“The Daily Evergay,” Daily Evergreen, Dec. 11, 1975, 4. This is an editorial criticizing the student newspaper for running so many articles on gay issues.
This page details some of the LGBTQ history of students at Washington State University since the 1970s. Queer people have long been in the region, but it was not until the early 1970s that a visible, active, LGBTQ movement asserted itself over the 600+ acres which make up the university’s Pullman, Washington campus. The first student attempts to forge a queer campus community came from young, white, lesbian, gay, and bisexual women and men. Over time, and despite many setbacks, this community would consciously work to expand its inclusivity to more-fully welcome BIPOC, transgender students, and the university’s faculty and staff.
The page is broken into three sections (1) the push for recognition in the 1970s, (2) the attempts to form a gay student organization, and (3) the formation of student resource center devoted to issues of gender and sexuality, currently called GIESORC (Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation Resource Center). Throughout this webpage are links to articles from the student newspaper, the Daily Evergreen. You search can hundreds of clippings of the Evergreen, including many stories not included in this narrative, by looking at the “Sources” page. Thank you Dr. Melynda Huskey for speaking about the early history of GIESORC.
“Homosexual Dilemma: Problem of Stereotype,” Daily Evergreen, Dec. 9, 1970, 1. This is an article covering the first talk on homosexuality given at WSU.
“Gay But Unhappy,” Daily Evergreen, Feb. 18, 1971. This article profiles an anonymous gay WSU student, "Samuel Lewis." Lewis discusses many aspects of rural gay life in the early 1970s.
Creating Community, 1970-1975
Following nights of rioting on Christopher Street outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City in June of 1969, gays and lesbians across the United States spoke more openly, and organized more actively, than had their counterparts in the 1950s. The Stonewall Riots, as those nights were later remembered, did not instantly reach all corners of the United States, but they extended quite quickly to the Palouse. Eighteen months after the Stonewall Riots, in December 1970, the WSU Association for Women Students (AWS) hosted the first ever discussion of homosexuality on campus, a two-panelist forum in the Compton Union Building (CUB) Ballroom titled “Homosexual Dilemma.” Panelists Jim Broderickson and Lori Jaffe—spoke to a standing-room only crowd about their struggles overcoming anti-gay stereotypes. Arguing that homosexuality was normal and natural, Jaffe explained to the audience that “if a movie were made about an everyday homosexual relationship, it would be a bomb.”
Four months later, The Evergreen profiled a gay WSU student who used the pseudonym “Samuel Lewis”. Lewis recognized the benefits of being gay in a rural place like Pullman as the local authorities were less enthusiastic in their enforcement of the state’s sodomy law, which criminalized same-sex sex, among a variety of other sex acts. But it was this same isolation that “made it even more difficult” to deal with micro-aggressions of everyday homophobia—from homophobic portrayals of gay men in movies to the gratuitous use of “fag” on campus. The smallness that shielded the community from police prosecution also made it difficult to find someone else who shared your experience. As one anonymous author of a letter to the editor put it in 1971, it was “closed minded, religious, conservative, oppression,” not self-hatred, which prevented people from coming out.
For years following the discussion on the “Homosexual Dilemma,” articles about homosexuality or lesbian and gay WSU students frequently appeared on the pages of the student newspaper; the profile of Lewis being just one example. During these years students organized a student-led course on being gay in a conservative era, held community keggers, did interviews for the student newspaper to increase awareness and education, and, in 1975, brought Leonard Matlovitch to campus to speak about his experiences with the Air Force, which he memorably remarked “gave me a medal for killing two men and discharged me for loving one.” In 1976, students successfully petitioned the city for an anti-discrimination ordinance concerning employment, in 1981 they pushed for a Fair Housing ordinance.
Unfortunately, LGBTQ Cougs also had to deal with discrimination from their fellow students. To combat this, they organized into a student organization, Gay Awareness (GA). In April 1971, Gary Rikansrud, Mary and Terry (who both asked to withhold their last names) received official recognition for the club from ASWSU. The debates which ensued as a result of this recognition would continue on for decades until the establishment of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Allies Center in 1994.
“A Can of Worms,” Daily Evergreen, Sept. 27, 1973, 4. This editorial, and the accompanying editorial cartoon, encapsulates many of the minority funding debates held at WSU during the early 1970s.
“Church Groups Oppose Activity,” Daily Evergreen, Oct. 24, 1975, 5. This was part three of a three-part series that the WSU student newspaper ran on gay issues in 1975. The focus of this issue was homosexuality and religion.
“Baker-Clark Win, Voters Bash Gays on Both Referenda,” Daily Evergreen, Mar. 27, 1979, 1. This article reports on the 1979 referenda which took away funding and ASWSU recognition for the Gay Awareness Committee. Both votes passed by large margins.
Gay Awareness: ASWSU Recognition Battles, 1970-1994
Gary, Mary, and Terry planned for their organization to “stick to social and informational functions in the near future” and to be a place where people “can bring up the subject of homosexuality on campus” and have their questions answered freely. This publicity had early successes. By December 1972, the organization had 40 members and had unsuccessfully petitioned President Glenn Terrell to make a public statement opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation on campus. Over the next few years Gay Awareness would host a variety of events at the Koinoinia House (K-House) on campus, a religious center that welcomed the organization and allowed them a place for leaderless discussion groups on the issues they faced.
By 1975, Gay Awareness was ready to move from simply being a campus alliance to an official ASWSU committee titled Gay Awareness Committee. As an ASWSU Committee, Gay Awareness would have official backing, sustained funding, and a mandate from the student body to work on important issues facing lesbian and gay students. On November 19th, 1975 ASWSU voted 14-3 in favor of forming of a Gay Awareness Committee and giving it a budget. But this would only be the beginning of the debate on the issue. Based on this new mandate Gay Awareness put together a series of programs directed at community education. They hosted gay performers and speakers, oftentimes bringing controversy along as well. When the organization requested a couple hundred dollars for “Fruit Punch” they were forced to clarify that this was for an organization, not for flavored drinks. Their choice to bring Rebecca Valrejean—aka the Lavender Troubadour to campus for Mothers’ Weekend ignited fierce debate in the student newspaper over the meanings of motherhood and the relationship between gay people and their parents.
At the same time, not everything in the organization was rainbows and roses. The white-led Gay Awareness organization fought with the Black Student Union and other minority-student led organizations over limited funds and their common interests. Although many lesbians were involved in Gay Awareness, and the organization often worked with campus feminist groups, there were still issues with male representation and dominance in the organization. Tensions among issues of identity, race, and gender, continued to shape the organization, even after its previous hiatus in the 1980s.
Opposition to Gay Awareness from other minority organizations paled in comparison to that offered from many in the campus community. Immediately following the vote for officially ASWSU recognition in 1975 a group of students attempted to recall (remove from office) all ASWSU Senators who had voted in favor of recognizing Gay Awareness. Vicious debates in the student newspaper often involved the use of homosexual stereotypes or offensive language. One student article questioned whether Gay Awareness money would “really go for a phone and general office supplies or for cases of Vaseline?” As another wrote, “What it all boils down to is what is right and what is wrong. I believe (and most of the "normal" folks do) that homosexuality is wrong. What I can't understand is why people try and twist it to make it right.”
Gay Awareness only managed to hold back the push to remove its funding and recognition for a few years. Although they successfully fought a December 1975 petition to remove funding signed by 2,170 students, by the late-1970s the student body’s attitudes had changed. Although the campus had long been conservative, the liberalization of the student body in the 1960s and early 1970s had rescinded by the late 1970s. In the spring of 1979, those opposed to Gay Awareness put two referenda on the ballot for the Spring ASWSU elections directly addressing Gay Awareness funding and committee status. This was the first time that the existence of the organization had been put to a popular student vote. That March, WSU students voted resoundingly against Gay Awareness. Of the almost 3,600 students who voted on the issue, 61 percent of voters supported removing ASWSU ‘s recognition.
Over the next year, former members of Gay Awareness unsuccessfully tried to challenge the implementation of this vote. Gay Awareness spoke to the ACLU and raised money to file a lawsuit, although they never followed through on this. The Board of Regents decided not to get involved in the ASWSU decision. For the next 15 years, the Gay Awareness Committee would remain inactive. Losing ASWSU recognition of course did end the push for equality, or student funding. In 1985, Gay Awareness supporters tried getting student recognition by securing funding from the Graduate and Professional Students Association (GPSA). This sparked another round of debate about whether undergraduate students should fund such an organization. This included several articles in the Evergreen recapitulating the arguments and history of the funding debates of the 1970s and the attempted formation of a “straight students” association as a parody of gay awareness. However, ASWSU still refused to recognize GA as an official ASWSU committee.
“Condom Sense,” Daily Evergreen, Aug. 27, 1990, A8. AIDS greatly impacted the need for sex education, as this program indicated.
“Conference Provides Support,” Daily Evergreen May 29, 1996, 10. GLBA's controversial 1996 Youth Conference was headlined by the widely popular Wilson Cruz, who played Ricki Vasquez on My So-Called Life. The backlash to this conference was one reason that the Center decided not to hold it again in later years.
“What You Had to Say: The Atmosphere For Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transgendered,” Daily Evergreen Oct. 9, 1996, 9. A transgender student talks at length about her experiences at WSU.
A Permanent Place at WSU, 1994-
By the 1990s, however, the climate at WSU was changing. The AIDS epidemic spread throughout the United States in the 1980s, including to rural places. While Whitman County did not report any known cases of HIV/AIDS for a number of years, this did not stop the fear of AIDS, and several former Cougs would pass away from AIDS in later years, including at least one individual involved in Gay Awareness in the early 1970s.
It was also during the 1990s that issues facing the T and Q in the LGBTQ acronym began to be addressed on campus. This was accompanied by better attention to the intersection of sexuality and race. During the Asian Pacific American Association’s first awareness week in 1994, the organization showed “Fated to be Queer,” a movie that explored the Filipino American gay community. Later that year the university administration, at the behest of faculty, staff, and students, announced the formation of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Programs, eventually called the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Allies Center, which firmly established the foothold for gay inclusion on campus that Gay Awareness had failed to achieve through ASWSU.
The push for this new Center came from Dr. Ernestine Madison, VP of Human Relations and Resources and was supported by President Sam Smith. Madison, a straight African American woman from the South, and Sam Smith, a folksy straight white male president from California, showed what could be achieved through the power of dedicated LGBTQ allies. Bobbi Bonace, a former athletics compliance worker, was appointed as the Center’s first director. Bonace worked to establish where the center would be located and on a job description for a director, but she soon left for an athletics job at another university. Tori Byington stepped into her place on an interim basis while the university performed a national search for a new candidate. Some religious opposition to homosexuality fueled an attempt to prevent the opening of the Center, but VP Madison, who had grown-up in the wake of desegregation in Vicksburg Mississippi had the will, tenacity, and experience to fight against those opposing equality.
The national search Bonace’s successor found that the best person for the position was already on the Palouse. In 1997 Dr. Melynda Huskey was hired from the University of Idaho. Despite a last name reminded Cougars of their University of Washington rivals, Dr. Huskey took quickly to the Pullman community and established a Center in the basement of the Compton Union Building in Pullman that continues to exist in the present. The Center had a library, speaker’s bureau, HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention activities, held a vigil following the Matthew Shepard murder, started a lavender graduation ceremony that continues into the present, and hosted events for National Coming Out day, Transgender Day of Remembrance, and Freedom to Marry Day.
The establishment of the GLBA Center also helped the student organization GLBA, led by Stephanie Howard, Aaron Starr, and Aaron Stoce, achieve ASWSU committee status in late 1995. Karen Johnson and Aaron Stoce were elected as the committee’s first co-chairs. This was the first ASWSU committee on gay issues since the 1979 referenda. Representing a new sense of intersectionality among minority groups, the GLBA Executive Board made sure to point to the important work done by other minority student committees on campus in their thank you letter to their supporters. Throughout the 1995-1996 academic year there was significant debate on minority issues, thanks in no small part to the work of GLBA activists forcing ASWSU’s hand on recognition. As of 2020, GLBA, later called the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Allies (GLBTA), and now called the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), still existed as an ASWSU committee.
Over the next several years the GLBA Center continued to expand its influence, hired new directors as others left, moved into an office in the CUB and did their best to raise awareness on campus. The center sponsored speakers, conferences, an AIDS quilt, a vigil for the murder of Matthew Shepard, and started a Lavender Graduation ceremony. In 2006, the center changed its name to its current name, the Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation Resource Center (GIESORC). GIESORC continues to be a presence on campus by sponsoring events, holding trainings, educating students, and advocating on behalf of queer people in Pullman.