, he hopes, will leave the other Ivies staring at Columbia-blue taillights: “I’m clearly biased, but I believe we lead on this.”

“Fifty years of remarkable change,” said Awn, summing up a half century of progress. “It represents a triumph of the human spirit. To engage in a battle that no one ever thought you could win. And then — to actually win.”

Under The Rainbow

During Bob Martin’s early years at Columbia, barely anyone was battling; politically speaking, not even a spat had occurred. Nobody dared. Stonewall was still to come. New York’s Gay Pride Parade was nary a figment. Go to a gay bar in the Village and the cops could jail you. Reveal your real orientation at work and the boss might fire you. Open up to friends and most would ostracize you. Disclose to family and they could disown you. Walk down the wrong street and they’d scream out an F-word: fairy, faggot, fruit, flower, flamer. (Or pansy, perv, limp wrist, lesbo, homo, or any of another hundred pejoratives, most far nastier.) More erudite company chose the word “degenerate” — not any better, really — icy, unforgiving, and clinical.

Admittedly, Paul Lynde was spouting double-entendres, saturated with gay subtext, as the amusing center space on The Hollywood Squares; Truman Capote was suitably celebrated for his masterpiece In Cold Blood, which came out about the same time Martin did at Columbia. But otherwise, media depiction of gays, negligible anyway, nearly always portrayed them as frightening, predatory creeps. The Homosexuals, a relatively sympathetic CBS-TV documentary of the time, nevertheless sustained a gloomy and sometimes spooky narrative. From the voice-over of correspondent Mike Wallace: “The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in, nor capable of, a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage.”

Columbian yearbook photo of Robert Martin.

“We had to keep our sexuality a secret,” said Don Collins, a retired psychologist and a friend of Martin’s. “I would go down to the Village on the weekend and hang out in gay bars. But you couldn’t relax in straight company. They would hate you if they found out. So you would say, ‘I saw the gals in the Village — man oh man, they were hot!’” Collins, who could pass for straight, got by: “You know what the word ‘butch’ means, right? Well, I came from the Bronx, from working-class people. I had a front.”

On campus, queer students were watchful. “Columbia was not a welcoming place,” recalled Dotson Rader, a celebrity interviewer and writer, and one of Martin’s classmates. “If you were openly gay at Columbia, they would send you to a shrink. Or kick you out. The basic attitude was ‘go away.’” Even the school’s queer faculty, always on yellow alert and ruminating about job security, stood cautious. “Everyone knew who was gay,” said Awn, today the dean of the School of General Studies. “But the fear was whether or not it would impact your tenure review.”

“I went to a faculty meeting to evaluate student applications,” said Dynes, who taught art history at Columbia in the sixties and seventies. “Someone would see a photograph and say, ‘This looks like a weak sister.’ That was the euphemism for it.” Presumably queer students weren’t blacklisted, but “the assumption was they would not do well.” Dynes, who is gay, didn’t protest. But the “gossip mill was working,” and he remembered how one homophobic male professor would recurrently scold a female colleague: “He’d say, ‘Why are you hanging around with Dynes? He’s a fag.’ She would say, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about that.’” Later, Dynes learned his female friend was a lesbian.

Against this monolith, Martin hardly appeared a candidate to sling the first stone. Arriving in New York City in August of 1965, he had no money, no friends, and no plan. Friends he found quickly. After all, he was “gorgeous, just a stunner,” said Perry. “With a charisma. When Bob spoke, people would lean in. He could talk about anything. I thought he was one of the smartest men I had ever met.” (Martin claimed a Mensa-certified IQ of 175.) But he was “soft-spoken,” said Perry. “And spiritual. I never saw him hateful with anybody.”

Over the decades, Martin would morph from Quaker pacifist to Buddhist monk. But even he would not declare that Divine Providence drove him to Columbia University at age nineteen. That one’s on Lois, his mother; long divorced from Martin’s father, she lived alone in Miami. Martin tried to spend the summer there, but she ran him off, with her “hysteria over homosexuality,” as Martin put it. He doubted Columbia would take a queer, but a friend called the dean’s office to ask. Columbia said yes, it would. With two stipulations. Commit to ongoing psychotherapy — and promise not to seduce classmates. Martin agreed.

During freshman year he found no gay students or faculty. And his three roommates, with whom he shared a suite at Carman Hall, told the dean they didn’t want to live with a homosexual. The boys tried to be decent, and tendered awkward apologies. But the incident, Martin wrote, was “traumatic.” Columbia assigned him a single room. Now he felt truly alone.

Perhaps nothing characterized his isolation more than this wistful postscript in a letter to a friend: “Now and then, say a prayer for me. There is no one on Earth who doesn’t need it.”

Under The Rainbow

Notwithstanding society’s ever-quickening acceptance of queer — in 2016, coming to terms with your sexuality, while simultaneously coming out to everyone around you, remains an agonizingly lonesome place.

At the Donaldson Lounge, the students of the Columbia Queer Alliance, like Bob Martin, carefully guard their identities. Only four of the ten members interviewed would reveal a first name, and none their surnames.

“They are cautious,” said Chris Woods, who oversees the group. “Oh, yeah. Cautious on Facebook, cautious about who they tell.” Including family members — many queer kids haven’t yet come out to their parents.

“And they have no intention of doing it anytime soon,” said Woods. “Some depend on parents for financial support. What happens if you are disowned?”

Said one student: “I have lots of friends who have been cut off financially. Or the parents say, ‘I’ll pay for college, but after that, don’t come home.’ How do you get through school, how do you live, if your parents won’t pay for your education? It’s a disaster.”

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