UCB Gay History, circa late 1970s/early 1980s

 

My memories of the earliest UC Berkeley faculty/staff gay/lesbian group are fragmented, blurred, and unsupported by journals, letters, or other documents. I think the group was formed in response to the California election of November 1978, when Ballot Proposition 6 (also known as the Briggs initiative) proposed to make it a firing offense for any public school teacher to be homosexual. The idea of the founders was to cultivate informal contacts throughout the campus so that we could help and be helped in case some anti-homosexual crusade erupted at Cal. We wanted to know who the other gay/lesbian people on campus were, and we hoped that some sense of community would result from getting together once in a while. I suppose we could call it a support group, perhaps inspired partly by earlier organizations such as UCB’s Gay Student Union and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Business Association and Gay Freedom Band. According to rumor, the initial organizing force was a nucleus of lesbian staff members, but the most enthusiastic promoters I remember personally were David Kirp of Public Policy and the late Jim Brown, head of the Student Health Service. Meetings were parties held in members’ houses and apartments, more or less monthly. I think I hosted one of the gatherings. There were no speakers, no agendas, no dancing, no orgies, not even a formal name. One professor stopped attending because there was no cruising (at least none involving him). We snacked, drank, chatted.

At first there was a substantial proportion of women, probably all staff members. At least I do not remember any lesbian faculty at the parties. But most of the women disappeared after a few months, reportedly because they felt that men were beginning to dominate the organization.

Many members were concerned about the safety of meeting. There were long discussions about whether there should be more than one copy of the mailing list, how the mailing list should pass from host to host, whether it was wise for faculty and staff to mix, and whether students (especially undergraduates) should be allowed as guests. I think we had one joint party with GLOW (Gays and Lesbians of Wurster), a graduate student group. One ultra-closeted professor (now deceased), who later had a moment of fame for having predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, worried mightily about coming to the meetings at all for fear that his professional standing would be damaged if his secret were revealed, but he finally showed up a couple of times. For years I tried to understand what he meant when he said at one of the parties, “We [homosexuals] are not a legitimate minority.” It was a premise in his argument to the conclusion that the government should not protect homosexuals per se from discrimination. Ah well, he was right about the Soviet Union, at any rate.

The group offered other interesting opportunities for conversation. It was the first place I heard any discussion of same-sex marriage, which I thought was a nutty idea at the time, since I was just leaving a mixed-sex marriage. (Now [2008] I’m on my way to Spain, where my fiancé and I will be joined in matrimony on May 26.) I think the group was also where I met the late Sheldon Andelson, UC’s first openly gay regent, and complained to him about his backing of the Board’s decision to decouple pay scales in Engineering from those in the rest of the university. These were high points, however. The parties usually ended early enough that there was still time to go to the White Horse or the Stud.

Over a year or two or three, the meetings grew less frequent, fewer and fewer attended them, and finally they stopped. Or at least I wasn’t on the secret mailing list any more. I think perhaps the group succeeded in creating a sense of community and the promise of a little more security against political attacks. At the end, we all knew a lot more about who was gay or lesbian on campus and who was willing to be identified as such, if only within a closed circle. It’s likely that smaller mutually supportive groups spun off from the original and did some good for the participants, especially in the AIDS epidemic and the fundamentalist Christian backlash, both of which got going just about that time. I will be very interested to read others’ recollections of the organization and their corrections of any errors of fact I have committed.

Bruce Vermazen
Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus
At UCB 1967-2001