Gay Rights at Columbia

This is how it happened, from my perspective, and my most likely imperfect memory.

I was the Executive Vice President of the University Student Council in for 1966/67, when I was a senior at the School of General Studies. One day the President, David Langsam, said to me, “I’ve got a good one for you. You probably don’t know this, but you are on the committee that recognizes student organizations. A group of students want to start something called the Student Homophile League. Usually, such groups would be approved pro forma, but for this group, because of its nature, the vote is, split, two to two, and you will be the deciding vote.” He told me that the committee consisted of a faculty representative, I think a Professor of English, the Coach, the Chaplain, and the Vice President of the University, (who I had come to know because every Friday I would walk to Lowe Library, and submit five work study vouchers for our work study students. But this is another story entirely.) I believe his name was Lowe. And of course, as I had just learned, the student representative, as it turned out, me.

They scheduled a meeting. It was during one of my classes. I told them I could not make it. They suggested I cut the class. “Surely you cut classes sometimes.” I thought that was a little odd, for them to encourage me to cut a class, because, as I said to them “Actually, I don’t.” GS students are different; we have been out in the world, and so we, or at least I, considered our work to be attending classes. Why else go to school? I gave them my class schedule and they rescheduled the meeting.

We met. Two of the organizing students attended the meeting, a man from the College and a woman from Barnard. For the petition to be approved, there needed to be five bona fide students. I asked Mr. Lowe if the signatories were registered as students. He said yes. So I said we should approve it.

Why? I saw it is simply basic civil rights. All we were doing was affirming that a legitimate number of bona fide students wanted to start an organization. Again, General Studies students are different. They have been out in the world, and if the world was New York. In particular, my world was then the East Village, mostly, and little of the West Village, there were many gay people living as happily as any of us might be living, definitely out of the closet. Friends and neighbors, even roommates had been gay; that year, living near Columbia on the West Side, my landlords, living in the building, were a gay couple, who had met each other in a foxhole during WWII. Or so they said. Who cared? It was their life, and it had no negative impact on mine. And while I did not appreciate getting hit on by men, sometimes even in classes at Columbia, this seemed to me to be a separate issue entirely.

The Times shortly thereafter published a small piece on the front page, and soon thereafter, the Committee reconvened. One of the signatories had removed their name from the list. There were only four now. (I imagined that there had been a heart to heart between a parent and that student, which caused the retraction.) I sat there, thinking … I knew several students at General Studies who I presumed were gay. Gossip had it that Edward Albee had come to Lewisohn to meet his lover after class. The charter of the Student Homophile League specifically stated that its purpose was to encourage openness and acceptance, and there was no requirement that one be what we now refer to as LGBT in order to be a member.
That meant I could be a member. If needed, I decided, I could be the fifth name. So once again, I voted for recognition.

To their credit, the other members of the Committee accepted this decision.

Several weeks later, the Chaplain asked me to meet with him, in his office. We had a discussion about love, love a man can have for another man. Had I not been such a total agnostic, humanist, Unitarian, I might have mentioned the Bible to him. Had I been aware of how many men, and women, then lived in closets, I would have discussed sexual attraction. Had I understood then my capacity to fully love other men, beyond the social constraints of sexuality, we might have had a much deeper conversation. But I was puzzled by the conversation, talked my love for my brother, and the conversation ended there. These were different times, before women’s liberation, before men’s liberation, and certainly before gay liberation, so we talked on eggshells, as it were.

For me, I just accepted that some women were sexually attracted to other women, and some men were sexually attracted to other men, I just knew that it happened, that it was part of the world in which we lived.
My sense was the chaplain was wondering if I was gay. My sense was that he had provided emotional/spiritual support for the students who bravely created the SHL, and wondered why I had voted as I had. I’m not sure. He never asked outright, and I was befuddled by our conversation.

It was only later in my life, as I heard stories of attempted and successful suicides, as I learned how unaware I was to the many people who lived in closets, as I understood the story told to me by a fellow student about his incarceration, by his parents, in a mental hospital to straighten him, that I came to appreciate what I had really done. Safe spaces were provided, closet doors were opened, mental health diagnosis was changed, for me a simple choice of civil rights, but for our society, a shift in the social paradigm.

What a change! I only wish other expansions of equality were so easy to accomplish.