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social sciences

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Student Organizations  
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Although students attracted to others of the same sex had developed semi-private meeting places and informal social networks at many colleges and universities since at least the early twentieth century, the first formally recognized gay student organizations were not established until the late 1960s. But the success of these early groups, along with the inspiration provided by other college-based movements and the Stonewall riots, led to the proliferation of gay liberation fronts on campuses across the country by the early 1970s.

At many colleges and universities, these organizations were male-dominated, prompting lesbians to demand greater inclusion and often to form their own groups. In the 1980s and 1990s, bisexual and students likewise sought recognition, both within and separate from lesbian and gay organizations. At the same time, high school and junior high school students have begun to organize Gay-Straight Alliances, enabling even younger glbtq people to find support and better advocate for their needs.

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Early Student Groups

The first student gay rights organization, the Student League, was formally established at Columbia University by Stephen Donaldson (born Robert Martin) in 1967. Donaldson had been involved in the New York City chapter of the Mattachine Society, but when he arrived at Columbia, he could not find any other openly glbtq people and was forced by school administrators to move out of his residence hall after his roommates complained about living with a bisexual man.

Upon finally meeting other glbtq students, Donaldson suggested that they form a Mattachine-like organization for women and men on campus, what he envisioned as the first chapter of a national coalition of student gay rights groups.

With Donaldson's assistance, Student Homophile League branches were chartered at Cornell University and New York University in 1968 and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the spring of 1969. Two non-affiliated groups also formed in early 1969: Homosexuals Intransigent! at the City University of New York and FREE (Fight Repression of Erotic Expression) at the University of Minnesota.

These first student organizations provided support to individuals who were questioning their sexuality, passed out gay rights literature, held dances and other social events, sponsored lectures, and spoke in classes and residence halls about being gay. Through these efforts, the groups improved the campus climate for glbtq people and made it possible for many glbtq students to accept themselves and come out. Moreover, by gaining institutional recognition and establishing a place on campus for glbtq students, they laid the groundwork for the creation of glbtq groups at colleges and universities throughout the country.

Gay Liberation Fronts

Thus, contrary to the popular perception that gay student activism began only after the Stonewall riots, gay groups were organized and visible at several institutions prior to June 1969. However, in the aftermath of Stonewall, the number of gay student organizations proliferated. By 1971, groups existed at more than 175 colleges and universities.

Whereas the Student Homophile Leagues were initially influenced by the Mattachine Society, the post-Stonewall student organizations were often inspired by and named after the more militant Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which had been formed in New York City in the summer of 1969.

Like the first gay student groups, campus GLFs sponsored social activities, held educational programs, and provided support to individual members. But GLF activists typically sought greater visibility and were more consciously political than gay student leaders had been previously. Members were often committed to radical social change and embraced confrontational tactics, such as demonstrations and sit-ins, to challenge discriminatory campus policies.

The defiant philosophy and approach of many Gay Liberation Fronts also reflected the influence of other militant campus struggles, particularly the Black Power, feminist, anti-Vietnam war, and student free speech movements. Many GLF members were also involved in these movements and saw gay rights as part of a larger movement to transform society. For this new generation of glbtq students, their liberation was fundamentally tied to the liberation of all peoples.

Lesbian Feminist Groups

But despite their expressed commitment to women's liberation, many of the gay student groups were dominated by men and often privileged male concerns, to the exclusion of the needs of lesbians and bisexual women. For example, a priority of a number of Gay Liberation Fronts was protesting campus police crackdowns against men who engaged in public sexual activity. Similarly, while GLF dances were open to everyone, women were frequently turned off by the focus on male cruising at many of these events. As a result, lesbians and bisexual women on some campuses began to hold their own dances and other social activities.

With "gay" increasingly being used to refer only to gay men in the 1970s, many lesbians sought to have the names of gay student organizations changed to include them explicitly. Others chose to form their own groups, recognizing a need to organize around their shared oppression as women and as lesbians, knowing that they would never have a strong voice in groups where men had most of the power.

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