First Student Homophile League Is Formed Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Stephen Donaldson formed the first gay and lesbian college group, the Student Homophile League, at Columbia University in New York City. In the ensuing years, student groups would become a large and vibrant component of the GLBT movement.

Summary of Event

Given a young person’s propensity to explore his or her sexuality, institutions of higher learning provide a natural opportunity for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning students to gather with others like themselves. Although informal queer student networks no doubt existed in the past, the first formal college gay and lesbian groups formed in the latter half of the 1960’s. The emergence of these early student groups occurred during an era when the homophile organizations of the 1950’s were beginning to give way to the gay and lesbian rights movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. [kw]First Student Homophile League Is Formed (Apr. 19, 1967) [kw]Student Homophile League Is Formed, First (Apr. 19, 1967) [kw]Homophile League Is Formed, First Student (Apr. 19, 1967) Student Homophile League Colleges and universities;student groups Queer youth;and student movement[student movement] Education;and GLBT student groups[GLBT student groups] [c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 19, 1967: First Student Homophile League Is Formed[0650] [c]Marches, protests, and riots;Apr. 19, 1967: First Student Homophile League Is Formed[0650] [c]Civil rights;Apr. 19, 1967: First Student Homophile League Is Formed[0650] Donaldson, Stephen

The Student Homophile League at MIT, formed in 1969, distributed this flyer around 1970. Students included a contact phone number on the flyer as well, a bold move for the time.

(Courtesy, Boston Intercollegiate Lesbian and Gay Alliance)

The first gay student organization, the Student Homophile League (SHL), was formed at Columbia University Student Homophile League in New York City by sophomore Stephen Donaldson (born Robert Martin), who envisioned the group as “a vehicle for students of all orientations to combat homophobia.” The group, which originally consisted of twelve members, began meeting in the fall of 1966; it took several months of struggle with the university’s administration before the SHL was officially recognized by the university on April 19, 1967. Although the chartering of the group garnered a mention on the front page of The New York Times, the Columbia Spectator reported that some students thought the SHL was an April Fools’ Day joke.

Donaldson played a key leadership role in the gay and lesbian movement of the late 1960’s, despite his identifying as bisexual, and had romantic relationships with women (including Martha Shelley, the head of the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis). In addition to founding the SHL, Donaldson was also involved with the New York chapter of the Mattachine Society and the Sexual Freedom League, and in 1968 was elected an officer of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO).

Donaldson joined the Navy after graduating from Columbia, and he was among the first to fight a dishonorable discharge from the military for homosexual behavior; his discharge was eventually upgraded to honorable. In 1973, after he was arrested for trespassing on the White House lawn during a protest of the bombings in Cambodia, Donaldson was repeatedly gang-raped in a Washington, D.C., jail. Upon his release, he became the first man to speak out publicly about his experiences and later served as president of Stop Prisoner Rape.

Starting in the 1980’s, Donaldson wrote a column for the punk rock magazine Maximum Rock N Roll under the name “Donny the Punk” and later was coeditor with Wayne Dynes of the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (1990) and the Studies in Homosexuality series. In the mid-1990’s, he was a coplaintiff in the case of ACLU v. Reno, which challenged the Communications Decency Act, later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997. Donaldson died on July 18, 1996, from complications related to AIDS. A memorial plaque bearing his name hangs in the lounge at Columbia’s Furnald Hall.

Following in the wake of the original SHL chapter at Columbia, chapters were soon formed at other universities, in some cases by activists who would become well-known names in the GLBT movement. Writer Rita Mae Brown, who later became a leader in the lesbian-feminist and women’s rights movements and who has written many novels, including the popular lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), started an SHL chapter at New York University the following year. In 1968, Jearld Moldenhauer, who would go on to open Glad Day bookstore in Toronto, Canada, formed an SHL chapter at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, with radical Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan acting as the first faculty adviser. That year also saw the establishment of a chapter at Stanford University in California.

In 1969, an SHL group was started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Stan Tillotson, who had read about the Columbia chapter in the Village Voice. Tillotson later recalled that he could not convince the required five gay undergraduates to sign the group’s charter, and instead prevailed upon some straight friends to do so as a favor. Also in 1969, San Francisco State University and Rutgers University in New Jersey gained chapters, the latter started by an African American student, Lionel Cuffie. The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, followed in 1970. The local SHL chapters were organized into a national network, with Donaldson serving as chair. Other early campus gay groups outside the SHL network included the Boston University Homophile Committee, Fight Repression of Erotic Expression (FREE) at the University of Minnesota, and Homosexuals Intransigent at the City College of New York.

The early student gay groups typically adopted more radical politics than those of the earlier homophile organizations, like the larger radical youth counterculture sweeping the nation. The mission statement of the Amherst chapter, for example, stated that the SHL “is working to free the person with a homosexual orientation from the oppression of the heterosexual society and to help realize the revolution within our society that will allow every individual to express all the facets of his/her personality and reach his/her full potential as a human being.” Lesbian and gay students also were involved with other causes, including the free speech, antiwar, and Black Power movements.

After the Stonewall Rebellion in June of 1969 in New York City, Gay Liberation Front chapters started on several campuses, including one in Boston that evolved out of MIT’s SHL chapter. A similar phenomenon occurred in the early 1990’s when ACT UP and Queer Nation had a strong presence on some campuses. A queer-student group called SQUISH, Strong Queers United in Stopping Heterosexism, Strong Queers United in Stopping Heterosexism Heterosexism, Strong Queers United in Stopping was formed in the early 1990’s by students at California State University, Northridge, using Queer Nation Queer Nation;model for student activism[student activism] and ACT UP ACT UP;model for student activism[student activism] as models. In addition to political activism, GLBT student groups—then and now—sponsored educational forums, held speakers’ bureaus, held consciousness-raising sessions (now called support groups), provided assistance to students coming out, and organized social events such as dances and parties.

According to historian Brett Beemyn, by 1971, more than 175 colleges and universities had gay and lesbian student organizations, and countless more sprang up in the ensuing decades. During the 1970’s, students on some campuses seeking to form gay and lesbian groups had to battle university administrations, which at the time took a more paternalistic attitude toward their students than is the case today. Other schools were more supportive, including the University of Michigan, which in 1971 became the first college to hire staff to offer services to GLBT students.

GLBT graduate students and professors also began to organize in the 1970’s. The Gay Academic Union Gay Academic Union (GAU), the first professional association of academics working in gay and lesbian studies (later called, also, queer studies Queer studies or queer theory), was formed in November of 1973. Among GAU’s early members were historians Martin Duberman, John D’Emilio, and Jonathan Ned Katz, and professor and writer Joan Nestle, who founded the Lesbian Herstory Archives, now in Brooklyn. GAU members, along with undergraduate and graduate students on some campuses, were instrumental in establishing gay and lesbian studies programs beginning in the late 1970’s and queer studies in the 1990’s. The first dedicated lesbian, gay, and bisexual studies department was established at the City College of San Francisco in 1989, followed by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York and the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale University.

The earliest college gay groups consisted largely of gays, and lesbians were often left out and made to feel unwelcome. Lesbian activist and writer Karla Jay, then a student at Barnard College (Columbia’s “sister” school), later recalled that Columbia University’s SHL chapter had “the off-putting air of a men’s club.” She continued, “I could see why I was the only woman present at the one meeting I attended.” In this climate—and as happened within the gay movement as a whole—lesbian students began holding their own social events and organizing separate campus groups throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Many also belonged to feminist groups on campus and worked with campus women’s centers.

A similar dynamic repeated itself in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, as bisexual and then transgender students began to form their own distinct organizations. In addition, during the same period, many formerly gay and lesbian student groups expanded their mandates to include bisexuals and transgender individuals.


Into the early twenty-first century, student organizations had made up one of the largest and most vibrant segments of the GLBT movement, with thousands of groups across the United States A few of the early Student Homophile League groups, having gone through numerous reorganizations and name changes, are still in existence, including the Columbia Queer Alliance.

Some larger and more progressive campuses have multiple GLBT organizations. The University of California, Berkeley, has about one dozen, including groups for queer students of color or those in a particular field of study. Even many conservative and religious colleges have at least one GLBT group, sometimes established after a long struggle. A few student GLBT groups produce their own publications, such as the newspaper Ten Percent at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). A national fraternity called Delta Lambda Phi was organized in 1986 in Washington, D.C., offering social, service, and recreational activities for “gay, bisexual, and progressive gentlemen.” In 1988, the first national sorority for lesbians, Lambda Delta Lambda, was founded and chartered at UCLA.

Often free for the first time from the strictures of families and hometowns, many college students find the opportunity to explore their sexuality. Studies show that young people are more accepting of GLBT people than their elders, making many college campuses relatively friendly places to come out. Young people in general tend to be more flexible about their sexual orientation—and, increasingly, their gender identity—and have been at the forefront of progressive activism and rethinking of identity categories. This tendency is apparent in the field of queer studies, which emphasizes the socially constructed and fluid nature of sexuality and gender.

In the late 1990’s and early twenty-first century, a growing number of student groups sprang up at high schools and middle schools, as queer youth embraced their sexuality at ever-earlier ages. There are more than two thousand GLBT/straight alliances, many of them started by students who had to go to a court of law to win their right to gather. An umbrella organization, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, also exists. Even as sexual orientation and gender boundaries become increasingly blurred, students continue to recognize the value of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning groups made up of their peers. Student Homophile League Colleges and universities;student groups Queer youth;and student movement[student movement] Education;and GLBT student groups[GLBT student groups]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beemyn, Brett. “The Silence Is Broken: A History of the First Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual College Student Groups.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 12, no. 2 (April, 2003).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Broberg, Susan. “Gay/Straight Alliances and Other Controversial Student Groups: A New Test for the Equal Access Act.” Brigham Young University Education & Law Journal (Summer, 1999).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">D’Emilio, John. The World Turned. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donaldson, Stephen. “The Bisexual Movement’s Beginnings in the 70’s: A Personal Retrospective.” In Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries, and Visions, edited by Naomi Tucker. New York: Haworth Press, 1995.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howard, Kim, and Annie Stevens, eds. Out and About Campus: Personal Accounts by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered College Students. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jay, Karla. Tales of the Lavender Menace. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kissack, Terence. “Freaking Fag Revolutionaries: New York’s Gay Liberation Front, 1969-1971.” Radical History Review 62 (Spring, 1995): 104-134.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shepard, Curtis F., Felice Yeskel, and Charles Outcalt. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Campus Organizing: A Comprehensive Manual. National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. 1995. Available at resources/books.html.

1950: Mattachine Society Is Founded

1952: ONE, Inc., Is Founded

1955: Daughters of Bilitis Founded as First National Lesbian Group in United States

May 27-30, 1960: First National Lesbian Conference Convenes

February 19-20, 1966: First North American Conference of Homophile Organizations Convenes

August 11-18, 1968: NACHO Formally Becomes the First Gay Political Coalition

July 31, 1969: Gay Liberation Front Is Formed

June 28, 1970: First Lesbian and Gay Pride March in the United States

November 28, 1970: Del Martin Quits Gay Liberation Movement

1973: National Gay Task Force Is Formed

October 18, 1973: Lambda Legal Authorized to Practice Law

March 5, 1974: Antigay and Antilesbian Organizations Begin to Form

1976: Katz Publishes First Lesbian and Gay History Anthology

April 22, 1980: Human Rights Campaign Fund Is Founded

Categories: History