Going off to college is when many students discover who they really are for the first time, and for some this can be a very scary thing. This is especially true if the real you is someone that your university and society at large refuses to recognize or accept. This was the reality for members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Queer communities at Virginia Tech for many years, and it continues to be in many places around the world even today. From an archival and historical perspective, this presents a big challenge. If a group is marginalized and denied acceptance, then they won’t show up in the mainstream. If they’re forced to live in secret, their history won’t be in the written record, at least not accurately. So basically, how do you document the undocumented?
One option is to record the histories that were never written down, but still remembered by those who lived them with oral histories. This was the inspiration for the Virginia Tech LGBTQ Oral History Project, which had its beginnings in 2013 in the Ex Lapide Society, a Virginia Tech LGBTQ alumni group. Since then, Special Collections and members of various organizations and departments around campus have gotten involved, including graduate and undergraduate-level oral history classes, in which students conducted a series of oral history interviews in Fall 2014. Those interviews will be online in the coming months as part of an interactive exhibit, and the project will undoubtedly grow beyond oral histories to include many other collections, materials and exhibits documenting the history of the LGBTQ communities at Virginia Tech.
As an early part of this project, I started digging around in some of our university archives collections from the late 1960s and early 1970s, looking for some of the earliest documentation we have of the LGBTQ community at Virginia Tech. This documentation involves the Gay Alliance, the first openly gay student group on campus, and their struggles with university administration to be recognized as an official Virginia Tech student organization. In the records of Vice President William McKeefery, I found a file with documentation regarding the decision to accept or reject the Gay Alliance as an official student group. Included was a copy of the group’s constitution, a report on homosexuality from the Department of Health, a memorandum to President T. Marshall Hahn regarding the commission’s decision, and correspondence between Gay Alliance President Robert Frye and Virginia Tech Vice President William McKeefery. In the Office of Academic Affairs Records 1961-1977, I found a letter from the Dean for Student Programs to the Vice President for Student Affairs, discussing the Student Constitutional Affairs Board’s vote to recognize the Gay Alliance as an official student organization on May 12, 1971. Although the board had voted four to one to approve the Gay Alliance, there was a major point of contention over the fact that the organization’s purpose and objectives were in violation of Virginia state law (Virginia’s laws against same-sex sexual relations were not officially repealed until 2014).
Ultimately, the decision was appealed and struck down by the Commission on Student Affairs. But the struggle continued. In the papers of Alfred H. Krebs, Vice President for Special Projects, I found a written statement from May 5, 1976, on the rationale for rejecting the approval of the Gay Student Alliance as an official Virginia Tech student group.
The Gay Student Alliance did not gain official status at Virginia Tech until Fall 1976, but then fell inactive for several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s due to lack of leadership. It would not be until 1985, when the next LGBTQ organization, Lambda Horizon, officially formed that the LGBTQ communities would begin to play an active role on campus. That will be in the next part of this story, so stay tuned!