Rainbow Connections

By Dick Anderson Photo courtesy Occidental College Special Collections

Nearly 40 years after its formation, Out@Oxy has a new name and a renewed mission—to support Occidental’s LGBTQIA+ student community and curate a queer history of the College

In the fall of 1970—one year after New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar frequented by a queer clientele, sparking protests nationwide—a group of gay and lesbian Oxy students organized the Gay Liberation Front. In a statement of purpose, “GLF members explained that ‘gay lib’ is a process involving individuals and groups coming together to join hands in the common struggle for freedom and to join hearts in the common spirit of love and honesty,” the Occidental newspaper reported. Spokesperson Byron Dickey ’73 called homosexuality “a natural form of human expression and must be appreciated as just that. … If we freak you out, then you’re not liberated.”

Daniel Woodruff '85 addresses an Out@Oxy gathering celebrating Pride Month in June 2022.
Daniel Woodruff '85 addresses an Out@Oxy gathering celebrating Pride Month in June 2022.

Times have certainly changed. Today, Oxy’s themed housing options include Baldwin House, a first-year residential community supportive of trans/queer students of color, and Rivera & Johnson, supportive of LGBTQIA+ students. Lavender graduation has become a staple of the Commencement calendar since its introduction in 2008. And the Intercultural Community Center seeks to uplift and support the experiences of LGBTQIA+ students through year-round programming.

Over the last couple of years, a group of gay and lesbian graduates spanning five decades have channeled their Oxy energies to resurrect and rebrand the College’s largely dormant LGBTQIA+ alumni group. (We’ll hear from five of them below.) In addition to trying to reconnect alumni to the College, Out@Oxy—formerly known as Occidental College Gay and Lesbian Alumni—has two main goals.

First and foremost is providing LGBTQIA+ students on campus with services and support. “Maybe it’s presumptive of us to think that our experiences can somehow translate to helping them with theirs, because my experience in the ’80s is certainly very different from what their experience is now,” says Daniel Woodruff ’85, the group’s current chair. “So, we decided to reach out and say, ‘Please define what you want from us, and we’ll adapt to that.’”

From a pizza party during new student orientation to Homecoming and Family Weekend, to Lavender graduation in May and Alumni Reunion Weekend in June, Out@Oxy intends to be a presence on campus throughout the year, according to Woodruff. About 30 people came to a Pride event at Alumni Reunion Weekend in June 2022. “We had a wide range of people, from current students all the way back to graduates from the 1960s,” he says. “It was great to see all of them interacting with one another.”

John Gruber '53 in a 1951 photo.
John Gruber '53 at age 23 in 1951. Photo courtesy John Gruber Papers, James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center, San Francisco Public Library

The group’s second goal is to curate a queer history of Oxy in conjunction with Occidental College Special Collections through a series of oral histories with LGBTQIA+ alumni in the style of StoryCorps, filling in the details of a largely closeted history that might otherwise be lost or forgotten forever. (It’s a history that goes back further than you might think: John Gruber ’53, an English major and ex-Marine who attended Occidental on the G.I. Bill, was a founding member of the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles—one of the earliest homophile organizations in the country.)

When Woodruff was a student at Oxy, he says, “Most, if not all, of my friends knew that I was gay, but we just didn’t talk about it. Occidental wasn’t a great place to be gay at that point.” A few years out of college, after attending an Oxy friend’s wedding, he decided the time had come to be his true self with others. “Seeing my friend marry his wife and watching them start their journey together prompted me to finally come out to everybody in my family,” he says. “The only person who was surprised was my brother, because it had never occurred to him.”

Keith Malone ’85 distinctly remembers the night he came out at Occidental. It was February 26, 1982, and the occasion was Professor of Music Richard Grayson’s annual concert. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” he recalls. “I was at the concert with my co-worker from the Career Center, Dolores Dyer ’84. Dolores was like my older sister, and it just happened. That’s the first time I told another human being I was gay.”

From there, he says, “I slowly started coming out to others and then finally went to my first gay group meeting at Oxy.” The following year, following the resignation of Alex McNear ’84 as chair of the Lesbian Gay Support Group, “I remember Scott Allen ’84 looking at me and saying, ‘What are you going to do now?’ I was naive enough to say, ‘I’m in charge,’” Malone says.

Taking a page from UCLA, he advocated for changing the group’s name to Gay and Lesbian Association (GALA)—“it rolled off the tongue so easily”—and while the campus environment was increasingly accepting, “there were microaggressions,” he says. “One time I got Joann Schmalenberger ’85 to help me put up a GALA poster in the union. We climbed up on a ladder to hang the poster, and there were these two frosh guys who came and hassled us. Another time, I remember standing in line for lunch, and some guy calls me the ‘F’ word.”

Midway through his junior year, Malone changed majors: “I’d like to thank one of my classmates for making me fall in love with him, breaking my heart, and sending me down a journey of dropping diplomacy and world affairs and picking up American studies.” He wrote his senior thesis on Proposition 6—the failed 1978 initiative that sought to ban gays and lesbians from working in California’s public schools. “I got an A-minus from Professor David Axeen,” he recalls proudly.

Even before he graduated, Malone was instrumental in the founding of Occidental’s first gay and lesbian alumni group—one of the first on the West Coast to be recognized by its institution. “I was reading in The Advocate that Harvard and Yale had created gay and lesbian alumni associations,” he recalls, “and I thought, ‘We need to do that.’”

With the support of Adjunct Instructor of Mathematics Rodney Hoffman and alumni Jerry Meek ’73, George Barrett ’79, and Laura Pelegrin ’82, Malone organized the Occidental Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association in 1984. GALA Alumni was granted a seat on the Alumni Board of Governors (a seat initially filled by Barrett) and the group organized events for gay alumni in the L.A. area, renting the Vantuna for a couple of events that drew upwards of 100 attendees. “Jerry really helped provide the energy and keep us moving,” Malone says. “In all honesty, I didn’t care if we put on too many programs. I wanted to send a signal to alums that they were welcome to come back to campus and be themselves.”

With Out@Oxy, he adds, the goal remains largely the same: “It’s really about creating community with alumni, particularly with those older alumni who came out later in life.”

Melissa Schwartz ’86 was only 17 when she arrived at Occidental, having completed high school in three years and looking for a small college away from her native Arizona. “I honestly did not realize I was gay until my freshman year,” she says. “Once I figured it out, so many things in my past made much more sense.”

After completing her first year of studies, Schwartz stuck around to participate in Occidental’s Summer Theater program. “By that summer I was comfortable with who I was at Oxy,” she says. “but it would take a few more years before I came out to my family.”

In the 1980s, she says, the environment on campus was not particularly welcoming to gay and lesbian students. “While we were taunted by some, others [most notably the Newman Catholic Community and adviser Cynthia Yoshitomi] quietly supported us,” she says. “I found strength in the Theater Department and with other gay students across campus.” After graduating from Oxy as a theater design major, Schwartz served on the Alumni Board of Governors as the gay alumni representative in the 1986-87 academic year.

Jonathan Poullard, Lisa Gonzales '94, and Johnny Aguilar '93
Associate Dean of Students Jonathan Poullard, Lisa Gonzales '94, and Johnny Aguilar '93, photographed for The Occidental newspaper by Samantha Whitaker '96 in 1993.

During the 1992-93 school year, as members of the Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association, Schwartz and Malone helped establish an alumni fund to support gay students who were disenfranchised by their families when they came out. Johnny Aguilar ’93, a member of the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Alliance (BGALA), started the Lambda Emergency Scholarship Fund because he had friends whose parents cut them off financially.

“Several students had come out over winter break and their families had thrown them out,” Schwartz recalls. The group raised money to get the students back to campus and worked with the College to help them to finish out the school year. Other committee members instrumental in developing the fund were Professor of Mathematics Don Goldberg, Associate Dean of Students Jonathan Poullard, and Oxy junior Lisa Gonzales ’94. (Renamed the Eric Drazin ’79 Lambda Fund following Drazin’s death from meningitis in 1995, the fund was valued at more than $116,000 in 2022.)

By the turn of the century, student-run LGBTQIA+ organizations plowed forward in an increasingly (though not always) receptive environment on campus. From the moment both arrived at Oxy, Tucker Neel ’03 (through the Gay-Straight Alliance) and Shumway Marshall ’05 (president of the renamed oxyOUT/GSA) kept queer-themed programming in the foreground. In October 2002, for instance, Coming Out Week activities included an art show in the Tiger Cooler, a mixer in Sycamore Glen, chalkings in the Quad, and a hate-crimes candlelight vigil in Bird Studio.

During new student orientation in 1999, Kat Ross ’03 recalls, the first week of programming included a panel of six students introducing themselves to the incoming class. “One of them was a gay man who talked openly about his sexuality,” she says, “and that set the tone for the year. My first-year colloquium was called Race, Gender, Justice and opened up a space to talk about sexuality and gender. I also took a gay and lesbian studies class and had so much fun reading literature.”

A third-generation Tiger—both her parents and grandparents met at Oxy—Ross liked the idea of a well-rounded liberal arts education, but she ultimately chose the College because of its affiliation with ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. “I took classes at ArtCenter while getting my B.A. in fine arts at Occidental,” says Ross (whose great aunt, Brigida Knauer, served as associate dean and later dean of students for most of her 25 years at Oxy).

As an LGBTQIA+ student, Ross found the queer community at Oxy to be “very small. We formed a student group called oxyOUT and had a few events—I vaguely remember a dance at Pauley riffing off RuPaul—but there wasn’t a great dating pool for any of us.” She hopes that Out@Oxy will maintain and share an “institutional queer knowledge base” so that future students can take that information “and run with it in their own directions.”

Growing up in the shadow of Newcomb Hall on Ridgeview Avenue, Occidental was always the place I envisioned myself attending college,” says Jake Stevens ’08. “As a first-generation college student from Eagle Rock High School, receiving a Centennial Scholarship made the decision to become a Tiger easy.”

Living in Pauley Hall, Stevens found his first openly gay role model in Marshall, “who helped me learn and grow in my identity as a queer person,” he says. “The relationships between students were the support systems for LGBTQIA+ people on campus.” Stevens came out of the closet during the summer between his junior and senior years.

LGBTQIA+ students following the Lavender graduation celebration on May 18, 2018.
LGBTQIA+ students following the Lavender graduation celebration on May 18, 2018. Photo by John Valenzuela

Occidental was a long way off from the current campus climate where pronouns now appear on official College email signatures,” he adds. “Emmons Health Center had no qualified staff to address the needs of LGBTQIA+ students and many of my classmates did not share their orientation publicly for fear of harassment or loss of professional opportunities.”

Stevens’ senior year saw the launch of the Occidental Queer Student Alliance, which grew into the current Sexuality and Gender Acceptance (SAGA) group to raise awareness and visibility on campus. “We had our first Lavender graduation my senior year,” he says, and he cites the Baldwin House and Rivera & Johnson housing options as “an important sign to the Occidental community about the value and role of queer people in our history and future.”

Looking at Out@Oxy’s goals, “I want current queer students to know that they are part of a large and distinguished community of LGBTQIA+ Occidental alumni that exists to support and encourage them as they leave campus,” Stevens says. “Alumni will learn from students and grow as queer folks and advocates for progress from the relationships facilitated by this group.”

For Schwartz, who served as president or co-president of GALA Alumni for about eight years until stepping down in 1995, “It has been fun reconnecting with some alumni I have not talked to in years through Out@Oxy,” she says. “Occidental has so many successful gay alumni who are active in their own communities. What better way to show Oxy students that there is a future for them—out in the world as they graduate.”

Top photo: Members of GALA in the 1983-84 La Encina. Standing, l-r: Robert Koyle '85, Linda Dimeff '84, Mary Knox '84, and Mario Perez '86. Seated: Adjunct Instructor of Mathematics Rodney Hoffman, Scott Allen '84, exchange student Gerdi Klinker, Dave Snyder '84, and Keith Malone '85.

For more information on the Out@Oxy group, see their webpage at: https://alumni.oxy.edu/outatoxy