By Nikhita Mendis & Luke O’Connell
As the LGBTQ liberation movement gains attention across the country, Brown remains a longtime cradle of progressive queer rights. Brown students’ struggles for equality for these groups have resulted in widespread acceptance of, and vibrancy in, the school’s queer community. For such sweeping changes, these shifts have surprisingly come not from radical movements, but from intellectual debate and methodical reform.
The stage was set for Brown’s struggles towards LGBTQ rights by the injustices of its neighbors, such as Newport, RI, a city 40 miles from Providence, which was critical in constructing the modern day “closet.” In 1919, the US Navy prosecuted several unwitting “sodomizers” in Newport — young boys who were unaware of the implications of their actions and freely confessed to a number of homosexual acts. According to queer historians, this event signifies “when homosexuality as we know it entered the legal record.” After the trial, there was no uncertainty in Rhode Island regarding the status of homosexuals. The Navy, with its prosecution of “scandalous conduct,” had paved the way for scathing national homophobia, reemphasizing homosexuals as subhuman hazards to societal standards and pushing them further into hiding.
However, back in the early 1900s, homosexuality in general society and homosexuality in the zealously guarded world of the Ivy League were vastly different. The Ivies refrained from publicly prosecuting homosexual conduct and mostly hid their “scandals,” both to protect the reputations of powerful alumni and students, as well as the reputation of the school. But one instance at Harvard slipped through the cracks in 1920, and brought Brown into the fray. It revolved around the death of a young student whose brother posthumously discovered letters with homosexual content. The extensive investigation that ensued led to the expulsion of several allegedly homosexual Harvard students, including one who then applied to Brown. Harvard’s dean convinced Brown’s dean, Otis E. Randall, to refuse the admission of this particular student. Randall willingly complied — a decision that made Brown highly culpable in antihomosexual sentiment and dovetailed with Randall’s infantilization of Brown’s gay community, which he considered a foolish and childish “mess.”
The next recorded scandal surrounding homosexuality at Brown appeared in 1968 in a euphemistic newspaper report by the Providence Journal. The report stated that “two Brown students pleaded innocent…to charges of indecent exposure,” alluding to their encounter with the police in a bush outside Brown’s Marvel Gymnasium. This discovery was part of a series of sting operations, where a young patrolman would “make himself available for approach by other homosexuals” in order to “break up overt homosexual activities” in districts known for LGBTQ activity.
But despite these abuses, the Brown community failed to manifest radical gay activism. Rhode Island’s circumstances may be to blame. George Heymont, one of the first organizers of Brown University Gay Liberation (BUGL), described the state as a family-oriented community in which “you have to take your grandmother grocery shopping right after the gay alliance meeting.” The dichotomy between the underground gay life and the emphasis on “traditional family values” led to the development of two distinct personas in the Rhode Island gay community. This duality perhaps prevented a development of intense activism in Rhode Island or Brown, urging more measured movements based on education and awareness.
In the year following the 1969 Stonewall Riots, Heymont and three other students convinced the Cammarian Club, Brown’s student group committee, to formally acknowledge BUGL. The only written records from the club’s first meeting are a dean’s vague notes questioning the “University’s ‘moral position’ on the practice of homosexuality.” These concerns indicate that despite the desire to promote gay rights on campus, a fear of tainting Brown’s image hindered open acceptance of the school’s LGBTQ community.
By 1972, however, the University had eased regulations of morality. Then-President Donald Hornig stated that he had “no intention of setting himself [above] the United States Constitution with regard to any individual’s civil rights.” But despite a lack of official resistance, the Gay Liberation movement maintained a low profile, hosting small dances rather than protests on the Main Green.
This quiet form of activism changed in the 1970s with the “coming out” period, marked by a correlative fear of homophobic violence as LGBTQ communities began to bring their sexual identities into the open. While educational outreach programs existed, acts of campus terrorism against homosexuality were the norm. Richard Bump, the leader of BUGL at the time, reported one occasion when fraternities plastered posters across swathes of the campus advocating “stomping out fags on campus.” Bump himself was once chased across Wriston Quad by the baseball team, who screamed slurs and swung bats at him. These incidents encouraged BUGL to specifically emphasize “self-preservation” for its members in their consideration of when and how to come out.
But despite the University’s earlier progress and the clear threat these actions presented to student safety, the administration barely reacted to the violence. Brown Alumni Magazine refused to publish a letter from an alumnus detailing an account in which his dorm room was “ransacked and pillaged by antihomosexual bigots.” Other publications also contributed to this atmosphere, as one Brown Daily Herald (BDH) editorial even advocated shaming homosexuals for purportedly having sex in the Campus Center basement. As a result, multiple students were threatened with arrest. Such blatant homophobia — both from bat-wielding athletes and the school newspaper — contributed to the fact that roughly 1 out of 20 homosexuals attended BUGL meetings during this time period.
If nonheterosexual students did decide to openly seek support, the minimal resources available to them could be found either in BUGL or at the Gay Community Center that belonged to Reverend Art Cazeault. Cazeault lead the local Metropolitan Community Church, one of a national network of ministries focused on serving the gay community. The church offered guidance, medical care and psychological counseling, free of discrimination, and even blessed homosexual unions, telling couples that they would be together “for as long as [they] both shall love.”
Using these resources as a base, Bump, along with other gay leaders on campus, began to frame the fight for civil rights not only in terms of expressing individual sexuality, but also in terms of gaining respect for every human being. After close collaboration with the administration, Bump established an office in the Campus Center for BUGL. In 1973, Bump organized speakers, discussion groups and radio shows intellectualizing the gay liberation movement — a method he thought would most effectively appeal to Brown students and cultivate an accepting and progressive campus mentality.
Even with this activism, the true impetus for change on Brown’s campus ultimately came from external forces. Following the mass mobilization of students against Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell’s vehemently homophobic “Save Our Children” campaign in 1977, homosexuality in effect broke out into the open at Brown and other New England colleges. Galvanized against a homophobic establishment, the Brown community rallied to promote gay rights and oppose the old order of conservatism. The change in campus mood was demonstrated by the over 1000 students that attended the Gay Alliance’s Spring Dance in 1979. Although some progress was made, equal treatment was far from reached. There was initially only one student of color in the newly renamed Gay Alliance, and transgender students and those who did not conform to a specific gender identity were discriminated against within the gay community, often acknowledged only in footnotes and through slurs.
Brown’s modern LGBTQ tolerance can be attributed to years of incremental victories, indefatigable struggles and the voices of a few individuals rather than broad movements. Moving forwards, a more productive acceptance of sexual and gender identities must entail balancing the intellectual exploration of LGBTQ culture and on-the-ground action for securing fundamental rights.