You may have noticed a banner hanging in a George Sherman Union window that reads “LGBTQ history was made in this building.” It was placed there this month to commemorate BU’s role in the city’s gay rights movement: the GSU was the meeting spot of the first organized gay student group in the area, the Boston University Student Homophile League, which began during the 1969–1970 school year.
That summer, on June 28, 1969, police raided the popular Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. At the time, homosexuality was a criminal offence and the gay community saw the bar—and others like it—as their safe haven. Patrons rioted for several days following the raid, advocating for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Many credit the uprising with giving birth to the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, commemorative banners have popped up in and around Boston and Cambridge over the last month, honoring spots where LGBTQ history was made. The banners are the brainchild of the nonprofit History Project, dedicated to preserving New England’s LGBTQ history, which joined forces with Boston Pride to commemorate the Stonewall anniversary. The banners have a link to an interactive map showing and explaining each of the 50 locations, which were identified and selected through an open community survey.
Among the spots listed are Boston City Hall, where three gay couples who had fought in court for the legalization of same-sex marriage signed their marriage licenses in 2004, after Massachusetts became the first US state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; the now-closed lesbian bar the Saints; and Fenway Health, which has worked since 1971 to make life healthier and safer for the LGBT community, people living with HIV/AIDS, and the broader population.
The History Project asked Steve Russo (CAS’72), one of the founding members and president of the BU Student Homophile League, to write the interactive map’s BU blurb. “We wanted to start the club so people would have a place to get together,” Russo recalls. “We had over 100 people coming to our meetings.”
He has positive memories of being gay on campus. “I didn’t feel any discrimination, and we experienced no hassle during the process to legitimize the organization,” he says. The administration was supportive, and the Student Union agreed to help fund it, a “milestone” for a gay student group, he says.
“On occasion,” Russo writes in the Stonewall 50 entry, “gay student groups from other colleges held meetings, but more students from those colleges came to the BU socials, as those colleges’ students were leery to be seen going into meetings by people they knew at their own institutions.”
The process of securing a faculty sponsor (a requirement for all BU clubs) was a little tougher, though. Russo says no gay faculty member was willing to sponsor the group, but Rev. Joe Brown Love, who had recently arrived at BU to serve as Methodist chaplain, “put himself on the line for us.” Russo notes that no photos of the club exist. None were ever taken because members feared retribution.
Russo says he “had an inkling that it was important at the time,” when asked if he realized the group was seminal to the LGBT movement when they started it.
“Many long-term relationships were begun at the BU SHL meetings,” he says. ”It was a liberating experience for many of us.”