From Silence to Solidarity: The Early History of Queer Activism at FAU | Opinion

  • This story is for OutFAU, our student publication covering Florida Atlantic University. To see more from OutFAU click here

Photo submitted by Fred Fejes.

When FAU officially opened in fall 1964, university life in America was just beginning to step out of the stupors of the Silent Generation of the 1950s. That summer students from northern colleges took part in “Freedom Summer” where hundreds of students traveled south to help register Southern Black people to vote.

That fall, the Berkeley campus of the University of California erupted in chaos when hundreds of students protested the university’s attempt to shut down efforts to organize support for the Freedom Summer campaign and Civil Rights. The university then changed its policy about student political activities.  This marked the beginning of the political activism that would characterize campus life today.

Florida universities were a little slow in getting into the act. They still followed the policy of “in loco parentis” (in the place of the parents) when it came to dealing with students’ lives on campus. This came to an end in 1967 when a University of Florida female student appeared in a nude photo in an off-campus humor publication.

Following “in loco parentis” the university moved to expel her. Normally this would pass without notice. But this was the 1960s when ideas about sexuality and gender were beginning to change. When the Faculty Disciplinary Committee met, over 200 protesting students gathered outside the small meeting room, forcing the Committee to move to the larger law school auditorium. In the end she was expelled but the era of student activism was born in Florida and soon “in loco parentis” was dropped.

One of the students protesting was Joel Starkey, a student from Dade County who was there to hand out leaflets about sexual freedom and gay rights. Starkey was an early member of the “Stonewall Generation,” those young gay activists connected more with the radicalism of the 1960s than with the assimilationist politics of the 1950s generation.
In 1971, he moved to Boca Raton where he enrolled for a second BA at FAU. He also started a newsletter Southern Gay Liberator similar to other newsletters and early newspapers started by other local gay groups across the country.

Starkey felt that gay men and lesbians were a unified class with common needs and outlooks and needed to become visible and organized as a community.  He placed ads for a gay consciousness raising group in the student newspaper and in October 1972 the first small group, comprised of both FAU students and local residents, met at the University Center, later moving to Starkey’s apartment.

Although they wanted to become a recognized student organization and thus able to use University resources such as meeting rooms and bulk postage, at the time the Florida Board of Regents denied campus gay groups official recognition.
Instead, the group met at Starkey’s apartment and undertook informal activities such as establishing an information hotline for the community. To gain more visibility for the group and their demands, Starkey ran for the FAU student senate, finishing eighth in a field of 21 candidates.

He ran on a radical platform of “human liberation” calling for free childcare, free abortion on demand, the hiring of more women and minorities and the end of discrimination against gays. As a student senator, he helped pass a resolution saying that no portion of student activity fees could be used by any FAU organization that discriminates on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. He also worked on a resolution that supported the United Farm Workers’ strike in California and for a bill in the U.S. Senate targeting rape.

Starkey’s informal group began to disband as he and its members graduated or started to work with groups in Miami or Fort Lauderdale. However, one member, Mark Silber, a junior from Fort Lauderdale who tried to start a gay group at Broward Community College, saw the need to start an official FAU campus gay group.

His first step was a January 1975 front page article in the student newspaper The Atlantic Sun titled “On Being Gay.” In it, he declared, “I am a gay person. A ‘queer,’ a ‘faggot,’ a ‘pervert.’ But I am not ashamed of what I am.”

He then went on to challenge the various stereotypes and beliefs about lesbians and gay men: that they were child molesters or that their love went against God’s command. His article sparked a lively debate which the newspaper encouraged and over the next few months articles and letters to the editor appeared either for or against Silber’s stand, attracting new members to the group.

Silber and the group's members moved to become an official campus student organization. By now legal challenges against bans by Florida’s Board of Regents on gay groups had been settled by U.S. courts in favor of the rights of lesbians and gay men to organize on campus. In February 1975 it announced its formation as the FAU Gay Academic Union (GAU), similar to other campus gay groups across the country.

Although he had already graduated, Starkey remained active in the group. In contrast to many other gay groups active across the country, FAU’s GAU strove to incorporate feminists in its membership and politics. In 1976, they organized a successful protest against a local gay bar that discriminated against women. It sponsored fundraising dances which sometimes included drag performances, including one at a gay disco in West Palm Beach that attracted 400 revelers.

One of the important goals of GAU’s activities was to provide support for students to “come out” and be open about their sexuality. Lesbian and gay students often faced rejection and harassment from other students, and some faculty.

To support lesbian and gay students, the GAU published two newsletters. One, Liberation!, printed items about GAU activities but also pieces about lesbian and gay life that celebrated their common struggle and shared culture. They also published another newsletter, Florida Gay Liberation News, which was more directly political and regionally oriented, trying to knit together other Southern lesbian and gay organizations and make lesbian and gay students at FAU feel part of the national movement.

In May 1976, they organized the first-ever celebration on “Gay Pride” in Palm Beach County.  Throughout the week the club organized events like an art show, poetry readings, a discussion of “gay authors” in literature, a panel on religion and homosexuality and a disco dance. Members of the club, invited by interested professors, would often go to individual classes to speak about and answer questions about being gay.

The organization was open to both FAU students and members of the Boca Raton community. At one of their early meetings a local man attended and told them how Boca Raton police officers, either dressed in plain clothes, or sometimes just a swimsuit, would come up to single men on the beach and make sexual propositions.

If the man showed any interest he was arrested. Silber, and other members of the GAU went to a meeting of the Community Relations Board and complained about the entrapment. The Board expressed concern and opened an investigation. Although the police denied doing this and the Board closed its investigation without taking action, the GAU’s actions garnered a good deal of favorable publicity, with stories appearing in all the local newspapers.

A major goal of the GAU was to challenge all the negative stereotypes about lesbians and gay men. In 1976 an FAU student body organization organized a free viewing of the 1970 movieThe Boys in the Band,” a film version of Matt Crowley’s 1968 play about an evening gathering of a group of New York gay men.

Although it was the first film aimed at the national audience that attempted to give a “realistic” portrayal of gay life, many found the effeminate depictions overly stereotypical and negative, bearing no relation to the lives that the GAU students and other members of the younger generation lived. They likened it to a film about Black people featuring Steppin Fetchit. GAU’s protest generated a lot of campus discussion about the popular but inaccurate negative images of gay life, but also about the whole issue of censorship. In the end the movie was not shown, but also many people on campus were educated about the new sense of gay and lesbian identity.

By early 1977, Silber and other members graduated and the club activities declined. That fall Anita Bryant led a widely publicized campaign to repeal Dade County’s anti-discrimination ordinance. While in the short run this anti-gay effort was successful, it generated a national conversation about lesbians and gay men, a conversation that firmly placed them within the fabric of American life. Silber and other GAU members went on to become active in South Florida gay organizations. But what they learned and taught at FAU about being gay also became part of the fabric of campus life at the University that long outlasted anything that Anita Bryant and others like her said.

Part of this article is based on the 2011 University of Miami Master’s Thesis by Elliot D. Williams “Out of the Closets and onto the Campus: The Politics of Coming Out at Florida Atlantic University, 1972-1977.”

Fred Fejes is Professor Emeritus at Florida Atlantic University, where he taught LGBTQ Studies. He is a Research Scholar at Stonewall Library. He is the author of "Gay Rights and Moral Panic," a history of the 1977 Anita Bryant campaign against gay rights.


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