A Reflection on the LGBTQ+ Columbia University Alumni Oral Histories

Pride of the Lions  front page, April, 1972

Pride of the Lions front page, April, 1972

By Jamie Beckenstein, Project Coordinator for LGBTQ+ CU Oral Histories

Three years before the Stonewall riots, Stephen Donaldson started the first campus gay club in the nation at Columbia University. The administration was wary of the club, both homophobic and frightened of the potential legal consequences of allowing a club that seemed to promote the disconcertingly broad category of sodomy, which wouldn’t be legalized in the state for another 34 years. After a six month fight with the administration to allow members to remain anonymous (revealing their names could have led to expulsion, pinklisting [the blacklisting of queer people], or violence; Donaldson himself was using a pseudonym), Donaldson successfully received Columbia’s sanction to run the club. Fifty years later, the club still exists, and just officially named their meeting space the Stephen Donaldson Lounge. The club’s name now, though, is the Columbia Queer Alliance (CQA), pointing to a significant shift in the movement.

It is holding this history in all its complexity that, with the support of Dean of Humanities Sharon Marcus and Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Dennis Mitchell, we began the Columbia LGBTQ Oral History Project. The parameters of this project were simple: to record the life histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and otherwise not heterosexual and/or cisgender Columbia alumni. Our investment in the material allowed us to see that these histories comprised more than just a group of individuals’ relationships with a single institution. These histories had the potential to be a lens into these tumultuous past 50 years of queer history.

This lens is particularly important because, as Donaldson’s fight with the administration over the right to anonymity proves, though students have been engaging heavily with Columbia about queer issues for the past 50 years, it hasn’t always been documented in a way that is up to modern, historically satisfying standards. Documentation of names and people that could have been dangerous at the time might now be able to be shared without fear. Groups, events, documents, fights, art, and individuals that went necessarily unknown might now be able to become part of the record, introducing a level of accuracy and depth to Columbia’s history that has been heretofore unachieved.

This project was funded for a pilot phase. We interviewed six Columbia University alumni about their early life experiences, time at Columbia, and careers. Narrators both confirmed and expanded the predictions that we’d made in our blueprint. We were correct to assume that Columbia’s location in Manhattan allowed narrators potential access to public queer worlds, but the ways that the narrators choose to access these worlds were different than we guessed in our blueprint, with Columbia dances and student activist engagement often bringing what seemed to be the rest of the city to Morningside Heights as opposed to students going out to locate the community. As we imagined, narrators’ relationships with Columbia were complex, but they were often complex in ways that completely ignored the institution itself, which was somewhat of a surprise.

What was most significant in terms of linking the interviews, however, were themes of community and its inverse, isolation. Narrators spoke with such great care and love about their mentors, their peers, and their friends. They were often in awe and pride of the people that they met during their Columbia years who led them into careers, relationships, and full and fulfilling lives. And yet, narrators spoke equally as often about the intense difficulty and depression that they felt during their Columbia years. This was particularly cogent in relation to their sexual and gender identities, which, despite increasing access to public identity-based spaces, most engaged with privately if at all. The benefit of years and modern success clearly allowed narrators to speak about the past tenderly as opposed to with anger or sorrow, but the flippancy with which most spoke of intense depression was telling. If the project were ever given the opportunity to continue, we’d like to dig more completely into this theme, trying to understand the different things that made and make people able to seek and be part of a community, in addition to attempting to disentangle the interactions and overlaps of the Columbia community and the queer community.

Jamie Beckenstein is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Prior to working with INCITE and OHMA, they worked with a variety of non-profits including a self-directed learning center, a media literacy program, and a youth writing workshop. They do interview-based advocacy work predominantly around issues of storytelling, bodies, and community.