Before Ethan Guillen decided to come out during his sophomore year at Yale University, he agonized over it for months. “It was all I could think about,” says Ethan. “I dropped everything I was doing that semester.” He chose to tell his roommate, Jack Rubin, first. But he was afraid of how Jack would react. “I think I’d built it up into this huge, melodramatic after-school special in my head,” says Ethan. The two of them were in the habit of having deep conversations late at night. One night, when they were both about to fall asleep, Ethan decided to do it. “Jack,” he said. “There’s something I have to tell you.”
“OK,” Jack said.
“I think I’m gay,” said Ethan.
There was a silence. Ethan lay in bed, waiting, contemplating what he had done. He was expecting something big, though he wasn’t sure what.
“OK,” Jack said. “So is this a big deal?”
As one junior says, “People here are so accepting that they’re insensitive. They’re kind of flippant about it. ‘Why aren’t you out already?’ is their attitude.”
Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, has always been at the forefront of gay campus culture: What happens there tends to occur at other campuses a few years later. The fact that the old prejudices have fallen away almost completely at Yale suggests that the same thing will happen at other colleges across the country. The danger is that a complacent student elite will abandon the larger goals of the gay-rights movement, including a ban on workplace discrimination and protection of the rights of gay parents.
Yale was one of the first academic institutions in America to tolerate openly gay students and professors, but only after a hard-fought struggle. In 1969, Johannes Van de Pohl, a Fulbright student at Yale from Holland, founded the university’s first gay organization — with the help of two members of the campus clergy. Forty people showed up at the first meeting. That group, known as the Gay Alliance at Yale, then consistently drew up to forty students — more than show up for the average meeting of the school’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Co-op today.
In 1986, a group of activists successfully petitioned to have sexual orientation added to the university’s non-discrimination clause, making Yale one of the first universities to do so. In 1987, Yale alumnus Larry Kramer founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Act Up), which soon became a world-famous protest organization. By the late Eighties, Yale had a reputation as the “gay Ivy,” due largely to a now-notorious 1987 Wall Street Journal article by Julie V. Iovine, the wife of a Yale faculty member. As students on campus today are quick to explain, the article contained an exaggerated estimate of Yale’s gay population. Iovine implied that all 1,000 students who attended a dance sponsored by the Co-op were gay and claimed that prospective students received a notice saying that one in four Yale students was gay.
The article provoked strong responses at the time — Yale associate dean Betty Trachtenberg wrote an angry letter to the editor attacking the numbers and denying the existence of any such notice sent to incoming students. Nevertheless, the gay community on campus seized on the figure and coined the slogan “one in four, maybe more” — always an exaggeration, but a rallying point nevertheless — and the reputation became a self-fulfilling prophecy. “There was such a huge media frenzy over that article,” says Paul Festa, who was a freshman at Yale in 1988. “In San Francisco, I heard about this idea that it was one in four, maybe more, and I don’t want to be crass about it, but I just started salivating.” Eventually, students coined the joke “one in two, maybe you.”
In 1990, Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, who was then secretary of health and human services, was invited to speak on campus. Enraged by the Bush administration’s unresponsiveness to the burgeoning AIDS crisis, militant students organized a protest at the chapel where Sullivan was speaking and shouted him down, much to the embarrassment of the university. “We had this feeling of incredible passion and anger that people didn’t understand what was going on, and that people were complacent, and people were dying, and people were being beaten up for being gay and lesbian, and people couldn’t be who they were,” says Sam Zalutsky, a student who was brought up on disciplinary charges for his involvement in the protest.
These feelings of embattlement and urgency promoted unity among gay students. “One of the best parts about being gay at Yale was the sense of community and camaraderie,” says Festa. But by the late Nineties, the furor on campus had quieted down. Gay students at Yale achieved the tolerance they’d been fighting for, the AIDS epidemic had worn down older activists and, little by little, the protests disappeared. By 2000, gay activism on campus was virtually dead. Last year, the Co-op suffered an organizational “near-death experience,” says 2001 grad and former Co-op coordinator Kathleen Eddy. There weren’t enough people involved to keep it running smoothly. For the first time in years, Pride Week was canceled.