LGBTQ+ community celebrates two anniversaries during history month
Editor's Note: Upon publication, Halvorson was spelled incorrectly, this story has been edited with the correct spelling.
Pride at Central Michigan University can be traced back to one anonymous advertisement in Central Michigan Life – a message to let queer students know they weren't alone.
The month of October is LGBTQ History Month and CMU will be celebrating two defining anniversaries on behalf of its queer community. The 50th anniversary of the first representative student organization and the 30th anniversary of the Office of LGBTQ+ Services.
The queer community at CMU is celebrating its history by looking back at the struggles and successes of past advocates, while looking forward at the issues being faced today.
Fighting for Acceptance
Riding the wave of counterculture ideas, many queer demonstrations happened across the nation in the 1970s. The first Gay Liberation Day March was held in New York City in 1970. The University of Michigan established the first collegiate LGBTQ programs office in 1971, paving the way for other universities to take action.
The Gay Liberation Front was founded at CMU in 1971, according to an advertisement placed in Central Michigan Life that serves as a bookmark for when the organization reached out to its first members.
Over the next several years, different names were used for the organization; Gay Liberation and Gay Liberation Inc.
GLF was meant to provide a community for gay and lesbian students and educate the campus, according to Lew Kaufman in a CM Life article from September, 1978. He explained the purpose of the organization was to, "help people become more aware and learn about homosexuality and dispel many of the fears about it on campus."
Threats to personal safety was something to consider every day for queer students. Their very presence could inspire not only harassment, but violence.
One spring night in 1975 there was a targeted attack on queer students. Several GLF members walked into The Pub Bar on a Tuesday night and were met with verbal harassment from their fellow patrons.
"Popcorn, drinks and wet washcloths were thrown at us," said Virgil Leone, president of Gay Liberation Inc. in a CM Life article following the incident.
Leone left the bar, but was followed to the parking lot where he was kicked and beaten. Later in the night, two of Leone's friends were also beaten.
One bar patron who attempted to break up the fight was drawn into the violence and suffered a broken nose, cuts and bruises. The Vice President of GLF also received cuts and bruises. She and the bar patron had to be treated at Central Michigan Community Hospital. The beating Leone received sent him to Saginaw St. Mary's Hospital for a neurological assessment and x-rays.
Police did not follow up on the incident and the suspect was never charged, despite the victims wanting to take action.
According to another CM Life article the following July, GLF used money from the organization to pay for the medical bills of the injured people. As a result, the organization's office was closed and mail privileges suspended by CMU for one week because they failed to pay back the $300 debt.
Then Dean of Students James Hill described the use of funds as "overspending" and added Gay Liberation was no longer in good standing with the university.
Incidents like these are why the GLF operated anonymously. Students had to call Listening Ear, a Mount Pleasant-based crisis hotline, to find out when and where the meetings took place.
For this reason, much of the organizations history is not documented.
In June of 1981, the first cases of AIDS were reported in the United States, it would be another few years before AIDS grew into the epidemic it is remembered as.
CM Life reported on Oct. 9, 1985 that there had been no known cases in Mount Pleasant. University Health Services Director Ed Brown issued a proposal to the Health Advisory Board to develop an AIDS policy for the university.
"I believe the university's role should be one of education about the disease and not one on ethics. We will not require testing," Brown said in the same CM Life article.
The GLF, then 10 years old, advised members to practice safe sex by using condoms and preventing the exchange of seminal fluids.
After 10 years of advocacy and education, the AIDS crisis was a set-back for the LGBTQ+ movement at CMU. Letters to the editor of CM Life show the discourse around queer rights that divided the campus community.
Despite set-backs experienced in the 1980s, progress had been made since the early days of the GLF. Student organizations could be more open however, anonymity was not totally left behind.
The Gay and Lesbian Association for Student Support (GLASS) was an organization for LGBTQ students at CMU in the 1990s. While more open about its presence on campus than GLF could be, GLASS had prospective members call the Wesley Foundation for the time and place of the meetings.
"We supported each other," Jon Humiston, a former GLASS member from 1992 to 1997 said. "We helped each other navigate the complexities of the campus climate and dealing with roommates and negative situations across campus."
Humiston is a three time CMU graduate and former Director of the Office of LGBTQ+ Services at CMU.
Similar to GLF, GLASS would put advertisements in the student paper to attract members and make it clear to queer students that there was a community on campus for them. In addition to using the Wesley Foundation to find the time and place of the meeting, GLASS took other precautions.
After meetings, members would walk each other home or to their cars for protection, according to Humiston.
“It was mostly for safety, because of the fear of being beaten,” Humiston said. “And the fact that, for the longest time, it was OK to beat gay people. It's great that somewhere along the line that has changed.”
In 2017, Jim Jones, the adviser to GLASS in the 1990s and mentor to Humiston, died. Humiston and Christy Brookes, a colleague of Jones in the World Languages and Cultures department at CMU, raised over $7,000 for the James Jones Memorial LGBTQ+ Scholarship, which will be awarded for the first time this year, five years after Jones' death.
Creating a home on campus
A direct result of the advocacy coming from students, faculty and staff up to the 1990s was the founding of the Office of Gay and Lesbian Affairs 30 years ago.Campus advocates had been fighting for an official office since the 1970s but didn't receive it until 1991.
Mindy Kaplan, a psychology professor, was appointed as volunteer director for the office on Oct. 4, 1991. When it started, Kaplan was unpaid, the only one running the office and was not given a workspace on campus, so she worked from her office in the psychology department.
That is not the experience of current Director Shannon Jolliff-Dettore whose office is on the lower level of the Bovee University Center.
“I especially think that (this anniversary) shows a lot of resiliency of the folks that started this work 30 years ago,” Jolliff-Dettore said.
When she started in the position in 2008, most of her time was spent helping students with their coming out journeys and helping them cope with harassment.
Over the last 13 years, Jolliff-Dettore's job has shifted.
She now helps students find their community. She helps trans students navigate the name change policy or sex change markers on I.Ds. She connects students to additional resources if they need them.
“It's great to see the shift,” Jolliff-Dettore said. “As representation has increased, there seems to be more comfort in (students) being authentic with their identity and navigating being out.”
Passing the flag
Today, organizations like The Gay Liberation Front, GLASS, Prism, The Gay Straight Alliance and Transcend are no longer on campus, but the communities still exist under a different name.
Spectrum, once called prism, is a student organization centered around education and socializing with other members of the queer community. Its members inherited the role of advocating for CMU's LGBTQ+ community from the organizations that came before it.
"It breaks my heart, honestly, thinking about where the original leaders on campus for LGBTQ people started," Spectrum President Julia Halvorson said. "But I am so grateful that they took the risk and provided that space on campus because without them Spectrum wouldn't be where it is today."
Spectrum is able to meet and actively recruit on campus and openly advertise the time and place of their meetings. While able to operate openly on campus, Spectrum still uses confidentiality to protect their members.
Halvorson said that, while harassment isn’t as common as it used to be, it still happens, specifically in residence life. Queer students placed with roommates that don’t accept their sexuality or identity are often moved to a different dorm, with no repercussions for the roommates who harassed them.
“That's something that comes up a lot,” Halvorson said. “So if you can't get into gender-inclusive housing, it's very scary.”
These experiences have become less common as public opinion toward the queer community shifts. The university now needs to focus on providing easier access to gender-neutral restrooms in all campus buildings, Halvorson and Jolliff-Dettore said
Additionally, Halvorson said CMU should increase support for queer students by including more of their events on the university calendar, adding an LGBTQ education program to orientation and hiring counselors who are queer or have experience working with queer people.
LGBTQ History Month celebrates how far the community has come with events throughout October. While today's advocates also celebrate the two landmark anniversaries, they also focus on how to further improve the lives of their community members.
“It is very rewarding to know that the work that was done in the past is still being continued and improved today,” Halvorson said. “We have more resources and more acceptance to work with, a little bit less resistance. Everything just builds on each other when we're working toward liberation."