Hidden History: Gay Students at Loyola

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of essays written by students of the Fall 2018 Public History course and based on research at Loyola’s University Archives and Special Collections. Check back over the next five weeks for new stories.

In 1991, a new organization appeared on Loyola University’s Lake Shore campus. The Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Alliance (GLBA), organized by students and sponsored by the Classics Department, was the first official club on any of Loyola’s campuses centered around LGBTQ issues [1]. Before GLBA, gay students received little official attention from the university and lesbian, bisexual, and trans students seemed all but invisible. However, Loyola’s weekly student-run newspaper, the Loyola Phoenix, tells a different story. Gay students were not only present at Loyola before the 1990s but had been forming their own societies and participating in campus-wide debates around sexuality for decades.

Figure 1: The first student directory to list an LGBTQ organization at Loyola. Courtesy of Loyola University Archives and Special Collections [2].

The 1970s were turbulent but exciting years for Loyola University. The pages of the Phoenix show students debating the Vietnam War, going on strike after the Kent State shootings, and campaigning for better representation in the curriculum. Of course, Loyolans were not alone in grappling with difficult social issues. Colleges and universities across the nation were dealing with similar cultural shifts among their students. At a Catholic university, however, topics about sexuality were especially controversial and potentially divisive. The Phoenix rarely mentions homosexuality during the early 1970s, while articles about women’s liberation, racism, and the Vietnam War appear in every issue.

Signs point to the existence of a small, yet active, gay student population long before the creation of GLBA. Advertisements for gay men’s social events held at other Chicago universities, especially Northwestern University and the University of Illinois Chicago, appeared with some regularity on the Phoenix’s “Happenings” page [3]. In 1972, Loyola’s Student Activities Board hosted its first LGBTQ event, though it did so in Evanston instead of on of Loyola’s campuses [4].  There were apparently enough interested students at Loyola to justify advertising other universities’ gay-friendly events and occasional Loyola-sponsored ones. Less frequently, the Phoenix advertised explicitly political events, such as a “Teach-Out” on sexual stereotyping that included Loyola psychology professor Dr. Naomi Weinstein [5].

Figure 2: Gay event at Northwestern, 1970. Courtesy of Loyola University Archives and Special Collections [6].
Figure 3: Loyola-sponsored gay event, 1972. Courtesy of Loyola University Archives and Special Collections [7].

There is also evidence that gay students organized unofficially in the absence of a university-sanctioned club. Two advertisements in October 1970 announced a “Gay Get-Together” for both Loyola faculty and students [8]. Five years later, a posting for a new gay students’ organization “not affiliated with any other group” appeared [9].

Figure 4: Ad for “Gay Get-Together” listing only a phone number. Courtesy of Loyola University Archives and Special Collections [12].

Even as organizations advertised their presence, privacy was a major concern. The Gay Get-Together organizers listed a phone number and the instruction, “Call for time and place,” instead of posting an address or meeting time [10]. GLBA included a statement about privacy protection in the description of their club as late as 1994 [11]. Gradually, however, Loyola students began to publicly come out. One who wrote to the Phoenix in support of a Gay Jeans Day (an event where gay students came out or showed their pride by wearing denim to class) in 1977 was the first to declare his sexuality through the student paper [13].

Then, during the fall semester of 1978, the topic of gay students at Loyola exploded on the pages of the Phoenix. Students and faculty debated two issues: Loyola’s reputation and the nature of homosexuality. The first controversy began in September, when philosophy professor Richard J. Westley reported hearing over summer break that Loyola was known as a “hot-bed of homosexuality” [14]. Curious where this idea originated, Westley asked students their opinion. They responded with a variety of views, ranging from outrage that Westley mentioned the topic to irritation over his less-than-positive view towards homosexuality. One anonymous gay student asserted that gay activity at Loyola was “less than mild” [15]. Another student claimed that the real issue was not homosexuality at Loyola, but premarital sex, sparking another round of debate [16].

Figure 5: Dr. Westley’s article to the Phoenix in 1978. Courtesy of the Loyola University Archives and Special Collections [17].

The subject of homosexuality appeared again in November after sociology professor Edward Levine went on the radio claiming that homosexuality was a mental illness. This time, the controversy stayed between faculty. Northwestern University professor Paul Siegel responded to the broadcast in the Phoenix with an impassioned counterargument [18]. A week later, Levine answered Siegel with a defense of his position [19]. Finally, two more Loyola professors offered their own critiques of Levine’s argument [20]. The issue appeared to die off after winter break, never reappearing during the 1978-1979 academic year. Still, the fall semester Phoenix articles reflected the real and sometimes heated conversations occurring at the Lakeshore campus. Clearly, gay students and gay rights were becoming much more visible than they had been in 1970.

As an urban Catholic school, its response to its gay students was unique, but Loyola was far from the only university adapting to changing attitudes during the 1970s. In the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots, gay students across the country grew increasingly vocal and organized, but as late as the 1990s most college campuses had yet to form official LGBTQ groups like Loyola’s GLBA [21]. In the 1970s, Loyola was neither especially inclusive nor repressive towards its gay students. It was similar to its neighbor, the women’s and Catholic Mundelein College, where lesbian relationships were tolerated, though not celebrated [22]. Additionally, while Loyola apparently held fewer gay-friendly events than Northwestern and UIC, there is no evidence in the Phoenix of gay students being targets of violence as they were at some other schools [23].

Figure 6: Q-Initiatives logo [25].

Gay Loyolans found ways to meet each other and advocate for themselves decades before there were official LGBTQ student groups. Their efforts laid the foundations for groups like GLBA in the 1990s and QTPoC and Advocate today. Loyola itself has changed in the decades since the first university-sponsored gay event in 1972, now hosting regular events from safe space workshops to LGBTQ film showings [24]. These events are no longer aimed only at gay men but include the whole of the LGBTQ spectrum. Though privacy remains an issue for some, support and resources are now available on the university website. Loyola’s LGBTQ students are no longer hidden or invisible. Instead they are out and involved in the Loyola community.

-Hannah Overstreet

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