The History of NYU LGBTQ Activism

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The History of NYU LGBTQ Activism

In the late 1960s, two new forces were finding their feet in Greenwich Village. Gay liberation was coming out of the closet and into the streets, clashing with the police and making waves in public life; just down the street, New York University was starting to rebuild its image as a prominent research university in the heart of Manhattan. The history of LGBT student activism at NYU traces back to that time, and those two forces often clashed and occasionally shared key players. As NYU has established its position as a highly respected university and as gay liberation has found success in the political realm over the past 50 years, the relationship between student activism and the university, as well as the recognition of LGBTQ individuals by the university, has shifted dramatically. What began as picketing and sit-ins has become office space and emails to administrators, though many problems still persist for LGBTQ students. In some respects, campus activism has shifted as the university becomes more open (or more accountable) to student demands. However, the push for recognition and respect in the university setting remains a struggle for student activists, as they additionally begin to question their place in “diversifying” campuses without achieving equitable status within university systems.

In this essay, I will track the change in gay student organizing at NYU through three significant campaigns staged over more than 40 years. These three instances are exemplary of the types of organizing prevalent in their respective time periods, and show a trend away from civil disobedience as LGBTQ students gain recognition from university administration.

September 20 – 25, 1970: Activists Occupy Weinstein

Daniel Hurewitz (1997) indicates in his book Stepping Out that the first gay group at NYU was known as the Student Homophile League and was founded in 1967 (Hurewitz 1997, 62). The group was founded as one of the first gay student groups following in the footsteps of students at Columbia. The Student Homophile League did not gain widespread recognition, however, until a year after the Stonewall riots, when several groups of gay activists occupied Weinstein hall, a freshman dorm with a large activity area in the sub-basement. The Weinstein sub-basement was used for a dance to celebrate Christopher Street Day in June of 1970, and several more dances were planned for the remainder of the summer and into the school year (Teal 1971, 203-204). The Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee, an independent gay rights group, had rented the sub-basement to hold a series of dances, and had successfully held two before the administration “got wind of the fact that homosexuals were using school facilities” and became concerned that “

[g]ay dances on campus would affect ‘impressionable freshmen’” (Bell 1971, 111). The NYU gay student organization (which now appeared to be known as Gay Student Liberation of NYU) was facing off with the administration on behalf of the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee and other gay organizations in the Village. The administration was able to deny use of the facilities to the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee because they were not an NYU group, so Gay Student Liberation of NYU was offering to sponsor their use of the basement, as they were a recognized student club. However, they were still running into problems from the administration, so they began to consider more drastic measures to combat the discrimination from the university.

The sit-in was not the first method employed by the gay activists to draw attention to the discriminatory practices of the university. Arthur Bell, one of the activists who took part in the occupation, chronicled the events leading up to the sit-in as part of his journalistic work. He wrote that

“On the night of the scheduled third dance, several dozen homosexuals appeared in front of Weinstein Hall with picket signs. Administration, caught by surprise, feared violence and opened the hall. The following week they canceled the last of the scheduled dances. The cancellation went without incident. Administration, however, also discussed revoking the charter of the Gay Student Liberation of New York University. Punishment. (Bell 1971, 111)

Protesters gather outside of Weinstein hall, courtesy of NYPL photo collection.

The cancellation of the final dance called for more action from the gay liberation groups. Bell and activists from Gay Student Liberation of NYU produced a pamphlet calling for activists to occupy Weinstein hall. Activists from Gay Student Liberation of NYU, the Gay Liberation Front, and other groups came to the protest, among them Sylvia Rivera (Bell 1971, 113). Bell was one of the first people to join the sit-in, and he remained at Weinstein for the five day duration of the protest. The protest ended when university administration called the Tactical Police Force and forced everyone to evacuate. Although they left the building, they gathered out on the street for some time afterward. 

There were several outcomes from the protest. Firstly, Sylvia Rivera and other transvestites present at theprotest formed Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), which would become a fairly prominent group in the gay liberation movement. Secondly, the activists created a list of demands for NYU’s administration regarding their placement in Greenwich Village:

List of demands by gay liberation groups, 1970. (Teal 1971 , 207-208)

The demands and the Weinstein occupation present a clear opposition between gay student activists and the university to which they belong. The students were seeking recognition and resources from the university that was being denied to them due to their sexual orientation, and their demands evoke the idea of reparations for the resources taken and harm caused by NYU to members of the gay community. This interaction shows a rocky beginning for activism at NYU that lead to many interesting campaigns and difficult struggles with administration, as well as serving as a starting point that shows how the relationship between administration and student protesters has shifted over the course of the past 50 years.

Additionally, the story of the occupation specifically evokes the occasional incongruity of institutional memory as it compares to the historical record. There is a myth today that the man who currently advises NYU Queer Union was the desk clerk who gave Gay Student Liberation of NYU the key to get into the room. While Bell’s account of the events does not corroborate this story, it suggests the importance of lineage in the student activist community. Because there is such a rate of change for students doing activism at a university, any connection that outlasts that is critical for keeping the organization alive. Additionally, this story might contribute to the changing relationship between gay student groups and administration, when the current advisors are portrayed as allies from the very beginning.

October 1985Passage of Non-Discrimination Policy

After Gay Student Liberation of NYU and other groups occupied Weinstein, it appears that there was an institutional shift that gave gay students at NYU more recognition from the administration. As early as 1976, Gay Student Liberation of NYU (which had again changed its name to the Gay People’s Union) had an office in the Loeb Student Center. However, student activists were still pushing for more official and expansive recognition from the university; specifically, they were seeking to add sexual orientation to NYU’s non-discrimination policy. This campaign demonstrates two different tactical approaches to achieving change within the university: working within the student senate and picketing NYU buildings. Like the establishment of the Gay People’s Union office, the former tactic shows a general acceptance of gay student activism into the university framework; the latter, however, demonstrates the continued need for gay student activists to utilize civil disobedience to gain rights within the university.

Tom Kirdahy and Robert Rygor were among the gay student activists who were most involved in passing the legislation. Both would go on to have impressive careers in activism after their time at NYU, though Rygor’s accomplishments were sadly cut short due to his death in 1994 of AIDS. Tom Kirdahy was honored with an alumni award from the LGBTQ Student Center in 2015, which noted many of his accomplishments when he studied at NYU. Along with being “an active member of [the Gay People’s Union] and was very much involved in the city-wide Act-Up,” he was also heavily involved in student government (Butler 2015). Bob Butler, the former Director of Student Activities and a mentor of Kirdahy’s, wrote in Kirdahy’s nomination that “at NYU he served as a student senator and one of the first openly gay chairs of the University Committee on Student Life (UCSL) and the Student Senators Council (SSC)” (Butler 2015). Butler credits Kirdahy’s involvement as an openly gay member of the Student Senate as critical in influencing the decisions of many “uninformed and ridged-minded (sic)” members of the Senate Committee on Organization and Governance to vote in favor of adding sexual orientation to the non-discrimination policy. Butler says that “[Kirdahy]…was able to recruit several powerful voices on the Senate to change their minds and speak out in support of the change on the Senate floor.” When the vote went to the committee, it passed thanks to both expected and “surprise allies” (Butler 2015).

While Kirdahy was speaking to the Senate Committee, activists were picketing and protesting loudly in the Loeb Student Center lobby . This was not the first time adding sexual orientation to the non-discrimination policy had come up in discussions with the University Senate, but it was repeatedly pushed back and the students were tired of having to wait on their rights (Monjeau 2011). However, those protesters do not get the same recognition for swaying the decision of the Senate Committee as Kirdahy does. This is in part because their influence is more difficult to measure: it is easy to acknowledge how Kirdahy spoke to other members of the Committee and influenced their votes, whereas it is harder to quantify how much protesters may have influenced the voters. Additionally, however, the tactics utilized by Kirdahy fit better into a narrative of progress for the university than the protests that were happening simultaneously. Kirdahy’s presence as an openly gay member of Student Senate allows the university to demonstrate their acceptance of students’ sexual orientations, even if Kirdahy had to fight for his sexual orientation to be included in the official non-discrimination policy. The protesters, on the other hand, demonstrate more clearly that NYU was still failing to protect and represent their identities in a satisfactory way. Each of these elements of student activism were critical to passing the non-discrimination policy, and they show both the advancement and the stagnation of the university administration’s acceptance of LGBT students.

December 2012: Gender Neutral Bathrooms at NYU

The final and most recent campaign of LGBT student organizing at NYU demonstrates how acceptance into the university framework has permeated the work student activists do on campus. This final instance comes, most significantly, after the establishment of the LGBTQ Student Center in 1996. Susan Talburt (2000) writes about the implications of LGBT+ centered offices on university campuses and how they relate to identity politics and the larger frame of acceptance of various sexualities by the university administration. She points out that there is some inherent contradiction in diversity initiatives and research practices in universities, for while diversity is regarded as critical to forming an expansive understanding of the world, research is expected to be unbiased (which some view as impossible for raced and gendered subjects) (Talburt 2000). In the university Talburt studied, as in most modern universities, the policies surrounding diversity balance “numerical representation” and “social interaction,” which means they fall short of addressing “material and structural oppressions” that prevent students of minority status from fully belonging to the university (Talburt 2000, 68). While “diverse” students are sought after to prove numerical inclusivity and expose other students to new perspectives, the structure of the university does not change to alleviate the pressures of systematic injustice. The creation of a university office that handles issues of LGBTQ identity does give a space for LGBTQ students to find support, but it does not mean that other areas of the university become just as accepting of LGBTQ identity. However, an LGBTQ Center allows more space for social interaction and coalition building, which can lead to further education and the spread of acceptance for LGBTQ students through student interaction.

While the LGBTQ Center at NYU represents the realization of some of the demands presented by the members of the Gay Activists Alliance, Gay Student Liberation of NYU, S.T.A.R., and other groups who occupied Weinstein in 1970, it also indicates a shift in the way organizing takes place on campus. With the security of the LGBTQ Center established for students at the time, there is a desire to add other institutional facilities for queer students, which may not always address the underlying issue that leads to discrimination against LGBTQ students. However, the efforts of queer student activists to gain more institutional facilities suited to their needs are a concrete way of making the university more accessible to their demands and toward changing attitudes through the normalization of accessible spaces.

Gender neutral bathrooms available in December 2012.

In December of 2012, OUTSpoken Peer Educators (OPE) at the LGBTQ Center put together a list of gender neutral bathrooms available in NYU buildings on the Washington Square Campus. They found that, in the three most populated NYU buildings, there was only one gender neutral bathroom. Gender neutral bathrooms represent important measures of comfort and acceptance for transgender and gender-nonconforming people at NYU. The presence of gendered bathrooms can be dangerous for people whose gender presentation is perceived as different from their sex assigned at birth.

Gender neutral bathrooms available as of November 2016.

Therefore, in April of 2013, OPE began a campaign to raise awareness about the availability and importance of gender neutral bathrooms on campus. “Visibility” and “awareness” have historically been important in educating outside populations about the struggles of oppressed groups. In more recent movements, however, there seems to be a stronger focus on the representation of marginalized groups in media and other areas. The gender neutral bathroom campaign relies heavily on these ideas of “visibility” and “awareness” to bring about change for minoritized students. The desire for awareness stemmed from what OPE members saw as a lack of “campus-wide conversation” about the issue (Seedman 2013). The goal to incite conversation and draw attention to the lack of gender-neutral bathrooms makes OPE’s tactic remarkably passive when compared to the previous organizing efforts of gay student activists at NYU.

As the campaign has continued, NYU Queer Union has held events to send emails to the administrators of buildings without gender neutral bathrooms to call for one to be added to the building, a slightly more active tactic but still one bound up in the university system. There are now more than 33 buildings on campus with gender neutral bathrooms, which is undoubtedly due in part to the efforts of OPE and Queer Union. The methods that both groups utilized to call for change from the university have none of the civil disobedience of the previous examples of gay student organizing, but they still have had an impact on the availability of resources to LGBTQ students at NYU.

Conclusion

These three instances of gay student organizing at NYU show a clear trend in the acceptance of LGBTQ students by the university, which has changed the tactics students implement when pushing against university policy. While civil disobedience was once the only measure available to student activists, it is now only one of a myriad of ways students can draw attention to the struggles they are having at NYU. The presence of the LGBTQ Center, which offers a variety of social programming and a communal space for student interaction, creates new possibilities for coalition building and provides resources for navigating the institutional framework that is respectful and responsive to LGBTQ students. The face of gay student organizing at NYU has grown as the gay liberation movement has grown, and has become accepted into the university which stands in what was once considered “the largest gay ghetto in the world.” Although New York University and gay liberation have not blended in Greenwich Village to become one and the same, they have both grown to fit one another, with room for further change as time progresses.

Bibliography

Bell, Arthur. Dancing the gay lib blues; a year in the homosexual liberation movement. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.

Butler, Bob. Nomination essay for Tom Kirdahy, 2015. Received by the author via email March 23, 2017.

Hurewitz, Daniel. Stepping Out: Nine Walks Through New York City’s Gay and Lesbian Past. Owlet, 1997.

Monjeau, Julianna. “Archivist’s Angle Where Pride Began: The LGBT Movement at NYU.” NYU Alumni Connect. June 20, 2011, accessed May 15, 2017. http://www.alumni.nyu.edu/s/1068/alumni/interior.aspx?sid=1068&gid=1&pgid=2385.

OPE Gender Neutral Bathroom Map. December 2012.

OPE Gender Neutral Bathroom Map. November 2016. Via NYU LGBTQ Center website.

OUTHistory.org. “Gay Liberation in New York City: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.” http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/gay-liberation-in-new-york-cit/star/pg-1. Accessed May 15 2017.

Seedman, Alexander. “NYU Launches Gender Neutral Bathroom Awareness Campaign.” NYU Local (New York, NY). April 19, 2013. https://nyulocal.com/nyu-launches-gender-neutral-bathroom-awareness-campaign-74ca049a0fb

Talburt, Susan. “Identity Politics, Institutional Response, and Cultural Negotiation: Meanings of a Gay and Lesbian Office on Campus.” In Thinking Queer, edited by Susan Talburt and Shirley R. Steinberg, 61-84. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

Teal, Donn. The Gay Militants. New York: Stein and Day, 1971.

By | 2017-05-15T12:58:13+00:00 May 15th, 2017|Final Essays, Xena|0 Comments

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