When Yale professor Charles Porter came out at age 60, few people were surprised.
“I knew I was gay,” Porter said. “But I didn’t know that everyone else knew.”
Today, nearly 10 years later, Porter can look back laughingly on the past. When he was at Yale as a graduate student in 1958, however, his situation was one shared by many students: gay and in denial, unaware of the homosexual community.
A product of a time when homosexuality was largely unaccepted, the Yale of 50, or even 20 years ago stretched the limits of what it meant to be a liberal institution. At a school that is now home to an annual coming out day, it may be hard for current Yalies to fathom an environment that not only frowned upon gay culture, but where gay culture barely existed.
While at Yale, Nicholas Heer ’48 had heard rumors that there were gay people on campus, but never met a real live homosexual.
“I knew I was gay while I was there,” Heer said. “But I thought I was the only one.”
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, an atmosphere of McCarthyism and conservative politics caused a wave of homophobia that translated to the Yale campus.
“Being a homosexual was like being a communist,” said Deputy Dean Joe Gordon. “And that was being a traitor.”
For Heer, and certainly for others, gay life at Yale was based on a circuit of hearsay. Few came out during their time as undergraduates, and those who did belonged to an isolated sector of the community.
Perhaps because of its location, Harvard had a more active gay culture than Yale.
“New Haven is just a small town,” Heer, who taught at Harvard in the late 1950s, said. “Boston is a big city, so it had a bigger gay scene.”
With few places to go in New Haven, the homosexual community was forced to operate as a sort of secret society.
“I think many people knew each other,” Porter said. “There were gay people and they found each other, but it was more concealed.”
“I heard about a gay bar that was close to campus, but I never went,” Heer said. “I was too scared to find out about it.”
The rumored gay bar on Chapel Street, The Pub, not only existed but served as a meeting place for gay Yalies for nearly 60 years. During a time when open homosexuality meant certain public scorn, the bar was a necessary aid in the gay dating world of the past.
“There was a restaurant on the front and an entrance in back,” Wayne Eley ’67 said. “It was a furtive thing, and we all went in the back door.”
Although it moved from its original location, The Pub continued to be a popular spot into the mid-1980s. By this time, however, there was no longer a need for the bar to conceal its true identity.
“It was an openly gay bar,” said David Cornell ’85. “A lot of interaction between the local and Yale gay communities took place there.”
The Pub, though hardly a fixture of the mainstream social scene, was one of the less controversial ways that gay Yalies met each other. A cruising route referred to as “The Block” was bound by High, Chapel, Lynwood and Edgewood streets.
“It was a cruising area,” Eley said. “Some people would walk and others would drive.”
The public nature of cruising made it easier for police to target homosexuals.
“Police officers would pose as gays,” Eley explained. “Then they would arrest people for solicitation. One football player was arrested and forced to leave Yale, but it was all very hush-hush.”
Even arrests, though, were not enough to stem the cruisers, and the direction of Lynwood Place was eventually changed to break the loop.
After the days of cruising at Yale had been largely ended, the gay scene continued to live on in secretive, unstoppable ways.
“The basement of Sterling [Memorial Library] was the place to meet,” said Eley.
Even once the campus had liberalized markedly, secret meeting places remained.
“There was a much more vibrant openly gay culture, but there were still some clandestine areas in Woolsey Hall, Sterling library, and Payne Whitney [Gymnasium],” Cornell said. “There was also a gay part of CCL on the upper floor, toward the back where we all hung out.”
By the 1980s, any secrecy that remained was more for fun than out of necessity. The days of an entirely underground homosexual world were gone.
As homosexuality began to emerge publicly in major cities in the 1960s, change at Yale, albeit more slowly, was also under way.
“When I came back to Yale as a visiting lecturer in 1962, the situation was quite different,” Heer said. “By then there were at least some gay organizations around the country, like the Mattachine Society, and more students were starting to come out.”
While gay activists were starting to organize nationally, Yale still found itself without a gay students organization.
In 1969, Johannes Van de Pohl founded the first gay students organization, paving the way for the Gay Student Center that would be the campus’ only homosexual organization in the 1970s.
“When I first came to Yale, whoever went into the Gay Student Center was most likely a graduate student. It was very furtive,” former Gay Student Center President Steve Baird ’83 said. “But by the time I left, there was a large group of people willing to go in and out of that door without worrying who might see them.”
During Baird’s presidency, Yale saw the founding of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Cooperative and its first Gay and Lesbian Awareness Days (GLAD).
“GLAD had a whole variety of activities,” Baird said. “Nothing like this had ever been done before. We were living in a very different world.”
The co-op was started as an umbrella organization uniting undergraduate, medical, law and divinity schools gay organizations.
These gay organizations welcomed women when Yale took the big step in 1969, opening its doors to both sexes.
“I think [admitting women to Yale] really improved things,” Gordon said. “It had a general liberalizing effect on the campus.”
The admission of women, however, by no means meant that the sexes were in equal proportions. Yale remained predominantly male for years after women started to appear on campus.
“The campus couldn’t have been more than 20 percent female,” Tim Bertaccini ’77 said. “And it’s much harder to come out when you’re living in an all-male atmosphere.”
Because the history of women at Yale was extremely short, lesbian organizations had some catching up to do.
“There were a lot more institutions for men because they had been there longer,” former Yale Lesbians President Maia Ettinger ’83 said. “In 1979, during the 10th anniversary of women at Yale, we started to become much more visible.”
“We thought that making out in CCL was a political act,” she said. “I even got banned for life from Naples pizza for making out with a girl. But a lot of these acts of bravado masked feelings of alienation and loneliness. Yale just wasn’t a very gay-friendly place.”
By Ettinger’s junior year, the gay and lesbian communities were established enough to become a united force.
“People like me and Steve [Baird] started forging ties,” Ettinger said. “We gave a presentation to freshmen at orientation and presented a united male-female community that never existed before.”
While progress sped up, the level of comfort for homosexuals varied drastically by social sphere.
“I found the divinity school community to be quite accepting,” James Hackney DIV ’79 said. “There was even an organization for gays and lesbians. I was just blown away.”
Hackney, who was married during his time at Yale, remembered gay couples who lived in graduate housing for married students.
“I was really surprised at what an open conversation there was about homosexuality at the Divinity School,” he said. “In many ways, I think it was more liberal than Yale as a whole.”
On the other end of the spectrum, however, lay an entirely different world.
For much of the time that Hackney was a student at the Divinity School, Bertaccini was running varsity track and cross country an undergraduate.
“I would say that the fact that I was an athlete played a huge role in my not coming out,” Bertaccini said. “You just didn’t do that in 1977.”
“All of my friends were on sports teams. They were stereotypically heterosexual, and I just wasn’t brave enough to come out.”
Bertaccini came out immediately after leaving the sports community.
“I came out to those same friends in the two years after I graduated from Yale,” he said. “I was fairly heavily closeted and repressed, but I think that would have been the case anywhere. I think Yale was actually more open than other places.”
Bertaccini, who now works at Yale, said he has noticed a vast difference in the gay community in the last 25 years, but that most of the problems that plagued him still remain.
“The scene is completely different now. The advertising for group events is much more in the University’s public eye,” he said. “But if you asked me how much has changed in the sports community, I’d say very little. The locker room still remains one of the bastions of heterosexuality.”
Toward a ‘gay school’
The release of history professor Jeb Boswell’s book “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Heterosexuality” in 1981 marked a new era for gay studies and gay life at Yale. The book, which was enormously successful, gave credibility to gay scholarship.
Boswell organized a series of conferences on homosexuality between 1985 and 1989, and these conferences contributed to Yale’s growing reputation as a gay-friendly school.
“Back in the days of those conferences,” Porter said, “Yale was seen as at the forefront of gay and lesbian studies.”
By the spring of 1982, Yale was hosting its first Gay and Lesbian Awareness Days.
“It was a very exciting time,” said Rick Elser ’81. “It was right at the end of ’70s liberation, but before the spread of AIDS.”
Once AIDS did prove to be an epidemic, however, it was the gay and lesbian societies that mobilized the quickest.
“People became very aware of AIDS around 1983. We were organizing safer sex workshops and getting speakers,” Elser said. “And we got very large groups of gay and straight students.”
Aside from organizing activist projects, the co-op was also improving its publicity skills.
“I think they became more savvy at being an organization on campus,” Elser said. “They were able to get more money and get more people involved.”
One of the most effective ways of getting people involved was, and continues to be, the co-op dance.
“The GLAD dance was bigger than any YCC party,” Cornell said.
The dances drew large numbers of both gay and straight students, but many outsiders were shocked at the size of what they considered to be a gay event.
“The Register ran an article about how many thousands of people went to the co-op dance,” Elser said. “And they made it sound like all of those people were gay. I never had the feeling that there was a higher percentage of gay students at Yale.”
Yale’s renown for having an larger than average homosexual population reached its height in 1987 when the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Julie Lovine entitled “Lipsticks and Lords: Yale’s New Look.” The article stated that one in four Yalies was homosexual, a figure that spread quickly by word of mouth.
“This one in four figure was based on nothing,” Gordon said. “Everyone took that out of the article, but there hadn’t been any studies or research done. She just talked to five people and presented what they said as true.”
Whether the figure was inflated, Gordon did notice a marked change in the undergraduates he taught.
“More students arrive at Yale already knowing [their sexual orientation], and they’re comfortable with it,” Gordon said. “I think it must have a lot to do with a change in the high schools.”