Souls tend to go back to who feels like home.N.R. Hart
This past Friday is a day I will long cherish.
My college friend, Wendy, lives in Australia now but comes back home to the states from time to time. We last saw each other before the pandemic — too long! Freed now of lockdowns and travel restrictions we met this week and were joined by two other old friends, Bill and his husband Lee. The venue was Kent State University where we all met and fought together for gay rights in the 1970s. It was just a few years after Stonewall. Our student group was the Kent Gay Liberation Front (KGLF) which Bill founded in 1971 along with English Professor Dolores Noll and a few other brave souls.
I arrived on the scene in Fall 1975, a scared and closeted freshman who was determined to come out. I had chosen to attend KSU specifically because I had heard of KGLF and knew this was where I needed to be. Wendy Gaylord was already at Kent by then and serving as KGLF’s Co-Chairperson. Her letters to the editor of the Daily Kent Stater provided the final dose of courage and inspiration I needed before stepping out into the daylight. I recall vividly sitting in the cafeteria one morning reading this letter over and over.
Wendy and I will be telling our coming out stories here on this platform in a future post. The part I will share now is that through these letters, before we ever met in person, Wendy had already become one of the most important people in my life — and remains so today.
I met Bill Hoover on the night of Friday, October 17, 1975, when I gingerly walked in the door at KGLF’s Men’s Rap. Every Friday night KGLF held a Men’s Rap and Women’s Rap in the Student Center [flyer]. Bill, a sociology graduate assistant and teaching fellow, greeted me and welcomed me to sit down. He quickly became a mentor and lifelong friend. Several months later we became roommates at Silver Meadows Apartments along with his boyfriend (now husband) Lee Evans and my boyfriend at the time, Michael Anderson. In 1980, Bill and Lee welcomed me into their home after they had moved to Los Angeles. I later moved back to Ohio where Wendy and I then shared an apartment off Coventry in Cleveland Heights.
Despite how close we’ve been throughout these nearly 50 years, I don’t recall an occasion since college where all four us have been together at the same time and place. It made for a magnificent day!
We Met at High Noon
We convened at High Noon at the foot of the stairs in the Student Center. There have been a lot of changes on campus these past 50 years — a lot of changes! — but the stairs remain exactly as they were then.
Kent has long celebrated its black squirrels that were imported to the university from Canada in 1961. Wendy wanted her picture taken by a statue honoring these squirrels that was donated to the university in 2009 by then-KSU President Lester Lefton.
And since we all had our phones out, we recruited a passing student to take our first group picture together.
Kent State LGBTQ+ Center
Next we took the elevator to the lower level where the Kent State LGBTQ+ Center is located. It’s a beautiful space, and will soon expand into new larger space the university is providing upstairs on the second floor. The Center is the successor to KGLF. They’re carrying forward in the spirit we began — and are clearly doing an outstanding job! In both 2020 and 2021, Campus Pride, an organization working nationally to create a safer college environment for LGBTQ+ students, recognized Kent State on its Best of the Best list as one of the country’s most LGBTQ+ friendly campuses.
We were greeted by the Center’s Director, Ken Ditlevson, and by youth working that day on Center projects. Being veterans of the first struggles for gay liberation at Kent State, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to regale them with just a few of our early war stories. There are so many!
Bill described an episode that occurred as he taught a class on the sociology of deviance. As part of the instruction he took students on a field trip to a gay bar in Akron. While others jaywalked in the area without incident, the police would routinely issue citations to patrons of the gay bar. Many times those accosted by the cops would pay a fine on the spot to avoid arrest and exposure. Well, Bill and his students wouldn’t have it! They fought back. This article appeared in the Daily Kent Stater after they were first arrested:
There were other episodes with the Akron Police as well, which shouldn’t come as a big shock:
I told the story of bomb threat KGLF received in an attempt to scare us from showing a documentary film. We were undeterred and rallied support among campus allies. The Center for Peaceful Change and other student organizations came in solidarity to watch the film. We packed the room!
This episode ended well with no actual attack, but we did face violence on other occasions. The most dramatic was on Thursday, October 29, 1981. Tear gas canisters were tossed into the Student Center Ballroom where KGLF was holding its annual Halloween Dance. Wendy was there and gives a harrowing account of that awful event.
There are funny stories to tell as well. One of the many programs and activities carried out by KGLF was Speakers Bureau. We went anywhere and everywhere we could go to talk and educate. It was especially humorous when Wendy and I spoke together. Of course we began by introducing ourselves. Wendy would say, “I am Wendy Gaylord and this is Bob Laycock… and yes, these are our real names!”
Certainly the most memorable of all our speaking engagements is when Bill, Dolores Noll and I were invited to speak to a group of prisoners at the infamous Mansfield Reformatory where The Shawshank Redemption was later filmed. We were called in to explain to prisoners the difference between being gay as one’s sexual identity and homosexual behavior in a situational context like prison. After arriving we were ushered deep into the bowels of the prison passing through one locked section after another. I can still hear those doors slamming and locking loudly behind us. We ended up in a classroom-like space with maybe a dozen or so men in attendance. The talk went well, as I recall. I was feeling a bit stunned.
The most fun of all for me were the annual conferences — called “Weekend Workshops” — that we presented each spring. We brought in national leaders of the gay and lesbian movement including Barbara Gittings, Karla Jay, Allen Young, Bill Johnson, Peter Fisher, Ginny Vida, David Thorstad, Brian McNaught, Miriam Ben-Shalom, Rita Mae Brown, Jean O’Leary and Howard Brown — to name just a few!
The weekends consisted of large presentations, workshops, literature tables, and plenty of one-on-one informal conversation with these esteemed leaders of our movement. In most cases they stayed with us at our houses or apartments. For me, meeting Karla Jay and Allen Young in person was especially meaningful. I had read their book, Out of the Closet: Voices of Gay Liberation, in the months prior to arriving at Kent. It was very important to me.
Here’s a sampling of some conference materials and news coverage:
- 1978 Weekend Workshops Flyer
- 1979 Weekend Workshops Flyer
- News coverage Talk by Barbara Gittings
Daily Kent Stater, Tuesday, April 8, 1975
- News coverage of Talk by Karla Jay & Allen Young
Daily Kent Stater, Tuesday, April 6, 1976
- News coverage of Talk by Rita Mae Brown
Daily Kent Stater, Tuesday, April 25, 1978
- News coverage of Talk by David Thorstad and Ginny Vida
Daily Kent Stater, Wednesday, May 2, 1979
As the stories and conversation wound down, it was time for pictures!
Seeing this LGBTQ+ Center is a joy! It’s already a big improvement over the old KGLF offices — and it’s going to get even bigger and better with the coming move upstairs!
After leaving the Center we wandered upstairs to see the old KGLF office. This tiny space is somebody’s office today but was the original KGLF office in 1975. There’s room for a desk and not much more!
In the period during which I was working up the nerve to attend my first Men’s Rap, I would “nonchalantly” stroll by for a quick discrete glance. Thankfully no one had two heads. I might never have come out!
Eventually we moved to larger space with windows looking outside, but that was still only about twice the size of this room.
Strolling Down Memory Lane
Friday was a wonderfully warm and partly sunny day, better than we could have hoped for on a November 4th. After having some lunch, we took full advantage of the weather and wandered around campus to see the old sights and new. So much has changed! But that’s to be expected. It’s been nearly half a century!
Wendy wanted to see her old dorm, so we walked there first while reminiscing about the old times and simultaneously catching up on our lives since Kent. It was just plain wonderful! I can’t describe.
May 4, 1970
Eventually we came around to sight of the National Guard shooting that killed four students on May 4, 1970. I was still back in high school when the shootings occurred, though I had actively organized resistance to the Vietnam War there. Much to the chagrin of the school administration! That’s a story for another time.
Bill, however, had been there on campus at the time of the shootings. He pointed out to us where the National Guard had gathered, how they climbed the hill overlooking the parking lot, and then opened fire on defenseless unarmed students, many just walking to and from class at the wrong time and wrong place.
This graphic is from President Nixon’s Commission on Campus Unrest depicting the scene of the shooting and everyone’s position: the National Guard, students injured and students killed.
As we walked onto the site, this is the view from the parking lot looking up towards the pagoda (left) where the National Guard opened fire. The spot where Jeffrey Miller fell, one of the dead students, can be seen just behind the fire hydrant.
There’s a bullet hole through the sculpture by Taylor Hall (center in top picture).
The spot where the National Guard fired is marked…
…and this is the view the National Guard had from that spot looking down on the students.
CBS News aired this brief report on one of the anniversaries of the shooting.
The Gym Protest & Tent City
All this was quite familiar, of course. May 4th dominated life at Kent throughout the 70s and beyond. We all attended the memorials every year and there was continuous political struggle because none of the issues leading to or arising from the shootings were resolved. Many of the surviving students who had been shot were still there at Kent.
Then came an announcement by the university that it intended to expand the footprint of Memorial Gymnasium with a new Annex that would cut into the area where the shootings occurred. This would change the landscape and could create an illusion that the National Guard had been boxed in and possibly cornered.
The announcement triggered immediate protest but the administration refused to reconsider. And so, in the tradition of Kent State and of youth in those days, we deepened the protest in May 1977 by occupying the site. Dubbed “Tent City,” the occupation continued for about 60 days until forcibly removed in July with the arrest of 193 people. Many were dragged off as dead weight in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience . KGLF participated in Tent City. Bill, Lee and I participated both for KGLF and also as members of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), a national youth organization aligned with the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
In the end, the Annex was built — but that doesn’t change the place held by Kent State in history. The shooting at Kent, and the subsequent killing of two students ten days later at Jackson State, were powerful examples of injustice in this society. In a very real and deadly way, the Vietnam War and all it represented had been brought home.
A day to remember a lifetime of memories.Wendy Gaylord
We moved from the hilltop pagoda where the National Guard had fired down to the Commons and the Victory Bell below Taylor Hall.
We then walked around to front campus and finally to Bowman Hall where, as a sociology major, I had attended most classes. Bowman Hall was home turf for both Bill and me. This last stop on our tour required a closing picture, a selfie with Wendy’s camera.
We chatted a bit longer at bench by the parking lot, delaying our separation. Bill and Lee eventually had to move on, and soon Wendy too. I wasn’t quire ready to leave so I wandered alone back to the Student Center. I bought a Kent State cap in the bookstore and took a last look at familiar spaces where I used to hang out. A favorite was the long window-lined corridor on the second floor with its view looking out front at the courtyard and library. (The seating was more comfortable in those days, however. We had couches, not these little desks.)
Back home again, that evening I posted our picture from the LGBTQ+ Center on Facebook. I especially liked the comment that Wendy left, “A day to remember a lifetime of memories.” Yes it was.
And it was also a day of gratitude. These are good friends with whom we’ve shared a lot, both good times and bad. “Souls tend to go back to who feels like home.” That was what I did Friday.
For more history about KGLF, you can check out these two posts here on my blog:
I’ve also posted these recent essays looking at current issues facing the LGBTQ+ community:
- National Coming Out Day 2022 — It’s Never Been More Important
- Deja Vu All Over Again: The New Wave of Anti-LGBTQ+ Attacks
- To Be Transgender is to Be Human
Image of the Mansfield Reformatory is by Niagara66 [license].
Image by the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest is in the Public Domain.
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One thought on “A Day to Remember a Lifetime of Memories”
What a beautiful ode to our lives and times. Thank you so much.