the origins of Brown’s gay liberation movement

by by Sarah Yahm

illustration by by Allison Clark

When Jack Marcus moved to Providence for grad school in 1967, two years before Stonewall, he wasn’t out yet, but he was paying attention. For instance, he knew that his alma matter, the University of Pittsburgh, had a Mattachine Society, one of the earliest national homophile movements. He hadn’t gone to any of their meetings, but he knew that they fought for homosexual rights, although he wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. Jack hadn’t officially come out, but he thought maybe when he got to Providence, things might be different. But Providence was even worse than Pittsburgh; there were no gay organizations on campus and no gay bars on the East Side. So for two more years Jack was a good boy: he did his homework, taught his sections, read French and more French, and stayed in the closet.

Although historians mark the official beginning of gay liberation as June 28, 1969, when the fed-up queens and butches at the Stonewall Inn refused to submit to one more arrest from the NYPD vice squad, it took a while for the explosion of anger and revolutionary fervor to wend its way up I-95. Unlike New York City, Providence did not have an outspoken, politicized gay community. George Heymont, a former New Yorker and a gay rights organizer remembers, “Providence kind of existed on the basis that there’s Rhode Island and then there’s the rest of the world…It’s hard to organize,” he explains, “when you have to take your mother grocery shopping right after the gay alliance meeting.”

According to Providence historian Kate Monteiro, New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s was filled with the queers who left, who moved to big cities to be gay, while Providence was filled with the queers who stayed. And these queers lived within networks of pre-existing family relationships. They had to co-exist with their third-grade classmates and their aging Portuguese grandmothers. And so gay radicalism wasn’t necessarily on their agenda. That isn’t a tragedy of the closet, Monteiro insists, but rather a testament to the value of those kinship networks. For the queers who had stayed, it wasn’t half bad. But for out-of-towners moving to Providence for school, it was not an easy place to be gay. There was one outlet and one outlet only the mafia-owned bars downtown.

Jack Marcus wasn’t really the barhopping type, but he was lonely and so on weekends he’d find himself wandering around the city looking for some sort of action. And while College Hill didn’t boast much, it wasn’t hard to find downtown in the ‘70s, on the mostly deserted streets in the post-industrial city. Fred (pseudonym), a local who came out during that same time period, remembers that, “In those days downtown there were two types of people there, gays and derelicts and that was it. People didn’t shop there anymore. People just didn’t go downtown. So you could go downtown and street cruise basically, just walk around and look at cars and if they looked back and stopped you had a hook up.”

Jack would spend nights walking the mostly deserted streets, trying to find a way into this underworld that was unfolding around him. He felt like he was supposed to know where to go, like it should be programmed genetically inside his body the way birds navigate by stars. Finally, he stumbled onto Kubla Khan, part Chinese restaurant, part gay bar, and watched what were undeniably gay men spill out onto the sidewalk. He’d thought about going to a gay bar for so many years, agonized about it for so long, that it was strange to him that the mechanics were the same as opening any other door.

He didn’t really know what to expect, of course, when he crossed the threshold. He was hoping for a lover maybe, a kindred spirit at least. But he certainly wasn’t expecting his French professor right there sitting casually at the bar.

“It’s nice to know that there’s family in the department,” he said simply, while Jack stood frozen. And then the professor turned away and went back to his beer. They never mentioned it again.

In the late ‘60s, the Ivy Leagues were still reeling from a series of earlier homosexual purges. According to historian Douglas Sans-Tucci, in 1960 three Smith professors (all former “Harvard men”) were charged with possession and trafficking of homosexual pornography. Coverage in the New York Times and Boston Globe fueled the flames of panic over homosexuals in education; soon, anxiety gripped Cambridge and rippled out through the Ivy League and down the coast to Brown. The message was clear: stay in the closet and most importantly, stay away from our children. Jack knew that as a French instructor who taught freshmen students, he had to be especially careful because he would have been an easy target.

But right before Jack finished his PhD, the first official Brown gay organization was chartered by the Cammarian Club, and he was able to take a tiny step out of the closet. In the spring of  ‘72, undergrads Thomas Littler and James Moser started a campus chapter of the Gay Liberation Front. Formed after the Stonewall riots three years before, the GLF was a loose national organization of mostly urban gay men committed to overthrowing patriarchy and heterosexual norms. The GLF was a far more radical group than the Mattachine Society Jack had known back in Pittsburgh, fighting for total sexual liberation alongside issues like militarism, racism, and sexism.

Brown’s chapter, however, concerned itself more with parties than revolution. A few days before Jack graduated, they held a coming out dance at Churchill House on Pembroke campus. Lorraine Hopkins, reporting for the Providence Journal, noted that there were about 100 people and that they didn’t fill up the large dance hall. “You can sense,” she tells us, “how pleased they were by their own event, having finally the form and sound of the rest of the world—a Saturday night social. The faces were all excited and they kept marveling at being there together. ‘It’s great’ one of them said. ‘It’s a relief after bar life. It’s just kids having a good time.” Years later, Hopkins remembers that she was a bit frightened by this collective gathering. “I did think they were courageous,” she remembers. “But in truth, still a little too odd, too other-world, to seem appealing that night as a mass, rather than the one by one I’d known for some years.”

Jack moved away a few days later. “The crazy thing,” he tells me, “is that half the people in my department came out after we left graduate school. One of them even wrote a famous book about French homosexualities. But no one was out at the time.” This “normal Saturday night social” arrived too late for Jack—but not for the next generation of gay students, who would, over the next few years, build a fairly visible gay community on campus.

Richard Bump came to Providence from Maine expecting to find a vibrant gay community and plenty of gay sex. But at first he didn’t find much of anything except the cruising area in the Faunce House basement bathrooms. Brown University Gay Liberation (BUGL) existed, but just barely—they were located in a nearly abandoned building on Benevolent Street. “Gay Lib was the last student group occupying that building at the time,” he remembers. “I was scared shitless!”

After the current leaders graduated, Bump became the de facto face of gay liberation on campus and the target of anti-gay violence. The baseball team chased Bump through Wriston Quad one night with their bats, and someone wrote a threatening message in blood on his dorm room door. After a pro gay rights action, a fraternity plastered campus with a poster advocating “stomping out fags on campus.” But Bump continued to organize. He convinced the administration to give BUGL a real office in Faunce with a telephone and a bulletin board.

Bump had built an active gay scene on campus by the time Jim Hopkins enrolled in 1975. Jim didn’t come out, even to himself, until after his sophomore year. He describes the larger atmosphere as relatively progressive and accepting, but fag jokes abounded in his all-male freshmen dorm. So Jim waited. It wasn’t until the summer of  ‘77, when the gay community rallied to oppose Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign, that Jim felt safe enough to finally come out to himself.

Anita Bryant, a former Miss Oklahoma and publicist for the Florida Citrus Association, led a battle in Dade County against an anti-discrimination ordinance including sexual orientation. Joined by Jerry Falwell, she began a national anti-gay campaign. In Providence and nationwide, Bryant’s vitriol galvanized the newly liberated gay community to move out of the bars and bathhouses and into the streets.

Jim remembers seeing a photograph of a gay rights march in the New York Times for the first time that summer. “In the photo you saw a street full of people going as far as you could see and I thought ‘Wow, there are a lot of gay people.’” Although he’d heard rumors of other gay people (the infamous Richard Bump, for instance) this photo made the concept of gay community suddenly very concrete.

When he came back to school in the fall, he noticed that the gay alliance had flyers and posters outside of Faunce House. Still, he wasn’t quite ready to get himself to a meeting, so instead he proposed writing an article for the Brown Daily Herald on BUGL. He walked up the stairs to their office on the top of Faunce as a reporter and he left as a gay student.

“It was the first time in my life I’d been around a group of gay people my age and I remember thinking how interesting it was that they all seemed ‘normal.’ That was a huge deal for me because suddenly I felt like I wasn’t so unusual.” He never wrote the article. Within a few weeks, he was climbing the stairs to the top of Faunce every day to eat his lunch with the other gay boys. They would watch the human traffic pass by below on Waterman Street and occasionally, when someone good-looking walked by, they would poke their heads out the windows and say, “Hey you! I think you’re cute!”

By 1979, Jim Hopkins recalls, the newly renamed Gay Alliance had arrived. They held their spring party in the biggest hall on campus, and unlike that earlier dance at Churchill House, over 1,000 people showed up. At Brown it was suddenly hip to be gay—or, more specifically, to be a gay white man. Jim remembers there was only one man of color in the Gay Alliance, and they had almost nothing to do with the feminist and lesbian organizations on campus. Although they were technically in solidarity with Brown’s other marginalized groups, mostly they just threw parties and went to the bars. It was a far cry from the original goals of Gay Liberation—it was glitter, glam rock, and David Bowie.

But, as Richard Bump rightly reminds us, “dancing with another guy at a dorm party was pretty fuck-the-system in 1976! Sitting at a table in the dining hall with other fags was pretty fuck you. Embracing our own gay identities at the time was radical. Many of us had to come in first before they could come out.”

SARAH YAHM MA‘13 PHD‘16 carries whipped cream pies around just in case.