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 a few administrators envisioned alumni contributions hitting cement. Others wondered about government harassment. Surely the FBI would deem any homosexual organization subversive. But Columbia’s Committee on Student Organizations, charged with conferring recognition to campus groups, was receptive to Martin’s request for a charter. There was one caveat: provide a membership list — and no pseudonyms, please. That was a sticking point; nearly everyone rankled at identifying themselves publicly. Martin demanded anonymity. “Bob thought it would be dangerous to give them our real names,” said Anderson. Six months of wrangling followed until the school relented. Their identities would remain confidential.

When Columbia granted approval on April 19, 1967, Martin instantly dispatched a press release to every media outlet he could think of, and received nearly no response at all — just a brief interview on WNEW, a New York radio station, and a front-page article in the Columbia Spectator. Not much else happened until May 3, when the New York Times sniffed out the story and slapped it on page one. Now, suddenly, everyone noticed. “All the papers, all the TV stations, all the radio stations,” wrote Martin. “The next couple days were frantic as media — which had ignored the press release — suddenly wanted the information I had already given them.”

If October 28, 1966, was the group’s birthday, then May 3, 1967, was its baptism. The story went worldwide. Columbia administrators were horrified by the publicity; a homophile organization was “a quite unnecessary thing,” said one, “and sure as hell won’t help” funding or recruitment. Sacks of mail — fuming, hysterical — arrived at the school. Martin was not displeased. “We were celebrities,” he chortled. And already he had a vision: “I saw Columbia as the first chapter of a spreading confederation of student homophile groups.”

That’s exactly what happened. Within two years, Cornell, NYU, Stanford, MIT, and Rutgers, inspired by Columbia’s daring, established gay organizations. Within four years, about 150 queer student groups had launched on college campuses. And at Columbia, within a few months of the Times article, much of the initial controversy had subsided. As Martin noted: “All my friends know about me now, but I have not encountered any hostility yet.” A penniless outcast had kindled a global movement.

“Inclusion is now a core value. Today you can’t achieve excellence without diversity.”

But commingling with Martin’s ceaseless crusading was a swiftly accruing tax on his psyche. A couple of years following the commencement of the Student Homophile League, Dotson Rader was visiting Cowboys and Cowgirls, a gay bar in Manhattan. There he saw Martin, in a sailor suit. Rader brought Martin to his table and introduced him to Tennessee Williams the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright, and Rader’s companion for the evening. Martin stayed about fifteen minutes, long enough for both men to notice something peculiar. “Bob had a resentment, an anger inside of him,” said Rader. “I had the sense he was walking on the edge of hysteria. Tennessee didn’t like him.” Indeed, when Martin departed, Williams lyrically opined that Martin was “a collector of grievances.” He seemed “so twisted by abuse,” said Rader, “that all that was left was victimhood. He took on victimhood as an identity.”

Under The Rainbow

Martin graduated from Columbia in 1970 with a degree in political science, and straightaway joined the Navy. (“He told me he went in because of all the beautiful men,” remembered Anderson.) In 1971, the Navy kicked him out for “suspected homosexual involvement”; he fought six years before getting an honorable discharge. In 1973, police arrested him in front of the White House during a Vietnam War protest; he was put in a cell called “the playground,” where dozens of prisoners took turns raping him. (“Forty-three times,” said Perry.) Martin went public with the hideous story and made national news.

Then, in 1980, what Martin characterized as “the last straw” — actually, a staggering act of self-detonation — unspooled at the VA hospital in the Bronx. Seeking treatment for a sexually transmitted disease, he was turned away by the attending physician after a four-hour wait. Martin went home, drank “two tall glasses of straight liquor,” returned to the hospital, pointed a loaded pistol at the doctor’s throat, and demanded a penicillin injection. “I don’t want to hurt anyone,” he said. “I’ll surrender as soon as I get treated.” They convicted him on six felony counts, including kidnapping and attempted murder. Sentenced to ten years, Martin got out in four. He described his folly as “a revolt against the system.”

Martin always said prison gave him HIV. Even in his last years, he occasionally submitted to interviews on television talk shows to detail his gruesome jailhouse experiences. “So we bought him a suit at Bloomingdale’s,” said Ellen Spertus. “By then he had a big middle and his hair was gray. You could tell he had a rough life.” Martin had little opportunity to wear the suit. AIDS killed him a few months later, in July of 1996, about a week before his fiftieth birthday, and four months before the dedication of the Donaldson Lounge.

Throughout much of his life, Bob Martin suffered from depression, insomnia, and panic attacks. As did his mother, Lois. Somewhere along the way, between his battles, they reached out to each other. The son wanted reconciliation. The mother needed absolution. What she had done, he forgave; what he had become, she accepted. They resurrected their relationship. Martin saved her letters until his dying day. “I hope very much you have love, Cheri,” she once wrote. “Always I hope that. I don’t care what kind. As long as it’s love.”

Read the related article Acronym Acrobatics: http://magazine.columbia.edu/features/summer-2016/acronym-acrobatics.

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