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Digital History at Ursinus

Genesis: GALA, 1991

Foreshadowing Fall

In the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania, nestled between green trees and grey squirrels, there stands a private undergraduate school, founded in 1869. It is winter. A slight drizzle covers the nearby city of Philadelphia, with a relatively high temperature staving off snowfall.[1] A mere six days ago, President George H.W. Bush officially announced his bid for reelection.[2] Martha Wash’s shouts of “Everybody Dance Now” reverberate throughout the nation as C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat” climbs to the top of the charts.[3]

At Ursinus College, spring term is in full swing. Valentine’s Day arrives, bringing with it expectations of romantic and sexual intimacy. And on February 19, 1991, senior biology major Kenneth Bradley broaches a subject of a different kind of intimacy: homosexuality.[4]

"Kenneth E. Bradley," 1991

Kenneth E. Bradley 

“I have noticed that many people, especially men, feel awkward around homosexuals,”[5] he writes. “They tend to think that homosexuals, like myself, are a different kind of person, not just someone with a different sexual orientation.” Bradley goes on to quote from an unknown source a series of “TIPS TO THE HETEROSEXUAL MALE” for best practices around gay men. “Do not run screaming from the room,” it begins. Bradley concludes his article by reminding straight women that the same tips apply to them.

"AH, UM, UH..." February 19, 1991

"AH, UM, UH..." Article from February 19, 1991

Bradley’s broach of the sensitive subject of homosexuality caused little discernable controversy at the time, but his article offers the historian a glimpse of the semester of conflict to come. For that fall, in 1991, a small group of students would gather to create a club for precisely that “different type of person.”[6]      

 

A Coming Storm 

“…On Friday, October 11, over four hundred National Coming Out Day fliers adorned most campus buildings. The message: Gays and Lesbians are a part of this campus, and there are more of us than you think!”[7] So wrote senior English major Michael Cyr, founding President of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, or GALA.

"Michael Cyr," 1992

Michael Cyr 

As campus barreled towards Halloween, Cyr presented in his October 22 article to the Grizzly the GALA’s set of goals: “to provide a social outlet to gay, lesbian, and bisexual students,” “[to] locate, attend, and perhaps sponsor, events to increase our own self-awareness,” “to act as peer counselors to students who are having difficulty accepting their sexuality,” and “to heighten awareness on campus and to combat homophobia.”[8]

"GALA Comes Out," October 22, 1991

"GALA Comes Out," Cyr's article October 22, 1991 

Cyr included in his article a list of faculty contacts students could reach out to as a resource for more info on GALA:

Several pages over, Melisa Miller offers her take on the creation of GALA in a news story:

"GALA Seeks Recognition," October 22, 1991

GALA Seeks Recognition, Article from October 22, 1991

Conflict 

Cyr immediately took issue with Miller's coverage of GALA:

"Clarification of GALA," October 29, 1991

But Cyr's refutaion of The Grizzly's news coverage of GALA would soon be eclipsed by a letter by then physics professor John Ronning.

"Ronning" 1992

Ronning’s letter would become the center of that semester’s debate over the GALA organization. The letter shocked the campus, especially for its defamatory, overtly sexual tone. Ronning asserts in the letter that “urinating in your partner’s mouth,” and “exchanging feces to eat,” are all “regular features of gay culture.”[9] You can read the full letter here, alongside Dr. Regina Oboler’s explanation of GALA.

"Face Off: Pros and Cons of GALA," November 12, 1991

Backlash

GALA, alongside other students, faculty, and staff, immediately responded. Many repudiated Ronning's tone and content, while some offered support. 

The Controversy Rages On

Letters to the editor kept pouring in to the Grizzly, making their way into the November 26 issue of the Grizzly...

...and the December 10 issue:

Fighting for Home

“On October 11th, someone scribbled on a GALA flier, "FAGS GO HOME!" What this individual forgot was: this is our home. And we are not going anywhere.”[10] Michael Cyr wrote these words, and to me they best demonstrate the fight that GALA and its members waged in the fall of 1991. On National Coming Out Day, GALA decided to boldly and publicly speak their truth to all of campus. When people choose to commit such an act, they rarely have the luxury of controlling or even predicting how the rest of the world will respond. Neither Michael Cyr, Jeff Bell, Beth Hauser, nor Gina Oboler could have plausibly predicted the reaction that their fellow community member, John Ronning, would have had. Truly the idea of a member of your home thinking, writing, and publishing statements that defame and negate your existence would be cause for alarm.

But the GALA did not panic. They instead stuck to one of their core tenets, seeking “to heighten awareness on campus and to combat homophobia.”[11] They sent letter after letter to The Grizzly, wielding the mighty pen in order to advocate for their existence and refute their debasers. Through the conflict and controversy that the group weathered in its very first term of existence, GALA successfully made a name for itself on campus. The GALA members sought, and fought, to make their voice heard and to make Ursinus a place where they felt they belonged. They stood up and showed through word and action that this school, with its green trees and grey squirrels, was also home for them.

"GALA 1992 Ruby"

Michael Cyr, Beth Hauser, and Jeff Bell, GALA executive committee members c. 1992. 

Bibliography 

[1] Almanac Publishing Company, “Philadelphia, PA (19125)-February 19, 1991,” Farmers’ Almanac, accessed December 8, 2016, http://farmersalmanac.com/weather-history/19125/1991/02/19/.  

[2] Andrew Rosenthal, “Covering His Right, Bush Joins ’92 Race,” New York Times, February 13, 1992.

[3] Jason Newman, “Martha Wash: The Most Famous Unknown Singer of the ‘90s Speaks Out,” Rolling Stone, September 2, 2014, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/martha-wash-most-famous-unknown-singer-of-the-90s-20140902. Billboard, “The Hot 100-1991 Archive,” accessed December 8, 2016, http://www.billboard.com/archive/charts/1991/hot-100.

[4] Kenn Bradley, “"AH, UM, UH..." February 19, 1991,” Digital History at Ursinus, accessed December 9, 2016, http://omeka.ursinus.edu/items/show/300.

[5] Kenn Bradley, “"AH, UM, UH..." February 19, 1991,” Digital History at Ursinus, accessed December 9, 2016, http://omeka.ursinus.edu/items/show/300.

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Michael Cyr, “"GALA Comes Out," October 22, 1991,” Digital History at Ursinus, accessed December 9, 2016, http://omeka.ursinus.edu/items/show/303.

[8] Ibid.

[9] John Ronning, “"Face Off: Pros and Cons of GALA," November 12, 1991 ,” Digital History at Ursinus, accessed December 9, 2016, http://omeka.ursinus.edu/items/show/310.

[10] Michael Cyr,“"Clarification of GALA," October 29, 1991,” Digital History at Ursinus, accessed December 9, 2016, http://omeka.ursinus.edu/items/show/305.

[11] Michael Cyr, “"GALA Comes Out," October 22, 1991,” Digital History at Ursinus, accessed December 9, 2016, http://omeka.ursinus.edu/items/show/303.

By Jordan Ostrum