The long history of LGBT rights at MSU
Discovering one’s identity as part of the LGBT community can be difficult. Those who fall under the rainbow’s umbrella of people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and more face societal prejudice, media erasure and dangerous hate.
For many students who come to MSU and begin the process of finding their identity, one unsung difficulty of finding one’s place in the LGBT community is that they have no prior experience with the community or knowledge of it.
“There’s a particular need for people who are marginalized by their sexuality to make connections with other people,” MSU LBGT Resource Center Director Dee Hurlbert said.
Unlike other minority communities such as race, ethnicity and religion, it’s rare for young LGBT people to grow up in a situation where they are exposed to any kind of real, physical community, Hurlbert explained.
“Developmentally, being an LGBT person, it’s very unusual to have queer parents or to be raised in an environment where you have real intimate mentorship and identity development,” Hurlbert said. “And for folks who have a sexual identity that they’re marginalized by, that often really becomes more clear in adolescence.”
Many young LGBT people find a community on social networks such as Tumblr, but because of the young demographics in these virtual spaces, there is often a lack of historical context for the issues that those identifying as LGBT face.
For students at MSU who are now discovering their identities or need of some of that context, MSU’s LGBT community has a deep history.
Before Stonewall, LGBT history on campus went largely unrecorded. It was an intolerant time. Gay people were simply not safe if they were publicly visible. According to “History of the Gay and Lesbian Experience at Michigan State University,” a 22-page report by an individual named April Allison, circa 1992, there were no student groups, there was little to no tolerance, and little community.
Allison interviewed a 1930s graduate named David, who remembered hearing that a popular professor on campus was abruptly fired, likely because of his sexual orientation.
“Most of what’s recorded pre-Stonewall are things that are alluded to that happened on campus that are a little on the darker side,” Hurlbert said. “Things like police sting operations for men cruising in restrooms. There are older queer scholars and faculty who were certainly on campus in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but weren’t necessarily identifiable and out.”
In the 1950s, paranoia during the McCarthy era led to LGBT people around the country and at MSU facing hate and exclusion. Allison references an interview with 1950’s graduate Joe, who was forced by campus police to take a lie detector test. Under interrogation, he was forced to name other men on campus he believed to be gay. After the interrogation, he was expelled from the ROTC program. He was allowed to graduate, but the dean made him promise to never set foot on campus again.
The Stonewall Riots began on June 28, 1969, when police raided a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village called the Stonewall Inn. The patrons revolted, and the riot that ensued served as a rallying cry for other LGBT people around the country.
“Around Stonewall, there were students on campus who very shortly thereafter started organizing here,” Hurlbert said. According to Hurlbert, those students created what ended up being MSU’s first formally recognized LGBT student organization: the Gay Liberation Movement.
The GLM registered as an official student organization on April 27, 1970, becoming the third official student organization for gay students in the Big Ten, after the University of Minnesota and the University of Illinois.
Its charter stated the group’s purpose: “To work toward greater understanding and acceptance of the homosexual in modern society through educational research and publication; to provide legal, political, and social resources for the betterment of the homosexual community.”
Over the next few years, the GLM fought for LGBT rights at MSU and in East Lansing. On March 7, 1972, after pressure from the GLM, East Lansing became the first municipality in the country to pass a law protecting gay and lesbian people from being fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation.
To this day, the state of Michigan has not enacted similar protections.
In 1977, the GLM successfully pushed MSU to include gays and lesbians in its anti-discrimination policy. However, gay liberation itself remained a controversial issue on campus, and that same year former ASMSU Student Board President Kent Barry attempted to eliminate ASMSU’s Gay Council from its code of operations. According to Allison’s history, his proposal was voted down 8-1.
The AIDS crisis
AIDS, an autoimmune disorder caused by the virus HIV, was first documented in the U.S. among gay men in Los Angeles in 1981. Soon, the virus had spread, and by 1994 it became the leading cause of death for all Americans aged 25 to 44.
In the early days of the epidemic, AIDS was a mysterious, terrifying illness.
“It was an era when people would just disappear if they found out they were infected,” Hurlbert said. “And in the early onset of the epidemic, they just got desperately sick and went to the hospital and died.”
The disease led to a harsher stigma against gay men and increased violence.
“It had always been violent because of systemic violence and interpersonal violence, but the AIDS epidemic made it that much worse,” Hurlbert said. “There was heightened fear, there was heightened baiting and isolation. It was a major historical period of time which, because people were dying and so visibly sick, lots of people were outed by their illness.”
At MSU, the late 1980s were marked by an increase in homophobic violence.
In May 1987, The State News published an editorial supporting rights for gays and lesbians. Citing a report on anti-gay violence by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the editorial board said, “While these numbers may reflect an increase in reports rather than attacks, abuse against gays and lesbians has risen due to increased paranoia of AIDS and old stereotypes.”
On November 3, 1988, Gay Council member Arye Mosher was assaulted in his dorm room at Hubbard Hall by an unknown assailant wielding a piece of broken glass. The assailant told Mosher to stop writing to The State News about gay issues.
During Pride Week in 1989, the bridge at Wells Hall was covered in chalk messages calling for “death to gays” and “AIDS to all fags.” Gay Council member Jerry Mattioli returned to his room in West Holden hall a few nights later to find that his room had been, according to Allison’s history, “gutted by fire.” It was allegedly set by the same people who had chalked the bridge.
The 90s to now
The 1990s represented a new period of increased visibility and acceptance for gays and lesbians on campus.
In 1991, The State News writer Meredith Petran reported on the establishment of a new fraternity with openly gay membership: Sigma Lambda Phi.
“Sigma Lambda Phi will provide gay and heterosexual men a social organization where they can feel comfortable with their sexuality and enjoy the advantages of a fraternal organization,” Petran reported.
In 1992, a Lesbian and Gay Studies course was offered at MSU for the first time.
Hurlbert was a student at MSU from 1990 to 1994, and was involved in the organization that had originally been the Gay Liberation Movement, then called the Alliance of Gay-Bi-Lesbian Students.
“We had a huge wave of suicides, and the number of people coming to our coming out groups and calling our hotline was really overwhelming,” Hurlbert said.
At the time, the university had no staff members devoted to the unique needs of LGBT students — let alone an entire resource center.
“Students were really suffering, and we were exhausted,” Hurlbert said.
Some students even quit school to help their peers full-time. The AGBLS pressured the university, and in 1995 Brent Bilodeau was hired as a dedicated staff member to help LGBT students.
In 2006, the LBGT Resource Center was established in a physical space, and it moved to its current location on the third floor of the Student Services Building in 2010.
In 2009, MSU introduced a flexible housing policy, allowing transgender and gender nonconforming students to choose from which they are comfortable.
The importance of history
Hurlbert explained that without the context of history, the rights that LGBT people have now could be taken for granted.
“I think it’s important for folks to understand that the rights that they have at this point in time, their lived experience, didn’t happen magically,” Hurlbert said.
“We have folks now who are coming of age in an era where, by the time they reach the age to become married, they’ve always known that to be an option,” Hurlbert said.
She explained a first-year student at MSU now comes to a college with an LGBT studies program, options for preferred housing, preferred names and preferred gender on documentation, gender and sexuality protections enshrined in its anti-discrimination policy and a course catalog in which LGBT content is, simply, a non-issue.
“But what the students don’t know is ten years ago, that wasn’t true,” Hurlbert says. “And that didn’t come from nowhere. And it is not to be taken for granted.”