In the early evening of March 10, 1972, while excited undergraduates prepared for a dance in the student union ballroom of the University of Georgia, a longhaired sophomore in tight pants was standing against the building’s massive front columns, reviewing his band’s set list, when a seedy looking older man laboriously made his way up the steps and startled him. The stranger—with a red face and a comb-over—came bearing a message: The Ku Klux Klan did not approve of the night’s scheduled event.
Not even its organizers had completely believed this particular dance would take place, and disaster was still quite possible. Forbidding American college students to dance rarely seems like a tenable position, but up to the very day it was scheduled, administrators at the university felt they had not only public opinion but also the law on their side in blocking it. These students didn’t merely want to dance. They wanted to dance with classmates of the same sex, in Memorial Ballroom no less. They wanted to raise awareness of the fledgling Committee on Gay Education, a group that had raised far more awareness already than the university was comfortable with in its three and a half months of existence.
Founded by two seniors, Bill Green and John Hoard, the Committee on Gay Education had secured the ballroom through subterfuge—another student organization had reserved the space. But the administration’s trump card was that these troublemaking hippies were proposing to use school property to incite felonies—sodomy. With letters and calls pouring in from outraged parents and students, the situation had the potential to be “explosive,” administrators agreed, not least because the dance organizers had booked Diamond Lil, a singing drag performer from Atlanta.
Hoard and Green’s plan was not the first of its kind. By this time in America, early gay student groups had already held on-campus dances at Cornell, Oberlin, the University of Minnesota, and the University of California–Berkeley, and similar fêtes were in the works all over the country. Almost simultaneously, the Lawrence Gay Liberation Front at the University of Kansas was petitioning for formal recognition and planning its own first dance.
But this was the early 1970s in the Deep South. Could the Georgia students pull it off?
John Hoard didn’t know what to expect when he arrived at college in the fall of 1968. As the state’s flagship university, chartered in 1785, the University of Georgia represented a bastion of Southern tradition, embodied in the campus’s graceful nineteenth-century brick buildings and the gnarled oaks and magnolias that shaded its quads through the hot Athens days. While the school’s football glory drew fans from all over the state, its bowl chances ranked fairly low on Hoard’s list of concerns.
Would college be a kind of continuation of high school in Savannah? There he and his friends were consumed by schoolwork and competed for top academic honors, flying under the radar socially, neither popular nor the targets of bullies. No one in high school even seemed to notice that Hoard was gay, though to him it felt excruciatingly obvious.
He didn’t know who he’d be in college. The shy boy lost in reveries during class about his crushes; who spent his afternoons in the public library reading academic treatises on homosexuality to understand the feelings he couldn’t even tell his friends or parents about? Or the bolder young man who’d learned after graduation that all that time downtown Savannah had been a hotspot on weekends for gay people, who traveled from all over the region to congregate in its historic squares and cobbled streets. Hoard had spent a thrilling summer driving to South Carolina on weekends with his first gay friends to hit the wild nightclubs that admitted seventeen-year-olds.
In many ways it looked like he might be the former. His parents didn’t have much money to fund his college education, and with his uncles’ encouragement, he’d applied for and received an ROTC scholarship, which he felt somewhat ambivalent about. He’d also applied to attend Freshman Camp, a fall retreat for a few freshmen chosen by the university as potential leaders. When it came time to board the bus to get dumped off in the Oconee National Forest and sleep in cabins with a bunch of kids he didn’t know, his social anxiety kicked in again.
Many American stories hinge on young people disappearing into forests and emerging changed, wiser and self-possessed. As it turned out, the muggy long weekend in the forest, probably routine for the administrators who put it on, would profoundly influence Hoard’s life. The friends he met were smart but also cool, interested like he was in the Civil Rights and antiwar movements and passionate in their hatred of Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate in the upcoming presidential election. They took seriously the retreat’s message that they could be leaders whether or not they joined the Greek system that had long dominated campus social life. They rapped in discussion sessions, put on skits, and hiked the woods. Visiting university officials delivered encomiums to their potential to make a difference and urged them to make the most of their time in college.
This encouragement would come to have unintended consequences for the university. Despite his shyness, Hoard quickly bonded with many fellow students, and one in particular stood out as a kindred spirit—Asa William Green, then known as Bill. Green came from Albany, Georgia and shared many of Hoard’s intellectual interests as well as his idealism. “John and I hit it off real quickly,” said Green in a 2013 interview. “We had the same sense of humor and just really liked each other.” They also shared in common another trait that might not have been obvious to all their peers—Green was gay too, and out with his closer friends. He didn’t see this as any hindrance to a bright future at the university. By the end of the weekend, the two friends returned to school energized to make their marks.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!
Though William Wordsworth was writing of the French Revolution, his words capture what many feel about the various revolutions of the 1960s, and particularly 1968, a thrilling time to be in college, especially for those infected with the passion to change the world. While UGA never experienced uprisings on the level of a Columbia or a Berkeley, before Hoard and Green’s arrival a small but influential campus left had developed in the wake of the ugliness that surrounded the school’s court-imposed desegregation in 1961. That year Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes had received taunts and physical threats when registering for classes as the university’s first black undergraduates. A mob of two thousand people had gathered outside Hunter’s dorm, shouting racist epithets and hurling rocks, bricks, bottles, and even firecrackers, injuring the dean of men and breaking sixty windowpanes before police stopped them with fire hoses and tear gas.
For some white students at Southern universities, witnessing the struggles and successes of the brave black students who had begun organizing at African-American colleges in the late 1950s provided a catalyst for their own entrance into social justice activism. Hoard and Green were just two of the many young people who’d read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, or wondered why black kids in their towns had attended dilapidated schools while they rode buses to air conditioned new ones. Compounding this trend, the student body of UGA nearly doubled during the 1960s, bringing greater diversity of opinion and belief. At the same time, an ongoing push to increase the university’s national standing resulted in the hiring of a wave of younger professors from prestigious graduate programs, many of whom brought more liberal political perspectives.
Only a year earlier, female students had been forbidden to wear pants or shorts on campus, but in the fall of 1967, the Women’s Student Government Association voted out the dress code. In the spring of 1968 the campus’s tiny chapter of Students for a Democratic Society had helped plan a demonstration that eventually led to a three-day takeover of the ornate, white-columned Academic Building in protest of restrictive curfews and regulations imposed on female students. Several hundred students participated in what was the most dramatic manifestation of the student movement at UGA to date. By the fall, the student handbook no longer distinguished between women and men. Now girls were wearing flared jeans and boys were growing out their hair. Rock music floated from the windows of the dorms.
Anything was possible, even love. After Freshman Camp jump-started his social life, Hoard began to emerge from his shell. He’d never had a boyfriend, until one night when he attended a party at the home of the “Family,” a local band of hippies who lived communally. There, he met Dave, a quiet, handsome social-work major with big muscles and a National Merit Scholarship. Dave and John soon became a couple. The next fall, instead of returning to the dorms they rented a small brick bungalow near campus that an elderly woman offered to the two fresh-faced “roommates” for only thirty-six dollars a month. They set up housekeeping, young and in love. Still, this aspect of their identities remained mostly private. “Back then it was okay if friends knew, but you didn’t want anybody else knowing,” said Green.
Athens was a quiet town at the time. Nearly half of its 40,000-plus population was university students, and it had only glimmerings of the bar and café scene that would later make it a destination. Apart from the university, the town’s largest employers were manufacturing plants and textile mills. It was predominantly white and fairly conservative.
The university was a very different place by the time Green and Hoard arrived than it had been seven years before, when Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes had braved harassment and threats. However, openly proclaiming a non-heterosexual identity had long been an unthinkable prospect, and the violence in the South against proponents of racial civil rights throughout the sixties provided a chilling reminder of what could happen to dissidents. Wide swaths of Georgia had not yet complied with the Civil Rights legislation of the decade, or even the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Athens’ school system did not integrate until 1970, and other schools and public facilities across the state remained segregated even longer. A massive FBI effort was under way against the Ku Klux Klan, which continued to make its presence felt in many small towns. The FBI investigation had been spurred in part after Klan members from the Athens area had murdered Lemuel Penn, a black WWII veteran and Army Reserve officer who had been driving home from Fort Benning to Washington D.C. in the summer of 1964. Only a few years earlier, Hoard had found a KKK publication lying out on a table with other magazines at the county hospital where his grandfather was dying, and had read with shock its screeds against blacks, gays, Jews, and Catholics.
Hoard says he never felt unsafe in Athens, but others saw the town differently. “I definitely experienced Athens as redneck,” says Beth Levine, whose family moved there from New York in the late sixties. She matriculated at UGA in 1971. “I had some pretty not-great experiences with neighbors in high school who were racist. I wasn’t even identified as a lesbian at that point, but I had plenty of other things they held against me, you know—I was a ‘dirty Jew,’ I was a ‘damn Yankee,’ and I was a ‘nigger-lover.’ So that was my experience of the general population of Athens. It was only a little bit better on campus.”
Despite such pressure, an underground gay social scene existed in Athens alongside the frat parties and football games that were the public face of college life. By the late sixties, some of its members were growing bolder. Lesbian and gay locals and students would hang out on the corner across from the main entrance to campus in front of the old Varsity restaurant; they also picked each other up at a bookstore with “dirty books” in the back, and in the library on north campus. Faculty members and others outside of the dorms threw house parties and salons, where LGBT people could socialize without threat. And at an out-of-the-way bar patronized mainly by African Americans, guys could dance with guys and girls with girls without harassment, though at the nightclubs closer to campus same-sex dancing was still unthinkable.
Around the country, things were changing. Hoard’s friend, Richard Harveston, also a student at the time, remembers fondly the weekend trips he took with his friends to the gay bars in Atlanta, spring breaks in Daytona Beach, and visits to other Southern schools to hook up with guys after UGA football games: “There were a group of us who went to every football game and behaved outrageously.” While some students remained closeted and apprehensive, others felt empowered by the dramatic cultural shift that had permeated all regions of the U.S. by then. As James T. Sears shows in his delightful 2001 book Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South, many Southern cities already had vibrant gay subcultures at that time, which provided bases for the nascent gay liberation effort. While few LGBT people in Athens were public about their identities, the university offered a comparatively bohemian enclave for some of them to begin to explore their sexuality more openly.
“We were frightened of course,” says Harveston, “but the whole idea of a gay movement was in its infancy. The excitement of discovery for the most part kept the fears at bay. We were young, foolish, and happy.”
Still, all of this might have remained a personal matter if it hadn’t been for the Stonewall uprising in the summer of 1969, which galvanized LGBT people all over the country to stand up for their rights. As sophomores that fall, Green and Hoard eagerly followed the coverage of the Georgia Gay Liberation Front and the action in New York City in underground newspapers, such as Atlanta’s Great Speckled Bird.
Hoard and Green had ended up in different friend circles freshman year, but they still ran into each other in Athens, often in tandem with political activism, and both were highly interested in the post-Stonewall organizing taking place. They began throwing around the idea of forming a student group that would provide a gathering place for gay people, and would educate the larger public about their issues.
Neither Hoard nor Green had come out yet to his respective parents.
An only child, Hoard was close with his mother and father, Hazel and John Sr., whom he credits with instilling his sunny disposition and self-confidence. “Shoot the moon,” Hazel always told him. She and his father had come of age during the Great Depression and hadn’t had the chance to pursue formal education beyond high school, though both were intellectually curious. John Sr., who had become manager of a trucking company after many years of driving, loved to draw and paint, and would marvel over the brushstrokes of the Impressionists in the art books he’d bring home. The couple praised their son’s accomplishments, and if he failed at something they never seemed disappointed. Neither parent was religiously conservative, though they were reverent—from time to time the family would choose a church of any denomination and attend a service, John’s favorites being some Southern Baptists who waved their hands theatrically and spoke in tongues. When he’d decided at thirteen to convert to Catholicism, his parents mostly let him go to mass on his own.
Even so, the thought of hurting them by revealing his sexual orientation anguished Hoard. He didn’t know how he’d tell them. Ultimately it would be the lamented ROTC scholarship that ended up forcing his decision. At the heights of opposition to the war, when young men were combing resources like David Suttler’s IV-F: a Guide to Medical, Psychiatric, and Moral Unfitness Standards for Military Induction, gay men were still prohibited from serving in the military, and “checking the box” on a draft form and acknowledging “homosexual tendencies” offered an alternative to Vietnam—an alternative, however, that brought with it the specter of lifelong shame and job discrimination.
Hoard and most of his friends had come to oppose the war. Two years of ROTC had been mandatory at the time they’d begun college, and dissenters like Bill Green thumbed their noses at the institution by marching sloppily and refusing to cut their hair. “The Goon Platoon,” they proudly called themselves. The drive to get military recruiters off campus had been a big part of Green’s political education. Though he didn’t consider himself a strict pacifist, the Vietnam conflict infuriated him. “We were just pissing away American lives,” he said.
Nonetheless, Hoard continued to serve dutifully, even though he didn’t want to go to war, even as an officer, and had attended the massive march on Washington for peace in Vietnam in the fall. Finally, near the end of his sophomore year Hoard decided to take the plunge—he would visit his advisor’s office and confess, offering to remain in the program if they still wanted him.
And he would have to tell his parents.
When the time for that came, there was a drawn-out, tearful scene in the motel room Hazel and John Sr. had rented in Athens after driving all the way from Savannah. Yet while the night felt awful and while John Sr. and Hazel felt sorrow at the possibility that their talented son could be discriminated against in his future career or have to hide his identity socially, what they most wanted to know was whether he was happy. They did not express disappointment. They liked Dave and were glad John had a companion.
The next step was to tell his advisor, and not long afterward, Hoard found himself being bundled off to Fort McPherson in Atlanta for psychiatric evaluation. You couldn’t just say you were gay and be exempt—you had to convince the military. He was escorted past the guards, through the grounds, into an office, where a young doctor questioned him about his sexual feelings. Some gay men of Hoard’s generation have written about being humiliated at the draft board office, forced to walk through lines with “Sexual Deviant” scrawled in bold letters across their applications or pressured to recant. But the doctor in Atlanta listened seriously to Hoard and treated him with sympathy. “He said he didn’t think there was anything wrong about it,” Hoard said.
The military gave him an honorable discharge, which he speculates may have been related to his stated willingness to continue with ROTC. He was free, even if his next two years of college would involve student loans and random jobs, scooping soft-serve ice cream at the student union and working in a horticulture-department greenhouse. He was nineteen years old.
At the beginning of May, before the school year closed, antiwar sentiment on campus exploded. The nation was rocked by the news of the shooting of college protestors at Kent State University, and though protests against the war had been occurring regularly at the University of Georgia, all previous incidents were dwarfed by the uprisings that followed, confusing days that involved up to four thousand people at their peak as students marched through the streets of Athens and on campus chanting, waving black flags, breaking windows of university buildings to gain entrance, and demanding that the university’s president publicly denounce the killings at Kent State and the war itself. Classes were made optional for two days and a restraining order requested by the university against Students for a Democratic Society and “John Doe one through 500.” Officials narrowly persuaded students from occupying the ROTC building, and while no major violence occurred, the community was badly shaken.
After the events of that spring, Hoard felt there was no reason not to start work on the Committee on Gay Education that he and Bill Green had dreamed up. “I think part of what Stonewall gave us was that you can’t be invisible anymore,” Hoard says. “You can’t hide and live somebody else’s life, you’ve got to live your own life. But in order to do that and to do it under the rules of the university, you really had to be a kind of student organization.” By the fall of 1971, senior year, they were ready to pull the trigger. Green and Hoard determined that they’d need a faculty advisor, a meeting place, a publicity strategy, and an agenda of activities to pursue. With the help of their friends, it wasn’t long before each of these steps was realized, and in November the Committee on Gay Education had formed.
A gay liberation group at University of Georgia was a truly radical proposition, but its rollout began unexpectedly smoothly. Amazingly, Hoard and Green quickly managed to find a faculty advisor—Dr. Karl King, a family sociologist who taught sex education courses in the Home Economics department. He was progressive enough to win the respect of young college students in general, while still emphasizing the value of monogamous, companionate marriage, which he described in a sex-positive framework that didn’t seem diametrically opposed to the spirit of the sexual revolution. A go-to source for the Red and Black, UGA’s campus newspaper, about sexual issues, King believed that sex should be discussed openly between parents and children and that ignorance about sexuality resulted in unhealthy attitudes and unhappy relationships. So when Green and Hoard told him about their new group, King agreed that the educational dimension could be valuable.
Securing King’s support was a coup, and once he was on board there was no going back. In keeping with his beliefs on the importance of openness, King proposed a plan: to advertise the first Committee organizational meeting, Hoard and Green would visit King’s popular “Family Relations” classes and act as guest speakers on the topic of homosexuality.
So the two were soon standing—hearts pounding—before lecture halls filled with as many as two hundred students, proving the strength of their conviction. University of Georgia students in those days were not always the most well-informed or mature when it came to sexual matters, as King had told student reporters. But his students listened respectfully. To connect with their audience, Green and Hoard made the discussion personal and put their experience in the context of the university community, speculating that there were perhaps three or four hundred gay students at UGA, many of whom were closeted. “Many homosexuals come to the university and go through four years here and leave without having met another homosexual,” Green told them in explaining one of the purposes of the Committee on Gay Education.
He spoke of the isolation he’d felt as an adolescent as he realized he was gay, since while he knew he wasn’t straight, he didn’t identify with the “obvious homosexuals on the street” who were the only examples he knew of non-heterosexual men. Hoard spoke of the terror he felt before coming out to his parents. But the two also assured their listeners that being gay wasn’t all doom and gloom, that once they accepted their sexual orientation they were happy, that they were proud of who they were.
Then came the questions. “We’d typically get, as you can imagine, some of the most bizarre and embarrassing questions,” says Hoard. “People asked us if we wore dresses all the time. They really didn’t understand the distinction between transvestism and gay sex. They didn’t have any idea in the sex ed classes—they really wanted to know, you know, exactly what we did.”
But as terrifying as it was for the pair to stand in front of hundreds of their peers and discuss their sexuality in specific detail, Hoard and Green took the mission seriously. “We felt like, well, this is education—we might as well take what we know and what the range of activities are. So we’d answer the questions. I mean, it was just . . . you can imagine the adrenaline you’d get in front of all these people just baring your soul.”
The night before the first Committee meeting, Hoard and Green reprised their presentation for another few hundred students who attended an event hosted by an organization for resident assistants. At this night’s Q&A, one person asked if speaking so publicly about their sexual orientation made them afraid.
“Yes,” Hoard replied. “But we have faith in society. We think it has the potential to change, and we think it will.”
On Wednesday, November 10, 1971, fliers appeared throughout the University of Georgia campus, causing a ripple of shock to vibrate through its hallowed halls. COME OUT! the fliers merrily suggested. ALL PEOPLE—GAY—STRAIGHT—AND BI—ARE INVITED TO COME AND LIBERATE THEMSELVES!
Hoard and Green couldn’t have asked for better publicity for the first Committee meeting. Anyone mystified by the posters could quickly be brought to speed by that day’s issue of the student newspaper. Above the fold in the Red and Black, an article described the previous night’s Q&A, and reported that the organizational meeting would be held that evening in the auditorium of the Home Economics building. “Gay Students Try for Understanding,” the headline read.
Inside, editor Rex Granum’s column, titled “Those Who Are Different,” described Green and Hoard’s presentations to the sex-ed classes, treating their cause sympathetically and applauding them for speaking out.
Not everyone found Green and Hoard’s publicity campaign as admirable as Granum did, however. Fearful of scandal and troubled by the Red and Black’s supportive stance, the university’s administration began documenting these developments in a series of internal missives. Their records on the activities of the Committee on Gay Education (a file which would soon swell) begin with a memo by the associate dean of student affairs, Mary Louise McBee, on the group’s first few days of existence. She reported that “Notices appeared throughout the campus announcing the meeting on Wednesday night. One of these announcements resulted in a professor calling the Provost to inquire ‘What the hell is going on here?’”
Still, after “much discussion,” she summarized, the administrators agreed they would not interfere with the organizational meeting, which some sleuthing revealed had received assistance from Dr. King, who had reserved the auditorium for the Committee. That evening, nearly seventy people showed up, according to their count.
The next day, after news of the Committee had traveled beyond the boundaries of the campus, the administration’s ire had not been reduced by the fact that many of its members, including the president of the university, had been bombarded with angry phone calls to their homes throughout the previous evening. In her memo, McBee wrote that Jim Kenney, associate to the provost, was particularly upset about the calls and called for a meeting that day to strategize a response. “In this meeting he very emphatically stated his position regarding the recognition of this group. Simply put, that it is not to be recognized!” A highly agitated Kenney called the board of Regents, consulted lawyers, and spoke with Karl King. “I cannot emphasize strongly enough how very negative he feels about the whole matter,” McBee wrote, concluding that day’s memo.
But this opposition, as yet unknown to Hoard and Green, was not the foremost among their immediate challenges. With all the drama surrounding him on campus, Bill Green could no longer avoid coming out to his family, which scared him more than coming out to hundreds of peers. No longer could his life be double.
That weekend he made the two-hundred-mile journey home to Albany and braced himself for the painful conversation. “I got to my mom before the paper did. I took her a copy of the paper, as a matter of fact. She cried for about two days, and then she was alright. She wasn’t upset that I was gay, she was upset that I was being so open about it, I think, and possible dangers of that.”
His brother and sister were more encouraging. “When I came home that weekend to let them know that I was gay and that the whole world was going to know about it, I asked my brother how he felt about it, and he said, ‘Well, is being gay something new or have you always been that way?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ve always been this way.’ And he said, ‘Well there’s nothing you can do then, is there?’ and I said, ‘No, I guess not.’ So that was kind of all that was said between me and my brother.”
Green’s father, however, was not ready to accept this truth about his son. Green was unable to tell him in person before returning to Athens, and it would be several years before they spoke to each other again.
UGA’s administration categorically refused, even after several sometimes-emotional meetings, to recognize the Committee on Gay Education. But in other ways the group’s first few months of existence went as well as Green and Hoard could have hoped. King continued to serve as faculty advisor, and in addition to their meetings, the group organized movie nights with gay and lesbian themes. Straight representatives of the student senate had met with administrators to voice support for formal recognition of the Committee, and the Red and Black had continued to provide sympathetic coverage, mostly out of indignation that the school would interfere with anyone’s freedom of association.
During the first meeting of the new year, the group received a surprise visit from a University of Minnesota law student—Jack Baker, an openly gay student body president who had made national news in 1970 when he and his partner applied for a marriage license. Baker was on campus for a law enforcement conference. When the assembled students filled him in on the university’s repeated refusals to recognize their organization, he had advice: “I think you ought to throw the whole thing into the forum of public opinion,” he said. To move forward, he told a Red and Black reporter that night, gay people needed to “bring the hatred out and lay it on the table.”
“At what point do we stop laying low and start making ourselves known?” asked another student at that meeting, voicing what many members had come to feel. Holding a large, public event became the Committee’s ambition, despite the fact that the administration had refused even its request to hold a campus bake sale. Not long afterwards, a dance was proposed.
Why a dance? In real life, generally speaking, dancing probably isn’t as effective a political change agent as Hollywood movies seem to suggest, beguiling as it is to see stars leaping on tables or parting crowds at proms to denounce intolerance and change hearts and minds as music swells. Real life seldom unfolds to an apropos soundtrack. Still, all that said, and cynicism aside, who’s to say that a small group of high-spirited, idealistic young people can’tovercome improbable odds and defy repressive powers once in a while to change the world with the help of dance?
Large public dances hold an important place in American LGBT history. As George Chauncey documents in his seminal study, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940, opulent drag balls began to be regularly held in New York City in the nineteen-teens. By the 1930s, thousands of participants and spectators were attending the rollicking parties in Greenwich Village and Harlem, some of which were notable not only for their obvious tolerance of sexual differences but also for their ethnic and cultural diversity. As one spectator recounted of Harlem’s annual Hamilton Lodge Ball:
There were cornfed “pansies” from the deep South breaking traditional folds by mixing irrespective of race. There were the sophisticated “things” from Park Avenue and Broadway. There were the big black strapping “darlings” from the heart of Harlem. The Continent, Africa, and even Asia had their due share of “ambassadors.” The ball was a melting pot, different, exotic and unorthodox, but acceptable.
And while the dazzling costumes of male drag queens garnered the largest share of attention, lesbian couples and cross-dressing women attended the balls as well. Similarly successful balls took place in Chicago and New Orleans in the 1920s, with the drag balls in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood surviving into the 1950s.
The ball scene in New York would not outlast the 1930s. The city’s post-Prohibition campaign against “vice” began systematically targeting the city’s LGBT community and effectively shut down this particular social institution. Most U.S. states already condemned homosexuality through sodomy laws, but when New York’s state liquor authority declared even the presence of apparently gay patrons a form of “disorder,” anxious bar owners felt compelled to police gay visitors’ behavior, and the specific activity of dancing together became strictly verboten. Once again, parties at private residences would be the only safe places for gay people to gather and dance with some expectation of safety, though even these might be raided.
Yet when LGBT activists began to mobilize in greater numbers at the end of the 1960s, dances were among the first events planned. These events would raise money, raise consciousness, and raise participants’ confidence. Not insignificantly, the Stonewall Inn itself had been a popular place for LGBT people to clandestinely dance with each other. “The common interest of all gay people is freedom,” wrote the founders of University of Minnesota’s first gay liberation group, Fight Repression of Erotic Expression (FREE), in April 1969. “Freedom to walk hand in hand down the street, to embrace in public, to dance together, to live in peace with our lovers without feeling the guilt and shame that this straight, sick society has forced upon us.”
In the magical autumn of 1969, when Hoard and Green first began talking about forming the Committee on Gay Education, gay people were dancing all over the country.
At the same time that Cornell’s Student Homophile League was holding its first, quiet dances in Ithaca, the recently formed Gay Liberation Front in New York City was raising hundreds of dollars a night—significant money—at its own wildly popular dances at Alternate University, one of the free schools set up by leftist activists during the period. (A dispute over whether to donate some of this revenue to the Black Panthers led to the creation of the influential and longer-lasting Gay Activists Alliance, which would go on to hold its own dances.) And as it became clear at Cornell and other universities that openly gay students would not be expelled or punished, other college groups began taking more liberties. University of Minnestoa’s FREE held its first on-campus dance in October 1969. That school year, Cornell’s Student Homophile League partnered with Students for a Democratic Society, whose notorious Cornell chapter was the third largest in the country. They also began a large education and publicity campaign that involved speaking to classes and student groups. With the help of SDS, by 1970 the Student Homophile League’s dances had moved to the main room of the student union and regularly attracted large crowds.
But down in Georgia, the Committee on Gay Education did not know it was continuing a tradition; in those days, LGBT history remained mostly buried and news traveled slowly. The Committee on Gay Education just wanted to do something big and fun and defiant in Memorial Hall. A dance would be the perfect symbol of their assertion that they just wanted to express their affection for each other in the same way heterosexuals were allowed to do.
Quietly, the ballroom was reserved in early February by members of Intersect, a student group that helped facilitate programs and events on campus on behalf of students not acting as part of formally recognized groups. No mention of the Committee on Gay Education was made. March 10, the Friday before spring break, was secured as the auspicious day. At the next Committee meeting, Green, who had become the group’s de facto spokesperson, proclaimed that the dance would be “the first public gay function in the Southeast” and would likely draw national attention. “People are going to be surprised and very interested,” he told the Red and Black. The article printed the next day also revealed that Diamond Lil, an Atlanta drag performer and gay rights activist, might perform.
Though Green’s comment that it would be the first public gay event in the region wasn’t quite correct, it would still be a landmark—the first gay dance at a Southeastern university. And people were definitely surprised and interested, as the Committee would soon find. The morning that the Red and Black announced the plan to hold a dance on campus, John Cox, director of student activities, marched over and cancelled Intersect’s ballroom reservation.
As word spread, calls and letters condemning the dance began pouring in from angry students and parents. The dance soon cost the Committee one of its first key supporters: Karl King, who had made clear to the group that he would not be comfortable continuing to advise it if it branched out into activism. He submitted his resignation letter later that day, writing that the group’s purpose seemed to have “moved out of the umbrella of education into the arena of confrontation” and that he felt this was outside the scope of his professional training. “I sincerely hope that this action is not construed by the Directors or the membership as being a rejection of individuals or individual life styles,” King wrote, and commended the Committee’s leaders for their conduct. Copies of the letter were sent to several members of the administration, including his department head.
When Green and other Committee members protested the cancellation of the ballroom reservation with a sit-in at Cox’s office, the somber-faced dean of student affairs, O. Suthern Sims, appeared after two hours and told them that the university could be held liable for abetting a crime, since the event implied intention to violate the state’s sodomy laws. If a dance were to be allowed, a decision would have to be made in court. At one point, Sims allegedly told the students that they could request a temporary injunction that would prevent the university from canceling the reservation; the Red and Black reported that Sims said he thought Intersect would probably win such a motion, though the next day director of student judicial affairs William Bracewell vehemently denied in the paper that any such statements had been made.
The dance did have educational value, Bill Green insisted. “Our purpose in holding this dance is to have a large number of gays turn out, have a nice evening, and leave; and for the world to look at it and realize the world hasn’t come to an end,” he told the Red and Black.
Actually, despite Bracewell’s denial that Sims suggested the students seek legal recourse, he and Sims had already discussed bringing the dispute into the legal arena. Two days before the Committee meeting in which the dance was even announced, Sims and Bracewell had met to discuss how to shut down the Committee’s bid for recognition, with Bracewell advocating bringing the issue to court as a means of circumventing the student senate, which would undoubtedly approve the group. The gay students would be allowed to apply and then be denied on the basis of their supposed encouragement of “unlawful acts.” They would then be encouraged to bring a preliminary injunction against Sims in court, where Bracewell assumed they’d be denied. “By making their recognition a legal matter,” he wrote in his memo to Sims, “you can make the matter an administrative responsibility rather than a Student Senate matter…. I personally believe this approach will be clean and neat, and should move quickly.”
Perhaps the dance scheme would prove too ambitious—Hoard was growing skeptical—but the Committee decided to barrel ahead anyway. As it turned out, the student body was not uniformly opposed to a gay dance. In an editorial, the Red and Black accused the administration of pandering to the “money-controlling legislature” and of “passing the buck” through fear of negative publicity. “Why can’t you explain to the legislators and the people of the state that most students aren’t gays, that most students aren’t drunken bums or whores, and that most professors aren’t radicals, but that every person and every group has a right to public expression and personal freedom if he does no one else harm? Even if they are in the minority?”
In any case, apart from securing Memorial Ballroom, the Committee still had a party to plan. If it was going to hold a dance, people were going to need something to dance to, since in 1972 college dances still featured live music. But the first bands Bill Green approached turned him down. As the dance approached, an opening act had not yet been found for Diamond Lil, who could hardly be expected to perform for three straight hours, high-octane as she was.
Fortunately, someone directed Green to the one group in Athens sure to say yes, a band not only unafraid of controversy, but a little in love with it. In its short history, Ravenstone had already generated its share of notoriety. The lead singer, Michael Simpson, a willowy young man with long dark hair and sharp features, loved rabble-rousing as much as he loved rock and roll, and his bandmates, Ralph Towler, Dwight Brown, Butch Blasingame, and Bill Wilson, were willing to join in. A few years earlier Simpson had been the editor of his high school newspaper in the small town of Forest Park, Georgia. Now he was strutting across stages in Athens in a tight top, screen-printed with an upside-down cross and the number 666 (designed by Simpson himself), exhorting the crowd between songs to consider the lives being lost in Vietnam and to question authority at all levels. Offstage, group members could be found helping with left-leaning causes in Athens. Their antics captured enough local imaginations that within only months of existence they had been featured in a story in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution under the headline “5 Set Politics to Music,” in which the band members suggested they might form a campus political party called the Ravenstone Coalition. After meeting in a history of drama class, they’d taken their name from a favorite line in Faust referring to a gallows-mound where witches were executed:
FAUST: What weaving are they round the Ravenstone?
MEPHISTOPHELES: I know not what they are brewing and doing.
The alternative music scene that would put Athens on the map in the 1980s had not yet coalesced—cover bands reigned. Ravenstone’s stage presence, less familiar influences (they preferred the music of the British Invasion and proto-punks like Iggy Pop to the Southern rock that dominated the regional scene), and original material quickly made them a hot ticket. Ravenstone did not have a particular gay following, and they would perhaps be an odd pairing with fabulous Diamond Lil (Simpson’s occasional use of eyeliner notwithstanding), but they would be a solid choice for the dance.
The dance would, in fact, be welcome publicity for the band, as well as a good fit. After its profile was published in the Journal and Constitution, the group had gone ahead and started that new student government party, along with other champions of various progressive causes—the “Coalition” party. When Green approached Simpson in the student union, the band had been planning its own event in Memorial Ballroom for the same week to promote Coalition’s platform. “I just remember that he was so determined that the dance was going to happen,” recalls Simpson. “And I just really admired the fact that here the administration is saying, ‘No, you can’t, it will promote sodomy,’ and all these ridiculous things, and he’s saying, ‘Where’s your lawyer?’ and ‘We’re going to fight this.’ That really appealed to my rabble-rousing instincts, so I just immediately was like, ‘Yes, we’ll play, we’ll all play, we’ll get it done!’” At rehearsal, his bandmates enthusiastically agreed.
The entertainment secured, Green returned to his fight with the administration, which included traveling to Atlanta to meet with ACLU lawyers to discuss whether his group had a case.
As much as the administration was doing to keep the event from happening, some disgusted social conservatives felt it wasn’t enough. A week before the dance was to be held, same-sex affection was sighted at a Ravenstone concert on campus, and one undergraduate took it upon himself to alert the powers that be. “During this concert I observed males dancing with each other, holding hands and kissing each other,” Paul T. Lange wrote in a letter to the Red and Black detailing his quest for the restoration of propriety. “I immediately returned home and called Dean O. Suthern Sims to inform him of this matter since I knew that he had taken the stand to uphold the laws of the Sovereign State of Georgia. He could not be located, however. I then called Mr. William Bracewell who took no action other than telling me to call the dean the next day. This I did yesterday, but the dean was not in. On last Friday night, a friend of mine observed a similar scene and informed the dean of the activity which was in Memorial Hall and sponsored by Intersect. Dean Sims thanked him for his call but took no positive action to his knowledge. Now, Dean Sims knew of the occurrences on Friday but did nothing, Mr. Bracewell knew of the activities Tuesday night and did nothing, so it seems to me that if they are going to prevent sodomy and fornication on this campus they should do it uniformly or shut up.”
Things seemed to be going the administration’s way, however. The ACLU had declined to take on the Committee’s case, and even the local lawyers who had agreed to represent it, Bruce Lowry and Walter Henritze, Jr., admitted that the case was “super-unpopular.” If Bracewell was correct, the students’ complaint would easily be dispensed with, since the university was only upholding state law in denying the dance, and the students were not even entitled to the ballroom in the first place, as an unregistered organization.
On Thursday, March 9, the day before the dance, an equity complaint was filed on behalf of Bill Green, Nick Curry (another Committee member), and Rick Gilberg, the director of Intersect, accusing representatives of the University of Georgia of denying them freedom of speech, association, privacy, and equal protection under the law and requesting a temporary restraining order preventing the defendants from stopping the dance. A hearing was scheduled for 3 p.m. on Friday, to be presided over by Clarke County Superior Court Judge James Barrow.
In the judge, the Committee on Gay Education finally got a break. Barrow, despite being descended from families so prominent in the region that multiple streets and even a nearby county were named for them, was no old-guard partisan. With his wife, Phyllis, he had long been an active advocate for racial civil rights in the state. In 1964, he was the only local public official to offer to help the FBI with their investigation of the murder of Lemuel Penn, a black WWII veteran who had been killed by Klan members from Athens.
That Friday afternoon, anxious to learn the fate of the plans that had been consuming all their efforts, unsure if anyone would be dancing in Memorial Ballroom that night, Hoard and Green and several friends filed into the courtroom. Michael Simpson paced outside. When the hearing finally started, Dean Sims was called as the first witness. Clearly ill at ease under questioning, he disputed some of the quotes attributed to him by the Red and Blackarticles used as evidence and admitted that aside from Intersect’s problematic reservation of the ballroom the cancellation of the dance was in part political. In his testimony, Sims seemed reluctant to denounce the Committee on Gay Eduation or the dance outright, and mainly stuck to the bureaucratic aspects of whether Intersect had the right to reserve the ballroom and whether the administration could be accused of aiding and abetting sodomy.
For many of the hearers, the examination and cross examination of the awkward dean was painful, and it dragged on and on. The dance, if it would be allowed, was only hours away. “I remember sitting in the court and listening to the kinds of questions that the judge was asking. And as I recall the university made the case that they basically because of their role in loco parentis had to protect the students from this gay group,” recalls Hoard. “That they had the right and the obligation to prevent us from holding any kind of an event that might pollute their children or change them in some way.”
John Cox’s testimony wasn’t much more incisive than Sims’s. He begged ignorance or lack of memory on so many of the questions put to him that at one point Henritze drily asked, “You really don’t pay much attention to the programs on campus, do you?”
“I don’t sit down and review every program that goes on every day, no. I couldn’t perform my other duties if I did.”
“So, the only thing that alerted you to this particular situation was the words Gay Liberationand Education?”
“Yes,” Cox said. “It has a certain explosiveness about it that it caught the tone of students and staff almost immediately.” He estimated that more than a hundred students had commented negatively on the dance.
At ten minutes to six—the dance was scheduled for eight!—the plaintiffs finally rested, and Judge Barrow observed that the defendant (university president Fred Davison) had not been heard except through the cross examination of Sims and Cox, but that the event in question was to start in two hours. The university, he announced, in a surprising move, could continue its arguments at ten o’clock the next morning. But meanwhile: “We have spent this afternoon cross examining witnesses who are employees of this university—and I don’t think I need to tell anybody here that there are very few people in Georgia that love the university more than I do nor respect its values more than I do—but, under the Constitution of the United States, I think these people have a right to assemble on campus tonight for the purpose which they have expressed.”
The university, he said, was welcome to pursue a final trial before a jury if it so wished. “Your Honor,” protested Andrew Owen, the lawyer for the defendants, “it is my understanding that this ruling you have just made, this order that you have just entered, is going to be entered without having heard any argument on behalf of the defendants.” By the next morning, the question would be “moot.” Barrow disagreed. “I thought we had heard some argument—evidence, no.”
At 6:15, a temporary restraining order was issued by Barrow, stating that “It is hereby ordered and adjudged that the University of Georgia and the party defendants are restrained and enjoined from preventing the scheduled dance mentioned in the pleadings from taking place on March 10, 1972.”
The Committee on Gay Education had won!
The next few hours passed in a joyful blur as the news spread. “My recollection is they called the band house and said it’s on!” says Michael Simpson. “And then we had to run around, and we called Jimmy Ellison, one of our roadies, and said ‘you gotta come over here and help us pack up our all our equipment quickly!’ And we were like running crazily around trying to get ready to go. It was one of those last moment things. That was sort of the great vibe about it all.”
“There were a lot of very creative people, as you can imagine, working behind the scenes to get everything going,” John Hoard recalls. “It was fabulous.”
The dance was big news for far more people than just the fifty or so members of the Committee on Gay Education, and the news that it was on mobilized people from all over north Georgia to descend on campus that Friday evening as the sky darkened and the streetlamps came on. News crews from Atlanta arrived, as did supporters from the region who learned of the dance through the Georgia Gay Liberation Front or by reading about it in the Great Speckled Bird. It also brought a slew of people who were just curious to see what a gay dance would look like.
For the triumphant Committee members and their allies, this victory inaugurated the bash of a lifetime. To celebrate, people went home and put on their best party clothes, whether that meant a cool T-shirt or a floor-length gown. “People were in such a festive state of mind and they really dressed for the occasion. It was high glamour in a lot of ways,” says Hoard.
Among the young people excitedly preparing for the dance in Athens were Keith Strickland and Ricky Wilson, eighteen-year-old “townies,” friends who had grown up and attended high school there. “I actually remember what I wore,” says Strickland. “I feel like I had some sort of long cape on, but I’m not sure. I remember the silver pants and blouse. My friend Lucy, she used to wear this long velvet cape a lot, she always had a velvet cape on, so she was probably wearing that. I’m not sure what Ricky was wearing. Ricky would put together really amazing outfits.”
Though it would be four years before they would found the iconic dance-rock group the B-52’s with Wilson’s sister Cindy and two other friends, Strickland and Wilson were already becoming known in Athens for their flamboyant rock and roll looks—they’d fallen in love with glam rock and had taken to emulating stars like David Bowie and the New York Dolls and the beautiful boys and girls of the Andy Warhol superstar scene, teasing their long hair and wearing makeup and androgynous clothing on their jaunts through Athens.
“We were very defiant in our look, and it really became a daily practice almost,” says Strickland. “It was just like, you know, every day you would get dressed up really wildly. And it wasn’t just a gay thing. It wasn’t expressing our being gay. It was just part of that. It was part of a scene. It was very much rock and roll. It’s that age when you’re sort of finding your own identity in the world and where you fit in. We felt like outsiders, you know, and so this whole scene kind of empowered us. We could be ourselves, so to speak.”
Hair and makeup in place, the gang headed to campus in high spirits, capes fluttering in the balmy spring air. Yet as much as they enjoyed being over the top and playing at being Bowie, the majestically costumed teenagers got a jolt when they arrived at Memorial Hall and were confronted at its entrance by a throng of reporters and photographers, who must have been delighted at the appearance of this particular group.
For students at any gay college dance, the fear of being outed to their families on the TV news or in the newspaper was a real concern, and it kept some from even attending that night, as several told Hoard afterward. Even Strickland was rattled at first, though he quickly managed to take things in stride. “It’s something I wasn’t expecting at all. I was like, ‘Oh no, there are all these photographers,’ but I went, ‘Oh well, I’m dressed for it, so okay.’ When a reporter approached him, Strickland identified himself as the “Space Queen,” an alias he’d first invented earlier for a mock pageant on campus.
The media presence added danger to the event for those unready to go public about their sexuality, but it also drew a more sinister element to campus, one that most of the revelers were blessedly unaware of. Before guests started arriving, Michael Simpson had slipped out onto the steps in front of Memorial Hall to go over Ravenstone’s set list while the others finished tuning up. He wasn’t wearing his 666 shirt, but did include a studded leather belt to complete his look, tight pants and all. It was near sundown and the quadrangle was mostly empty, except for a couple of guys throwing a Frisbee back and forth. He’d smoked a little grass earlier to steel his nerves for the event, he remembers, but he was excited to play.
It was then that the representative of the Ku Klux Klan appeared.
“Is this where the queers are holding the dance?” the red-faced man demanded. Simpson just looked at him. The man continued. “He then said something like ‘You’re one of the faggy boys playing at the queer dance, ain’t you,’” Simpsons recalls. Simpson asked him why he cared, since he wasn’t a student.
The Klan was not happy about the dance, the man told him. When Simpson scoffed, his interlocutor commented that it wouldn’t be hard to find out where he and his bandmates lived.
“It didn’t seem funny then,” Simpson would write many years later, in a memoir of Ravenstone’s tumultuous first year.
Having said his piece, the man turned around and disappeared into the night. Simpson walked back inside, spooked. But he told no one of what had transpired.
Because of the late hour of the court’s decision, the dance started far behind schedule. By the time it did, more than a hundred curious onlookers had gathered in the balcony above the ballroom to watch the proceedings. To Simpson, their presence felt menacing at first. “People were somewhat afraid,” he recalls, “because there were some looky-loos, people who had come and were up in the balcony, who clearly were not there for the performance or to have a good time, and they were really staring down at people in the audience, and, you know, not friendly looks. And I was unnerved already from what had happened before we started playing.”
Nonetheless, Ravenstone mounted the stage and got in position. From his vantage point, Simpson noticed that the crowd was much more male than any concert he’d played before and that some of its members seemed to be in drag.
Before their set began, an impassioned Bill Green took the stage to address the crowd. For the first time, Simpson, standing behind him, felt the full weight of the dance’s significance. “He was really almost cajoling the audience—he was saying, you know, ‘We’ve all wanted this for years, we’ve all waited for a chance to be in public with our partners, so let’s do it! Let’s dance!’ People were cheering, and that was the point when I realized, ‘Oh my God, this is important to people. Up to that point I was sort of seeing it as a political issue, more dry and esoteric in a way. But then it became very human.”
Ravenstone broke into one of its original songs, “Watercolor,” and the assembled crowd began, finally, to do what they’d come there for, to do what had been forbidden for their entire lives—the simple, quintessentially human act of moving their bodies to music in public, with a chosen partner. According to one newspaper account, the dancing began with three male couples, who were slowly joined by more same-sex pairs. Others danced alone or in groups of friends.
With that, fear began to dissipate. People kicked off their shoes and twirled wildly across the floor, and the party began to rock. Straight couples joined the throng as well. Two short-haired young women sat together on the sidelines, one with her hand resting gently on her girlfriend’s thigh.
Ravenstone played a set combining originals and covers, including “Midnight Rambler” by the Rolling Stones and a Bowie song from the recently released Hunky Dory album (Simpson forgets which one). For levity, they also did the Doors’ “Back Door Man.” Relaxed enough by now to have fun, Simpson, known already for his sexy stage moves, took off his studded belt and whipped it rhythmically against the stage floor as he sang. “There was definitely a palpable sense of electricity in the room,” Simpson remembers. “In a good way. I remember performing and people were down in front of the stage just dancing and stuff, and several times while they were dancing they would kind of look up at the stage and they would have this great smile on their face, like ‘God this is great!’ and they were having such a good time, and it was just, I remember the energy that night, the band was really feeding off of it in a fun way.”
Altogether, somewhere between three and five hundred people were in the ballroom that night, including the spectators in the balcony, who also seemed to be having fun, in the end. “It was not stressful,” says Hoard. “It was a huge amount of fun. It was very celebratory.
“You have to remember that for a lot of people then, the concept of going to a dance that was gay-themed was really very avant-garde and something that they would have been terrified had their religiously conservative parents known even that,” he says. “So I think what you had was a lot of people that went who were out and open and comfortable with themselves, myself included, and could just enjoy themselves, and you then had another group of people who were there ostensibly to watch, but they were really in some throes of self discovery, I guess. And you know, we also had a lot of people who were just supporters. We had a lot of good friends from Freshman Camp who went through this whole process and came out to see us. It was a very supportive crowd. I don’t recall anything negative.
“I don’t recall a single negative event connected with that night,” he says. “Which is, I guess, in retrospect, kind of surprising.”
Between songs, Simpson fired up the crowd by gleefully musing on the stupidity and hypocrisy of the argument that a gay dance would promote sodomy. He was especially perplexed by the broadness of its legal definition—according to the state of Georgia, sodomy was any act of oral or anal penetration, same sex or opposite sex. “And it’s a felony! And I thought, gosh on any given night at the University of Georgia, well, there are probably thousands of felonies. And I made statements like that, obviously in front of a crowd and stuff, and of course the administration was not particularly happy. It was a great time.”
Ravenstone rocked, but Diamond Lil brought down the house. After the band finished, its equipment was hauled away and replaced with a tableau of a living room, with a sofa, chair, lamp, end-table, and rotary telephone. When the stage was set, the lights dimmed, and Lil stepped onto the stage in all her sequined splendor, followed by a single spotlight.
Diamond Lil had already become a legend in Atlanta’s counterculture, where she performed in bars with a live rock band and penned witty columns for the Great Speckled Bird after having been discharged as a young person from the Air National Guard for her sexuality and arrested one too many times in Savannah, her hometown. Tall and long-limbed, with large, expressive eyes and big glamorous false hair, Lil oozed sex appeal and Southern charm, and her performances in the city were attended by fans both gay and straight. Though university officials would have preferred she do no shows on campus, this was actually her second time performing in Memorial Hall—impish students had smuggled her onto the bill for a Halloween festival, where she’d performed with her live band, Avalanche.
The music started, and Diamond Lil began to lip-sync the words to Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” as she vamped slowly across the stage. The crowd went wild. Up in the balcony, Dean Sims gaped in horror.
Who would have thought any of this was possible? After all the hate and shame that so many of the audience members had faced in their young lives, they were standing together in public, defiantly proclaiming to the world that “Gay is Good.” And not only was the world not coming to an end, but hundreds of people were laughing and dancing together and enjoying the entertainment of a confident, joyful person who had been arrested multiple times just for being herself. The dance wasn’t just a political victory—it was fun.
Diamond Lil did her comic bit and lip-synced to an Aretha Franklin number and then, all too soon, the wonderful night came to its end. Not wanting to press its luck, the Committee complied with the 11 p.m. end-time they’d been granted.
As her concluding song, Diamond Lil performed Harry Nilsson’s bombastically romantic love ballad “Without You,” as the crowd screamed and swayed. When she finished, an elated Green returned to the stage for a final address. “Tonight was probably one of the most important events in the history of the United States,” he exclaimed. “This is not a climax. This is a beginning. And it’s going to go on and on.”
The dance over, Hoard and his friends rushed upstairs to catch the coverage of the event on the TV news from Atlanta, where they gathered around the set and cheered at the segment, still reveling in the night’s victory. Others stayed in the ballroom and mingled, basking in the afterglow.
When most of the crowd had dispersed, Ravenstone finally packed up its equipment, as buoyant about the success of the dance as everyone else. Waiting for them at their van, which bore the name Ravenstone in elegant Gothic script on its side, was a curious message: a small printed card tucked under the windshield. You have been patronized by the Ku Klux Klan, it said.
In true rock star fashion, they decided not to let this ruin the night. “After a moment of all of us looking at each other,” Simpson wrote in his memoir, “I remember Ralph said something like: ‘Fuck it. I’m hungry. Let’s go find some food.’”
As transformational as the dance was, it wasn’t an anomaly. In Kansas, the Lawrence Gay Liberation Front dance at Kansas University would take place in a few weeks. But the University of Georgia affair was the first gay dance at a college in the southeast, at one of the region’s massive flagships, no less, and it had been an unequivocal success.
The sixty or so dollars collected at the dance were nowhere near sufficient to cover the legal fees from the hearing, but individual donors quietly paid the rest of the Committee on Gay Education’s bills. “They Won,” proclaimed the Red and Black’s editors in the first edition after spring break. “The way they handled the entire matter was commendable.” On the same page, the paper ran a letter from a famed gay rights activist, Franklin Kameny, who commented on the legal dimensions of the dance controversy and suggested the university ban heterosexual dances as well.
The Committee on Gay Education did not receive official recognition that school year, but it continued holding meetings and events with guest speakers in the spring. Its application passed the student senate and the administration conceded that this was enough to allow the Committee the same privileges as recognized groups while its status remained “under consideration.”
For Bill Green, sadly, the triumph of the dance proved to be a bright spot in a period of his life that was becoming increasingly dark. While other Committee members felt safe and joyful in their new openly gay lives at college, Green’s role as the group’s spokesperson and the publication of his photo in the paper had made him a target in a way that others were not. “There were death threats,” he said. “There was all kinds of negative reaction. I had one man who called me at my part-time job, which was keeping books for a hotel, and he would call me every night when I was locked in behind this plate glass and tell me that was the night he was going to drive up and just shoot me.”
Other interactions were less overtly menacing, yet still deeply unsettling, such as the older man, a stranger to Green, who made a habit of following him around town and snapping photos of him. “Wherever I was, he’d end up finding me and just taking pictures,” he recalled. The man’s purpose in this was never revealed. Green wondered whether he worked for J. Edgar Hoover, a conjecture that may not be far-fetched, given the extent of the FBI’s surveillance of student activists during the period. In the early 1970s the Georgia Bureau of Investigation joined the Atlanta police in hounding LGBT community leaders Bill Smith and Charlie St. John, says Dave Hayward, who was a member of the Georgia Gay Liberation Front in its early years and keeps an archive on Atlanta LGBT history called Touching Up Our Roots. “Some of these people kind of ended up being sacrificial lambs,” says Hayward. “Some of the earlier activists who were really out there and outspoken and leaders, they really had backlash and they really bore the brunt.”
Afraid to stay in his apartment, Green spent the rest of the school year crashing on friends’ couches and floors, often sleeping only three or four hours a night, and by the spring of 1972, he felt restless and burnt out. He was still estranged from his father. When the term ended, he stuck around Athens for a little while, but soon left for Atlanta, drawn by the gay rights organizing going on there. When fall came, he didn’t register for classes, though he wasn’t many credits short of graduating. As promising as his years in college had seemed when they began, he never returned, working instead in restaurant jobs and following a boyfriend to Florida.
John Hoard stayed in Athens a while longer after graduation, after a stint traveling Europe with a female artist friend. He attended a year of grad school in speech communication, interested in the early work being done on speech-recognition software. But he finally grew tired of academia, and his job prospects in town seemed dim; he’d ended up working for an unscrupulous plant nursery that sold plants to the university, then paid employees to sneak onto campus at night and dig up flowers and ivy to sell back to them. He and Dave had parted ways, after dating through all of college; eventually Dave would fall in love with and marry a woman. Hoard felt like he wasn’t moving forward anymore, so he moved to Atlanta, where he found work as a tax collector for the IRS, a dreadful job that unexpectedly led to promotion into a career he enjoyed, working in the agency’s tech department and eventually becoming chief officer of quality assurance. He worked for more than a decade in Washington, D.C.
In 1987, Hoard was diagnosed with AIDS. He’d known for two years before the official diagnosis that he had the disease; many of his friends and former lovers were sick and dying. In 1985, the epidemic had claimed the life of Ricky Wilson, by then a famous musician, soon after the recording of the B-52’s’ fourth studio album. There is no way to talk about this period in LGBT history without invoking the memories of those who were lost. My friends whose deaths have slowed my heart stay with me now, a line from a Ted Berrigan poem, comes to mind when survivors share their stories.
In the early 1990s Hoard’s T-cell count began to drop, and he and his partner, Donald Taylor-Farmer, moved to Atlanta so that Hoard could work in the Atlanta branch of the IRS and be nearer to his parents. “I thought I was going to die,” he says,.
But even after receiving what seemed at the time a death sentence, Hoard managed to remain philosophical. After an initial depression, when he felt paralyzed by an inability to make even the smallest plans, he returned to himself. “I thought, you can either die when you die, or you can die when you’re still alive,” he says.
Against all odds, Hoard would live long to receive the new protease-inhibiting drugs that received FDA approval in 1995 and 1996 and allowed AIDS patients to manage their illness. He doesn’t know why; there’s no definitive explanation why some AIDS victims declined so rapidly, while others, like him, survived until life-saving drugs became available. He wishes his parents hadn’t had to suffer the pain of seeing him ill, but happily they lived long enough to see him receive the new treatment and know that he would live. He and Donald, who is from Sierra Leone, still live in metro Atlanta, where in their retirement they buy, restore, and rent out Victorian houses. They live in separate Victorian homes in the same neighborhood, with each house accommodating six of their twelve cocker spaniels. In the summer of 2015, after the landmark Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, John and Donald married each other at the Fulton County courthouse. They are planning a celebration with their far-flung families to be held this year.
Though the battle in the years to come would at times seem uphill and the victories of the 1970s would nearly be obliterated by the coming plague of AIDS, the dance at the University of Georgia was an unequivocal victory. Even Asa Green, whose promising college career ended in fear and loathing, relished the memory. Throughout his life he continued to be involved with the ongoing struggle for LGBT rights, and in 2005 UGA’s LGBT Resource Center honored him at its first Lavender Graduation, creating a “Founder’s Award” in his name. Green died in November 2013, in his Panama City home, surrounded by family. When interviewed earlier that year, he seemed at peace with his life. “I still think I made some pretty good decisions and still wouldn’t redo anything,” he said, laughing.
Fighting for the Committee had been worth it, he felt, at Georgia and elsewhere. Even at University of Kansas, where the Lawrence Gay Liberation Front’s first dance in April 1972 was in many ways a disheartening inversion of the dance at UGA (spectators in the balcony of the Kansas Union ballroom taunted the dancers and a GLF member was physically assaulted when he tried to prevent the group’s cashbox from being stolen), the sheer audacity of the LGBT students contributed to a grudging acceptance on the part of the larger student body—the “queer balls” they held throughout the rest of the 1970s would eventually become massive events, drawing attendees from all over Kansas and even Nebraska, and featuring bands with names like The Penetrations.
The dances also proved unforgettable to some straight students, who became supporters of their LGBT friends’ rights. “Thinking back on that night, it really was magical,” says Michael Simpson, who, after Ravenstone’s touring days ended, went on to a successful film-industry career in Los Angeles, executive-producing films such as Crazy Heart, which won an Academy Award. “I realize now that we were a part of something larger than just a dance, something that would play out over decades as people of diverse sexual orientation struggled to be treated equally under the law. I’m proud to have been some part of that.”
In Georgia, in the fall after the dance, the Committee on Gay Education won a lawsuit against the university in federal court that allowed it to finally become fully recognized, and to host a conference and dance for gay liberation groups from several Southern schools. Pride Week was celebrated on campus for the first time in 1973, and in 1975, Jodie O’Connell, a handsome, openly gay law student who had been a former director of the Committee, was elected student body president of the University of Georgia, running on the Coalition ticket—the party Ravenstone helped found. Dances continued regularly for the rest of the decade.
And so they did, at universities all over the country in those thrilling early years before the music nearly stopped. One night at a time accumulated into a gorgeous blur of limbs and smiles and impossible youth. The ultimate political efficacy of all these dances is hard to measure, given that they coincided with so much other gay liberation activism. Still, for many of the men and women who attended them, they felt earth-moving.
Walker Harper, who designed the poster for the UGA dance, remembers the period well. “It was a heady time—gays and lesbians becoming visible and challenging the status quo. The gay scene was all about coming out and a growing pride in identity. Sometimes it seems like I majored in being gay at the university.
“I would have been a better student if I were not so involved in expressing my true identity instead of living with a secret,” Harper added. “Even so, that expression was mostly just among us gays. I got my degree and worked fulltime at my job. The era was all very formative.”
“I’ve seen more than I thought I would,” said Asa Green in 2013. “I was going down the street the other day and saw this man lean over and very affectionately kiss this other man on the cheek that he was walking with, and then they held hands. And I thought, where in public do people do that, you know?
“And the answer is, everywhere now.”
More than forty years later, the dance at UGA that felt in the moment like one of the most important events in the history of the United States still lingered in his memory, as it does in the mind of his old college friend, John Hoard. “It was a riotous night,” Hoard says, with a laugh. “It was really quite an experience. Not to be forgotten.”
A Note On Sources:
Extensive interviews helped fill in many of the details not supplied in the newspaper coverage of the birth of the Committee on Gay Education and the controversy surrounding the dance, but the files held by the LGBT Resource Center at UGA were also invaluable, especially the material compiled in 2004-2005 by Stefanie Papps and Gareth Griffin. Patrick Dilley’s Queer Man on Campus: A History of Non-Heterosexual College Men, 1945-2000; Linda Hirshman’s Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution; and Genny Beemyn’s “The Silence Is Broken: A History of the First Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual College Student Groups,” provided important historical context, as did Jeffrey A. Turner’s Sitting In and Speaking Out: Student Movements in the American South, 1960–1970. I can’t thank enough the wonderful individuals who shared their time, expertise, and memories with me.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.