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40 years of gay student activism at CU is focus of exhibit

In May 1968, a year before the pivotal New York City Stonewall Riots, Cornell students formed a Student Homophile League (SHL) -- the second gay student organization in the country, following the creation of a similar organization at Columbia University.

"Queer Cornell: LGBT student activism, 1968-2008" is a new Olin Library exhibition documenting some of the actions taken by Cornell's early lesbian and gay activists.

The exhibit shows, for example, that Cornell SHL students brought activist and bibliophile Barbara Gittings to campus in the fall of 1969. A crowd of 350 attended her lecture, "The Lesbian Speaks for Herself." Cornell gay activists later marched in New York City's first Gay Pride March in June 1970 on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, wearing T-shirts they had silk-screened outside of Anabel Taylor Hall.

Also in 1970, Cornell students boycotted Morrie's bar in Collegetown for discriminating against those whom the owners believed were homosexual. And 10 years later, students fought for a gay-rights bill in the city of Ithaca to address discrimination by landlords, employers and businesses.

The exhibit also shows how SHL's name changed to the Gay Liberation Front, Cornell Gay Liberation, and Gay People at Cornell (or Gay PAC), and the 1979 formation of Cornellesbians. These student groups organized dances, discussion groups, peer counseling and, starting in 1971, an annual celebration of May Gay.

In 1999 the student group Direct Action to Stop Homophobia (DASH) organized an event for which queers and allies performed such "live homosexual acts" as "gayly" talking on a phone or "bisexually" shaking hands with passersby and passing out cards explaining that actions generally do not have sexual orientations. They also performed behind cardboard signs that read "bisexual playing the banjo," "lesbians kissing" and "queer with school spirit."

In 2003, the exhibit shows, DASH held a rally to bring attention to violence against transgender people.

The 2008 Gaypril poster in the exhibit shows that Cornell activism is still alive. While May Gay turned into Gaypril and new generations of students have left their mark, the Cornell students of 1968 started a tradition of political activism, education, social events and support around issues of sexual identity that continues to this day.

The exhibition will be open through Reunion Weekend.

Brenda Marston is a historian and archivist in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections of Cornell University Library.

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