The Hidden History of Gay Purges at Colleges

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 10.44.57 AMFor many people, graduating high school and going away to college presents a first opportunity to come out in a nurturing environment, but there is a largely unknown history of being gay on college campuses that mirrors America’s mistreatment of LGBTQ people over the decades.

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A new research paper sheds light on a particularly bad time to be queer on campus — in the 1940s, when schools purged students and faculty they believed to be gay.

The paper, titled An Indelible Mark”: Gay Purges in Higher Education in the 1940s, details incidents at the University of Texas, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Missouri, where students and teachers’ personal lives were turned upside-down for suspected “homosexual activity.”

At two of the schools — Wisconsin and Missouri — special committees were formed to track expelled people’s future endeavors to ensure they didn’t find success elsewhere.

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“In LGBT history, very little attention is paid to anything before the Stonewall riots in 1969,” said Margaret Nash, an associate professor at UC Riverside’s Graduate School of Education and a co-author of the paper. “When people do take note they say, ‘Oh, that’s part of McCarthyism.’ But, in these cases, it wasn’t. These cases preceded McCarthyism. Who knew?”

Below are some details about the three cases the paper focuses on. (The authors used pseudonyms for some people named in the paper to protect their privacy and the privacy of their families.)

In 1944, the Texas Regents dismissed University of Texas President Homer Rainey. Rainey had previously been the subject of controversy for opposing to fire faculty for their political views and opposing to censor literature. To further bolster the case against him, the Regents contended he had not taken swift or severe enough action against gays on campus.

In 1948, four University of Wisconsin students pleaded guilty to engaging in homosexual activities and were given one year’s probation and a warning from the judge that they had caused an “indelible mark” to be placed against them. Two years later, one of those students, “Keith Pritchett,” who was about to graduate at the time he was given probation, asked the university to grant his degree. The World War II veteran expected to be called back to active duty because of the Korean conflict and wanted the degree so he could be promoted. Despite positive recommendations from military officials, the university denied his request.

Also in 1948, a tenured journalism professor who had worked at the University of Missouri for 24 years was dismissed for being the principal leader of a purported ring that was said to include homosexual students, faculty and community members. “Richard Jackson,” a student at the university, was one of the students administrators said was part of the homosexual ring. A group called the Committee on Discipline expelled Jackson in 1949 despite clearly saying they did not have any solid evidence that Jackson was homosexual or had engaged in homosexual acts. Instead, they said Jackson’s unacceptable actions were that “he associated frequently if not exclusively with homosexuals and persons believed to be homosexuals, and attended their ‘gay’ parties.”

Nash plans to take the research further by examining purges in more recent years, and how the universities’ antigay policies informed one another.

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