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‘Sounds like queer’: Tracking the history of queerness at Brown

Alums, students consider how queer visibility, experience has changed

<p>The values on campus instilled by the Open Curriculum and free intellectual inquiry encourage acceptance among students, said celebrated queer theorist Kate Bornstein ’69.</p>

The values on campus instilled by the Open Curriculum and free intellectual inquiry encourage acceptance among students, said celebrated queer theorist Kate Bornstein ’69.

Content warning: This article includes mentions of homophobic slurs and incidents and descriptions of sexual assault.

“One of the great mysteries at Brown is a certain group of individuals, both male and female, who differ from the majority, the ‘normal’ student population, in that they are homosexuals,” began an article published in The Herald Oct. 30, 1973. Almost half a century later, queerness is burgeoning at Brown.

Over 35% of Brown’s current student body do not identify as heterosexual, according to recent reporting by The Herald. Generally, queerness is much more prevalent on-campus today than it was decades ago. Queer studies are taught in several departments, the LGBTQ Center has moved into a larger renovated space and students flock to gay clubs. But Brown hasn’t always been as queer — or as accepting of queerness — as it is today.

1919-1968: Before the Gay Liberation movement

Before the publication of the 1973 article, which announced the “coming-out” of the Brown University Gay Liberation club, queer issues were rarely discussed in The Herald or elsewhere on campus. 

Ten results appear for “homosexual” in the online Herald archives before 1970. Queerness was relatively invisible on campus, like elsewhere in the country, until the movement for Gay Liberation began with the New York City Stonewall Riot in 1969 — but several events hint at hidden queerness within the University’s past and Rhode Island history more broadly.

In February 1919, the Navy conducted an investigation at its Newport base to prosecute men who were having sex with other men. The trial that followed resulted in the Newport sex scandal, for which 15 men were arrested on the charge of homosexuality. In a paper titled “Out of the Closet and Into the Quad: The Origins of Brown Gay Liberation,” Sarah Yahm PhD ’17 writes that “this was the moment when homosexuality stopped being an act and became a type of person.”

One year after the scandal, the Ivy League had its own queer calamity — Harvard expelled several gay students after conducting an investigation by a secret tribunal to uncover their identities, according to The Washington Post. When one of the expelled students tried to transfer to Brown, the president of Harvard intervened, informing Brown Dean Otis E. Randall of the student’s sexuality. 

In response, Randall sent a letter of thanks: “You have given me just the information which we needed, and it goes without saying that we shall inform Mr. Lumbard that we do not care to consider his application for admission to Brown … How frequently we uncover in the undergraduate life messes of this sort, and how disagreeable it is to deal with such matters!”

“Such matters,” as Randall put it, were infrequently visible on Brown’s institutionally intolerant campus, or in Rhode Island generally. Though small, undiscovered queer communities sometimes formed in subcultures of Providence nightlife, these groups existed in secrecy, according to queer historian of Rhode Island Kate Monteiro.

In the 1960s, slowly forming queer communities were met with violence. On Oct. 29, 1965, The Providence Journal reported that “Providence police have stepped up their efforts to curtail homosexual activity in the downtown business district, where homosexuals recently have gathered in increasing numbers.”

Kate Bornstein ’69, a queer theorist, remembers no openly queer people on campus during her time at Brown. She participated in theater on campus, in which people were definitively queer — “though that doesn’t mean everybody was homosexual,” she said, explaining that she sees queerness as deviation from the norm. “I’m using queer in the sense of ‘wouldn’t be proper in your aunt’s tearoom.’”

There was no queer community at the time, Bornstein explained. Though individual students would cruise, or walk around in search of a sexual partner, in downtown Providence or go to New York to model in drag, these instances were isolated and undiscussed, she said.

There was no open expression of gender ambiguity at Brown until 1967, Bornstein explained. “That’s when the hippies happened. Suddenly I could wear purple bell bottoms, flowered shirts and beads and still be a guy. I suppose there was a whole lot of transgender expression going on in New York and San Francisco, but not at Brown,” she said in an interview with News from Brown.

In secrecy, Bornstein “would sneak into the wardrobe department of the theater at 2 a.m.,” she said. “I would pick out a princess outfit, a Shakespearean queen, ball gowns. I’d get dressed up and (look) in the mirror, and it just felt so right.”

Though Bornstein had never experienced direct harassment, queer people were often openly discriminated against.

A letter to the editor of The Herald, published Oct. 30, 1973, detailed the harassment Daniel Paige ’62 experienced as a queer male student. “Inform the Brown community that, yes … there were gays at Brown ten years ago,” he wrote. As a student, Page’s room had been “ransacked and pillaged by anti-homosexual bigots from the neighboring fraternity.”

But by the time Page sent his letter, one decade after his graduation, queer life was starting to change. “And incidentally,” he wrote at the end of his piece, “is there a gay activist movement at Brown?”

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1968-1979: The Gay liberation years

Gay liberation at Brown officially began in the early 1970s. Tom Littler ’72, one of the leaders of BUGL, put a notice for the club’s first meeting in The Herald Dec. 15, 1970.

The group was run by Littler and his boyfriend James Moser ’72, along with their friends Jack Marcus MA’71 and George Heymont. Their existence on campus was revolutionary — Littler and Moser held hands publicly and wore pins that read “Out of The Closet” and “Gay” — though relatively unnoticed.

It took several years for BUGL to gain traction on campus. On Oct. 30, 1973, The Herald published an article titled “Gay Liberation Comes of Age” announcing the group’s plans to organize and expand over the coming year.

Later leaders petitioned for BUGL to have an office in Faunce House, and through their work, a queer scene on campus finally took off. BUGL’s organizing work continued alongside harassment of queer students — after a Gay Lib action in the early 70s, a fraternity plastered campus with posters that advertised “stomping out” queer students on campus, employing an anti-LGBTQ slur.

But by the end of the decade, an annual queer dance was held in the largest hall on campus. Over 1,000 people attended. 

Post-liberation and the future

When Bornstein came to lecture at Brown in 2009 and again in 2018, she was shocked by the amount of queer visibility on campus, she said. “It was like ‘wow! Holy, wow!’”

In the ’80s and ’90s, the nascent queer community at the University continued to grow despite recurring harassment. Martha Gardner ’88 discussed her experience with queer activism and homophobia during her time on campus for the Pembroke Center Oral History project. Gardner had believed she wouldn’t publicly come out during college. “It’ll be a private part of my life and that’s it,” she recalled thinking. But this changed once she got involved with activism on-campus. By her senior year, people knew her as the “campus lesbian,” she said.

Gardner was involved with lesbian and gay dorm outreach, an initiative that began in 1985 and had queer students work with dorm groups to dismantle homophobic stereotypes. This organizing put Gardner in the spotlight, making her the recipient of abuse from unsupportive peers. “I had a ‘Closets Are for Clothes’ sign on my dorm room door … and someone had written on it, ‘Rot in hell, you d*ke and I’m going to rape you because I know you need to be satisfied, you smegma queen,’” she said.

One of Gardner’s friends ran for the Undergraduate Council of Students on an openly queer ticket and had to unplug her phone because of the amount of harassment she was receiving, Gardner said. 

In the face of blatant homophobia, queer activism and community persisted and expanded. The AIDS crisis sparked public conversation about sexuality on campus, though the Herald remained scientific in reporting, reminding students that people of all sexualities could contract the virus.

Reflective of broader cultural shifts, the University established the LGBTQ center in 2004. Its mission is to “catalyze institutional and cultural changes that affirm and center the needs of LGBTQ+ communities, and promote an environment of radical inclusivity through an intersectional and social justice framework,” according to its website.

“Certainly I’ve noticed a lot more gender nonconforming people over the last five or ten years,” said Professor of Philosophy Richard Kimberly Heck, who began teaching at Brown 17 years ago.

Heck came out as nonbinary in 2018, and the University was institutionally supportive. “Generally speaking, it was kind of a non-event,” they said. 

They remembered when they passed out an evaluation form for a course after they were publicly out. As Heck left the room, everyone clapped, as was customary, but Heck came back in to remind students of their correct pronouns. “I went back and I said, ‘Oh, by the way, remember my pronouns are they/them,’... and they all clapped again.”

Moments like this remind Heck of their role as a mentor for other queer people at the University, they said. “I suspect that (in the past) there were a lot of people like me, who had these experiences of not fitting in but didn’t know how or what to do with it,” they said. “Now, if you’re growing up, not that it’s easy or anything, … at least there are role models out there to identify with.”

Even in the last few years, Davi Sapiro-Gheiler ’23 has watched the University become more institutionally supportive of queerness. “I think freshman year, there were very few classes doing names and pronouns,” they said. “I would say it’s drastically changed.”

Why is Brown so queer?

Brown is a very queer place — though whether it is unique in this position or reflective of broader culture is difficult to determine, Sapiro-Gheiler said. “Brown has a very intense bubble presence,” they added. “That constant presence is a queering force.”

“When it comes to the term ‘queer’ more broadly, I think of it as just something outside of what you would expect,” said Luci Jones ’23, who began queer pickup soccer this fall. “And a lot of students at Brown are like that.”

In part, queer students may self-select to attend Brown because of the “niche it has created for itself,” Jones explained. With the Open Curriculum and “free-form” public presentation, the University can be welcoming for queer students, she added.

Bornstein, who attended Brown before the Open Curriculum was instated, believes that this change could have allowed for queerness to become more commonplace at Brown. 

“When you get a mindset of people who are forced into things (such as taking certain classes), that’s the same mindset when it comes to your sexuality and your gender expression,” she said. “And then all of a sudden it opened up, and you had a choice — you could go here, you could go there. What does that sound like? That sounds like queer.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said George Heymont attended Brown and misstated the class year of Jack Marcus MA'71. A previous version also incorrectly said that the first notice for BUGL was posted in 1971, when in fact it was in 1970. The Herald regrets the errors.



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