Inside the fight to win VCU’s official recognition of the university’s first LGBTQIA student organization
In the fall of 1974, a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning and straight Virginia Commonwealth University students founded the school’s first LGBTQIA student organization, the Gay Alliance of Students, with the goals of “awareness, education and consciousness-raising among gay students and other concerned students, to alleviate the problems of homophobia, to support the Equal Rights Amendment [and] to alleviate discrimination of sexual orientation.”
But when the group filed an application to be recognized as an official VCU student organization — thereby allowing it to use campus meeting spaces, advertise on university bulletin boards and in student media, and be included in a student organization directory — things didn’t go as planned. The application was not processed in the usual manner. Instead, the vice president for student affairs sent it to VCU’s Board of Visitors, which promptly voted to reject it.
“With deep regard for the severe human problem involved,” the BOV moved on Oct. 17, 1974, “it is expressed as the sense of the Board that the Gay Alliance of Students not be registered.”
Surprised, but by no means ready to give up, the students enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and filed a federal lawsuit against VCU officials and the BOV, alleging violations of their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
A two-year legal battle ensued, and the Gay Alliance of Students ultimately prevailed. In October 1976, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond handed down an opinion that forced VCU to officially recognize the group, and to allow it to apply for funding and space allocations just like any other VCU student organization.
What’s more, the decision applied not only to VCU, but also colleges and universities across Virginia, as well as every other state in the appellate court’s jurisdiction, including Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia.
At noon on Tuesday, Oct. 4, several VCU alumni involved in the fight to win VCU’s official recognition of the Gay Alliance of Students will take part in a panel discussion, “Trials and Triumphs, 1974-76: The Struggle for Recognition of VCU’s first Gay Student Group.” The event is free and open to the public. It is part of a fall speaker series titled “Celebrating Forty Years of LGBTQIA Activism at VCU,” which is organized by the Humanities Research Center in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
As a preview of their talk, several members and allies of the Gay Alliance of Students shared their memories.