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The Bruno Brief: The history and development of queerness at Brown

Continuing on with our series on sexual politics, this week we take a look at the history and development of queerness on campus. We speak with Liliana Greyf, a staff writer, about her reporting and hear from queer alumni and students.

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Martha Gardner

But the standard formula in the past was to hand out pens and two pieces of paper to each person. And on the first piece of paper they had to write down a negative image they had had or they heard of a lesbian or a gay man — it could be a stereotype. 

Richard Heck

It's not so much that there really aren't that many more queer people. It's just that people are more  — either they're doing less of this repressing than they used to. 

Elysee Barakett

This week, we continue on with our discussion of sexual politics by taking a look at the history and development of queerness at Brown. We’ll start in 1919, when queerness was criminalized in Rhode Island, and work towards the present. Currently, over 35% of students at Brown don’t identify as straight. How did we get here? I’m Elysee Barakett, and this is the Bruno Brief.

A quick content warning for our listeners: We will be discussing instances of homophobia in this episode. 

Today I’ll be speaking with Liliana Greyf, a staff writer and Bruno Brief producer. So, Liliana, tell me a bit about your reporting. Where did you start?

Liliana Greyf

Honestly, it was hard to know where to begin. Before the 1970s, there are less than 10 uses of the word “homosexual” in The Brown Daily Herald’s archives, and all of them are in movie reviews or recaps of academic lectures. I’m sure queerness existed at Brown before the gay liberation movement, but that history is hard to uncover. So I started just off campus, in Newport. In 1919, at the Navy base, there was a scandal and subsequent investigation that resulted in the arrests of 17 sailors for having sex with other men. As Sarah Yahm, a Brown alum, put it in her 2017 paper “Out of the Closet and Into the Quad: The Origins of Brown Gay Liberation,” “this was the moment when homosexuality stopped being an act and became a type of person.”

Elysee Barakett

And what came next?

Liliana Greyf

Just a year later, Harvard expelled several gay students after conducting an investigation by a secret tribunal to uncover their identities. When one student tried to transfer to Brown, they blocked his application, and former admissions officer Otis E. Randall sent a letter of thanks. He wrote, “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!”

Elysee Barakett

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Wow. So even if queerness wasn’t acknowledged by Brown’s administration, it was surely not welcomed.

Liliana Greyf

Definitely. After this scandal, in 1920, there’s a big gap in the archives about queerness — which mostly means that wherever queerness was, it was hiding from documentation. That’s the effect institutional and systemic silencing tends to have. It stayed that way up until the 1960s, when Kate Bornstein, now a celebrated queer theorist, was an undergraduate student. I talked to her about her time on campus.

Kate Bornstein

There wasn't any open expression of homosexual love at all. Lesbian — none at all. I got to campus in 1965, and I graduated in 1969. The most we did queer-wise — some of us would go down to New York and got up in drag and posed models for Cosmopolitan and other magazines. We did modeling work. And a couple of us would go out at night and just hitchhike and get picked up, that was pretty much my experience of queer life.

Elysee Barakett

That was Kate Bornstein, an author, playwright, actor and gender theorist. Her book “Gender Outlaw,” published in 1995, was hugely impactful to queer scholarship. While on campus, they were closeted, like most of the queer population at Brown, but they often snuck into the prop closet of the theater to try on ballgowns when no one was looking.

Liliana Greyf

It was just after Bornstein graduated that Gay Liberation around the nation — and at Brown — began. Brown University Gay Liberation got an official approval from the student activity group in 1970. The club was run by Tom Littler and his boyfriend James Moser, who both graduated in 1972, and their friends Jack Marcus and George Heymont. Their presence on campus was revolutionary — Littler and Moser held hands and didn’t hide their queerness — but relatively unnoticed. 

Elysee Barakett

Why do you think Gay Liberation at Brown had a hard time taking off?

Liliana Greyf

It’s difficult to say for sure, but local queer historian Kate Monteiro thinks that queer liberation happened more slowly in Providence than more urbanized areas, like New York or San Francisco. Queer people from Rhode Island must have flocked to those areas. As Heymont put it, “it’s hard to organize when you have to take your mother grocery shopping right after the gay alliance meeting.” But they kept at it — and by the end of the decade, under a second generation of leadership, BUGL was hosting a queer dance for over 1,000 students.

Elysee Barakett

That’s a huge change for one decade. 

Liliana Greyf

Yeah — it was a revolutionary time. But that’s not to say that it was exclusively easy or suddenly safe to be queer. Well into the ’80s and ’90s, queer students were harrassed and abused on Brown’s campus.

Martha Gardner

I had a “closets are for clothes” sign on my dorm room door, I was living in West Quad, I was a woman peer counselor, and someone had written on it, “Rot in hell, you d*ke, and I’m going come back and rape you because I know you need to be satisfied, you smegma queen.” That’s the wording. I’ve said it enough times to remember it.

Elysee Barakett

That’s Martha Gardener, an openly queer student who graduated in 1988, in an interview she recorded for the Pembroke Center Oral History archives.

Martha Gardner

I know in the past a friend of mine ran for UCS, and she ran on a openly gay ticket, and she ended up having to unplug her phone because she’d get so many harassing phone calls at night.

Elysee Barakett

What’s remarkable about Gardner and the queer students that she knew was that they continued to organize against homophobia even when they were being targeted. In the interview, Gardner talked about lesbian and gay dorm outreach, a form of campus activism that targeted harmful homophobic stereotypes. A few queer people would go to freshmen dorms or fraternities to talk about ideologies surrounding queerness.

Martha Gardner

The standard formula in the past was to hand out pens and two pieces of paper to each person. And on the first piece of paper they had to write down a negative image they had or they heard of a lesbian or a gay man — it could be a stereotype … So a negative image and also a positive image. That was the set. So they wrote them both down, we mixed them up, handed them back out, and people would say them and we’d talk about them … Actually the purpose of that is often like the negative image comes up, usually someone in the group besides the facilitators would defend lesbian and gay stuff. They’d say, “Well that’s silly, you know, if promiscuous gay men, well sometimes straight people are promiscuous too.” It’s important that we aren’t the people that say it, but that their peers are who say it.

Liliana Greyf

So queer students on campus were definitely taking initiative to ensure that the old ways of thinking were being addressed and replaced. It paved the way for the acceptance we see on campus today.

Richard Heck

It's not so much that there really aren't that many more queer people. It's just that people are more either they're doing less of this repressing than they used to, and they're more willing to identify publicly. 

Elysee Barakett

That’s Professor Richard Kimberly Heck, who teaches philosophy courses about sex and pornography. They have been teaching at Brown for 18 years.

Liliana Greyf

They told me that in that time, particularly in the last five or so years, they have begun to see a new level of queer visibility on campus. And their own public identity has changed since they began to teach.  

Richard Heck

I've always had this sort of sense that I kind of didn't fit in with the guys as it were in some way and, but also it wasn't like I felt like I fit in with girls either. I sort of didn't know what to do with that. So I kind of, basically what I did was just repress it. And then some, you know, somehow I sort of stumbled across the idea of being non binary. I suspect that there are a lot of people who were like me, who come in, didn't really have certain sorts of these experiences of not fitting in or something, but didn't know what to know how to what to do with it. Not that it's easy or anything, but I think people grow up nowadays in an environment where you don't have to wonder, or at least are these role models out there to identify with.

Liliana Greyf

When Professor Heck came out in 2018, they were the first nonbinary faculty member at Brown.

Richard Heck

So I came to the last day of class and I handed out all the student evaluations, they were on paper back then. And so I handed them out to the class, and I went to leave the room so that they could fill it out and everyone kind of clapped. On my way out, I realized I want to go back, and I said something. I went back and I said, “Oh, by the way, remember my pronouns are they/them and if you should refer to me on the forms, these are my pronouns.” And they all clapped. Clearly what they responded to was like, they were just happy to have a clear … and it was really quite moving.

Liliana Greyf

Just in the last decade, Brown’s queer community has blossomed. Heteronormative culture and societal oppression definitely still exist — but queer studies are taught in several departments, the LGBTQ Center has moved into a larger space and students flock to gay clubs. When Kate Bornstein came to give a talk on campus a few years ago, she was shocked by the amount of queer students she saw milling about campus.

Kate Bornstein

You could see out gay men, you could see d*kes. It was like, wow! Holy, wow!

Elysee Barakett

Thanks for listening. Tune in next week to hear about hookup culture at Brown.

This episode was produced by Caitlyn Carpenter, Liliana Greyf, Finn Kirkpatrick, Katy Pickens, Samantha Renzulli, Jacob Smollen and me, Elysee Barakett. If you enjoyed this episode, subscribe to The Bruno Brief wherever you get your podcasts and leave a review.

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