Shaken by the Civil Rights movement, by 1972 the viciously conservative rulers of the US South were fighting tooth and nail to resist change.
So when a group of students called the South’s first openly gay campus dance, they were quickly pitted against that whole establishment.
The University of Georgia was a symbol of Southern conservatism. Campus town Athens was a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan—a racist militia that still murdered black people with little opposition from police.
Huge swathes of Georgia still refused to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Black and white students were only allowed to mix in its schools in 1970—16 years after the landmark Brown vs Board of Education lawsuit.
It also had brutal anti-gay laws.
But the university wasn’t immune to the turmoil in Southern society. Thousands of students demonstrated there after the Ohio National Guard killed four students protesting against the Vietnam War at Kent State University in 1970.
This was the background as John Hoard and Bill Green set up the Committee for Gay Education in November 1972.
Straight away university authorities began monitoring the group. A memo to the Dean reported that one of their posters “resulted in a professor calling on the Provost to inquire, ‘What the hell is going on here?’.”
Gay liberation hadn’t necessarily been adopted by the wider movement. But New York’s Stonewall Riots in 1969 sent ripples across the US.
Hoard told The Big Roundtable website, “I think part of what Stonewall gave us was that you can’t be invisible any more. But in order to do that and do it under the rules of the university, you really had to be a kind of student organisation.”
Hoard and Green found a faculty sponsor in sociology lecturer Dr Karl King, who supported the idea of an educational committee.
The first meeting was a success. A university memo noted that approximately 70 people came. Campus newspaper Red and Black carried a positive report headlined “Gay students try for understanding”.
Their next move was to hold a dance in the Memorial Ballroom, booked by another student group.
But the Committee was also moving towards activism. This reflected a broader shift in the wake of Stonewall away from the passive strategies of the 1950s “Homophile” movement.
King resigned after “struggling” with the CGE’s “new direction”. His resignation letter explained, “One strategy discussed was the possibility of a ‘demonstration’.”
The ballroom reservation was cancelled.
The Committee staged a sit-in at the student activities director’s office. The authorities said the dance was against Georgia’s laws.
The ACLU civil rights organisation refused to take up their case. Their own lawyers said it was “super unpopular”. The case went to the County Court on the day of the dance.
Judge James Barrow, a liberal who supported civil rights, ruled in their favour.
The dance went ahead—and some 500 people attended.
Many Southern leftists looked to such figures in the hope of a new progressive politics. But it was the brave actions of ordinary people that drove change.
The students’ struggle was a landmark victory for gay rights in the South. Hoard said, “We think that society has the potential to change and we think it will.”