The Carolina Gay Association, Organizing and Opposition, 1974-1989
By Cammie Bellamy, 2012
The Carolina Gay Association was founded in the fall of 1974 by a coalition of LGBT-identified students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Created as a political advocacy and social club, the CGA provided queer UNC-CH students with safe gathering spaces and organized social events throughout the 1970’s. At the onset of the national AIDS epidemic in the early 1980’s, the CGA took on greater political involvement in advocating for LGBT rights and visibility on the UNC-CH campus, most notably waging frequent battles with the university administration and the North Carolina state government over the issue of funding for the organization. By the late-1980’s, the Carolina Gay Association had changed its name to the Carolina Gay and Lesbian Association and was approaching the conclusion of the debate over funding. The effectiveness of the early years of organizing for the CGA/CGLA would allow the group to move into the 1990’s with a greater organizational legitimacy and more visibility for LGBT Carolina students.
Founding and Early Years
In 1974, a group of queer-identified students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill came together to form what would become known as the Carolina Gay Association. The stated purpose of the group was to “liberate and educate” both gay and straight students at UNC-CH. The group was officially recognized as a student organization by the UNC-CH administration in September of that year, making it eligible for funding trough student fees. Borrowing from the organizational models of feminist and New Left student groups, the CGA developed a democratic governmental system which included a Speaker’s Bureau, general and steering committees and a variety of consciousness-raising, or “C-R”, groups focussed on LGBT identities and issues,.
Though politically involved and highly active on campus, the primary focus of the CGA in the 1970’s was on supporting the LGBT student population at UNC-CH with social events. The group hosted weekly “social hours” at which queer students could socialize and network, often even engaging in dialogues with straight university students who came to the meetings to educate themselves and satiate their curiosity. Every month, the CGA hosted larger social events such as dances and “Coffeehouses” in UNC-CH’s Coker Arboretum,. A flyer from the late 1970’s advertises a CGA-hosted Christmas Party, promising “Mistletoe, Caroling, Santa and his Elves and an Appearance by The Sugar Plum Fairy”. During the late 1970’s the CGA also helped organize the annual Southeastern Gay Conference, the 1977 iteration of which was held in Chapel Hill.
The CGA and Gay Politics
In 1976, the CGA started publication of its official newsletter, LAMBDA. LAMBDA was published throughout the academic year and made available to UNC-CH students in the student union, campus libraries, and by confidential mail service.
While the primary function of the newsletter was to provide readers with updates on the status of the CGA, LAMBDA also offered a dialogue on current LGBT-related political issues. Volume I, Issue 1 from August 1976 urged students to write their Congressional representatives in support of HR 5452, which would have amended the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 to include protections for gay Americans. LAMBDA also helped to coordinate student activists around local LGBT issues, detailing the plans for a Triangle-area coalition to attend the 1979 National March on Washington for gay and lesbian rights in Volume V, Issue 1.
Since the founding of the CGA, debates over state and student government funding had caused controversy for the group both on campus and across North Carolina. In 1975, the state attorney general’s office had declared that the CGA was able to receive student funds, despite homosexual sex acts being legally considered a felony and “crime against nature” under N.C. General Statue 14-177. For the attorney general’s office to release such a declaration was not common practice in arguments over funding for student groups in the UNC system and was made only after a complaint by a Charlotte resident was relayed to Attorney General Andrew A. Vanore, Jr. by the mayor of Charlotte. Though the government sided with the CGA and UNC Board of Governors, future funding battles would come to define the activities of the CGA throughout the 1980’s.
Organizing in the 1980s
The early 1980’s was a time in which members of the CGA grappled with the political identity of the group. Cecil W. Wooten, who became a faculty advisor to the group in the fall of 1985, said that at the time the group had a reputation on campus as being “a very radical political organization." Wooten attributed some of the groups radicalism to the onset of the national AIDS epidemic. In 1983 LAMBDA published its first fact sheet on AIDS for students, providing information on counseling and therapy options.
The budget battles begun in the late 1970’s continued for the CGA into the 1980’s. An article from the campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, at this time suggested that opposition was high on campus not just towards funding the CGA but with regard to its very existence. In 1981, the CGA requested a budget of $2,002 for the Campus Governing Council; the amount they were eventually allotted was $675, 33% of their initial request and an unusually large cut for a student organization.
In 1984, a lesbian member of the CGA raised objections over the name of the organization, which she argued “excluded women in the minds of the community." A committee of 4 female and 4 male CGA members was formed to investigate the possibility of a name chance. Though several male members of the organization opposed the action, in February of 1985 the general body voted to change the name of the group to the Carolina Gay and Lesbian Association,.
The Late 1980s and Onward
In 1988, the budget battles which had plagued the CGLA since its founding reached their peak as students voted in a campus-wide vote on the issue of student fees funding the CGLA. On February 17, in a 3,195 to 2,285 vote, the UNC-CH student body voted in favor of a non-binding referendum to defund the CGLA. Because the referendum was taken only to gage popular student opinion, members of the Student Congress were not required to vote for official defunding. On April 17, Student Congress voted to fund the CGLA with a budget of $1,779, sending a strong message to the UNC-CH community that Student Government was in support of the CGLA’s right to exist.
Though following the 1988 referendum controversy CGLA funds were generally considered to be intact, opposition to the group continued on and off campus. A News & Observer article from October of 1988 details the initiatives of a conservative North Carolina organization, Campus Watch, started by a UNC-CH alumni with the goal of defunding the CGLA and all other LGBT student organizations in the University of North Carolina System. Though the Campus Watch initiative garnered the signatures of 120 candidates running for North Carolina legislature in the 1988 campaign, it never gained enough support to pose a serious threat to the CGLA.
As the 1980’s came to a close, organized opposition to the CGLA began to fizzle out. In 1989, State Representative Steve Arnold, a Republican from Guilford County, introduced a bill into the North Carolina state legislature to revoke funding from all LGBT student organizations in the UNC system. Though other UNC campuses had LGBT associations, only the CGLA received funding from student fees at the time and would therefore have been the only student group affected by the bill. The chairman of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, Robert Jones, voiced his support for the bill, saying of homosexuality, “that’s a lifestyle I vehemently disagree with." Despite high-profile support, the bill failed and came to mark one of the last significant attempts to defund the CGLA. The success of the CGLA over various initiatives to defund it allowed it to move into the 1990’s with a new sense of security regarding its funds and status as a legitimate campus organization.
- LAMBDA Magazine. GLBTSA. Issues,1976-1992. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Web.http://www.unc.edu/glbtsa/lambda/archives/index.htm.
- Carolina Gay Association Leaflet. Wilson Library Special Collections: North Carolina Collection Clipping File, 1976-1989. Clipping.
- The Winston-Salem Journal. “Gay’s Right to Funds Gets Tentative Okay”. July 30, 1975. Winston-Salem, N.C. Wilson Library Special Collections: North Carolina Collection Clipping File. Clipping.
- “Oral History Interview with Cecil W. Wooten”. Southern Oral History Program Collection. July 16, 2001. Interview K-0849. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Web.http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/K-0849/menu.html
- The Daily Tar Heel. Wilson Library Special Collections. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Microfilm.
- The News & Observer. “Ban sought on student funds to gay groups”. October 19, 1988. Raleigh, N.C. Wilson Library Special Collections: North Carolina Collection Clipping File. Clipping
- The Charlotte Observer. “UNC Board Chairman Says Don’t Fund Gay Groups”. April 22, 1989. Charlotte, N.C. Wilson Library Special Collections: North Carolina Collection Clipping File. Clipping.