The history of the QSU and queer activism at Williams could never be covered in one article, but only by recovering threads of institutional memory can connections and progress be made. In a recent alumni and faculty panel hosted by the QSU, it was discussed how a lack of institutional memory is an obstacle in the formation and vitality of a student group. Knowledge of a history that extends beyond our isolated time at Williams is crucial to recognizing what issues are symptoms of a larger pattern that requires action to change.
The QSU files from the late eighties and early nineties are peppered with upside-down pink triangles and distorted by years under staples and tape. The triangles read “Action=Life,” a slogan of the AIDS crisis layered on top of an even older historical symbol. The pink triangle, originally the distinguishing label for male homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps, became a symbol of pro-gay activists by the end of the 1970s.
At Williams in 1989, the Gay-Pride Week statement by the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Union (BGLU) celebrates the end of such mandatory labeling, but recognizes that invisibility can also silence identity and history. The statement asks, “Where do we turn to achieve recognition? We must, in effect, reclaim knowledge of ourselves. In a world where our reality is so often implicitly denied, we must make our own effort to assert it.”
The history of the QSU is partly a narrative of constant internal and external struggles between the risks and payoffs of activism and visibility. In times when queer sexualities are perceived to “belong behind closed doors” and “in the private of the bedroom,” simply being visible is considered inappropriate or radical.
Publicity of the BGLU seems to have been a highly contested subject on campus. The right of the group to post advertisements in public places was challenged and posters and banners were torn down or defaced. A member of the BGLU, Neil Hobbs ’94, was quoted in the Record saying, “By tearing down a poster you say we don’t exist,” but while this was going on, an audience of 200 still gathered on Chapin Steps for that years’ Gay Pride Rally.
The traditions of queer activism began around 1971, when a student named Dan Pinello “came out” in an alternative campus newspaper called The Williams Advocate. The gay activist group he subsequently started was short lived, but the WGSO (Williams Gay Support Organization) has lasted through various name changes, the latest being the Queer Student Union.
The WGSO started to form in the Spring of 1976 after a lecture on gay rights delivered by Elaine Noble, the first openly gay or lesbian elected to the Massachusetts state legislature. That original group of around ten students met off campus and had a private mailbox to maintain confidentiality, but as a Record article noted around that time, “The gays, previously considered nonexistent at Williams, have suddenly become vocal, organized, and semi-above ground.”
The WGSO published letters in The Record and put out a newsletter called The Purple Albatross, including the caption, “Gay Voices on a Straight Campus.” With a few name changes in between, the WGSO eventually became the Gay/Lesbian Union, which in 1986 hosted the first annual Lesbian and Gay Awareness Day at Williams. This event followed the rally of the previous year in which 300 students, faculty, and staff gathered to celebrate diversity in response to issues over housing and the marginalization of the BSU, GLU, and members of the Berkshire Quad.
In mainstream media and in high school history courses, queer experiences are too often silenced, leaving many without a sense of personal history and identity. To me, the sharing of these stories of queer experience is a form of activism in itself. They are reminders of times there was support and times there weren’t. In the experiences of past students, I can better contextualize my own.