Gay Academic Union

GAU, May 1983

(c) Dennis McBride, 2009

Gay Awareness at UNLV

As late as the 1980s, gay awareness at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas [UNLV] was limited to fag jokes and marauding jocks. In September 1979, for instance, poet Allen Ginsberg and his lover, Peter Orlovsky, were the featured guests at Present Tense '79, a three-day creative arts symposium produced on campus by Dennis McBride and Bob Aniello. When Orlovsky read from his collection, Clean Asshole Poems, regent Lilly Fong and her entourage left the performance in an elaborate huff. A small "gay awareness" group met in the offices of university counselor Marlene Zychowicz during the Spring 1981 semester, and on May 9, 1981 KUNV radio personality Dom Brascia broadcast an interview with Dennis McBride about homosexuality which drew no response from campus.[1]

Will Collins

But the Gay Academic Union [GAU] was about to put gay issues and gay celebrations squarely out front. The GAU was founded by entertainer Will Collins, renowned today as the world's best Liberace impersonator, who came to Las Vegas in 1982 from Arizona State University in Tempe to pursue a degree in business. Collins had been active in the Tempe chapter of the GAU and was eager to bring that activism to Las Vegas. He was disappointed that Nevada wasn’t as progressive as legal gambling and prostitution suggested it should be, and the gay community, still mostly closeted, orbited around the city’s bars. Collins got “tired of people who were whatever they were by day and fairies by night.” Will produced fliers with intertwined male and female symbols and his telephone number and pinned them on campus billboards. He also slipped ads into the student newspaper, the Rebel Yell, which read simply, "I M R U?" He avoided using the words gay, lesbian, or bisexual because he was sure that that would scare people.[2]

Gay Pride Banquet

Campus Reaction

Mike Loewy, a student in the Psychology Department whose parents years before had forced him into therapy to cure his homosexuality, joined Collins’ group, and so did several others—all men--who began meeting at Collins’ off-campus apartment on October 30, 1982. The UNLV student newspaper, the Rebel Yell, published an article about the GAU, assuring campus readers that the group "will not be a militant one that will try to impress its ideas upon others,” while an informal poll indicated UNLV students wouldn't have a problem accepting the GAU. One student, however, Kurt Smeby, protested the possibility that CSUN might recognize Collins’ organization. "May I ask," Smeby wrote, "since homosexuals do not have the ability to reproduce their own homosexual kind (without recruiting), how a 'support group' could help a confused 'gay'? ... Homosexuals need counseling to help eliminate their homosexuality—not 'UNLV recognition' to promote it." Nevertheless, CSUN formally recognized the GAU in February 1983, which held its first official meeting in the Moyer Student Union, in an isolated room under the stairs in the back of the building known as the Oasis Room, on February 5, 1983. University president Leonard Goodall gave his blessing, and the group found its faculty sponsor in Dr. Donald Carns from the Sociology Department.[3]

Christie Young

The lack of women members of GAU in its formative months was mitigated when Collins asked Christie Young, a straight activist working in the gay community who’d come to Las Vegas from Reno in November 1982, to join. Christie’s involvement proved crucial and her perspective as a straight person working on behalf of gay people was unique for the time.[4]

GAU Pride 1983

Gay Pride

In its first few months GAU was a social group which restricted its activities to private parties and dyads usually led by Ron Lawrence [who founded the Community Counseling Center in 1990] and Mike Loewy. Having received CSUN recognition and earned the privilege of rent-free space in campus buildings, the GAU invited the Metropolitan Community Church [MCC] and Nevadans for Human Rights [NHR] to join the student organization to plan Las Vegas’s first Gay Pride celebration—referred to as a Human Rights Seminar.[5] The 1983 Gay Pride celebration was the first high-profile city-wide gay event in Las Vegas and Will Collins and Christie Young made several appearances on local television and radio programs to promote it. These public appearances raised interesting issues not only about how the Las Vegas media dealt with the "gay thing," but about the Las Vegas gay community's own closeted nature. Will and Christie went on-air because they didn't "look gay," would be "more acceptable in the mass media," and because all the lesbians who followed Christie into GAU "were just too deep in the closet." People were also surprised Will and Christie were willing to use their own, full names.[6]

Lesbian and Gay Academic Union

Following the success of Gay Pride 1983, GAU-UNLV affiliated officially with the national organization and changed its name to the Lesbian and Gay Academic Union [LGAU]. The LGAU’s profile had risen, and in proportion to the organization’s wider recognition, LGAU drew animosity from Bob Maxson, the man who replaced Leonard Goodall as UNLV president. Illustrating that enmity was a controversy over LGAU’s advertising the 1984 Gay Pride celebration on CSUN’s marquee, which stood on Maryland Parkway in front of Grant Hall. Maxson, fearing to offend university donors—who might also be counted upon to donate toward his own political ambitions--demanded LGAU remove its Pride advertisement. LGAU refused, and so did CSUN. While Maxson had no authority to remove advertising, he had authority to remove the marquee structure itself, which he so ordered.[7]


LGAU Newsletter, 1989

Desert & Mountain States Lesbian & Gay Conference

Perhaps the most significant organization/event inspired by LGAU and originally sponsored by it was the Desert and Mountain States Lesbian and Gay Conference, founded by LGAU president Mike Loewy, first held March 30-31, 1985 in Las Vegas. Where the gay community till then had been focused on Las Vegas, Loewy wanted to "get Las Vegas in the larger picture."[8]

Loewy had a telephone call one evening from a man named Bill in Phoenix who had learned about the human rights seminars LGAU sponsored as part of the Las Vegas Gay Pride celebrations. Bill said they were doing the same thing in Phoenix and there was another group in Albuquerque called Common Bond doing something similar. Bill suggested everyone get together to sponsor a broad Southwest conference on gay activism and developing leadership in the gay community similar to--but predating by several years--the Creating Change conferences sponsored since 1993 by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The planning conference Loewy set up drew participants from throughout the Southwest, including Judy Corbisiero, one of the Las Vegas gay community’s most important activists.[9]

It was decided to hold the first conference in Las Vegas because the LGAU had a presence on the university campus, which no other group involved had, and because the organization had had two years' experience with its human rights seminars The shape of the conference itself became an issue when the planning committee decided not to invite California because Western states outside California shared a far more repressive political climate. “We felt so isolated in our communities,” Loewy says.”California didn't even know that we existed. We were going to have this conference that was going to provide supportive networks [but] we felt we had no support from California which was the big guy on the block."[10]

That first Desert and Mountain States Conference, whose theme was Empowering Each Other, had an impressive list of speakers: Jeffrey Levi of the National Gay Task Force; Nancy Roth, director of the Gay Rights National Lobby; gay city councilman Steve Schulte of the newly formed city of West Hollywood; and U. S. Army Sergeant Perry Watkins who sued the military in 1981 over being discharged for his homosexuality. The conference also drew UNLV President Bob Maxson’s ire. Under the impression that, because LGAU was an officially recognized campus organization, they could host the conference at UNLV, Maxson refused permission after all the PR had gone out. In the end, since the LGAU had contracted with the nearby Continental Hotel for accommodations for conference-goers, the hotel allowed the conference itself to be held there as well. The Continental staff were welcoming and professional, and the conference was successful—over 100 people attended. Subsequent conferences were held in other cities in the Western states, including a return to Las Vegas in 1990 and 1991, which was the last conference. Interestingly, even though the Desert and Mountain States Conference itself died, it was money left over from the last event in 1991 that bankrolled repeal of Nevada's sodomy law in 1993 Senate Bill 466.[11]

Since its founding nearly 30 years ago, the GAU has existed on the UNLV campus under several names, including the Lesbian and Gay Academic Union; the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Loving Association; the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Association; the Gay Straight Freedom Alliance; and, at the time of this writing, Spectrum UNLV, whose work is supported and encouraged by an Office of Student Diversity Programs and Services.[12]

Notes

  1. McBride journals, September 26, 1979 ; February 13, March 15, April 10, and May 14, 1981; October 5, 1982 [author’s collection].
  2. Will Collins, interview by Dennis McBride, May 4, 1998 [University of Nevada, Las Vegas Lied Library Special Collections Department (hereafter noted as UNLVSC) transcript HQ76.2 U52 N33 1998].
  3. Rebel Yell (October 21, 1982), 1; (October 28, 1982) 43; (December 2, 1982), 3; Nevada Gay Times(February 1983), 5; Mike Loewy, interview by Dennis McBride, December 14, 1997 [author’s transcript]; Collins interview; UNLVSC MS 85-121.
  4. Christie Young, interview by Dennis McBride, October 18, 1998 [UNLVSC transcript HQ76.2 U52 N359 1998]; Loewy interview; Collins interview; Young journals, February 22, 1983 [UNLVSC MS #99-15].
  5. Rebel Yell (December 6, 1983), 6; Nevada Gay Times (May 1983), 1; (June 1983), 1, 7; McBride journals, May 10 and 11, 1983 [author’s collection]; Collins interview; Young interview.
  6. Nevada Gay Times (May 1983), 1; (June 1983), 1, 4, 7, 8; (July 1983), 11; Las Vegas Review-Journal(May 7, 1983), 2C; (May 16, 1983), 6B; Las Vegas Sun (May 7, 1983), 31; Young interview; Collins interview; Loewy interview; Young journals, April 23, 25, 28, 29, 30 and May 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1983 [UNLVSC MS #99-15]; McBride journals, May 10 and 11, 1983 [author’s collection].
  7. Nevada Gay Times (October 1983), 11; Loewy interview; Collins interview.
  8. Young interview; UNLVSC MS 85-121.
  9. Judy Corbisiero, interview by Dennis McBride, September 5, 2003; May 21, 2004; July 2, 2004; December 10, 2004 [author's transcript]; Loewy interview.
  10. LGAU meeting minutes, October 20 and November 17, 1984; [UNLVSC MS 85-121]; Nevada Gay Times (December 1984), 1, 12; Young journals, October 9, 1984 – March 31, 1985, passim [UNLVSC MS #99-15]; Loewy interview; Young interview.
  11. Nevada Gay Times (January 1985), 1; (March 1985), insert; Las Vegas Review-Journal (March 17, 1985), 14E, 4F; (April 3, 1985), 1C-2C; Las Vegas Sun (March 31, 1985), 3C; Robert “Rob” Schlegel, interview by Dennis McBride, March 9-11, 21-22, and April 11, 1998 [author’s transcript]; Judy Corbisiero, interview; Loewy interview; Young journals, November 20 and December 6, 1984, and February 15, March 9, March 30, and March 31, 1985 [UNLVSC MS #99-15]; UNLVSC University Archive 99:2; LGAU meeting minutes, March 9 and April 13, 1985 [UNLVSC MS 85-121].
  12. Nevada Gay Times (October 1983), 11; Las Vegas Bugle (December 1991), 39; (January/February 1993), 31; (April 1998), 21.