What it was like to be trapped in the closet in the years before Stonewall

Sad boy hide in closet, close-up view of blue eye in ajar door slit home wardrobe. Child emotions. Warning symptom sign, treatment help for childhood adolescent depression illness, fears, family life
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I travel around the world giving presentations and workshops. I present to university and high school campuses, as well as at professional conventions on social justice issues.

A few years ago, I spoke about the topic of heterosexism at an east coast university. A student asked me what my undergraduate LGBTQ+ student group was like.

“Was there much resistance from the administration and from other students?” she inquired. More questions followed: “Did the women and men work well together?” “Were bisexuals and trans people welcome?” “Was the group’s focus political or mainly social?” “Was there a separate ‘coming out’ group for new members?” “What kinds of campus activities did your group sponsor?”

As she asked me these questions, my head began to whirl with visions of my undergraduate years. I stopped long enough to inform her that I graduated with my B.A. on June 13, 1969 – 15 days before the momentous Stonewall rebellion, an event generally credited with sparking the modern movement for LGBTQ+ liberation and equality.

I later learned that some universities like Cornell, Stanford and Columbia had officially recognized LGBTQ+-equivalent student groups before 1969, but as a graduating senior, the concept of an “out” person, let alone an organized, above-ground student organization was not even in my range of possibilities.

Homophobia in the Cold War

I was born during the height of the Cold War era directly following World War II, a time when any sort of human difference was held suspect. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, a young and brash senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy (R), loudly proclaimed that Communists corrupt the minds, and homosexuals corrupt the bodies of good, upstanding Americans. In what became known as the Lavender Scare, he proceeded to purge suspected Communists and homosexuals from government service.

When I was only two years old, my parents suspected that I might be gay, or to use the terminology of the day, “homosexual.” Shy and withdrawn, I preferred to spend most of my time alone.

Later, on the playground at school, children called me names like “sissy,” “fairy,” pansy,” and “little girl” with an incredible vehemence and malice that I did not understand.

My parents sent me to a child psychologist in 1952, when I was only four years old and until I reached my 13th birthday, with the expressed purpose of making sure that I did not grow up “homosexual.”

Each session at the psychologist’s office, I took off my coat and placed it on the hook behind the door, and for the next 50 minutes, the psychologist and I built model airplanes, cars, and trains – so-called age-appropriate “boy-type toys.” It was obvious that the psychologist confused issues of gender with sexuality believing that one could prevent homosexuality by learning “masculine” behaviors.

During high school in the early 1960s, I had very few friends and never dated. It was not that I did not wish to date, but I wanted to date some of the other boys. I could not even talk about this at the time, for the concept of a high school Gay Straight Alliance was still many years in the future. In high school, the topic of homosexuality rarely surfaced officially in the classroom, and then only in a negative context.

I graduated high school in 1965 with the hope that college life would somehow be better for me. I hoped that people would be more open-minded, less conforming, and more accepting of difference.

Something was missing

To a great extent, things were better. In college, I demonstrated my opposition to the war in Vietnam. I worked to reduce racism on campus, and I helped plan environmental ecology teach-ins. Nevertheless, there was still something missing for me. I knew I was gay, but I had no outlet of support through which I could express my feelings.

As far as I knew, there were no openly LGBTQ+ people, no support groups, no organizations, and no classes or library materials that did anything more than tell me that homosexuality was “abnormal” and that I needed to change.

In 1967, I finally decided to see a therapist in the campus counseling center, and I began what for me was a very difficult coming out process. Then during my first year of graduate school in 1970, I experienced a turning point in my life.

In my campus newspaper, The Spartan Daily, at San José State University, I saw the headline in big bold letters: “GAY LIBERATION FRONT DENIED CAMPUS RECOGNITION.”

The article stated that the chancellor of the California State University system, Glenn Dumke, under then Governor Ronald Reagan’s direction, had denied recognition to the campus chapter of the Gay Liberation Front.

In the ruling, Dumke stated, “The effect of recognition…of the Gay Liberation Front could conceivably be to endorse or to promote homosexual behavior, to attract homosexuals to the campus, and to expose minors to homosexual advocacy and practices” and “…belief that the proposed Front created too great a risk for students – a risk which might lead students to engage in illegal homosexual behavior.”

Curiosity and fear

This was the first I had heard of such a group and the first time I had heard about other LGBTQ+ people on my campus. I called the coordinator of the group, and she invited me to the next meeting.

Since the university chancellor did not permit group members to hold meetings on campus, they met at a little diner on a small side street a few blocks away. Unfortunately, this only confirmed my fears of the underground nature of LGBTQ+ life. As I approached the door to enter the meeting, I felt as if I were a member of the French resistance during the Nazi occupation.

Upon entering, I saw around 15 people. I recognized one man from my chemistry class, but the others were strangers. I saw a near-even mix of men and women, which made me feel a bit more at ease. In my mind, I had envisioned 50 men waiting to pounce on me as I entered, but I soon discovered that they were all good people who were concerned about me. They invited me to their homes, and before too long, I relaxed in their presence.

I left San José in 1971 to work for a progressive educational journal, EdCentric, at the National Students Association in Washington, DC. Within a few months of arriving, I founded and became the first director of the National Gay Students Center, a national clearinghouse working to connect and exchange information between the newly emerging network of LGBTQ+ campus organizations within the US.

One year after leaving San José, I read that LGBTQ+ students at Sacramento State University, represented by the student government, sued the chancellor in Sacramento County Superior Court and won the case, forcing the university to officially to recognize their group. The court upheld the students’ First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of association by affirming their contention that “…to justify suppression of free speech, there must be reasonable grounds to fear that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced; there must be reasonable grounds to believe that the danger apprehended is imminent.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Marty Rogers, one of the founding members of the LGBTQ+ group at Sacramento State University, who described how the denial of recognition and eventual court battle was instrumental in the group’s organizing success.

“Being denied recognition, being decreed invisible, reactivated in most group members other similar and painful incidents in their lives. The difference this time was that there was mutual support — from the campus newspaper and from the student government. Two faculty members openly acknowledged their homosexuality through letters to the Acting College President and the campus newspaper — they insisted on being seen. For once, homosexuals were not running and hiding. Publicly announcing one’s homosexuality, an issue which had not really been confronted previously, became an actuality as a result of the denial of recognition.

Fortified by this case, other campus groups throughout the country have waged and won similar battles.

Hope for the future

A few years ago, I boarded a subway train car on Boston’s Green Line bound for Boston University, where I was scheduled to present a workshop on LGBTQ+ history at an annual Northeast LGBTQ+ student conference. Also entering the car were four young male students en route to the conference, one whom I remembered from a workshop I had given the previous day.

Once on board, they sat two by two in rows directly in front of me. After a few moments of animated talk and without apparent concern or self-consciousness, one of them reached out his hand and gently stroked the hair of the young man seated next to him. The other man welcomed and accepted the gesture.

Witnessing this scene, I thought about how far LGBTQ+ people had come from the time I attended college as an undergraduate. Tears came to my eyes as I thought back to the pain of coming out of the closet of denial and fear.

I saw before me memories of the hard and often frightening work so many of us have been doing to ensure a safer environment for young people to be able to display seemingly simple acts of affection for someone of their own sex, acts that heterosexual couples routinely take for granted.

Through my travels to college and university campuses, I come away with the definite sense that conditions remain somewhat difficult for some LGBTQ+ and questioning young people today, especially in the retro-climate in which we find ourselves, though we have made some progress. Support systems in many places have been set firmly in place on campuses, and students today appear more self-assured and exhibit a certain joyous and feisty rebellion not seen only a decade or so ago.

Therefore, I realize that though school is still not a particularly “queer” place to be, it is a great deal better than ever before. In solidarity, then, we need to keep up the struggle.

I wish everyone a joyous and safe Pride month, and I hope we all remain vigilant in these current difficult times.

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