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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Conversely, and perhaps curiously, a May 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center said most Americans — 57 percent — claim they “would not be upset” if they had a child who came out as gay or lesbian; only 17 percent would be “very upset.”

Recruiting members on campus for the Student Homophile League, 1970s.

But that’s a what-if hypothetical. Smacked with unwelcome news in their living room, many parents react with resentment and rage. “They have a lot of expectations,” said Woods. A sense of ownership prevails, as “parents think of the investment they’ve made all these years.”

At the lounge, students readily confirmed family conflict and cutoffs. Acknowledged one: “A lot of us tend to have terrible relationships with our parents.”

Said another: “My dad doesn’t believe bisexuality is real. My mom just believes it’s a phase.”

And another: “I told my mom when I was a senior in high school. She told me she should have sent me to church when I was a kid. I never brought it up again.”

Just ahead for Columbia’s queer students is graduation, which today carries a new risk — job hunting while out. As described in a January 2016 study published in Socius, a journal of the American Sociological Association: a researcher sent a pair of fake résumés from fictional women to more than eight hundred employers. One résumé listed membership in an LGBTQ student organization. The other did not. Those with the queer distinction received 30 percent fewer responses.

“For graduates going out into the world, it’s an eye-opening experience,” said Adam Nguyen ’98CC, president of the LGBTQ alumni group Columbia Pride. “Your self-expression may not be easily accepted.” And even after you get the job, you’re not always sheltered. “There’s subtle, day-to-day discrimination,” he said. “Like not being promoted. Not being staffed on certain projects. ‘Is so-and-so too flamboyant to meet a client?’” That’s “prevalent,” Nguyen said, even at companies with nondiscrimination policies in place.

“The fight is not over,” said Troy Perry, alluding to the same-sex marriage victory in the US Supreme Court. “Now we’ve got to fight for everything else.” Perry, along with many LGBTQ leaders, contends the win induced a drowsy languor; that within the queer community there lolls a widespread conceit — that marriage is not just a milestone, but a capstone. “In other words, ‘Now we have same-sex marriage, so we’re done,’” said Nguyen.

But in twenty-eight states, gays and lesbians don’t have full job protections. A queer couple can marry on Saturday, share wedding photos online Sunday, and be terminated by a social-media-savvy yet homophobic boss on Monday. Not only is the movement not over — perhaps it has not even entered the endgame. Perhaps, in too much of the queer community today, the battle is not only about discrimination from the outside — but disengagement from within.

“We’re not under siege anymore,” said Peter Awn. “So we’re not all that well-organized anymore. The perception is that the battle is won. And that’s a shame.”

Under The Rainbow

October 28, 1966, was the “birthday,” as Bob Martin called it, of Columbia’s Student Homophile League. But in lieu of a party that Friday afternoon, a rather twitchy engagement was held at Earl Hall, attended by two dozen of the school’s administrators and mental health counselors. All had assembled to absorb a mortifying announcement: the world’s first homosexual student organization was starting, right there, at Columbia. Granted, the group was tiny — early on, there were maybe three members, scarcely enough for the school’s skeptical bureaucracy to take seriously. But Martin had procured a formidable sponsor — the University’s controversial chaplain, the Reverend John Cannon, a straight Episcopal priest. “Our lightning rod,” wrote Martin. “He put his own neck on the chopping block for us.” As for the Earl Hall meeting: “A lively debate.”

Barely anyone was battling then; politically speaking, not even a spat had occurred. Nobody dared.

From the outset, Martin knew the trickiest part would be finding members for the organization. Plenty of homosexuals were on campus, certainly, but very few ever bolted from the closet. Martin had met another gay student, Jim Millham ’67CC, a psychology major; Millham, in turn, pushed several highly disinclined gay classmates to join up. (“Keep us out of it” was the initial response.) Superstar students were recruited, whatever their orientation — popularity and clout were what counted — and a few went along. “Seems to me I signed a paper that made me a member,” said Dotson Rader, who then identified as bisexual. “But I don’t remember going to any meetings.” Two straight women from Barnard enlisted; Martin, though more into men, briefly dated one of them. “And I wanted to pursue the relationship,” said Seana Anderson. But when Martin sat her down to explain he liked guys too, Anderson made it easy. “That’s OK,” she said. “Let’s just be friends.” Named group secretary, Anderson then conscripted her roommate, Carol Mon Lee; that was easy too. “Seana and I didn’t have a big conversation about it,” recalled Lee. “I just said, ‘Sure, of course, I’ll help any way I can.’” Already, both women had been energized by the escalating women’s movement, and Anderson was immersed in “civil rights and freedom rides” while in elementary school. With that background, signing on with a queer organization didn’t seem much of a stretch. “Anyone who was oppressed,” said Lee. “To us, it was all relevant.” The stitched-together alliance now had about ten members.

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