A History of Gay Student Organizations’ Struggle-for-Recognition Lawsuits
Michael Hevel

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of Arkansas

Primary Discipline

History of Education
From the early 1970s to the late 1990s, gay and lesbian college students in the United States sued public university leaders who denied recognition of their student organizations. This project offers the first comprehensive history of these lawsuits, focusing on nine cases between gay student organizations and their universities. Gay college students won every lawsuit they brought. These legal victories helped gay student organizations spread from only 2 campuses in 1968 to over 2,000 by the late 1990s. As a result, gay student organizations at colleges and universities provided the first exposure for millions of Americans—gay and straight—to people who openly, and often proudly, identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. Moreover, these lawsuits helped to create legal precedents that culminated with the Supreme Court striking down anti-sodomy laws, the Defense of Marriage Act, and prohibitions against gay marriage.Beyond exploring a series of cases that provided a foundation for the legal activism within the gay rights movement, this project connects two important strands of historical scholarship. First, historians have revealed college presidents and deans of students’ efforts to “purge” their campus of gay students throughout the first half of the 20th century. Second, historians have explored the creation and contributions of gay student organizations, beginning with the establishment of the first groups in the late 1960s. Scholars have demonstrated how these organizations, in spite of appalling homophobia, improved the campus climate for gay and lesbian students. Gay student organizations’ struggle-for-recognition lawsuits represent the missing historical link between higher education administrators’ persecution of gay students and the accomplishments of gay student organizations.This project highlights the bravery and perseverance of an earlier generation of gay students. Many of these lawsuits resulted in part as a response to intimidation and homophobia on campus. Gay student leaders at the University of Arkansas filed their lawsuit in 1986 just days after vandals spray painted “F*** OFF YOU QUEERS” on one of their banners hanging outside the student union. University officials were not necessarily more enlightened than the students. As a lawsuit progressed at Texas A&M, the university attorney often appeared on television to compare the gay student organization with “groups promoting bestiality and child rape.” Moreover, gay student organization leaders demonstrated remarkable resolve, as cases took years to fight but officers turned over annually. A reporter covering the 25th anniversary of the Texas A&M case in 2010 asked what the group’s current president would say to his predecessors. He replied, “I would tell them thank you for not giving up…. Without them and their hard work, who knows how much longer it would have been for GLBT people to have the right to form organizations and meeting on campuses and around the country.”
About Michael Hevel
Michael Hevel in an assistant professor of higher education in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas. Michael earned his Ph.D. in 2011 from the University of Iowa. His main research interest is the history of college students. In particular, he focuses on historical privilege and marginalization among college students and situates developments on campus into larger social contexts. Michael has received travel grants from several archives and a grant from the Spencer Foundation. He has published in History of Education Quarterly, Journal of College Student Development, and Journal of Higher Education. His first book, Drink Up: A History of College Students and Alcohol, is under contract with University of Chicago Press.

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