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Pride and prejudice: LGBTQ history at W&M

  • Pride March
    Pride March  GALA participants in New York City’s 1988 Pride March: foreground (l-r) Wayne Curtis ’82 and Michael Rogan ’81; background (l-r) Arthur Rawding ’82, Stephen Snell ’66 and Steven Murden ’74 (holding British colonial flag).  Photo courtesy of Wayne Curtis ’82
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The following story was originally published in the fall 2014 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. - Ed.

Writing a queer history of William & Mary is an exercise in reading between the lines. For years, many people deliberately hid their stories — and a large part of themselves — out of fear of exclusion or punishment.

Historical estimates of the queer population in the U.S. have ranged anywhere from 2 to 10 percent. It’s unlikely, statistically speaking, that there weren’t some same-sex relationships among the College’s early, unmarried masters and the students who lived away from home in their care. While no accounts are known, the concept of romantic friendship between same-sex individuals is not new. It wouldn’t have been called homosexuality per se, but the letters that do exist show deep and loving relationships.

Particularly when it came to women, these relationships sometimes proved a source of anxiety. A Scribner’s Monthly article from the 1870s, for example, hinted at the moral vicissitudes that would ensue if large numbers of women had unlimited access to education and each other. The College thankfully ignored such warnings when it admitted women in 1918. But support and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) individuals on campus would take most of the 20th century. To be frank, it’s still a work in progress. And it has been driven by a small and passionate band of alumni, faculty, students and staff. Represented here are a few of their stories. Many more have yet to be told, and many more need to be.

Full disclosure: I’m gay. I can still remember how painful it felt when my friend Patti forced me to utter those words out loud on the steps of the Wren Building the night I finally got the courage to come out to her. Patti refused to let me skulk back into the art of Southern obfuscation and use pronouns to mask what I feared most at that time — the pain and rejection I’d been conditioned to believe came with being gay. She helped me name the fear, rather than give it power. Years later I’d appreciate her insistence and what it meant for my own development, but at the time I could easily have mistaken her insistence for a mild form of torture.

By and large, Williamsburg operated much like a small Southern town when it came to sexual minorities. Most folks could guess who was gay, but there was little to no public acknowledgment of such realities. Everybody knew, and nobody talked about it.

“It wasn’t a place where people had to pretend. You could be yourself, but you didn’t necessarily call attention to yourself,” said Wayne Curtis ’82. “But if your behavior got to the point where people started talking about it, then you were a problem. And usually that meant no good was going to come one way or the other.”

Curtis remembers Stephen Snell ’66, founder of William & Mary Gay and Lesbian Alumni Inc., telling him how scared many students were because simply being gay was an offense that could get you expelled. Back then, deans were much stricter and residence halls more regimented and policed.

Anecdotes abound of students called in for questioning, kicked out or worse. After arriving at the College on a chemistry scholarship in 1961, Bill Boushka was removed around Thanksgiving after admitting his latent homosexuality to Dean J. Wilfred Lambert ’27, L.H.D. ’81. Tom Baker ’66 spent some time in the College’s infirmary for being gay. (Seven years after he graduated, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.)

In general, support and acknowledgment of gay life on campus didn’t exist. “There was no real social place in town,” Curtis said. “We heard rumors there had been a club underneath the Green Leafe that was known to be friendly, but the city had closed it down by the mid-’70s, so it was just legend by the time I arrived in ’78.”

Most of the time if gay students wanted to socialize or dance they had to drive to Norfolk, Richmond or Washington, D.C. Former William & Mary Rector Jeff Trammell ’73 has told the Washington Blade about his own nerve-wracking experience as a student traveling up to D.C. on a secret mission to visit a gay bar.

Activism in the ’80s and a new wave of faculty and student groups in the ’90s helped change the landscape dramatically at William & Mary. Campus Pride, a national organization that rates colleges and universities, gave William & Mary five stars for its support and institutional commitment to LGBTQ students.

“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve made progress,” says Sam Sadler ’64, M.Ed. ’71, former vice president for student affairs. “I get sad sometimes when I think about how long it took.”

I had come to William & Mary from rural southern Virginia. It was a place still very much like Williamsburg in earlier years. People didn’t talk about being gay — and the term was used as a catch-all negative. We played “smear the queer” at recess and were exposed to very few openly gay people. I can remember sheepishly having to ask my mom how men could possibly have sex with men after seeing a “60 Minutes” report on the spread of AIDS.

GALA board meeting in Boston, 1992. Photo courtesy of Wayne Curtis '82.In 1983, things began to get better. George Greenia, professor of Hispanic Studies, started a support group for gay students that met during the semester in the catacombs of Saint Bede’s (now the Catholic Campus Ministries Chapel) just off campus. It disbanded in 2006, when the wide range of campus resources decreased the need for an anonymous support group.

Greenia’s group existed at the complicated intersection of faith and sexuality.

“In ministry, gay sexuality is the one issue that inevitably brings guilt by association,” Greenia said. “But St. Bede’s never threw us out, even when there was a bomb scare.”

The group provided a space for students who didn’t feel safe being out and who were still coming to terms with their own identities. Each Monday evening, wary and nervous attendees showed up for discussions about everything from how to come out to their parents to AIDS education and prevention and student suicide prevention.

“Our public stance was to equate the gay student support group with Weight Watchers,” Greenia said. “We [the church] hosted the group, but there was no official connection to the church.”

Greenia also collaborated with campus ministers and the Counseling Center to help address emotional crises. While none of the ministers could change a denominational stance, they all felt comfortable referring students to Greenia who needed to explore their sexual identities and religion in a safe space. The general catchphrase was, “Let George do it.”

For faculty, the challenges were a little more nuanced. Some of the closeted faculty gained notoriety by exhibiting desperation through self-destructive behavior on campus and in the community.

“By and large the College preferred discretion and disassociation with what gay faculty might have done,” Greenia said. “They were pretty merciful in allowing people to exit with their dignity intact and without vindictive public shaming.”

He found the faculty supportive and welcoming, but people still advised him not to come out until he had tenure. It was advice he ignored. And while he heard murmurs of terrible things said about him during the process, he ultimately got tenure. And today he chairs the committee that oversees tenure, retention and promotion of faculty.

Greenia was one of the growing number of faculty and staff members who came out and worked to improve the campus climate.

“Faculty were far more likely to be out to their colleagues than to their students,” said Sue Peterson, who arrived in 1994 to teach government and international relations. “For a lot of faculty, it was hard to be out in the classroom.”

At one of her first meetings with a freshman advisee, Peterson was asked for help finding classes that were not taught by “liberals or homosexuals.”

That’s drastically changed, Peterson said. Students are far more accepting these days. The questions she gets when visiting a class to speak about queer issues are no longer about her right to bring a child into the world, but thoughtful inquiries about the bias faced by LGBTQ faculty today.

Peterson said it’s also important to note the big differences between interpersonal relationships on campus, which she’s known as warm and welcoming, and the hostility of the state’s institutions — which don’t recognize family relationships and deny benefits to loved ones.

History professor Leisa Meyer agrees. She came to the College on the heels of a 1993 Virginia court decision Bottoms v. Bottoms, in which a grandmother sued her daughter and won custody of her grandson primarily because his mother was a lesbian. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld the custodial ruling.

“That didn’t bode well,” Meyer said. She and Peterson helped found the gay and lesbian staff group (now Equality W&M) and with their colleagues like Greenia and others, they continue to seek the benefits and recognition afforded to heterosexual couples. In 1998, Peterson also worked with Residence Life to initiate the Safe Zone program, which provides training for allies and advocates of LGBTQ students.

Struggling against Virginia’s antigay laws and the AIDS crisis brought faculty and alumni together in powerful ways. In 1986, Snell founded William & Mary Gay and Lesbian Alumni Inc. (GALA). Within a few years, the organization was one of the largest gay and lesbian alumni groups in the country and became a driving force in some notable fights. In 1990, GALA advocated successfully for the addition of sexual orientation to the College’s nondiscrimination clause. The next year, the group was party to a lawsuit against the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board over state laws that made it illegal to serve alcohol to homosexuals. Though largely unenforced for a decade, federal courts ruled the laws were unconstitutional as part of the settlement.

GALA also ran several safer sex campaigns on campus, including one in which they mailed green and gold condoms to President Paul Verkuil ’61 and others during National Condom Week. Under the leadership of Snell, the group was tireless in their efforts, whether supporting AIDS education outside of campus or student organizations on campus.

The group formed at the height of the AIDS crisis. Many alumni had died from the disease, and it hit closer to Williamsburg than anyone thought.

“We were reading about what AIDS was doing in cities like New York and San Francisco,” said Curtis. “But at that point it was just unthought-of that it would be in eastern Virginia.”

When diagnosed, one student, Joe Marfy ’86, recorded a video used in health education for students at the College. There were vigils and educational events, but the full and devastating effect of the disease wasn’t felt directly on campus.

“It’s an invisible disease,” said Greenia. “You get sick and die elsewhere.”

GALA’s success building relationships with the College started at Swem Library. “Why these things always start in libraries, I’ll never know,” said former GALA president Curtis. But the connections were powerful for the group of alumni who often struggled when exploring their identities as students.

“When someone was searching or questioning, one of the first places you went was the library,” said Curtis. “You could browse for facts, read things about yourself and understand who you were and the history of the gay movement.”

Many of the books in the library were old and tattered and often vandalized or destroyed by homophobic passersby. As a tercentennial gift to the College in 1993, GALA raised funds to establish an endowment to support the acquisition of gay and lesbian resources for Swem. The fund — named for Richard Cornish, a merchant ship captain executed in 1625 for having a homosexual relationship — has grown to more than $150,000.

The desire to promote scholarship on gay and lesbian issues also drove GALA to approach the history department about establishing the Boswell Memorial Lecture Series in 1997. Leisa Meyer was assigned to work with the group to plan the annual lecture series memorializing John Boswell ’69, a Yale professor and medieval historian of sexuality who died of AIDS in 1994.

Celebrating the contributions of LGBTQ alumni has been a tradition of GALA, whether hosting a screening of “Pariah” with producer Nekisa Cooper ’99 or readings by author and NYU professor Christopher Bram ’74. Bram’s novel Father of Frankenstein was adapted into the Oscar Award-winning screenplay for the 1998 film “Gods and Monsters.”

GALA also helped start an oral history collection — the Stephens Project — to document the lives and experiences of LGBTQ students, faculty, staff and alumni while associated with the College. The project, housed in the University Archives, is an ongoing effort to create a legacy that ties the past with the present in order to transform the future.

At William & Mary, I remember being scared back into the closet my freshman year by some of the College’s more flamboyant friends of Dorothy. I’m incredibly fortunate to have attended during a time when the campus was full of understanding people. Sometimes, the barriers we construct are the hardest to break down. That’s what Patti knew when she insisted on my saying the words out loud. It wasn’t because she enjoyed watching me squirm. Rather, she wanted to help me along in the process of coming out to advisors, friends and, ultimately, family.

Around the time that gay and lesbian students started to find community around campus, transgendered students continued to struggle in silence, often without the terminology to discuss their personal identity.

Deborah (Dave) Fabian ’71 entered William & Mary in 1967 and was a member of the 1971 undefeated men’s soccer team. After graduating, she went on to become an orthopedic surgeon. But throughout all of her personal successes, she continued a quiet and painful struggle on the inside.

“It’s hard to explain,” said Fabian, who went by Dave until transitioning in 2011. “I was part of a fraternity. I was part of the soccer team. I studied hard. It wasn’t eating away at me all the time, but this desire to wear women’s clothes, it just kept coming back.”

There was no support for someone in Fabian’s shoes. At the time, she didn’t know of anyone on campus who was gay or lesbian. No one talked about sexual minorities, and in her case, non-demeaning terminology was just beginning to emerge.

“I was closeted to myself,” Fabian said. “There were no words, just this desire that never went away.”

Things didn’t get better in medical school, where she’d read medical literature about the “severe pathology” of her desires. In the late ’70s, after being arrested for cross-dressing, she was strip-searched and absolutely humiliated. Fabian said it was the first time she considered committing suicide. There would be other dark hours, but Fabian slowly began the process of self-acceptance.

“I kept thinking, you’re getting to be a real son-of-a-bitch and began to ask whether I wanted to live the rest of my life miserable, unhappy and drinking too much. I realized I just didn’t want to keep living that way.”

Fabian saw a therapist specializing in gender identity issues who encouraged her to attend a transgender event in Provincetown, Mass., where she met her current wife, Leslie. She was in drag when they first met.

“Just having someone who loves me and says I’m OK — that was a big part of it for a lot of years,” Fabian says. “Up until meeting her, I didn’t feel OK.”

A few years ago, at age 61, she officially began living as Deborah. The journey hasn’t been easy, but together she and her wife have shared it. Her wife has written a book (My Husband’s a Woman Now), and the two frequently talk about the lessons learned throughout the change in their lives.

Given her experience as a student, Fabian was hesitant to come back to campus, but when she visited for the first time in 20 years, she was amazed to see how much the climate had changed and the support that now exists for students. It was gratifying for her to see how many students are self-accepting. And she was amazed by her former fraternity brother Al Albert ’69, who coaches with the soccer team and could not have been more welcoming. They attended a game together where she met some of the current players. It felt like old times, she said.

As I think about the William & Mary I’ve heard about, experienced and now see today, I’m left with a sense of hope. Students are no longer forced to cruise in CW or campus bathrooms or to take a road trip to find a community of peers — they’re mostly self-confident and open. Since then the College has had its first gay rector and we have a president who has no qualms about taking the stage with drag queens at the campus pride festival. And let’s not forget our students elected a gender-queer Homecoming Queen in addition to founding a plethora of LGBTQ groups — from Wilma and Mary to William and Larry. As a community, we’ve come a long way. Earlier this year, the GALA board voted to become part of the College’s Alumni Association. After nearly three decades as an independent organization, the group who has served the needs of LGBTQ alumni is being welcomed into the fold as one family. In the spring, the W&M Foundation Board, similarly to the Women’s Philanthropy initiative, decided to work more closely to engage LGBTQ alumni. Recently the College added gender expression and identity to its nondiscrimination clause.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot work left to be done. But undeniably it’s gotten better at William & Mary and it excites me that together, as one Tribe and one family, we can all work to continue that forward movement.