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1980s

LGBTQ life at the University of Richmond remained behind closed doors during the ’80s. However, the AIDS crisis had a strong impact and brought greater discussion of gay life and issues to campus, emerging as a much talked about topic by the late ’80s on campus. Additionally, the coordinate college continued to merge; the opening of the dining hall in 1982 marked the first time men and women ate all of their meals together, and began to break down the physical separation and strict regulations that had long structured men and women’s interactions on campus. After much debate, sororities came to campus in 1986.

It wasn’t until the fall 1988 that a lesbian and gay support group was founded. It was run through Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and was advertised in The Collegian as confidential. After much debate, the University also began allowing condoms to be available at the health center in 1988.

As the University left the decade, there was greater flexibility about sexuality and sexual health, even as it had no LGBTQ advocacy organization or any form of organized activism. Out students, faculty members, or staff continued to be very rare or not well known. A late 1989 Collegian op-ed criticized the gay rights movement and claimed that, “although I find the act of homosexuality repulsive, I do not find homosexuals repulsive.” It did not receive any response in The Collegian, suggesting how hostile the campus atmosphere could be. Gay rights issues did receive some coverage in The Collegian, but only in the syndicated “National News” section and rarely in content by and about students.

The Closet and UR Social Scene

In the words of William Poarch, ’82, “Gay life did not exist on campus while I was there. People just didn’t talk about it. The Richmond campus just didn’t live dangerously or advocate for any kind of diversity. The only real gay presence was graphic graffiti written on men’s rooms walls.

“While I knew in high school that I was ‘something’, I didn’t know what. I dated girls in high school but came to college and realized I wasn’t going to play those games, so I just didn’t date. I remember waking up one morning and looking at the whiteboard on my dorm door, and someone had written, ‘Are you gay?’ I was very taken aback. It was the first time it was even questioned, and it felt uncomfortable and accusatory. I was raised in a southern Baptist household and being gay was not a good thing; I didn’t want to go to hell. My perception as a kid was that there were people we weren’t supposed to be around, the implication was that those people were child molesters. I never went to a gay bar during college—we didn’t venture into the city much. The city was somewhere Richmond students didn’t go. The word ‘queer’ was used as an insult while I was a student, but since I didn’t identify myself as queer/gay at the time I don’t think it ever really registered.”

Furthering isolating LGBTQ students was the continuation of the highly heteronormative environment in where friendships with the opposite sex were rare. According to Collegian reporting in 1986, often-stated complaints about the University included: “The social life is dismal. Friendship between guys and girls is missing. The fraternities are meat markets. It is is a male-dominated school. Separated campuses are unnatural. Chief concerns are the division-by-sex of campuses, the absence of casual meeting places for males and females, and the lack of social alternatives to the fraternities.”

As evidenced by reports in The Collegian, professors at the time raised concern about the affect the gender-divided atmosphere had on students. Tom Bonfiglio, a professor, stated, “The disease is a lack of intellectual curiosity, apathy, and a party atmosphere.” A trend in female transfers in the late-’80s proved troubling; Janet Kotler, a professor, stated, “We [the faculty] are all concerned when the more interesting of our students say that they want to leave.”

A Richmond College first-year student complained to The Collegian in February 1986: “Even on weekends you can’t always go to the girls’ side because of visitation. And the Commons closes at 9 or 10. The seclusion of the campuses is part of it; you can’t be friends with girls. You can’t have impromptu discussions with them…you’re not even allowed to go into (two floors of Lora Robins) after eight at night.”

Later discussion and debate concerned the role of Greek Life on campus and agitated for co-ed housing. On March 6, 1986, a Collegian editorial stated that, “It is frequently heard that without the fraternities, the University would have no social life. If this is true, then we are in sad shape. This university is becoming monopolized by fraternities and something needs to be done about it.”

Discussions over social life, often played out in The Collegian or several university forums throughout the decade, placed gender issues at the core of the problem. The presence of a partying culture and the inability for men and women to interact outside of fraternity spaces filled with alcohol consumption harmed both the men and women’s friendships, as well as made the University an isolating space for LGBTQ individuals.

Lambda Coalition

Stereotypes about gayness were pervasive on campus. An anonymous gay student in The Collegian directly discussed them—“I don’t want people to think when they read this that I’m some kind of queen; I hate that word, but it illustrates [what I mean]. I’m a normal person, I’m not flamboyantly gay and I’m certainly not oversexed or psychotic about my gayness. I’m just, you know, normal….yes, there are gay people in the theater and the arts, but there are gay accounting majors and electrical engineers, too.”

Lambda Coalition was founded by two students who were wanted to create a support group for lesbian and gay students to socialize, talk, and share their experiences.

The two Richmond students who founded the Lambda Coalition met each other at a support group at VCU, reflecting a pattern of queer students seeking space and support off-campus. The formation of the Lambda Coalition proved radical and controversial. One of the founders “emphasized the closed nature of the group. He said he wanted people to feel that it was a safe place and wanted them to know that only other gay people would be there, that no one had had to talk and no one was obligated to come. There is no reason for a person to even tell his name to the other members if he doesn’t want to.” Additionally, they reassured that “Many students are at various stages of coming out of the closet. The peer support group would be a reminder that there are others at the university who do understand and support them.” Jeff Clausel, a psychologist in CAPS, was the liaison for the groups. According to reporting at the time at least six homosexual students had gone to counseling.

The Lambda Coalition was forced to meet in secret and ever-moving locations—as evidenced by vague advertisements for a gay support group published in The Collegian—suggesting a real fear of campus reaction or the possibility for violence or harassment.

AIDS

There were multiple events and public health awareness campaigns surrounding AIDS on campus during the ’80s. Beginning in 1987, a lecture from an AIDS educator and specialist was a required part of first-year orientation.

A Feb. 20, 1986 article in The Collegian, “Facts about AIDS,” explained some of its symptoms and causes and dispelled myths surrounding the disease. It reported that one cannot get AIDS from living with a gay roommate or sitting next to a gay person in class, showing some of the stereotypes surrounding both gayness and AIDS. It further profiled Fred Mahaffey, a gay man who spoke to a deviance class about the disease, and discussed how sexually active gay men are among the most at-risk population. It also gave the number for the national AIDS hotline and advertised an upcoming speaker, a doctor and researcher of infections diseases, who would be addressing AIDS.

In 1989, the Richmond AIDS Information Network (RAIN) presented a play on AIDS at the University, debunking several myths concerning the disease and covering information on safe sex and protection. The play was sponsored and brought to campus by the student government associations, reflecting some mainstream acceptance of the issue and willingness to discuss it.

The AIDS crisis was also partially responsible for bringing condoms to the student health center, although the decision faced some resistance. A student wrote into The Collegian decrying the distribution of condoms as ‘biblical issue’ and arguing that condoms would “promote a lack of self-control by feeding students’ sexual desires” instead of “training them to control their bodies and wait until the bond of marriage.” The student affairs committee brought the matter to the Board of Trustees, who voted to accept the distribution of condoms at the health center.