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?”
Part 3: Rubén Bonilla-Santiago, A Champion Leading by Example
I don’t remember the first time I read Rubén Bonilla’s name, but I recall it coming up several times as I was researching a LGBTQ+ youth group with an irresistible acronym: SWAGLY (Supporters of Worcester Area Gay and Lesbian Youth). Before the rise of high school gay-straight alliances, SWAGLY emerged in 1988 as the first citywide group to offer queer youth a safe space off the streets to find acceptance, build community, and develop leadership skills. SWAGLY also met at the United Congregational Church, just down Institute Road from campus. One afternoon, I discovered a 1993 city newspaper article that identified Rubén as a WPI undergraduate. The article included a photograph of members of SWAGLY and in the center was Rubén, staring confidently, unbowed into the camera. My curiosity peaked and I googled him, expecting nothing from my search.
I hit pay dirt. The first item in the search results was the WPI faculty/staff page for Rubén Bonilla-Santiago, Laboratory Manager for the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department. I compared the 1993 photo with his WPI headshot, thinking that he aged very well. Not believing my luck, I cautiously sent Rubén an email, asking politely if he had ever been a member of SWAGLY.
Two days later, I was having coffee with Rubén, who generously shared his story with me. Born in Puerto Rico, raised in Worcester by “strict…, conservative, Catholic” parents, his dream had been to go to WPI. At the same time that he matriculated, he also “came out” and never looked back. Rubén threw himself into the LGBTQ+ movement. He was vice-president of WPI’s BI, Lesbian and Gay Alliance (Bi-LAGA) as a first year student. Rubén was not just a member of SWAGLY; he was president in 1993, the same year that Republican Governor William Weld signed the landmark LGBTQ+ Student Bill of Rights, paving the way for gay-straight alliances and other anti-discriminatory protections in public schools across Massachusetts. Alongside these achievements, Rubén became estranged from his parents. He found it difficult to fit in at WPI. His grades suffered. He never graduated from WPI, completing his B.S. and M.S. at other institutions. Now Rubén is back at WPI, the institution that he longed to be a part of as a young man.
After our coffee, Ruben became the “Where’s Waldo?” of the LGBTQ+ Worcester History Project. I found a snapshot of him carrying the SWAGLY banner in the 1994 Boston Pride Parade. I uncovered the flyer that he and others created to rally Worcester students to participate in a protest at the Massachusetts State House in support of the 1993 LGBTQ+ Student Bill of Rights. Filed among old papers at AIDS Project Worcester was a photo of Rubén receiving a commendation from then Lt. Governor Paul Cellucci.
Rubén’s leadership, which began as a young student at WPI, continues to this day. By telling his stories, and sharing them with the world, Rubén embodies the best in community history, and provides compelling evidence of the power and necessity of knowing stories like his. Because Rubén remembers a world where stories of LGBTQ+ achievement were not commonplace, he is again leading by example. His stories invite those of other members of the WPI’s LGBTQ+ community.
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 email@example.com, and ensure that this history is preserved.
Greg Anderson and then WPI student, Rubén Bonilla, (center) pose with Lieutenant Governor Paul Cellucci as they receive state recognition for their “support and advocacy for gay and lesbian youth in the Worcester Area.”
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.