An ongoing project begins to document LGBTQ+ history on campus.
In his sophomore year, Jacob Licker ’21 was doing something rare: making history and documenting history at the same time. He was helping to plan Queerfest on campus while also learning about its previous iteration — Big Gay Weekend — as part of a class project for Professor Ken Valente’s LGBT 220, Explorations in LGBTQ Studies.
“Professor Valente always said, when you are looking into doing public history, you should dig where you stand,” Licker says. “I always loved the idea of digging where you stand, of looking at what’s all around you and then contributing to it.”
He was in the first class that launched Valente’s three-year, evolving project of documenting LGBTQ+ history at Colgate — something that had never been done before — as part of the University’s Bicentennial.
“We’re often written out of records,” Valente asserts. “We’re not typically found in archives; until recently we’re not found in public documents or newspaper cuttings.”
But, with the help of Sarah Keen, University archivist and head of Special Collections and University Archives, the class started piecing information together. They pored over old newspaper clippings, each student selected a few events, and then they created a digital timeline that went live in the spring of ’19.
“There were quite a few struggles,” Licker admits. One was trying to figure out which terminology to use for search terms because it has changed over the years. “It was looking through all these old newspapers and trying to see, did they write ‘gay’ as in meaning ‘happy,’ or were they actually talking about LGBTQ students? And if I searched ‘queer,’ there was some really nasty and oftentimes derogatory language being used, but also it became a self ID later on,” he says. “So those were some of the toughest bits, trying to read between the lines.”
The timeline starts with fall 1979, when the first gay student alliance on campus formed. Clicking through the digital presentation, there are articles about gay students speaking out about homophobia in Greek letter organizations, a march against the violence and oppression of gays and lesbians, the evolution of student organizations, and institutional support such as the hiring of the first LGBTQ+ program assistant.
When Valente continued the project with the second class, in fall 2019, he taught students how to conduct oral history interviews. They paired up with alumni who gave first-person accounts of their experiences on campus.
Barry Forbes ’78 helped form the first gay student alliance through the Sexuality Counseling and Information Center. He remembered it becoming the front-page story of the Maroon, “with an editorial in support of gays.” And because he was named in the article, Forbes became someone whom other students would approach to discuss issues about their own sexuality.
When Andrew Richlin ’81 was a first-year, he remembered a cadre of seniors in Forbes’ class who were out and supportive. But after they graduated, the following years were “very lonely and isolating,” Richlin said. He believes that when he came out during his senior year, he was “the only out gay person on campus” (in later years, he discovered that several of his friends were gay but had not come out).
Barb West ’89 spoke in her oral history interview about feeling fortunate to find a group of friends right away in Cobb House. Although her years at Colgate weren’t always perfect, she found support in those friends as well as a head resident who hosted a program for “LGB awareness” in the first few weeks of her first year. “It gave me a sense that somebody had my back here if I needed it,” West said. She also found comfort while doing work study hours at the Women’s Resource Center and participating in the Gay Student Alliance. “I was really lucky that I found my niche right away,” she said. “There were people who didn’t.”
Licker, who continued as a student worker for the project after his class ended, helped conduct interviews and says that aspect was his favorite part. “Whenever I would turn off the recording, we would just sit and talk for an hour or two about how things have changed, or how much of what they shared with me was relatable to my own experience as a queer person on campus,” he says. “It felt like a moment of praxis where the time loop was being completed.”
In addition, Licker emphasizes the significance of these interviews in helping to fill the gaps. “The testimonial evidence is so important because there are very real events that were happening that weren’t necessarily being published in the newspaper, or there wasn’t a poster for it because it was the 1970s [for example] and being out and queer was not something you did on campus.”
Finding information about LGBTQ+ history from the early ’70s and prior decades is one of the major barriers Valente’s group has faced. There is no documentation in the archives and limited information on older LGBTQ+ alumni who can speak about their experiences; also those generations are nearing the end of their lives. “So how is it that we can learn these things before we lose them?” Licker says.
In the introductory text on the timeline page, the class that developed the project in 2018 has written: “Bearing in mind that this is an evolving timeline, we acknowledge the scarcity of the material that was accessible to us and hope future contributions expand upon our foundation.”
The title of the timeline is “Queer Activism at Colgate,” because “activism is broadly construed,” Valente says. “You don’t have to have some sort of leadership role to engage in activism, you just have to live and you have to survive. [These alumni] showed great resilience in living their lives in whatever way made sense to them at that time at an institution where, for a number of years and to this day, it could be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to find community and a space that acknowledges your identity.”
Last fall, students continued to conduct oral interviews with more alumni and expanded their scope to add faculty and staff members, including almost all of those who served as what is now called the director of LGBTQ+ initiatives (housed under the Office of the Dean of the College). “I wanted their memories of those early years, which were fraught and challenging for those individuals because the position was then not yet formally institutionalized,” Valente says.
As he prepared to retire in the spring, Valente recorded his own oral history. Hired into the mathematics department in 1987, Valente established a joint appointment with LGBTQ studies in 2009 — the year the program was born. Through the core curriculum, he had been teaching courses that became part of the LGBTQ studies minor. Once LGBTQ studies was established as its own program, those courses migrated, and he migrated with them. Valente served as the first director of the program and has served as department chair as well as division director of university studies.
“I am so fortunate to have been able to teach at this institution for 30-plus years,” he says. “This [project] was a way to say thank you for giving me the chance to be something I would have never dreamed to be professionally when I started in 1987. So, it’s important to me to not only give people their voice, but to also put a bow on it and say, ‘Here you are.’”
Taking over the project will be Paul Humphrey, assistant professor of LGBTQ studies. He started digging into the material this spring when he taught LGBT 220. Putting his own spin on the course, Humphrey assigned students to use the oral history interviews as a springboard for exploring their chosen topics, which ranged from social lives and dating to bigger-picture subjects like the AIDS epidemic.
For Humphrey, who has taught at Colgate for two years now — a year and a half of which has been on Zoom — he’s found it informative to hear people’s perspectives from the past. “There’s a history here at Colgate of queer experience,” he says. “It’s not one that’s been told until more recently. So what are the foundations that this is built on? Where can we take it in the future?”
One idea for the future of the timeline itself is incorporating the oral history interviews into it — “so people will be able to see interviews corresponding to periods of time, and we can also connect certain events to the oral history recording,” Valente explains.
Now that he’s graduated, Licker has realized what a large portion of his Colgate experience he’s dedicated to this project. He’s excited to see other students using the timeline he helped build in their own scholarship. “It’s wild that it’s going to be there for the rest of my life, and probably well beyond that, as long as the archive maintains.”
Check out the timeline and oral histories. If you’d like to contribute, fill out the alumni participation form on the page.