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Building LGBTQ+ Academic Community & Politics

Contributed by Adam Kocurek, PhD Candidate, History, The City University of New York Graduate Center.

With the assistance of a Harry H. Harkins, Jr. T’73, Travel Grant, I visited the Rubenstein Library in the summer of 2023 to carry out research for my dissertation, a history of LGBTQ+ faculty activism and community building in American higher education from the late 1960s through the late 1990s. During my visit, I explored several collections, ranging from institutional records to the personal papers of LGBTQ+ faculty members.

Masthead of the GLSG Newsletter. It's black type on white paper and looks like it was produced in an early desktop publishing application. There is music note clip art.
GLSG Newsletter

During my visit, I engaged with many magnificent sources that will feature in my dissertation. One such source from the Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick Papers, is volume 2 issue 4 of the Gay and Lesbian Study Group of the American Musicological Society “GLSG Newsletter,” published in March 1992. As a Ph.D. candidate at The CUNY Graduate Center, an institution at which Sedgwick worked and made important scholarly contributions, I found it to be an almost surreal and emotional experience going through her collection at Duke University. While Sedgwick was employed at Duke, she spearheaded LGBTQ+ issues at the university, serving as consultant on the University Coordinating Committee for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Studies, as well as being an active member of the Modern Language Association’s Gay and Lesbian Caucus. Through her scholarly and activist networks, she amassed ephemera from around the country, providing amazing insights into the state of LGBTQ+ faculty’s political and social organizing during the 1980s and 1990s.

The GLSG Newsletter provides a fascinating snapshot of a transitionary period in the history of LGBTQ+ faculty organizing for their rights and recognition within higher education. In the wake of the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, lesbian and gay academics formed the Gay Academic Union (GAU) in 1973, the first group of out academics who strove to transform academia into an industry more accepting of LGBTQ+ scholarship and workers. The GAU grew to be a multidisciplinary national network, though within four years, it began to fragment and ultimately dissolve due to a number of factors, including sexism within the organization that alienated lesbian members, chronic funding and outreach issues, and the challenges of maintaining a nation-wide vision for LGBTQ+ faculty organizing. While initially fueled by the energy of the Gay Liberation movement, by the late 1970s, many of the organization’s most radical members had splintered away. By the 1980s, its president, Jonathan Dunn-Rankin, was struggling to bring GAU’s chapters together. While Gay Academic Unions persisted into the 1990s, they were no longer part of a national radical movement, and instead isolated often into specific campus chapters.

By the 1980s and 1990s, discipline-specific LGBTQ+ faculty organizations began to proliferate across the United States, such as the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists (SOLGA) which formed in 1979, and the GL/Q Caucus for the Modern Languages (GLQCML). The Gay & Lesbian Study Group (GLSG) of the American Musicological Society, established in 1991, is part of this legacy, and its newsletters provide insights into its vision for LGBTQ+ issues in higher education.

Letter to the editor published by GLSG describing their research on "homosexual hymn writers, especially from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries."
Letter to the editor in GLSG

The March 1992 GLSG newsletter states that their objectives include “promoting communication among lesbian & gay music scholars, increasing awareness of issues in sexuality and music in the academic community, and establishing a forum for the presentation of lesbian & gay music studies,” as well as “to provide an environment in which to examine the process of coming out in academia, and to contribute to a positive political climate for gay & lesbian affirmative action and curricula.” While professional development and networking were key prerogatives for the GLSG, with letters to the editor frequently soliciting help with research and studies, it is very clear that this organization also serves a social function. The GLSG held meetings during the AMS conventions to encourage LGBTQ+ faculty and students to engage with one another. These letters reveal repeated acknowledgment of the importance of forging community, not only for individual professional advancement or to contribute to the vitality of lesbian and gay studies, but to combat loneliness and isolation experienced by LGBTQ+ academics and to share the progressive changes others were working towards at their home campuses. One such contributor, Patrick Brannon from the University of Northern Iowa, writes, “It’s always good to connect with people from afar – eases the isolation that we here in the Midwest feel from time to time… Some of us have been working on passage of a human rights amendment to the University of Northern Iowa’s charter that will provide protection based on sexual orientation.” Similarly to LGBTQ+ faculty organizations rooted in other disciplines, the GLSG attended to a variety of professional, personal, and intellectual needs faced by LGBTQ+ academics in the early 1990s.

An example of when GLSG newsletter published something from another institution's LGBTQ newsletter, explaining "it was just too good." The director of the CUNY Center for Lesbian & Gay Studies was interviewed on an Italian talk show. The host hasked him "What do gay men lack that straight men have?" And he responded, deadpan, "A restricted emotional range."
News item in GLSG borrowed from the Center for Lesbian & Gay Studies at CUNY.

Something that I find fascinating and have loved exploring with my dissertation is the degree to which these organizations often operated, at least initially, on a very ad hoc basis, openly experimental with their aims and organizing strategies. Many of these groups formed because of the intrepid bravery of a handful of LGBTQ+ faculty who, working without funds and institutional support, were nonetheless able to cater to the needs of LGBTQ+ faculty in their scholarly disciplines. They relied heavily on parallel organizations to provide helpful models and actionable strategies to reach their goals. In this newsletter, under its “News” section, the writers of the GLSG state, “We hope the Center for Lesbian & Gay Studies at CUNY won’t mind if we steal one of their news items, but it was just too good,” later adding, “The same Center for Lesbian & Gay Studies at CUNY, commonly known as CLAGS, has inspired graduate students to request and even push for classes in lesbian & gay studies… This is an interesting model: graduate students requesting and negotiating for classes in gay & lesbian musicology might also be successful elsewhere.”

The early 1990s was a tumultuous period in the history of LGBTQ+ activism. Driven by the desperate conditions of the AIDS crisis, in the wake of earlier organizations like the GAU, LGBTQ+ academics strove for recognition of LGBTQ+ studies as worthy of scholarly validation, for their right to equal treatment and protection from discrimination within the academy, and for community outside of campus boundaries. The GLSG newsletter is an artifact that perfectly captures this dynamic moment in LGBTQ+ history and the history of higher education.

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