Campuses Out of the Closet

Against the Current, No. 37, March/April 1992

Peter Drucker interview Felice Yeskel

FELICE YESKEL IS director of the Program for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Concerns at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is also a long-time activist and holds a doctoral degree in organizational development. She spoke with Against the Current editors Peter Drucker and David Finkel about her work and the history of organizing around these issues on campus.

ATC: Please begin by telling us about how you began working at U-Mass Amherst, and what activist background you brought.

Felice Yeskel: I came to the university around 1982, when I took a position as a residence hall director. One thing that attracted me was the antidiscriminatory policy statement in the application, which included “sexual orientation.”

The university already had a commitment to working on issues of racism, sexism and antisemitism. The administration had organized a “year toward civility” in response to incidents of harassment–racist, anti-Jewish and sexist. But the issue of heterosexism was not included in the mandate, even though some of the very incidents that prompted the “year toward civility” were, in fact, homophobic harassment.

The university had also established an Office of Human Relations, charged with dealing with these issues to improve “civility.” A commission, made up primarily of faculty and staff, reported directly to the chancellor and designated courses having to do with race, sex and Jewish oppression–all in 1982, before the high-visibility outbreaks of racist and sexist incidents on college campuses.

Within the residence hall system, which had always been on the cutting edge of dealing with these issues, there were part-time positions for a “racism awareness educator,” “sexism awareness educator,” etc.

All this was in place when I arrived. I asked: Why don’t these things extend to heterosexism, disability and other issues? I had been active in many movements since high school in New York in the 1960s, from antiwar to feminist to gay liberation; and I had lived as a very out (i.e. open) lesbian. I worked as a lesbian in my political activity, from Central America anti-intervention to peace work.

When I came to U-Mass I met many lesbians–there is a large lesbian population here among the many campuses (there are five colleges in the area) and even in the rural areas–yet I was surprised not to see any, except a few undergraduates, who were out in any form.

ATC: So that was the initial base from which you began organizing. How did it get off the ground?

F.Y.: In the residence hall system, a number of us began meeting informally and decided we needed to raise consciousness around heterosexism. One of the first things needed, we decided, would be training for all the staff in the residence halls.

At about the same time the university’s Office of Human Relations decided to put out a “Victims’ Assistance” poster, to inform victims of harassment or assault where to turn for help. When it came to homophobic harassment, they didn’t know what to put on the poster–they came for advice, and the result was their realizing that there was no place on campus where a person could confidently go who had suffered homophobic harassment.

The police, the Dean of Students office, affirmative action offices–where you might normally send someone–were seen by lesbian and gay folks as unsympathetic or even (the police) as part of the problem in the first place. That hadn’t occurred to the well-meaning people in the Office of Human Relations.

They got together the Sexual Orientation Services (SOS) committee, including representatives from areas of campus life, from the women’s center and health services, from the residence hall system, somebody from the campus police and so on. They asked what could be done to improve the quality of services for lesbian and gay folks.

It became apparent that even though there were a lot of lesbian and gay people on campus, few were out–and this was partly because the university didn’t have a nondiscrimination policy that included sexual orientation under its protection, unlike the Division of Residence Life, where I worked. So that was the first thing we needed.

We found out what other campuses had done, prepared a report, requested a meeting with the chancellor, presented a lot of anecdotal evidence. He was a liberal and decided to adopt our proposal for an antidiscriminatory policy. Quietly, without a lot of hoopla, it just started appearing in the policy statements.

In terms of getting the policy, this (quiet approach) was a good strategy, although in terms of actually building a movement it was a bad strategy. But that was just where we started, not stopped. I had already convinced the residence hall system to have a lesbian/gay awareness coordinator, which I was hired to fill–the first time in the history of the university that “lesbian/gay” appeared in anybody’s job description.

I also started teaching a one-credit colloquium on lesbian/gay issues. I decided it was difficult for students to attend such a class within the residence hall system, where they might be afraid of being seen coming out of the classroom in their residence … so organizing something campus-wide was the better way to go.

Then in the Fall of 1983 I organized the first Lesbian/Gay Awareness Week, where we invited various speakers, showed films, held workshops–our keynote speaker was Barbara Giddings, a long-time activist around lesbian/gay rights who picketed the White House back in the 1950s, and who was chairing the Lesbian/Gay task force of the American Librarians’ Association.

She told a story about setting up a lesbian/gay kissing booth at a conference. This captured students’ imagination, and they decided on holding a “gay jeans day,” where people who support lesbian/gay rights are asked to wear jeans, and the percentage of people with jeans that day can be surveyed and compared to other days. And they set up a booth in the campus center concourse called the “hug a homosexual”> booth. It was a publicity event.

ATC: Then came the backlash, right?

F.Y.: Yes, I guess this incensed some homophobes on campus, because a few days later we saw signs for “Heterosexuals Fight Back: March and Rally, Hang A Homosexual in Effigy” and signs that just said “KAGOS.” Then those began to be filled in, and they read “Kill All Gays On Sight.”

I had been doing some work with gay students on issues of internalized homophobia. There was something about this “hang a homosexual” march that led gay and lesbian students to hold a meeting to decide how to fight back.

There was discussion around showing up to confront the folks organizing the march, or lying down to force them to walk on us since that’s what they were doing to us in essence. Others of us argued, however, that the people organizing this thing were ignorant, and they were just the tip of the iceberg of daily institutionalized heterosexism.

It would be better (we said) to go to the campus administration and demand they face the problem. After long argument that idea won out, and students organized a very effective march on the administration building with fifteen demands. Three TV stations and the wire services were present.

The administration was very impressed, they cleared their schedules and met with representatives of the lesbian/gay/bisexual community. Some demands they met immediately: For instance, they created a second part-time lesbian/gay awareness position. They increased funding to an undergraduate student collective that provided counselling services, and issued a strong statement condemning homophobia.

The demand they didn’t act on immediately was to create a full-fledged office of lesbian/gay concerns; instead they decided they needed more information. They created a position called Human Relations Planner and Advocate, who was to assess the quality of life for lesbian and gay students and make recommendations for improvement.

I was hired for that purpose and spent a semester with undergraduate students–we developed a 200-question questionnaire for lesbian, gay and bisexual students which we distributed through various centers, at gay dances.

We got a few hundred of those back. In addition we commissioned a telephone poll, and surveyed a random sample of undergrads; we sent a survey to people who worked in the residence hall system and their professional supervisory staff. Finally we surveyed service providers, such as financial aid and career services, about gay/lesbian/ bisexual students’ needs and what services they provided to meet them.

Based on this I wrote a report called “The Consequences of Being Gay,” subtitled “A Report on the Quality of Life for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst” (June 1984).

ATC: From your description, the administration sounds remarkably responsive. In the university community as a whole, was there the same climate or was there a lot of tension during this period?

F.Y.: In fact there were lots of closeted gay people in administrative positions, some of whom were fairly supportive while others felt threatened and were fairly problematic. There were also some very homophobic people in administrative positions who made things more difficult, as well as some wonderful heterosexual allies who helped.

But the gay community had proven its ability to organize; and the university didn’t appreciate bad press. There were people who felt it was horrible that gays were getting “special privileges,” but even those people were brought along by the pressure of the movement and fear of negative publicity.

When the data from our surveys came in, it was pretty powerful, if not too different from what I’d expected in the first place. The harassment that lesbian/ gay/bisexual students suffered, and especially the low incidence of reporting, was striking. The mechanisms that were in place weren’t working at all; the problem couldn’t be stopped if we couldn’t even find out about it.

So my report argued for a program for lesbian/gay/bisexual concerns that could provide a supportive context for people when harassed, as well as a focus for continued education around these issues. The university decided to partially adopt that recommendation: They created a pilot project, but only gave it part-time staff and very mediocre budgeting, barely allowing it to exist.

On one hand people felt this was an astounding advance–such programs existed only on two other campuses in the whole country–yet services for other targeted groups on campus were ten times better funded and established.

That was in Fall 1984. Over the years we have grown and developed. After the two-year pilot project, they just continued it for a third year at the same level; but I decided something had to be done. We mounted a campaign to get the program institutionalized, documenting how many people had used its services.

It would have been easier for them to ignore the issue, actually, if it weren’t for some additional homophobic stuff that happened, like Paul Cameron coming to campus. Cameron, a kind of hired gun for the right wing, runs something called ISIS, Institute for the Scientific Investigation of Sexuality. He testifies at school board hearings and promotes lies under the guise of science.

He was invited by one of the right-wing campus groups. When he called for the castration of gay men to stop the spread of AIDS, or for lesbians to have a hole punched in their noses for identification, there was a large-scale counterdemonstration. Following Cameron’s visit the number of homophobic harassment reports skyrocketed–including death threats and people unable to sleep in residence hall rooms.

That gave impetus to our program being institutionalized–they created a full-time position with a more solid administrative foundation. Since that time it has continued to grow in terms of staff and resources.

ATC: Does the homophobic backlash intersect very much with the so-called “Political Correctness” controversy?

F.Y.: For four or five years now there’s been a right-wing student paper called the Minuteman, funded by off-campus right-wing money, modelled after the Dartmouth Review. One of its major things is gay-bashing.

That’s become a confusing thing. Paul Cameron was invited back for a second time. It’s raised the whole issue of protected speech, his right to say these things. That whole national debate has given more legitimacy to the right wing. Whereas we were more successful at one point in raising his appearance on campus as an issue of oppression, now it’s seen in terms of “freedom of opinion.” The right wing does scream and threaten to bring in the ACLU any time they feel restrictions are imposed.

What the university has done is to enact “time, place and manner” guidelines: Anybody can invite speakers, but the university can regulate time and place of the events–a room rather than on the mall, for example.

ATC: Have you established relationships or alliances with activist groups, ACT-UP or Queer Nation for example?

F.Y.: The last couple of years there were “straight pride” rallies, which were really gay-bashing rallies. Both times there were counterdemonstrations; last time ACT-UP and Queer Nation chapters as far away as Boston and Albany participated.

The “straight pride” rally had maybe 100 people in favor, while 600 came out against, from all over. The counterdemonstrators gave out 200 whistles, so that none of the antigay speeches could be heard. The gay students brought boom boxes and basically had a dance, while some frustrated Young Americans for Freedom types in suits and ties stood there looking very upset.

But over the years, the homophobes have become more organized and better funded; and when they do things now they actually have a turnout. When they first did those “Kill Gays” signs it was just individuals, their promised march never came off. The first time they brought Paul Cameron only twenty people stood around; next time there were more.

Gay students now are getting more in-your-face and grassroots, taking matters into their own hands more than they used to. This is wonderful in some ways, I think, but it loses them some of the moral high ground. And they are seen by liberal administrators as part of the problem; it was nicer when the gays were more passive and well-behaved.

Students are also strategically blowing it, in my opinion, by targeting other students rather than putting the administration on the spot to ensure access and services in the face of homophobic assaults. Students fighting with other students focuses more on the superficial aspects of the situation, leaving the whole institutional situation untouched: the fact that people aren’t getting an education that includes dealing with heterosexism and homophobia.

ATC: What about making alliances–and also, what relevance does this effort have beyond the campus context?

F.Y.: It seems to me that at U-Mass and elsewhere, he reason we’ve been so successful is that we’ve been able to tart from a solid foundation, built by the work that people of color and women have done. Framing issues that we can work on with other under-represented and targeted groups is very important.

I think also that campuses are one of the key arenas in which the struggle for lesbian/gay/bisexual liberation is waged. Many antidiscrimination policies are won on campuses first, before businesses or government or other institutions. So struggles around partner benefits, for example, are things that are fought for on campuses. And campus organizing trains the next generation of leaders, and provides an opportunity for students and faculty and staff to work together.

ATC: What do you feel are your achievements and shortcomings? And have you made efforts to spread your example to other schools?

F.Y.: We’ve been successful in the student affairs arena: in advocating improvements in services and resources. For example, we have openly identified lesbian and gay therapists and counsellors. There’s a lesbian/gay/bisexual issues editor for the campus paper, so those issues are much more visible, whereas you used to see them mentioned only if there was a Paul Cameron on campus.

We had someone search the library for materials, and provided a bibliography so they could improve their collection on lesbian/gay/bisexual issues, and similarly with the audiovisual collection.

We’ve been successful in these areas, and in resisting homophobic incidents. The area where we haven’t had much impact is on the main mission of the university–the central reason for its being, after all–which is the curriculum.

ATC: With respect to curriculum, are you referring here to actual Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Studies programs, which seem to be able to survive only where there’s a sustained mobilization of the movement, or do you mean the inclusion of these issues in the general humanities and social science, etc. curricula?

F.Y.: I mean both. In fact, a scholarly focus on lesbian, gay and bisexual studies provides a forum for inserting those issues into the mainstream curriculum. Without that, it’s much more difficult to do.

On the curriculum front we haven’t made much progress at all, except for a class I’m teaching this semester on “Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals in U.S. Society.” It’s not a mainstream course satisfying any credit distributional requirements. In the school of education there’s a one-credit course in lesbian/gay oppression–other than that, nothing focusing on lesbian/gay studies.

I think other campuses have done much more on the academic curriculum and scholarly side. So my sense of what we’ve accomplished is mixed.

My doctorate is in organizational development and I do a lot of training and consulting work through a group called “Diversity Works.” So I know that when you talk about organizational change, it isn’t real unless you’re changing the main mission of the organization. So for example, if you have a lot of women on staff, but only in the personnel and affirmative action offices or as secretaries, big deal!

Regarding other campuses: Back at the time we started, only the University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania had such programs. These are offices with full-time staff. In the last two years, Ohio State has added a full-time staff and office. Another handful have part-time staff: Mankato State in Minnesota, Emory University in Atlanta, starting out the way we did.

Partially because of my activist background, I’ve been able to spread my work. One way is to work closely with the National Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Task Force in Washington D.C., which has a campus project directed by Kevin Berrill (also director of the Task Force’s antiviolence project). I’ve attended its conferences, presenting workshops on how to create change on campus.

We’ve had a “campus track” as a unified part within the Task Force’s national conference. Last year we had a preconference institute on organizing. I’ve also presented this experience at lots of other women’s and professional conferences, for example.

I’ve also done some writing. My dissertation was on multicultural development in higher education. The research I did for “The Consequences of Being Gay” is something I’ve sent to other campuses so they could use the same methodology. And I’m writing an organizing manual called “Making Change on Campus.”

I do things through Diversity Works. Lots of campuses now have committees working on these issues, and don’t want to reinvent the wheel.

Around the lesbian/gay/bisexual issue over the past ten years on campus, I think the first obstacle to be overcome has been internalized oppression. Lesbian and gay people have been so used to being shit on that they don’t feel they can, or deserve to, get these things.

When I came to U-Mass in 1982 there wasn’t even a campus-wide antidiscrimination clause inclusive of sexual orientation on the books. Within five years we were one of the leaders in this issue. We didn’t end heterosexism<197>but we took some good whacks out of it.

March-April 1992, ATC 37