Informational Series: LGBTQ+ History at WPI - July, August, September
Authored by WPI Professor Joseph Cullon, Humanities and Arts
Part 1: Formation of Worcester Gay Union and WPI Gay Alliance
On April 17, 1974, the WPI student newspaper Newspeak published a letter announcing the formation of the Worcester Gay Union, a city-wide group bringing the fight for gay liberation to central Massachusetts. Within a year, WPI students established the WPI Gay Alliance to “provide a means for members of the tech gay community to meet one another without hassles, to inform gay persons of gay activities in Worcester and throughout the country, and also to raise the level of awareness on campus about gay people.” Over the next calendar year, Newspeak published editorials, letters, and calendars of events that brought the fight for LGBTQ+ rights to campus. These brief announcements revealed the city’s emergent gay and lesbian community to Tech students: local LGBTQ+ Christians formed a fellowship of Metropolitan Community Church just blocks from campus. The Worcester Gay Union began to meet at the WPI’s Collegiate Religious Center; the Gay Review radio program aired on WCUW on Saturdays; and Store 24 on Main Street sold New England’s pioneering Gay Community News, a weekly newspaper.
Despite these community resources, the students behind the first WPI Gay Alliance in 1975 did not have it easy. They had to confront rumors and harassment. Defending their group’s existence, they wrote to Newspeak: “to set the record straight, the WPI Alliance was started by gay Tech students, we were not infiltrated by Clark students.” They also confronted the challenge of sustaining a community when “coming out” remained a rare and sometimes dangerous undertaking. By the end of 1975, WPI’s first Gay Alliance disbanded. One of the founders lamented that trying to maintain an “organization for gay people at Tech” was “next to impossible” when “people are afraid to join.”
Save for five articles in Newspeak, the 1975 WPI Gay Alliance would be forgotten to history. Professor Cullon rediscovered the group while working on the Worcester County LGBTQ+ History Project, a community project of Worcester Historical Museum, WPI, Clark University, the College of the Holy Cross and Digital Worcester. This project and its inaugural museum exhibit – LGBTQ+ Worcester for the Record – foregrounds for the first time the histories, voices, experiences, and images of the city’s LGBTQ+ community. For more than fifty years, Worcester’s LGBTQ+ people claimed spaces for themselves, demanded equality, lived out loud as their authentic selves, and took care of their young, old, newly arrived, and sick. "Repeatedly, I was surprised with how WPI students, faculty, and staff turned up in this research, and realized that it is time to write a full history of LGBTQ+ WPI to document the triumphs and sometimes heartbreaking disappointments of young adults navigating their sexual and gender identities. The students behind the 1975 WPI Gay Alliance might have been the first to launch a group, but they were not the last.", said Professor Cullon.
Part 2: Are You Really YOU?
In 1989, WPI’s recently established Lesbian and Gay Alliance (LAGA) took to the pages of Newspeak to ask their peers “Are You Really YOU?” The gay male authors of the article walked their readers through the process of “gay self-recognition and the confusion that it entails.” Drawing upon their own experiences, they described the doubt and denial that many gay men suffered until “when your defenses finally crash down in tatters, you being to look at yourself as really being gay.”
Two weeks later, LAGA followed up with another Newspeak headline asking: “Can you be gay and happy?” Although the male authors answer in the affirmative, they acknowledge that “growing up and being gay can be a very lonely experience, as can coming out.” They find hope in “riding on the progress of the past two decades of gay liberation” and direct students toward Worcester’s burgeoning LGBTQ+ scene of bars, churches, student groups, and political organizations to find support and affirmation in the idea that “you can be happy and gay.”
The students behind LAGA probably never knew of the anonymous student who founded the short-lived WPI Gay Alliance in 1975, but they were following in his footsteps and those of other LGBTQ+ students who moved through campus in the nearly 15 years since he had graduated. As a result, LAGA enjoyed the benefit of active campus support through the Dean of Students Office and the Student Counseling Center, under the leadership of Dean Janet Richardson. Since at least 1986, the college group Tech PLUS (People Like Us) looked to develop an organization geared to the needs of LGBTQ+ students. After students established LAGA and later renamed it Bi-LAGA in 1991, Dean Richardson remained a steadfast supporter and advocate of the group. In its first years, Bi-LAGA would host movie nights, play games of Scruples, travel to “Bash Jesse Helms” dances in Boston, and visit the controversial exhibit of gay photographer, Robert Maplethorpe’s work at Boston’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
One founding member of LAGA, reflected on the experience in a letter to the editor in 1989:
Now that a year has passed since I came out at WPI I can say that I am glad that I made that decision. It was worth all the trouble just to be able to stand up and fight for my rights and for the rights of the mostly silent statistical ten percent of the population who is gay. I will keep fighting and gladly give my life for one lifelong goal. The right to be just one thing, MYSELF!
Unlike the 1975 founder of the WPI Gay Alliance, the author revealed his full name. This counts as progress, but it would be a mistake to make too much of the change. The student newspaper continued to run homophobic articles and letters. The many LGBTQ+ students who carved out a space for themselves in the Wedge found themselves the subject of ridicule. Yet, students had joined staff and administrators in demanding a change to the campus climate and it was a start. More people were asking: “Are You really YOU?”
The WPI LGBTQ+ History Project seeks to further illuminate stories like these through oral histories and community history collection, where alumni share their stories and artifacts. Did you participate in the founding of LAGA or join Bi-LAGA during your time at WPI? Do you have old t-shirts, party invites, or meeting minutes relating to LGBTQ+ life at WPI? If you do then contact Professor Cullon at firstname.lastname@example.org, and ensure that this history is preserved.
Part 3 of this series will be published in early September.
LGBTQ+ alumni, allies, and friends are invited to join WPI for a reception, exhibit tour and discussion of LGBTQ+ Worcester for the Record at the Worcester Historical Museum, and discover how a new WPI LGBTQ+ History Project is taking steps to illuminate the many ways in which students, faculty, and staff accepted themselves; supported one another through their personal and collective challenges and successes; and slowly changed the institution of which they were a piece.
Thursday, September 19
Worcester Historical Museum, 30 Elm Street, Worcester
6:00 p.m. Gallery Exhibit, Curator-Led Tours, and Reception
7:00 p.m. Presentation and Discussion, Fletcher Auditorium
7:45 p.m. Reception and Gallery Self-Tours
8:30 p.m. Event Concludes
Please Register by September 15.