Editor’s note: The following article contains references to self harm and suicide as a result of homophobia that may be troubling for some readers.
In 1970, Maud Hanson Nerman ’71 published an anonymous op-ed in The Stanford Daily titled, “Adjusting to Gay Life.” After trying and failing repeatedly to convince herself she was straight, Nerman said she had to admit the truth to herself, which she compared to “crashing into a wall.”
“The guilt feelings weren’t nearly so strong as the horror I had at feeling myself to be the only one,” she wrote.
When Nerman stepped onto Stanford’s campus in 1967, no student group or community center catered to gay students like her. Unable to find a community for students like herself, Nerman decided to create one during her senior year. She and Fred Oakford ’71 organized a series of meetings in dorms where students of any sexual orientation could learn about and discuss the challenges they faced.
Later that year, their cohort became a registered voluntary student organization: the Gay People’s Union (GPU). The terms LGBT, LGBTQ and LGBTQ+, however, did not become standard until later.
Nerman felt inspired to start the group after joining a gay rights organization off campus and experiencing the strength of community there, while also witnessing the struggles many members faced because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
“I started going to Gay Women’s Liberation in San Francisco in 1970 and there were quite a few young women there who had tried to commit suicide because they were gay,” Nerman said.
She hadn’t experienced that level of distress herself, which she attributes to her “fairly supportive” parents and newfound friends. As a result, Nerman wanted to create community for others. Hearing the San Francisco gay women’s stories of isolation and self harm made her feel compelled to prevent this pain in her Stanford community.
In San Francisco, Nerman also joined forces with noted activist Phillis Lyon, one of the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the United States’ first national lesbian organization.
“We were speaking in high schools in San Francisco about being gay to educate people,” Nerman recalls, “And I thought, ‘I need to do this at Stanford, too.’”
Founding a student group centered around LGBT identity was risky in 1971. Many gay students and faculty, including Nerman, feared being expelled or fired for “moral turpitude,” a vague legal concept that refers to conduct that violates “accepted” community standards. Both students and professors knew they had to tread carefully when discussing gay people, lest they violate accepted University norms.
For example, English professor Ron Rebholz, who was himself gay but did not discuss it at work, remembered the department chair calling him in one day in 1963 to ask if another professor being considered for hire was “a homosexual.” Rebholz lied so that the candidate would have a chance at the job, according to his account in “Memories from the Farm,” a 1995 compilation of recollections from lesbian, gay and bisexual students and faculty.
Luckily, when it came to the Gay Students’ Union, Nerman said, “Stanford ended up being wonderful. It wasn’t an issue, but, you know, I decided that was a risk I wanted to take.”
Many LGBTQ+ groups have emerged at Stanford since Nerman’s original effort four and a half decades ago. A number have called the second floor of the Firetruck House their home. Stanford’s queer community has congregated there since the Gay People’s Union moved in during the summer of 1974, and the space proved invaluable to students who visited it — and even to some who didn’t.
“Just knowing it was there was a big help,” wrote Ken Koontz ’81 in “Memories from the Farm.” Koontz struggled to explain his sexuality to himself and others as a college student. He entered Stanford with both a girlfriend and a history of secret crushes on male classmates — secret because he had been taught as a child that to be gay was to be a “pervert” who pursued a “life of sin.” Koontz went through a period of depression in his sophomore year after realizing he’d fallen for a male classmate and could not change his feelings. He said, however, that the students he glimpsed entering and exiting the Firetruck House provided a hint that acceptance would be possible later on.
The Firehouse stood as a physical reminder that an LGBTQ+ community and support system existed at Stanford.
“As my sophomore year at Stanford began, I found myself disillusioned with dating guys and trying to figure out what was missing,” recalled Ann Mei Chang ’88. “A few weeks later, I made my way to the Old Firehouse, climbing up the outside stairs after walking by a few times.” Inside, Chang discovered a welcoming group of women she credits with both providing her close friendship and inspiring her to later support others coming out.
The second-floor resource center for gay and lesbian students was initially only accessible via stairs on the outside of the building, notes Claude Baudoin, MS ’74, co-leader of Stanford Pride’s Oral History Project. These stairs were visible from the busy seating area behind Tresidder.
“I know that I sat outside the Old Firehouse [for] three or four Wednesday nights before I got up the nerve to climb those stairs,” wrote Scott Stocker ’90 in “Memories from the Farm.” “But once I did, my whole life changed, suddenly and completely. I found a wonderful community of friends there who became virtually my entire world at Stanford.”
Stanford’s queer-oriented spaces have expanded beyond the undergraduate years — alumni receive support as well through organizations such as Stanford Pride. In 1994, former GPU members founded Gay and Lesbian Alumni (GALA), which has been known as Stanford Pride since 2002.
Stanford Pride aims to “create and foster a diverse Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning and Intersex (LGBTQQI) affirming community of alumni, students, faculty and staff,” according to the organization’s website. In 2011, the group hosted events and compiled videos and written memories from LGBT+ alumni to commemorate the 40 years of organized LGBT community on campus.
Spaces have also expanded far beyond the Firehouse. Though they have come and gone over the years, various co-ops have served the LGBTQ+ community in particular, from Androgyny House of the 1970s to today’s Terra. LGBTQ+ student groups have formed catering specifically to a number of ethnic and religious identities and to those who have common academic interests.
Despite progress for many gay and lesbian students, however, early organizations did not always seem welcoming to students of color or to those who were transgender.
“There wasn’t really a group at Stanford that spoke to us or really took our needs into consideration,” said Toni Long ’92, founder of Black and Queer at Stanford (BlaQs).
During her time at Stanford, Long recalls BlaQs as a “kind of a social club, if you will, under an official moniker. It was a way for us to identify each other and socialize and offer support.” The group still exists today and has since become a registered student organization.
In addition to providing social support for its members, Long noted the important role LGBT organizations played at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
“At the time I was a student, we did things called speakers bureaus where we’d go around and talk to students and dorms about what it was like to be gay,” she said. “There was a lot of time spent dispelling harmful stereotypes and myths around being queer and also building community within the gay community, and building a community with our non-queer allies.”
The name “BlaQs” also reflects changing terminology and a growing understanding that to fight only for gay rights was insufficient. Long discussed the term “queer,” a reclaimed slur that the LGBTQ+ community had begun to use as a positive and inclusive self-identifier by the early ’90s.
“‘Queer,’ for us, is all-encompassing,” said Long. “It represents gays, lesbians, bisexuals, people who are transgender. It encompasses everyone within the community without getting lost in alphabet soup.”
Daniel Bao ’88, M.A. ’90 was the treasurer of the Stanford AIDS Education Project as an undergrad, but he said his involvement with LGBTQ+ student groups at the time extended to “all of them, sort of.”
Bao often interacted and sometimes clashed with university administrators in his student group leadership roles. He recalls most administrators as “nice but ineffective.” Bao and others in his class, however, persistently pushed the university for changes. Their demands included an updated nondiscrimination policy and institutional support for the Firetruck House — both of which they achieved by the end of Bao’s time at Stanford.
Although LGBTQ+ community had expanded on campus during the 1970s and ’80s, Bao said a number of students worried about publicizing their identity or their involvement in the movement. “I think it helped that I had grown up Chinese in Argentina because I was used to being an outcast in that way,” Bao said of his willingness to be out and an activist.
Despite the gradual expansion of rights, community and visibility for many LGBTQ+ students at Stanford throughout the end of the 20th century, Stanford’s transgender students still struggled to achieve official recognition from the administration or early activist organizations. Instead, they have formed informal but close-knit support systems for each other over the years.
“In 2013, my first year at Stanford, the trans community was small and tight,” said Lily Zheng ’17. “There were a handful of trans women and trans men on campus, and we were all close friends out of necessity.”
“At that point in time, support for trans people in policy and practice was entirely based on the presence of supportive staff members and cisgender allies,” she continued.
Zheng said that later in her Stanford experience and over the past two years, “the number of informal and formal resources to support the trans community has exploded.” A number of University divisions including CAPS, Student Services, the Haas Center for Public Service and ResEd have made trans inclusion efforts such as adding gender neutral bathrooms or hosting workshops on transgender issues.
2019: Student-led initiatives still shine
Thirty years after the queer community began congregating on the second floor of the Firetruck House, Tee Hoatson ’20 found what they called a “home away from home” in the same space. There, in a bright room lined with books and windows, is the Queer Student Resources Center, or QSpot.
The Firetruck House’s second-floor resource center has seen a number of changes over the years. Most recently, in 2016, QSpot acquired its present name, and it hired new directors in 2017 and 2018. The center had previously been known as the LGBT Community Resources Center.
Hoatson, who works at QSpot as a student staff member, said programming and events have become more student-directed over the past few years since the rebranding. They called QSpot “the center of a large network” of LGBT spaces and communities, noting that the center allowed them to meet friends and connect with multiple activist organizations.
Hoatson pointed out that these days, college presents an opportunity for LGBTQ+ students to learn about the history of the queer movement — in classes, from identifying professors, and through community centers and events. Stanford in particular has grown immensely in its ability to serve the community, from its qualms about hiring gay faculty in the 1970s to its 2014 designation by the Princeton Review as the country’s most LGBT-friendly campus.
The work of establishing LGBTQ+ representation and equality on campus is far from finished, though, and the current directors of Queer Student Resources say they keep historical inequities in mind when considering how to move forward. “There has always been a tendency — at Stanford, as elsewhere — for LGBTQ organizations to skew heavily to the most privileged groups (white, or cis, or men, or masc, able-bodied or economically privileged),” wrote QSpot director Ben Davidson in an email to The Daily, in conjunction with his co-directors Taylor Hodges and Danny Alvarez.
“The work of building truly inclusive, diverse queer movements and communities is critically important and incredibly hard, given all the historical forces mitigating (always!) against it,” wrote Davidson. “This is what we’re trying to do at QSR. We don’t always get it right, but we’ll never stop trying.”
Contact Jasmine Kerber at jkerber ‘at’ stanford.edu.