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How UT’s First Gay Student Group Paved the Way

Last week, UT celebrated its fifth-annual Lavender Graduation, a commencement ceremony honoring the achievements of graduating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and ally students. And for the first time ever, the event was followed by a Texas Exes LGBT Alumni Network reception.

The reception was a historic moment for the University and for LGBT alumni. It wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of UT’s first gay activist group, the Gay Liberation Front, founded in 1970.

There is no record of queer students on campus before the 1970s, when it was impossible to be openly gay. But starting in the late 1950s, an underground network at Austin bars became the first place where LGBT students could build community. And as their peers protested the Vietnam War and rallied for civil rights, LGBT students began their own activism.

The first time anything LGBT-related appeared in an Austin publication was in February 1970 in The Rag, an underground weekly paper characterized by radical politics, alternative content, and non-discrete classifieds for marijuana sales.

The article, “Pink Power!,” discussed the need for liberation of “homosexuals” from a society that oppressed them. The author wrote, “Love is a natural emotion and should not be controlled by laws which specify who is ‘acceptable’ to love and who is not.”

Later that spring, a Daily Texan ad read, “Meeting of homos at University YMCA on the Drag, April 28.” It was the first time an LGBT-related announcement appeared in the college newspaper.

In response, 25 people crammed into a small room for the first public meeting of lesbians and gays in Austin’s history.

Linguistics graduate student Jim Denny and his boyfriend, Leonard Lance, named the group the Gay Liberation Front and led the first meeting. Eventually Denny and another student, Neal Parker, would spearhead the organization and write its first mission statement.

On May 7, 1970, they attempted to register as an official UT student organization. But the assistant dean of students, Edward Price, rejected the bid because the group lacked a faculty sponsor.

After asking several liberal and radical professors to be its sponsor, the Gay Liberation Front found an ally in Roy Teale, a professor of Asian and African languages. The group appealed Price’s decision on May 12, 1970.

Since the student appeal committee recessed for the summer, the decision was pushed to the fall. In the meantime, the GLF grew rapidly. By fall 1970, there were about 65 members.

The GLF continued to print ads in the Daily Texan, but they were met with opposition from a representative who printed the paper, Lloyd Edmunds. He called the ads offensive and in bad taste; student Neal Parker thought the negative press was a godsend for GLF because it was a form of free publicity.

With an official faculty sponsor and a groundswell of student support, the Gay Liberation Front hoped to be a registered group. But on October 25, 1970, Price rejected GLF’s request for official campus status for the second time. His reason: the prevailing psychological view that homosexuality was an illness.

For the second time, the GLF appealed the decision. In a December hearing, both sides aired their views. Dean Price brought in several University Mental Health Center doctors to support his position that homosexuals needed professional help, not encouragement. But the student committee ruled in favor of the GLF—which finally became an official group on Dec. 4, 1970.

But the victory was short-lived. Less than 24 hours later, UT President Ad-Interim Bryce Jordan overruled the committee’s decision, disbanding the GLF.

The group fought back. They tried to appeal the UT president’s decision to the UT System chancellor, but in May 1971, he upheld Jordan’s ruling.

Meanwhile, student leader Denny was busy organizing a national gay conference in Austin for March 1971.

Denny had built connections through his work on a peace march in Washington, D.C., and had links with other gay political radicals in San Francisco and New York. Along with the GLF, he spearheaded Austin’s first-annual National Gay Conference.

More than 200 people—mostly men who did not live in Austin—congregated to discuss the oppression of LGBT people around the country.

Later that year, the GLF continued to demand recognition as a student group. They filed suit against the University on charges of discrimination.

To help with court costs, UT’s student government sponsored a dance for GLF on Feb. 23, 1972, at the Union. UT administrators quickly learned about the dance and vetoed it; the student government and the GLF showed up anyway, along with many others in protest.

Several students sat in the middle of the Union ballroom floor and refused to leave when police arrived. The police dragged them away and arrested a few protesters.

In June 1973, The Rag proclaimed the GLF dead, and a new group emerged. In January 1974, Gay People of Austin held its first meeting and registered as a student organization without incident.

And on March 26, 1974, UT finally recognized the Gay Liberation Front as a campus organization in an out-of-court settlement.

By persisting in the face of discrimination and inequality, UT’s Gay Liberation Front sparked a movement that continues on campus to this day. There’s much progress to celebrate—such as the diverse community at UT’s Gender and Sexuality Center—but discrimination is still a reality for many LGBT members of the UT community. In recent years, students have called for more gender-neutral bathrooms, as well as insurance benefits for same-sex partners of faculty and staff.

The most recent milestone is the Texas Exes LGBT Alumni Network, which debuted last week.

Ryan Miller, an associate director in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and co-founder of the LGBT Network, says the network’s goals are to support current LGBT students and create scholarships, in addition to providing a place for networking.

“We want students to have the full college experience, from point A to point B to point C,” Miller says. “We want students to be welcomed on campus and affirmed in their identity, and that shouldn’t stop after graduation.”

From top: Students sit on the Union Ballroom floor in peaceful protest after the Gay Liberation Front fundraising dance was canceled (Feb. 23, 1972); GLF members announce their discrimination lawsuit against the University (1972); students are arrested by police during the Union sit-in; young graduates celebrate at the Texas Exes LGBT Alumni Network reception (photo by John Fitch).

 

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