It was the first time they could be themselves. Over 120 people from around the Bay Area arrived at Cowell College on Dec. 4, 1971 for the first ever homosexuality conference hosted by UC Santa Cruz. The conference, “Homosexuality: Exploring an Alternative in Sexual Expression,” included speakers from the San Francisco Gay Liberation Front who delivered talks on student activism. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., gay and lesbian students filled the Cowell Dining Hall and the Stevenson Jolly Room, now the Stevenson Coffee House.
“The interesting thing was we were all buzzing about who was there,” said John Laird, UCSC alumnus and former mayor of Santa Cruz who was the first openly gay mayor in the United States. “All of us would walk by and then talk about who we saw there. That’s just the backdrop of what it was like then.”
Those outside the conference gossiped, their suspicions about other students’ sexuality confirmed. Those inside were unconcerned with what others thought because they were among those who shared their sexual identity.
“For most of us, it was the first time we met other gay men and lesbians,” said Ziesel Saunders, a UCSC alumna who was at the conference. “Not that there weren’t gays and lesbians, but people weren’t out. The most exciting part was just meeting other people who were like ourselves.”
Though Santa Cruz is among LGBTQ+ friendly regions of the U.S., homosexuality wasn’t accepted in mainstream society 40 years ago.
Until 1973, homosexuality was considered a mental illness. On June 24, 1973, 32 people died when an arsonist set fire to the Upstairs Lounge, a popular gay bar in New Orleans. Openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk was assassinated by former Supervisor Dan White on Nov. 27, 1978. In the wake of open hostility toward homosexuals, many LGBTQ+ individuals remained in the closet for their safety. The silence created made UCSC faculty members feel cut off from the community.
“This is really telling as to how different things were,” said David Thomas, a retired UCSC professor who taught Sexual Politics: Gay Politics, the first class on homosexuality at UCSC, from 1981 to 1999. “During that entire time [of my partner and I living together for four years], we did not know one other gay couple.”
Though the LGBTQ+ community was less visible in the ’70s and it was difficult to organize a movement, students still tried. They submitted ads to City on a Hill Press (CHP) calling for open discussions between gay and straight people to show that they weren’t all that different.
In 1975, Santa Cruz held its first Gay Pride week and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GALA) formed, creating another safe space for gay UCSC students, along with the Gay Students Union (GSU). Students’ willingness to reveal their sexuality impressed faculty, who were forced to hide their orientation for fear of being fired, despite Santa Cruz County passing anti-discrimination laws for sexual orientation that year.
“[Students are] not as vulnerable as people who work,” said former UCSC professor Alan Sable. “I’m a good example of that … I could be fired. But it was much harder to get rid of a student. They are much freer to think and act in radical ways.”
Sable was fired in June 1977, six years after he came out to his class, making him one of the first openly gay professors in the U.S. No reasons were given about why Sable was denied tenure, but many assumed sexuality was a factor.
“I feel that the university has lost an excellent professor in Dr. Alan Sable,” said C.M. Di Maio, M.D., former UCSC staff psychiatrist, in a letter to the editor of CHP in 1977. “I furthermore hope that his rights as an American have not been blatantly trampled on. I feel strongly that they have.”
When Sable’s tenure denial was publicized in the fall, students organized demonstrations and sit-ins at the chancellor’s office and home to support Sable and call attention to the administration’s homophobia. Later, in 1982, professor Nancy Shaw-Stoller was also denied tenure and many believed her sexuality also influenced the university’s decision. Like Sable, students rallied to support her. But unlike Sable, Shaw-Stoller spent five years campaigning to get her job back before finally receiving tenure in 1987.
“To the students from my day 40 years ago, I want to thank them,” Sable said. “For what they did for themselves, and for me, and for gay people and for the whole society. They were really, really central to my freedom and other people’s freedom.”
Throughout the ’70s, UCSC students were the main organizers around LGBTQ+ and other social issues.
“At the time you’re in college, there’s always an awakening going on,” said John Laird. “College students are fearless about speaking truth to power. Therefore, whether it’s the gay movement or social change in general, they’re always a powerful part of it.”
Today, the Cantú Queer Center, transgender-inclusive bathrooms and annual events like Drag Ball, Glitter Ball and Queer Fashion Show demonstrate how far the UCSC campus has come. Yet hate crimes against LGBTQ+ students occurred a little as one year ago at UCSC and demonstrate ongoing prejudice. The LGBTQ+ students of the ’70s set a prime example of how student activism brings light to issues affecting underrepresented communities.
“We did it for ourselves first,” Saunders said. “We had to create a school and community that we were comfortable in. We also realized that we were creating political change. But that was our goal. So the people that have benefited from our political change, well, that’s what was supposed to happen.”