BY CHANDLER DAVIDSON
Back in the ’70s, a young woman approached me after class one morning and handed me a slip of paper with a phone number on it. “Dr. Davidson,” she said, “would you call this number?”
I thought that was rather strange, and I asked her why. She was clearly uncomfortable. “I’d prefer that you just call the number,” she said, smiling shyly. Later that day I called, and a male Rice student answered. “Dr. Davidson,” he said, “the gay students on campus want to form an officially recognized student group, and to do so, we need a faculty sponsor. Would you be willing to be our sponsor?”
“You know I’m not gay, don’t you?” I responded.
“Yes, sir. But none of the faculty members we think are gay we’ve asked to do this are willing to. They just feel uncomfortable about coming out.”
At that point in my life, I was between marriages and into the dating scene. If the word got out that I was the sponsor of the group, would this make it harder to get a date? I thought about it a moment and then consented. And thus began my relation to gays and lesbians (later called the LGBT community) at Rice. The newly formed group called itself the Rice Gay/Lesbian Support Group or, for short, RG/LSG.
I remember vividly the events surrounding the first photo of the group that was taken for the student yearbook, which appeared in the 1983 edition of the Campanile, some years after the group had gotten my consent to be their sponsor. The students gathered fairly early one morning at the side of Willy’s Statue on the Quad. They stood there, talking and laughing. When the photographer had gotten his camera on the tripod and was ready, he said, “Okay, I’m going to shoot.”
Suddenly, to my amazement, all but two students in the entire group — there were close to 30 — whipped out paper sacks and put them over their heads. The 1983 Campanile thus shows the group in that pose. To be sure, all their names are under the photo, beginning with Harvey J. Spooner and followed by J.Q. Public, Rin Tin Tin (there was a dog in the photo, sitting on the front row, without a sack), Wilhelmina Marsha Rice, Wonder Woman, Valley Girl With A Bagged Face, Brainiac V and so forth. The last row of names ends with these words: “not pictured: approximately 10 percent of Rice students, faculty and staff.”
The next time you are in Fondren Library and desire to learn a bit of the history of this student organization, go to the shelf containing the Campaniles. Take a look at the 1983 edition to see Wonder Woman and Rin Tin Tin standing at the side of Mr. Rice, who appears not to take notice of the epochal event. Then go to succeeding editions. The next photo of the group appears the following year, standing in front of Carl Miles’ “The Sisters,” the well-known sculpture of two nude women embracing, then in the Jones College courtyard. All those in the photograph hold paper plates in front of their faces, except for one who holds a larger sheet of paper in front of his, illustrated with the classical masks of tragedy and comedy. No names, real or otherwise, are given.
No photos of the group appear over the next two years in the Rice yearbook. Then, in 1987, there is a photo of men only — 13 in all — seven with their faces hidden by record album covers. No names are given, even of those with faces showing. The words below the picture announce that their group’s name has changed to Gays and Lesbians of Rice, or GALOR, and an interesting description of their educational and social contributions to campus life is given.
The 1988 Campanile contains a photo of eight GALOR students, six men with their faces showing and their actual names given, and two students with their faces covered and their names listed as “Alexander the Great” and “Sappho.” In a paragraph beneath the photo, we learn of the group’s activities, including their sponsoring of “Rocky Horror” at Brown College to raise funds for the AIDS Foundation in Houston.
The next Campanile group photo does not appear until 1991, when seven people who, with one exception, hold paper plates with symbolic messages on them but do not hide their faces. Their correct names are given, except for a student who uses his plate to cover his face and is listed as “One foot out of the closet.” The following Campanile has no picture of the group.
The year 1993, however, is the game-changer. Pictured opposite a photo of members of the Campus Crusade for Christ is “Gays and Lesbians of Rice and Friends,” a group of about 50 people. No one is hiding his face, including the four faculty members pictured.
In short, it took 13 years for at least those members of GALOR who showed up for a photo to all be comfortable in coming out to their fellow students, as well as the staff and faculty. Like other groups who were discriminated against — blacks, Latinos, women — the LGBT community at Rice knew what it felt like to be held in contempt for something they had no control over and for which they were not ashamed. Unlike these other groups, however, they had the ability not to disclose the aspect that made them the object of others’ contempt and even hatred. So hide it many of them did, up into the ’90s. And given the remaining social hostility toward their sexual preference even today, some undoubtedly still do, alas. And yet others obviously do not.
This willingness to let their sexual preference be publicly known figured in the group’s changing its name once again — I believe in the ’90s — to PRIDE. And today, the group has yet a different name, which is usually abbreviated as Q&A. This stands for Queers and Allies, which says something about how far Rice has come since that hesitant young woman mysteriously asked me to call the phone number written on the piece of paper back in the ’70s.
Oh, by the way, her name was Annise Parker ’78, a woman who, as she described herself on Houston municipal election night in 2009, evoking laughter, was “the very first” — she paused slightly for effect — “the very first graduate of Rice University to be mayor of Houston.” She was sworn in a few days later by her good friend who was then District Judge Steven Kirkland, a fellow Owl alum and a former member of the student group Annise had played a role in founding.
– Chandler Davidson is a research professor and the Tsanoff Chair of Public Affairs Emeritus.