The Humanities Research Center hosted an event 40 years after a two-year legal battle at VCU, which eventually reached federal court and changed laws in 10 states for LGBTQ students.
The event held Oct. 6 was part of the Humanities Research Center’s fall speakers series and featured a discussion led by director Richard Godbeer titled “The Struggle for Recognition of VCU’s First Gay Student Group,” where the audience heard first-hand accounts of the 1974-76 lawsuit.
“40 years ago seems like a very long ago,” Godbeer said. “But for many others of us, including myself, it seems like just yesterday.”
THE STRUGGLE FOR RECOGNITION
A handful of students founded the first LGBTQ organization at VCU, called the Gay Alliance of Students, on Sept. 1, 1974. The group’s goal was to create a “unified support community for men and women of all sexual orientations,” according to the organization’s statement of purpose.
But more than a month later, on Oct. 17, 1974, the VCU Board of Visitors denied the group recognition as an official student organization, despite members filing an application “according to regular procedures, but (it was) handled in far from a regular manner,” Godbeer said.
“With deep regard for the severe human problem involved,” stated a letter from the Board of Visitors, “it is expressed as the sense of the Board that the Gay Alliance of Students not be registered.”
According to Walter Foery, a spokesperson for GAS at the time, 144 student organizations were currently established at VCU when the Board denied GAS’ request.
“144 times before us, the university said ‘sure.’ We were the 145th, and University Student Life didn’t act on it. They passed it on to the Board of Visitors, because — I’m assuming — they were afraid,” Foery said.
Almost immediately, Foery said he and fellow GAS members wrote a letter to the BOV asking them to reconsider the decision.
“Our feeling was, “What the hell do you mean, ‘no?’” What about freedom of speech and freedom of association?” Foery said.
The students also requested a meeting with the BOV to discuss their decision. In a letter response to Foery, the BOV said they decided to “decline a decision to meet together and to alter our decision.”
“I was shocked by that,” Foery said. “That a university would say to its students that they wouldn’t talk to you. What the hell are we doing here then?”
According to Godbeer, the BOV believed they were acting in the best interest of the student body by denying the organization’s registration, claiming the group could cause “borderline” people to “become homosexual.”
“The thing that frightened me the most was that in order to stand up for other people, you apparently had to be one of them,” said Sharon Talarico, a GAS member at the time. “And that still happens.”
The BOV’s decision led to GAS filing a lawsuit against the university – the Gay Alliance for Students v. Matthews – under the claim that VCU was violating their First Amendment rights.
Finding an attorney who was willing to put his or her career on the line by taking the case proved to be a difficult challenge. In the end, Richmond attorney John McCarthy represented GAS.
“It was brave on his part for stepping up,” said Brenda Kriegel, a founding member of GAS, who believes McCarthy received negative feedback from his colleagues for taking on their case.
District Court Judge D. Dortch Warriner ruled GAS was permitted many of the privileges of a registered student organization — with the exception of funding, advisory services and recognition “per se” by VCU, a year later in November 1975.
“When we were denied recognition by the university and the court, it was demoralizing to the group,” Kriegel said. “The reason we wanted to meet is because we were demeaned by society. So, it was like being told that we must hide and not be equally recognized.”
According to Kriegel, the decision heavily impacted group attendance.
“Speaking for myself, it was pretty clear that people wanted us to keep quiet, and not be seen or heard, which certainly impacted our self-esteem,” she said.
“None of us were aware that we might be making history or changing the world. We were just pissed off.”
The same month as the District Court decision, GAS penned another letter to the BOV stating the group fully expected to “win this case.”
Two years later, in October 1976, a civil case was brought to the U.S. Fourth District Circuit Court of Appeals against VCU regarding full funding and space allocations for the group.
The Federal Appeals Court ruled in favor of GAS and effectively changed existing law in 10 southern states, including South Carolina and West Virginia, on Oct. 28, 1976.
“The university was told, “No, you have to recognize this group and you have to give them the same rights and privileges as any other group,’” Foery said.
By the 1980s, the Gay Alliance of Students was known as the VCU Gay Student Alliance.
As of 2010, there were two gay student organizations at VCU: the Sexual Minority Student Alliance and Queer Action.
“None of us were aware that we might be making history or changing the world,” Foery said. “We were just pissed off.”
HUMANITIES RESEARCH CENTER SPEAKER SERIES
Rather than just hearing about the court case, the event last week hosted by the Humanities Research Center aimed to share personal stories from former GAS members who personally remember the court case 40 years ago.
“These are, after all, stories about flesh and blood human beings,” Godbeer said.
A narrative of the court case and GAS’s battle with the university was presented by Godbeer, Dorothy Fillmore from the Department of Psychology, Paris Prince from Equity and Access Services and graduate students Michael Means and Jacob Ulmschneider.
Following the narrative of the case was a Q&A with VCU alumni and members of GAS, including Foery, Talarico, Kriegel and Frances Stewart. All four panelists agreed the fight for establishing GAS as a student organization went further than strengthening the LGBTQ community; it was a matter of human rights.
“This is about social justice and the right of people to form and meet and congregate,” Talarico said. “The board was just so fundamentally wrong.”
While Godbeer acknowledged how far VCU has come regarding inclusion since 1976, he said there’s “still much that needs to be done.”
“I applaud you all for your courage and determination to make a difference in your university,” Godbeer said. “We’re working towards a society that protects everyone from harm. But, despite recent gains, there is still no room for complacency.”
Maura is a senior cinema and journalism student. She’s interested in combining investigative journalism with filmmaking, and is a contributing writer for the online publications Elite Daily and Literally Darling. Before transferring to VCU, Maura was an editor for the student newspaper at Virginia Tech, the Collegiate Times.
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