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Now it’s gay history that’s being uncovered at William & Mary

Historians in the News
tags: LGBT



Writing a queer history of William & Mary is an exercise in reading between the lines. For years, many people deliberately hid their stories — and a large part of themselves — out of fear of exclusion or punishment.

Historical estimates of the queer population in the U.S. have ranged anywhere from 2 to 10 percent. It’s unlikely, statistically speaking, that there weren’t some same-sex relationships among the College’s early, unmarried masters and the students who lived away from home in their care. While no accounts are known, the concept of romantic friendship between same-sex individuals is not new. It wouldn’t have been called homosexuality per se, but the letters that do exist show deep and loving relationships.

Particularly when it came to women, these relationships sometimes proved a source of anxiety. A Scribner’s Monthly article from the 1870s, for example, hinted at the moral vicissitudes that would ensue if large numbers of women had unlimited access to education and each other. The College thankfully ignored such warnings when it admitted women in 1918. But support and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) individuals on campus would take most of the 20th century. To be frank, it’s still a work in progress. And it has been driven by a small and passionate band of alumni, faculty, students and staff. Represented here are a few of their stories. Many more have yet to be told, and many more need to be.

Full disclosure: I’m gay. I can still remember how painful it felt when my friend Patti forced me to utter those words out loud on the steps of the Wren Building the night I finally got the courage to come out to her. Patti refused to let me skulk back into the art of Southern obfuscation and use pronouns to mask what I feared most at that time — the pain and rejection I’d been conditioned to believe came with being gay. She helped me name the fear, rather than give it power. Years later I’d appreciate her insistence and what it meant for my own development, but at the time I could easily have mistaken her insistence for a mild form of torture.

By and large, Williamsburg operated much like a small Southern town when it came to sexual minorities. Most folks could guess who was gay, but there was little to no public acknowledgment of such realities. Everybody knew, and nobody talked about it.

“It wasn’t a place where people had to pretend. You could be yourself, but you didn’t necessarily call attention to yourself,” said Wayne Curtis ’82. “But if your behavior got to the point where people started talking about it, then you were a problem. And usually that meant no good was going to come one way or the other.” ...

Read entire article at The College of William & Mary


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