Out Front
When UNH's first recognized gay student group fought for its rights, it paved the way for the rest of the country

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Also See:
Out Bid: A skirmish over a pancake breakfast launches a long-running campus tradition
'I could have been one of those people': Wayne April '74
'The biggest lesson was to question authority': Ann Philbin '76
One Tough Lawyer and Proud of It: Cris Arguedas '75
Magazine version (print)

Gay Students Organization

Winter 1974. From front-row seats in the New Hampshire Supreme Court, three UNH students listen as a lawyer for their university says they have "a communicable mental illness." The illness is homosexuality, the lawyer tells the justices, and thus it's legal for the university to bar the Gay Students Organization from social contact with other students. This is one of multiple times in the last year that UNH has asked a court to limit what the GSO can do. During those months, the governor and the only statewide newspaper have campaigned relentlessly to stop the group. Front-page headlines like "Boot Out the Pansies" and gubernatorial threats to veto the university budget have been almost daily fare since 1973, and they will continue through 1975.

Spring 2010. From rainbow-decorated tables in the MUB's Granite State Room, nearly 250 people listen as UNH President Mark Huddleston hails the GLBT community's contributions to the university. The president of GLAAD delivers a speech marveling that once-conservative New Hampshire has legalized gay marriage. Student award winners proudly take the stage amid applause, bright banners, and the scent of maple syrup. This is the 18th annual pancake breakfast, where tabletop brochures hail "the pioneers who founded UNH's first gay student organization."

The pioneers in the 2010 pamphlet and the students in the 1974 courtroom are the same people. This is the story of their time at UNH—when they were called sick and perverted and worse, when media attention forced some of them to come out to their families long before they wanted to, when their cause became a court decision that's still cited in students'-rights cases today. The story of UNH's first officially recognized gay organization has its share of trauma, but it's also a tale of triumph. No matter what Gov. Meldrim Thomson and Manchester Union Leader publisher William Loeb threw at them, the students persevered. In court, the GSO's lawyers won every fight, and on campus, for the most part, the students felt support—or at least tolerance. The one contest they lost, bidding on breakfast with Thomson in the Channel 11 fundraising auction, lives on as a victory, having inspired UNH's annual GLBT pancake breakfast.

From the perspective of 2011, the world gay students inhabited in the 1970s seems like another planet. The GSO controversy involved the most personal of issues, but it was also one knot in the tangle of '70s politics—when so many were protesting so much, when the university and its president were already under fire, and when going to court, even if it made the administration look bad in the short term, seemed the only way to settle the questions once and for all. "We were confident the students' rights would prevail," says J. Bonnie Newman '07H, who was dean of students at the time. "These kids were very brave to do what they did, at a time when most people weren't even aware they knew anybody gay. They were pioneers of the civil rights movement."

Of course, history feels messier when you're living it. The founders and early members of the Gay Students Organization can't look back at UNH with the same uncomplicated affection as other alumni. But they're fiercely devoted to the friends they made and the lessons they learned in Durham. Today, closing in on age 60, they remain committed to lives of activism and social justice. The six alumni who speak here are just a few of those who fought the fight. As they search their mental hard drives for scenes from those wild years, the GSO pioneers argue good-naturedly about who did what and what happened when. Details blur, but all of them share one clear memory: We made a difference, and we had fun. Luckily, one of them, Bob Kruger '73, had the foresight to save seven scrapbooks of newspaper stories that now live in the UNH Archives, bolstering memories with headlines.

UNH Homosexuals looking out the closet door (The New Hampshire, April 12, 1973)

When Wayne April '74 returned to Durham after taking a year off, he wondered how he'd stayed quiet before. "I was really dissatisfied with the state of gay life on campus—or the fact that there wasn't any, and what there was, was kind of clandestine," he says. Occasionally The New Hampshire would run a story that touched on gay students' lives, but nobody in the story would be named.

In the spring of 1973, nervous but determined, April walked into the TNH office and said he'd be happy to speak on the record. At the urging of editor Ed Penhale '73, he gathered 10 people at the house he rented in Barrington. They told Penhale about the "gay table" in the MUB (or "the Union," as they called it then) and the frustrating lack of social outlets on a campus that, Penhale wrote, "has put homosexualism in the closet and would like to keep it that way." Three men and one woman were named in the story. Shortly after it ran, April went to the Student Organizing Committee, seeking recognition of the new Gay Students Organization.

For the opening salvo in a two-year war, the GSO's statement of purpose was, April says now, "really vanilla." Its four paragraphs listed four goals: promote recognition of gay people on campus, organize social functions at which straight and gay people can learn from each other, sponsor programs to educate the public, and give gay members of the campus community a way to communicate. April followed with a first-person piece in the paper explaining why he was willing to go public. "I am fed up," he wrote. "I am not abnormal, sick or perverted, and henceforth my life is going to be lived in the open, as it should be, with a healthy consciousness and an open state of mind." He added a warning to others in the closet: "You have a sorry life ahead if you think you can make it as a straight when you know damn well that you're not."

UNH Recognizes 'Gays' (New Hampshire Sunday News, May 20, 1973)

The GSO quickly won recognition as an official student group, and meetings proceeded quietly... until the governor got wind of them. "It is unfortunate that a 'gay club' made up of socially sick students has been organized and officially recognized on the university campus," Thomson wrote to his fellow trustees on May 19. "The university is not a hospital for the disturbed." Though the trustees had no power to certify or decertify a student group, the governor urged them to take "constructive remedial action."

Before writing that letter, Thomson had solicited an opinion from Attorney General Warren Rudman—and, when Rudman said the university had no grounds to object to the GSO so long as it followed university rules, decided to ignore him. The rest of the trustees took note, however, and all but one voted May 20 to recognize the GSO. Although the vote carried no authority, it was all Thomson and Loeb needed to start a front-page circus. Thomson immediately vowed to replace the offending trustees "as fast as I can," and the paper began publishing a constant stream of stories and editorials about "sodomy" and "the lads with yellow socks," under headlines like "Perverts Will Flock to UNH."

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