“The Daily Evergay,” Daily Evergreen, Dec. 11, 1975, 4. This is an editorial criticizing the student newspaper for running so many articles on gay issues.
Welcome to this webpage on WSU’s LGBTQ history. The history of queer people in the Palouse is long and storied, as other pages on this website make clear. Here, you can learn more about the history of queer people at Washington State University. This page is focused most especially on the years 1970-1994, as that is when queer students first began to form their own political organizations and publicly advocate for changes to campus policies and social equality. The student newspaper at WSU, The Evergreen, is an excellent source for this topic. The Evergreen ran so many articles concerning queer issues that one critical letter to the editor in 1975 suggested the paper change its title from Evergreen to Evergay.Throughout this webpage you will find links to various Evergreen articles that discussed homosexuality in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. There is still much more to be learn about this history, and The Evergreen remains an important chronicler of this history. You search can hundreds of clippings of the Evergreen, including many stories not explained in this narrative, by looking at the “Sources” page. I would also like to thank Dr. Melynda Huskey for her willingness to be interviewed for some of the early history of GIESORC.
Founded in 1890, Washington State University preceded Washington State’s first substantial change to its sodomy law by three years. The sodomy law that Washington State enacted in 1893, and then reformed in 1909, is important to understanding the early queer history of WSU. Sodomy laws made same-sex sex illegal, and the 1909 reform to the Washington State criminal code also made it a crime for a newspaper to publish any information about sodomy trials. Because of this, the possible sources for queer history during this time are often silent about queer people in the Palouse. This is particularly true when it comes to queer history at WSU since during the early twentieth century nobody from Pullman was convicted of a sodomy crime. The closest crime occurred in Colfax among members of a rodeo. At least before 1920, WSU seemed not to engage in the practice of bringing sodomy charges against people found, or assumed, to have engaged in homosexual behavior. In 1963, for example, WSU police had only investigated two cases of sodomy in the ten preceding years, although rumors about homosexuality were popular. This general tolerance for consensual homosexual behavior would be echoed by students in the 1970s who spoke about not fearing the police raids they might expect in Portland.
“Homosexual Dilemma: Problem of Stereotype,” Daily Evergreen, Dec. 9, 1970, 1. This is an article covering the first talk on homosexuality given at WSU.
“Gay But Unhappy,” Daily Evergreen, Feb. 18, 1971. This article profiles an anonymous gay WSU student, "Samuel Lewis." Lewis discusses many aspects of rural gay life in the early 1970s.
“Merry-Gay-Round,” Daily Evergreen, Oct. 13, 1976, 4. Although Gay Awareness would lose funding, this did not prevent them from engaging in local political issues.
“Residents Said Shocked Upon Meeting Homosexual,” Daily Evergreen, Apr. 1, 1971, 1. This article interviews several gay, bisexual, and lesbian WSU students about the formation of Gay Awareness and the issues they face on campus.
Lesbian and Gay Students and ASWSU, 1970-1994
Following nights of rioting on Christopher Street outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City in June of 1969, gays and lesbians across the United States spoke more openly, and organized more actively, than had their counterparts in the 1950s. The Stonewall Riots, as those nights were later remembered, did not instantly reach all corners of the United States, but they extended quite quickly to the Palouse. This white, and very rural population of course did not represent all experiences of lesbian and gay people during the 1970s. And while there was active discussion about lesbian and gay issues, bisexual, transgender, and queer people were essentially ignored. For many lesbians and gays at the time “queer” remained and insulting term that had yet to be reclaimed, and so this section relies on the terms lesbian and gay when discussing the identities of WSU students during that era. Nevertheless, stories from this time reveal some often-unknown aspects of queer history, especially when it comes to how young lesbian and gay people in conservative rural areas made sense of, and fought for, their rights during a turbulent era; it also allows us to consider the legacies of the opposition to that struggle.
The first open push for a campus more inclusive to lesbian and gay people came 18 months after the Stonewall Riots. In December 1970, the WSU Association for Women Students (AWS) hosted a two-panelist discussion on the topic of the “Homosexual Dilemma.” Although AWS were unable to get all four speakers that they had advertised, the two panelists who did attend—Jim Broderickson and Lori Jaffe—spoke to a standing-room only crowd in the CUB Ballroom. Broderickson and Jaffe mostly discussed their struggles overcoming anti-gay stereotypes. The panelists argued that Hollywood movies falsely portrayed gays and lesbians as emotional basket-cases unable to hold a meaningful relationship. Broderickson, challenged the stereotype that all gay men lived flamboyantly in cities, telling the audience that “only a small minority of gays” frequented the gay bars and clubs in gay-neighborhoods like Greenwich Village in New York City. Jaffe concurred, stating that “if a movie were made about an everyday homosexual relationship, it would be a bomb.” The speakers did not condemn those gay people who chose to live in those areas or walked the many new avenues forged by sexual liberation. Instead, they argued, a cultural obsession with flamboyantly sexual gay people prevented a full understanding of the entire lesbian and gay community.
Holding this discussion was a leap forward for the WSU gay community. A letter by Paula Wikstrom to the school paper shortly after the event claimed that “the chance of such an event occuring [sic] four years ago is so slight as to be almost non-existent.” Wikstrom also continued the panelists’ discussion. She wrote that that the stereotype of the oversexualized gay man was not because gay men preferred those kinds of relationships. Instead, “because of the heavy social pressures against gay marriages most homosexual contacts are transient. Since the contacts are transient the homosexual is many times promiscuous.” Wikstrom challenged the stereotypes popularized during the era by focusing on how marriage discrimination hurt gay people.
In April 1971, The Evergreen profiled a gay WSU student “Samuel Lewis” (a pseudonym). When Lewis told the interviewer of his experiences as a gay person in Pullman he highlighted some benefits of the region’s ruralness. Unlike his counterparts in Spokane and Seattle, Lewis did worry about strict enforcement of the state’s sodomy law which criminalized sexual intercourse between same-sex couples as a felony. To Lewis, the smallness of the gay community shielded it from vice squad investigation. But it was this same isolation that “made it even more difficult” to deal with micro-aggressions of everyday homophobia—from homophobic portrayals of gay men in movies to the gratuitous use of “fag” on campus. The smallness that shielded the community from police prosecution also made it difficult to find someone else who shared your experience. Still, Lewis recognized that one need not move to the city to find more queer people. Lewis chose to spend the summer on 1970 on a commune run by the organization Gay Liberation. Although the experience left him “still cautious” about publicizing his homosexuality, Lewis reported he gained “a large measure of self-confidence” from his stay. Pullman certainly had its ups-and-downs for Lewis, but his self-confidence and identity as a gay person did not rely on finding an urban space to live in; instead it relied on finding himself in a rural one. As one anonymous author of a letter to the editor put it in 1971, it was “closed minded, religious, conservative, oppression,” not self-hatred, which prevented people from coming out.
For years following the discussion on the “Homosexual Dilemma,” articles about homosexuality or lesbian and gay WSU students frequently appeared on the pages of the student newspaper; the profile of Lewis being just one example. WSU students also used this as a time to organize and educate. Sophomore Gary Rikansrud took advantage of the university’s “Free U” classes to teach a student-led course titled “The Homosexual in a Conservative Environment Like WSU.” Gay students encouraged The Evergreen to run stories about their struggles at WSU, conversations about coming out, and information about homosexuality generally. Titles like “Gays seek freedom in straight society,” and " title="">“Homosexual ‘Comes Out’” introduced straight students to topics with which they may be unfamiliar, such as the difficulties of coming out, the psychological debates about homosexuality, or the diverse religious opinions about the subject.
Gay people also used their newfound openness to challenge discriminatory policies including the longstanding ban on gay members from military service. On December 11, 1975, Leonard Matlovitch, one of the first men to challenge being discharged from the Air Force on account of his homosexuality, came to campus. Matlovitch told an audience at the campus Performing Arts Center that the military “gave me a medal for killing two men and discharged me for loving one.” In October 1976, gay people challenged Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson during a question and answer session after he spoke in Bryan Auditorium. Members of the gay student organization used this as an opportunity to challenge the Senator about his support for the dishonorably discharge of gays and lesbians from the military. Although the senator’s reply that “I wouldn’t want any son of mine aboard a ship that was overwhelmingly made up of homosexuals” was met with applause by the audience, it was the outrage voiced by members of the organization that made headlines in The Evergreen. Gay students also addressed issues more local in nature, although these were part of national trends in gay civil rights which elsewhere saw pushes for anti-discrimination ordinances and the repeal of sodomy laws criminalizing same-sex sex. At a March 10, 1976 meeting, the Associated Students of Washington State University (ASWSU) and the Pullman City Council supported a petition from the student gay organization that called for a ban to discriminatory hiring practices based on sexual orientation. This was the same year that homosexuality was decriminalized in Washington State by legislators in Olympia. As a result, gay WSU students were no longer criminals or threatened with unemployment for living out their sexual orientations.
During these decades, however, gay Cougs also had to deal with discrimination from their fellow students. To combat this, gay people formed their own student organization, Gay Awareness (GA) in 1971. Gay students had begun to organize outside official university channels since just after the Stonewall Riots, but they had done so without official recognition. In April 1971, however, Gary Rikansrud, Mary and Terry (who both asked to withhold their last names) received official recognition for the club from ASWSU. The debates which ensued as a result of this recognition would continue on for decades until the establishment of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Allies Center in 1994.
“Classifieds” Daily Evergreen, Mar. 4, 1975, 3. An advertisement for a 1975 gay men's keggar that ran in the student newspaper. Beer, whether served in bars or at keggers, often helped build gay communities.
“A Can of Worms,” Daily Evergreen, Sept. 27, 1973, 4. This editorial, and the accompanying editorial cartoon, encapsulates many of the minority funding debates held at WSU during the early 1970s.
“Answering Straight Questions,” Daily Evergreen, Dec. 10, 1975, 4. In this letter to the editor, Gay Awareness explains why they are asking ASWSU for money and what they hope the organization will achieve.
Gary, Mary, and Terry planned for their organization to “stick to social and informational functions in the near future” and to be a place where people “can bring up the subject of homosexuality on campus” and have their questions answered freely. This publicity had early successes. In December 1971, WSU opened a Sex Information Center (SIC) which gave students advise on a variety of sex topics, including homosexuality. While not run by GA—SIC was a partnership between the organizations Association of Women Students (AWS), ASWSU, YMCA, YWCA, and Women’s Liberation Front—the Sex Information Center provided the kind of information the organizations wished to publicize. By December 1972, the organization had 40 members and had unsuccessfully petitioned President Glenn Terrell to make a public statement opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation on campus. Many in the organization continued to use pseudonyms whenever possible to avoid harassment, but the existence of this organizations represented a new openness to discussing sex issues on campus. Over the next few years Gay Awareness would host a variety of events that further solidified this educational and social mission. One activity hosted by the gay student organization was “leaderless discussion” sessions on important issues such as coming out. Straight people and allies were always welcome to attend and learn. Organized activities like this continued throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, with nights set aside to “rap and socialize,” read gay poetry, or hold dances. They also held symposiums on sexuality, bought pamphlets on sexual diseases, ran a phone center for those who needed help, and subscribed to journals that informed gay people concern the political, social, and legal issues relevant to their lives. In 1978, Gay Awareness held a “Bluejeans Day” where everyone who wore jeans on campus was to be assumed to be in support of gay rights. In 1994, a new iteration of GA, called Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Allies, would host their own Bluejeans Day as well. Perhaps the most interesting community building exercise, however, was loudly announced in the classified section in 1975: “KEGGAR SATURDAY MARCH 8 AT 9 P.M. FOR ALL GAY MEN.”
The public expansion of gay rights, however, resulted in only a limited minority coalition. To this point, GA had successfully worked with AWS and Women’s Liberation to challenge the sexism on campus. These clubs debated the Society of Male Chauvinists, a newly formed student organization who complained that feminism had, among other things, led to a rise in male homosexuality. Unlike elsewhere in the United States, where gay liberation mimicked the male-domination and sexism of the broader public, at WSU gay men were more attuned to intersectional gender issues. When asked about the “situation of lesbians,” in 1971, Samuel Lewis admitted that he did not have enough knowledge on the subject to speak about it, but he recognized that patriarchy played a part in the issues facing lesbians. Lewis identified “a special problem of role-playing and adapting to a society that declares she should be subordinate to a man.” Likewise, some of the first members of Gay Awareness discussed whether these “special problems” divided men and women in the gay liberation movement or represented two different, but interrelated, queer experiences. Gays and lesbians in Pullman had yet to figure out exactly how they would be able to work together—one activist called it a “love-hate relationship”— but they found ways to pull together. Unfortunately, this did not extend to a racial coalition.
At the end of the 1972-1973 school year Gay Awareness applied for funding from ASWSU. Among GA’s arguments was the claim that because the ASWSU Black Advisory Council and Black Student Union (BSU) received funding other minority organizations should receive funding as well. In response, BAC supporters pointed out that they were “black people first and minority people second.” They argued that “although much has been said about the similarities between minority groups, their differences are even more striking” particularly when considering the racial history of WSU. BAC argued that black men and women were unable to hide their skin color, unlike gay people who may be able to hide their sexual orientation. BAC also claimed all black people were oppressed, not just black women. Because of this, they reasoned that women’s liberation was shortsighted because it did not include every black person. Gay Awareness, for their part, challenged one BAC supporter’s claim that gays did not face any real discrimination and pointed out that BAC’s argument left some feeling the need to choose between being black and being gay (while admitting that the gay movement was heavily white and male). But GA never convinced BAC with their responses. Particularly infuriating to many BAC members was the argument of GA supporter’s that black and gay civil rights shared a similar history. As a result, the two organizations were unable to form a minority coalition and continued to fight among each other for funding.
By 1975, GA was ready to move from simply being a campus alliance (officially titled Gay People’s Alliance but commonly referred to as Gay Awareness) to an official ASWSU committee titled Gay Awareness Committee. ASWSU committees existed “for the purpose of providing increased services to students,” including education about minority populations. During the fall of 1975, GA requested that ASWSU begin funding the organization for office space and a telephone. The organization made its pitch in this way: “The constitution of Gay People's Alliance establishes three goals: to increase public awareness, to provide a social outlet for gays on campus and to offer a coalescing force for possible political action. They continued, "we are in definite need of a telephone in order to offer an effective counseling and referral service. A stigma, created by society and especially this campus, produces fear in the individual of being seen even approaching our office. For the gay seeking help or the straight seeking information a telephone provides an easy and impersonal means of contact. Office supplies are needed in order to promote our services. Without a means of advertising all services would be useless because of an inability to reach the public effectively and make them aware of the opportunities offered them."
Lastly, they claimed, "for GPA to be more effective it is necessary to communicate with similar groups in the area. The value of such communication lies in strengthening ourselves as a political machine and in drawing from their experience to improve our services. All meetings and programs are open to the public.”
Gay Awareness requested $160 for these endeavors. On November 19th, 1975 ASWSU voted 14-3 in favor of forming of a Gay Awareness Committee and giving it a budget. But this would only be the beginning of the debate on the issue.
“Gay Funding: Freedom OK; no money,” Daily Evergreen, May 7, 1976, 5. One of the many letters to the editor run in the student newspaper which opposed funding GAC. Like many, this author claimed to not have anything against gay people while repeating hurtful and harmful inaccuracies about them.
“Church Groups Oppose Activity,” Daily Evergreen, Oct. 24, 1975, 5. This was part three of a three-part series that the WSU student newspaper ran on gay issues in 1975. The focus of this issue was homosexuality and religion.
“One Woman Show Receives ASWSU Funding,” Daily Evergreen, April 20, 1976, 1. Despite opposition from some WSU students and administrators, ASWSU awarded Gay Awareness funding to bring the Lavender Troubadour to campus to give a performance on lesbianism.
“Baker-Clark Win, Voters Bash Gays on Both Referenda,” Daily Evergreen, Mar. 27, 1979, 1. This article reports on the 1979 referenda which took away funding and ASWSU recognition for the Gay Awareness Committee. Both votes passed by large margins.
Despite GA repeatedly advertising that meetings and events were open to everyone, those opposing gay funding most often complained that the organization—and other minority organizations like the Black Student Union, Mesa Directiva, and Speelya—only existed for a minority of the student body. The most admitted-to reason for opposing funding these organizations was not open homophobia or racism, but instead a belief that because white and straight people were not the main focus of the organization those people should not be forced to contribute any money to it. Those opposing minority funding did not reply to those who questioned them about whether Jewish or atheist students should be refunded their student fees which covered an Easter Egg Hunt.
Yet it was homophobia, more than anything else, which fueled opposition to recognizing or funding GAC. One editorial, despite mentioning that they believe that gays have the right to exist, felt it necessary to question whether their money requested by Gay Awareness would “really go for a phone and general office supplies or for cases of Vaseline?” A separate editorial sarcastically adopted the language of Gay Awareness to argue for the recognition of a bestiality organization—“the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Lovers. As one writer opposing gay funding made perfectly clear in 1976, “What it all boils down to is what is right and what is wrong. I believe (and most of the "normal" folks do) that homosexuality is wrong. What I can't understand is why people try and twist it to make it right.” Some used that homophobia to justify violence. In 1976, a fraternity decided to “waterballoon” a gay person. GA members also received death threats. During a May 1976 debate to approve funding for the organization Dennis Moore, president of GA, spoke to the ASWSU senate about the death threats he received and fears he faced given the publicity of the issue. A representative from Stephenson South responded to Moore’s fears by saying that “Maybe somebody will get lucky,” before submitting a petition to strip Gay Awareness of all its funding. Homophobia permeated the discussions of the 1970s, even as people tried to deny it existed or that they could possibly be misinformed on the topic. Gay Awareness members frequently took to the paper to respond to these allegations and directly rebuking homophobia.
It is important to point out that this homophobia did not require a religious angle. Many letters to the Evergreen cited religious opposition to homosexuality, and in the late 1970s one campus Christian group ran an ad in the paper with an anti-gay bible quote. However, religion and homosexuality were not diametric opposites. In fact, in its early years Gay Awareness often held their meetings in the University’s Interfaith House (then called the Koinoinia House, or K-House for short). During the Evergreen’s first series on homosexuality they ran an article devoted to religion and homosexuality. Religion could be used to support homophobia, and it often was, but a rural and heavily Christian area also allows for forms of Christian tolerance.
As the editorials above make clear, opposition to ASWSU’s decision to fund GA in November 1975 was intense. Citing a WSU telephone poll taken more than a year beforehand which showed only 27% of students in favor of funding a gay awareness group, many senators voted against the measure. Particularly jarring was an effort led by WSU student Tom Garrison who started a petition to take away the organizations’ funding. On December 17, 1975 he presented a petition signed by 2,170 students to ASWSU and thanked the fraternities in particular for their support. ASWSU denied the petitioners’ request.
Those who stood with GA faced a backlash from constituents who had opposed funding the organization. Three districts began recall efforts against their senators, although it does not appear that any recall petitions were ever filed. Still, Theresa Doherty, a student running for an at-large position in the ASWSU assembly during the 1976 election made support for GA funding part of her election platform. While homophobia was often a part of the gay experience at WSU, some ASWSU senators did much during these early years to foster an inclusive environment for lesbians and gays, even if it meant facing personal attacks.
At the end of the 1975-1976 school year Gay Awareness found itself it yet another budget battle when planning for the next academic year. At the April 14th ASWSU meeting Dennis Moore proposed a budget of $1,264 for the coming year, most of which would be used to bring in gay speakers and performance artists. Indicative of the contentious debates about GA funding was a correction that ran a couple days after this meeting in the Evergreen explaining that Gay Awareness’ $200 budget request for “fruit punch” was not asking for large quantities for flavored beverages but instead to bring a group named “Fruit Punch” to campus.
Most controversially, GA requested a $325 break-even budget to bring Western Washington State College graduate Rebecca Valrejean—aka the Lavender Troubadour—to campus during Mothers’ Weekend in early-May 1976. Making the point that gay people have mother’s also, GA hoped that Valrejean’s performance, which consisted of “mime, interpretation and dance” and presented “a true story about the theme of lesbianism,” would educate the WSU community about lesbian and gay issues. The comment that gay people also have mothers was contentious. One opposing editorial snidely questioned “how many homosexual unions ever have or ever will lead to motherhood?” What is particularly ironic about that comment was that GA had also budgeted money for the 1976-1977 school year to bring to campus two lesbian mothers to talk about the very topic that this letter-writer believed did not exist. Despite this backlash against the GA for disrespecting mothers by allowing a lesbian to perform during Mothers Weekend, and opposition from members of the WSU administration who feared showing support for gay topics might result in a cut to university funding, ASWSU held firm and supported the event.
When final budget approvals came up for debate in May 1976 the impact of Gay Awareness’ activism was made clear. They were still met with a petition opposing their funding, but this was signed by “only” 1,330 people—a significant decrease from the 2,170 supporting the removal of their funding just five months earlier. Also that year, a local television station ran a 30-minute interview with lesbian and gay people in the community. Although this caused the Moscow, Idaho Chamber of Commerce to threaten to pull the station’s funding it represented a step forward for the awareness campaigns started back in 1970.
In January 1976, the Board of Regents complained that they had learned about the heated debates over funding Gay Awareness not from President Terrell but from reporting in the Evergreen. In response, some WSU students argued that this oversight would not happen if the board had a student representative and thus tried to use this controversy to leverage a place on the Board of Regents. Those opposing funding Gay Awareness because it only served gay people may have missed the irony of the debacle, which resulted in calls for better representation for all Cougs. During this time WSU GA reached outside the university to form coalitions as well. Students met with the Seattle Gay Alliance in 1973 to forge connections across the state. In 1974, GA voted with their counterpart, University of Idaho Gay Awareness, in nearby Moscow, Idaho to join the National Gay Task Force (now the National LGBT Task Force) to stay informed about gay issues. These connections continued for over a decade, including in 1986, when WSU Women’s Center director Marlene Howell was elected to the board of directors for the taskforce.
Unfortunately for Gay Awareness, the battles they fought in during the 1975-1976 were fought again during the next three academic years with substantially different results. In May 1977, ASWSU cut Gay Awareness funding from $460 to $295 as a “compromise” with individuals who wanted to remove funding for the organization altogether. Earlier that semester ASWSU released a questionnaire about gay funding to the student body and the 1,000 responses were largely opposed to gay funding. The next academic year would be GAC’s last. In the spring of 1979, those opposed to Gay Awareness put two referenda on the ballot for the ASWSU elections which directly addressed its funding and committee status. While GAC had been subject to many votes cast by ASWSU senators, the existence of the group had until then not been decided by a popular vote of the WSU student body. In late March of that year WSU students voted resoundingly against GAC. Of the almost 3,600 students who voted on the issue, 69 percent wanted ASWSU to remove all funding for GAC. At the same time, 61 percent of these students voted to take away ASWSU recognition for GAC. The WSU undergraduate body had decided that they wanted no more Gay Awareness on campus.
Over the next year, former members of Gay Awareness unsuccessfully tried to challenge the implementation of this vote. Gay Awareness spoke to the ACLU and raised money to file a lawsuit, although they never followed through on this. Gay Awareness put most of its hopes, however, in forcing the Board of Regents to overrule ASWSU’s decision to follow through on the vote of the student body. GAC members recognized the political reality of the time was such just arguing for re-recognition by ASWSU could result in another student vote to take away committee status. However, in September 1980 the Board of Regents declined to intervene on GAC’s behalf. For the next 15 years, the Gay Awareness Committee had no hope for being re-established.
Losing ASWSU recognition did not kill all activity for gay equality in the area, as evidenced by a push in 1981 to have the Pullman City Council adopt a fair housing ordinance and the many meetings held with the support of the local Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). In 1985, Gay Awareness supporters tried a different route for student recognition by securing funding from the Graduate and Professional Students Association (GPSA). This sparked another round of debate about whether undergraduate students should fund GAC. This included several articles in the Evergreen recapitulating the arguments and history of the funding debates of the 1970s and the attempted formation of a “straight students” association as a parody of gay awareness. However, ASWSU refused to recognize GA as an official ASWSU committee. Over the next decade various gay and lesbian organizations would follow the trajectory of many student organizations by popping up on campus for a year or two until finally dissipating out.
“Condom Sense,” Daily Evergreen, Aug. 27, 1990, A8. AIDS greatly impacted the need for sex education, as this program indicated.
“Conference Provides Support,” Daily Evergreen May 29, 1996, 10. GLBA's controversial 1996 Youth Conference was headlined by the widely popular Wilson Cruz, who played Ricki Vasquez on My So-Called Life. The backlash to this conference was one reason that the Center decided not to hold it again in later years.
“What You Had to Say: The Atmosphere For Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transgendered,” Daily Evergreen Oct. 9, 1996, 9. A transgender student talks at length about her experiences at WSU.
A Permanent Place at WSU, 1994-
In the 1990s the campus climate at WSU was very different than the 1970s and 1980s. Because the issue of funding the Gay Awareness Committee was a non-starter, gays and lesbians at WSU had turned themselves to other issues. The AIDS epidemic spread throughout the United States in the 1980s, including to rural places. While Whitman County did not report any known cases of HIV/AIDS for a number of years, this did not stop the fear of AIDS. Safe sex programs and AIDS conferences were held at WSU to educate people about risks, and WSU set out to develop its own policies to concerning AIDS and how best to serve students who might be infected by the disease. Still, several former Cougs would pass away from AIDS, including at least one individual involved in Gay Awareness in the early 1970s.
It was during the 1990s that LGBTQ issues impacting people whose identities were not in the first two letters of the acronym began to be addressed on campus. This also included better attention to the intersection of sexuality and race. During the Asian Pacific American Association’s first awareness week in 1994, the organization showed “Fated to be Queer,” a movie that explored the Filipino American gay community. APAA’s film choice stands in stark contrast to the BAC-GAC heated debates over whether to form minority coalition during the early 1970s. In February 1994, students formed the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Association (GLBA), the first queer organization campus to include something besides gay or lesbian in its name. Later that year the university administration, at the behest of faculty, staff, and students, announced the formation of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Programs, eventually called the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Allies Center, which firmly established the foothold for gay inclusion on campus that Gay Awareness had failed to achieve through ASWSU.
The push for this new Center came from Dr. Ernestine Madison, VP of Human Relations and Resources and was supported by President Sam Smith. As the future director of the GLBA Center Dr. Melynda Huskey importantly pointed out in a recent interview, Madison, a straight African American woman from the South, and Sam Smith, a folksy straight white male president from California, showed what could be achieved through the power of dedicated LGBTQ allies. Bobbi Bonace, a former athletics compliance worker, was appointed as the Center’s first director. Bonace worked to establish a permanent location for the center and a job description for a director, but she soon left for an athletics job at another university. Tori Byington stepped into her place on an interim basis while the university performed a national search for a new candidate. There were sometimes contentious debates over exactly how this new Center should be run, including whether it should be a respectable front for LGBTQ issues at the university or a more radical place challenging norms around sexuality and gender. Additionally, when word about the Center reached the public, many in the Pullman community reacted negatively. Religious opposition to homosexuality, in addition to other arguments repeated over and over since the 1970s, tried to prevent the opening of the Center. However, VP Madison had grown-up in the wake of desegregation in Vicksburg Mississippi and she thus had the will, tenacity, and experience to fight against those opposing equality.
The national search for Bonace’s successor found that the best person for the position was actually already on the Palouse, and so in 1997 Dr. Melynda Huskey was hired from the University of Idaho. Despite a last-name which easily irked diehard supporters of WSU in the WSU Cougars -University of Washington Huskies rivalry, Dr. Huskey was able to help establish a Center in the basement of the Compton Union Building. The Center had a library, speaker’s bureau, HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention activities, held a vigil following the Matthew Shepard murder, started a lavender graduation ceremony that continues into the present, and hosted events for National Coming Out day, Transgender Day of Remembrance, and Freedom to Marry Day.
In 1996, GLBA hosted the Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, Transsexual, and Transgendered Youth Conference, headlined by Wilson Cruz, the actor who played the gay character Ricki Vasquez on the show My So-Called Life. Slowly, WSU was beginning to recognize the wide range of sexual and gender difference within the student body by holding programs about and inviting speakers who addressed issues relevant to these diverse students. By holding a youth conference, and securing almost $10,000 in fundraising to do so, GLBA was bringing together the university and the community on these important issues. Conservative opposition, fueled by internet outrage, prevented the GLBA from holding a future conference because many feared for the safety of young queer people who had to face such hurtful vitriol. Still, the GLBA Center and other queer students did make positive changes. Not long after the 1996 Conference, Theresea Carow, a WSU student, summarized her experiences coming out at WSU: “the atmosphere, from my perspective, is optimistic; however, a lot needs to be accomplished before I will feel safe in some places on campus…Coming out as transgendered at work [WSU Public Safety] has forced my supervisors to take some challenging issues seriously. My name change, restroom usage, the pronouns people use to refer to me, as well as many other related issues needed attention. Their willingness to deal with these issues directly and openly has led to satisfaction on both sides.” Students still recognized that homophobia and transphobia was prevalent at WSU, like elsewhere in the country, but their experiences at WSU were not solely marred by negativity.
The establishment of the GLBA Center also helped the student organization GLBA, led by Stephanie Howard, Aaron Starr, and Aaron Stoce, achieve ASWSU committee status in late 1995. Karen Johnson and Aaron Stoce were elected as the committee’s first co-chairs. This was the first ASWSU committee on gay issues since the 1979 referenda. Again representing a new sense of intersectionality among minority groups, the GLBA Executive Board made sure to point to the important work done by other minority student committees on campus in their thank you letter to their supporters. Signaling a shift in rhetoric was a letter published in 1996 by ASWSU President Jessie Hayes that noted several ASWSU and WSU initiatives for diversity, and congratulated GLBA on achieving committee status. Throughout the 1995-1996 academic year there was significant debate on minority issues, thanks in no small part to the work of GLBA activists forcing ASWSU’s hand on recognition. As of 2019, GLBA, later called the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Allies (GLBTA), and now called the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), still existed as an ASWSU committee.
Over the next several years the GLBA Center continued to expand its influence, hired new directors as others left, moved into an office in the CUB and did their best to raise awareness on campus. The center sponsored speakers, conferences, an AIDS quilt, a vigil for the murder of Matthew Shepard, and started a Lavender Graduation ceremony. In 2006, the center changed its name to its current name, the Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation Resource Center (GIESORC). GIESORC continues to be a presence on campus by sponsoring events, holding trainings, educating students, and advocating on behalf of queer people in Pullman.