This post was written by Lana Mason, Processing Student Assistant. Lana has an Associate of Arts degree in Fine Arts from Piedmont Virginia Community College. She is currently studying Art History with a minor in Arts Management at George Mason University.
Today, George Mason University (GMU) is lauded for its diverse student body and welcoming, accepting atmosphere. In 2017, the university was named the most diverse higher education institution in Virginia by U.S. News & World Report.i The university considers diversity to be one of its core values, and is rightfully proud of its students’ varied identities and backgrounds. GMU provides a supportive environment to all its students through various resources and events. LGBTQ students find support from the school’s LGBTQ Resources Office, celebration of Pride Week, numerous student organizations, and accepting campus-wide perspective.
The supportive and welcoming environment LGBTQ students know today is the product of decades of effort by GMU students, faculty, and administrators to create a more accepting environment, even in the face of opposition. This two-part blog series will examine how GMU—its campus culture, educators, administrators, and students—interacted with LGBTQ identities and experiences from the 1970s to the 1990s. These stories are sourced from news articles taken from the George Mason University Office of University Relations newsclippings and press releases records (R0004.) These clippings, which discuss various programs, activities, events, and goings-on at and around GMU, present an of-the-times look into how LGBTQ individuals and issues were approached both on and off campus. This local perspective might be considered a microcosm of the wider social trends and dynamics of the era.
The 1970s to the 1990s saw drastic changes in general societal attitudes towards LGBTQ identities. Beginning in the 1970s, LGBTQ students at Virginia higher education institutions began to concertedly advocate for recognition and tolerance. The 1980s saw the rise of the AIDS epidemic, an international tragedy which sparked both widespread fear and an increased social awareness of LGBTQ identities, particularly on college campuses. The effects of the AIDS epidemic continued into the 1990s, during which GMU experienced numerous homophobic incidents amidst efforts to promote tolerance and acceptance of its LGBTQ students.
Likely propelled by the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, organized LGBTQ student activity on Virginia college campuses began in earnest in the early 1970s. At that time, college campuses (reflecting wider society) were generally unwelcoming to LGBTQ individuals, and students who attempted to organize alliances or groups often faced administrative opposition as well as negative attitudes from their peers. In 1972, the Gay Student Alliance at Virginia Commonwealth University attempted to gain recognition from the school—however, school officials refused to recognize them and the Alliance consequently spent two years in court in order to obtain that official recognition.ii
LGBTQ student groups at all Virginia universities generally operated covertly, whether the group was officially recognized or not, due to the social stigma surrounding being gay and the fear of being outed. In the article “Stifled: Recognition a Problem for Homosexual Clubs,” many of the students interviewed discussed their peers’ fears of being harassed, outed (especially to families who might throw them out or other students who might pose a threat to them,) or stereotyped. Campus LGBTQ groups faced difficulties reaching out to gay students—whether they were openly out or not—due to the widespread fear of being associated with such groups.
At GMU, there was no established LGBTQ student group by 1979. The then-editor of the student newspaper, Steve Skovron, attributed the lack of such an organization to the fact that GMU was at the time still an “extremely young college” and cited reticence on the part of the school to recognize student associations based on any identity.iii
In the 1980s, the AIDS crisis (which was formally recognized in 1981) brought LGBTQ identities and issues to the forefront of national conversation. American society responded conflictingly to the epidemic, with discrimination and fear widespread, but also a growing awareness and slowly-increasing acceptance of LGBTQ people as well, particularly as the decade progressed.
At GMU, the response to the AIDS epidemic was to take a proactive and educational, if still fearful, stance. In May 1987, GMU’s Student Health Service began to sell condoms along with educational information about AIDS. College students were considered a high-risk population, and the Northern Virginia geographic region alone had over half the recorded AIDS cases of the entire state.iv GMU’s decision to make safe sex tools and information more accessible to its students was both practical and sensible, and set a precedent for continued proactive efforts to promote student health and awareness particularly in regards to AIDS.
Also in 1987, John F. Bunker, director of the Center for Health Promotion at GMU, began to offer informational programs about AIDS to local, statewide, and national audiences. The Center for Health Promotion served as “one of the few national clearing houses for information on AIDS,” marking GMU as ahead of the curve on the public health issue.v Bunker’s presentations ranged from offering guidance on developing AIDS policies for workplaces to the integration of AIDS education into school curriculums. During a time when many people thought AIDS could be “caught” simply through casual contact, when it was a stigma beyond belief, such informational programs were immensely important in promoting awareness of the disease.
In the second and final part of this blog series, we’ll explore how GMU in the 1990s was both informed by the fears of the ‘70s and ‘80s and marked by a shift towards greater acceptance and recognition of LGBTQ identities and experiences.
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ii “Stifled: Recognition a Problem for Homosexual Clubs,” January 23, 1979, George Mason University Office of University Relations newsclippings and press releases records, R0004, 19.3, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
iii “Stifled” same as above
iv “George Mason to Sell Condoms,” April 30, 1987, George Mason University Office of University Relations newsclippings and press releases records, R0004, 57.1, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
v “GMU Offers AIDS Information,” August 20, 1987, George Mason University Office of University Relations newsclippings and press releases records, R0004, 57.6, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries