Mount Holyoke News

December 6, 2019

In 2019, Campus Revisits 1990 Heterosexual Pride Rally Controversy
by Emma Rubin '20

A banner unfurled from the second floor of Skinner Hall on April 9, 1990. No one knew who hung it or where it came from. The rogue banner, peeping out of Skinner's federal style windows, read "Heterosexual Awareness Week: Wear Your Blue Circles to Show Your Support."

It would lead to protests, counter-protests, impassioned op-ed pages and a Mount Holyoke reckoning of discrimination based on sexual orientation. It rode the wave of a campus controversy which started in February.

On Feb. 10, 1990, Nancy Hathaway, a Lesbian Bisexual Alliance (LBA) member and Student Advisor (equivalent of a Community Advisor today) for Ham Hall, hung a flyer advertising a lesbian and bisexual-focused career panel in the dorm's elevator. When she noticed it had been torn down, she wrote a letter in response.

"This is not only a violation of the Social Honor Code," the letter read, "this is homophobic and oppressive."

Hathaway signed her name and put it in the same spot as the missing poster. Two hours later, she returned to find her letter missing and a new one in its place.

"To Nancy Hathaway and all other lesbians and bisexuals it may concern: I don't have any problems with your sexual persuasion; but I do have a problem with announcements advocating your particular sexual persuasion," the response read. "I find your announcements in direct opposition to my views and thus will continue, in the spirit of censorship, to tear them down just like any other offensive material! Even more sincerely, a concerned conservative."

The elevator became a symposium of grievances. Students posted over 28 signs in the elevator. Some letters were appalled at the attempts to censor the lesbian and bisexual community.

"I hate what you are doing to the hearts and minds of your dormmates," one stated. Another made a simple statement, "WE ARE HERE!" In a more symbolic approach, someone posted a pink triangle, which was later removed.

The forum on homophobia and bi-phobia met on Feb. 28 in response to the written confrontations in Ham Hall. They presented a list of eight demands and suggestions to then-President Elizabeth Kennan on March 1, including a condemnation of homophobia by the trustees and presidentially-appointed committee to institute changes to improve the environment for the lesbian and bisexual community at Mt. Holyoke.

Students continued to respond to the acts of homophobia, holding a silent rally during a board of trustees meeting, but the response became more bureaucratic. They met with administration officials, convened support groups and lobbied Student Government Association (SGA) for a clearer definition of the human rights policy.

The Subterranean, an anonymous student-led flyer publication reportedly formed over brunch in 1990, notoriously lampooned Mount Holyoke culture and events. The newsletter was an on-campus provocateur, instigating discussion through their Onion-style satire. During renovations for the library, they wrote that the building, in its entirety, fell into a hole. Later, the paper parodied the on-campus animal rights group, typing up a story in which members protested the extermination of termites which infested Skinner Hall. Some students were occasionally annoyed by their editorials and faux-news, but their outlandish parodies felt harmless. That is, at first.

On April 5, 1990, The Subterranean published a piece on the Lesbian and Bisexual Alliance. An unnamed editor expressed frustration at the attention the lesbian and bisexual population was receiving on campus. "If you keep your sexual life to yourself and out of my life, which is where I keep mine, then we will get along merrily," the editor wrote. "However, when I never hear the end of lesbianism, homophobia and biophobia (the fear of biology?!), I get annoyed."

Offended students and LBA representatives thought the comments were homophobic and "minority-bashing." Subterranean editors told the Mount Holyoke News that year, "We picked on a lot of different groups, but as soon as it became LBA, people went berserk."

The clandestine printout published the controversial issue in the middle of the LBA's Lesbian and Bisexual Awareness Week, where alum Barbara Smith ’69 gave the keynote speech. One day after the weeklong celebration of visibility through workshops and events, The Subterranean released their response to the backlash in a special edition. In an editorial, they defended their actions as a matter of free speech and their anonymity as necessary for their own safety. On the other side of the light-pink newsletter was a copy of the Bill of Rights.

That same day, the anonymous poster appeared in the window of Skinner. The debate over on-campus homophobia, and what some students claimed was heterophobia, amplified.

When Michelle Colitsas '92 saw the poster, she organized a heterosexual rally for that night. On Skinner Green, she spoke to the crowd of 19 students.

"Freedom of Expression is dead at Mount Holyoke College," she said. "We [heterosexuals] cannot speak up without fear of persecution."

A junior and a recent Smith graduate protested the event, silently standing during the speech. After the rally, four students came forward to claim responsibility for the banner.

"I think the major idea about the sign is that heterosexuals are being shoved into the closet," Kate Old '90, one of the students behind the banner, told the Mount Holyoke News in 1990. "Homosexuals are the minority but vocally they are the majority ... People are too scared to speak up."

Over the next few weeks, the editorial and opinion columns of the Mount Holyoke News became a simmering cauldron of discourse stoked by the semester-long incidents of homophobia. "This is not about the vibrator that your aunt keeps in her bottom drawer ... It is about the fact that my acceptance into society is contingent upon the foundation of my life being a secret," Rive Nestor FP '90 wrote.

Faculty and staff penned editorials. The ombudsperson wrote a response condemning the discriminatory speech, but clarifying the legal inability to censor such rhetoric. Alums wrote with outrage upon hearing about the events. After several demands and letters, the administration formed a committee dedicated to monitoring the campus culture for lesbian, gay and bisexual students, faculty and staff.

Under the headline "Militant Heterosexuals?" Janyce Berg '92 wrote, "I believe the frustration that the heterosexuals have been feeling for the past few weeks is directly analogous to the frustrations the homosexual community must face everyday of their lives."

The editorial which followed, "A Celebration of Heterosexuality" took on the controversy in an extravagantly-worded tone that seemed to border on satire. "Personally, I feel engulfed and surrounded by lesbians and bisexuals," Molly Lumsden '90, who was also one of the students behind the banner, wrote. "Although they are in the minority, they are everywhere I turn." According to Lumsden, the Mount Holyoke campus was a desert for heterosexuals where straight students had to remain celibate or embark on hours-long road trips to male dorms of nearby Ivys. Lumsden wrote, "sexual deprivation runs rampant."

The letter was signed "heterosexually yours."

Nancy Hathaway, the student who first posted the response to the Ham Hall controversy, wrote a letter recapping the semester’s event and critiquing the students behind the banner and The Subterranean.

"My existence on this campus and in this world is not an academic position that I should have to defend," she wrote. Hathaway never sent out the letter. She instead posted it in her library carrel.

Lumsden found it and left a response in which she reiterated her disapproval of homosexuality and asked that students respect her freedom of speech. "I have not endangered your freedoms in any way," she wrote, "and I request the same respect in return."

Now, both letters along with countless other accounts sit tucked away in a folder titled "Spring 1990: Homophobia in Print" in the Mount Holyoke Archives.

"I felt that it was important to have collected record, lest this matter be forgotten." Hathaway said in the introduction to the collection. "It will not be forgotten by those of us who lived, worked and studied in the middle of it."

© Mount Holyoke Lyon's Pride
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software