Tim Retzloff, professor of history at Michigan State University and University of Michigan alum, connected LGBTQ history at the University of Michigan to the University's bicentennial year in his lecture Tuesday, “Maize, Blue, and Lavender: Revisiting U-M's LGBTQ Past.”
As an undergraduate, Retzloff was asked by a political science professor to write a history appendix of LGBTQ history in Michigan. Implementing The Daily’s records, as well as bits and pieces from other Michigan newspapers, he wrote an appendix titled “Outcast, Miscast, Recast: A documentary history of lesbians and gay men at the University of Michigan.”
Gayle Rubin, an associate professor of anthropology and women’s studies, introduced Retzloff, noting the importance of the event’s inclusion in the Bicentennial, since knowledge of LGBTQ history at the University is very limited.
Throughout the discussion, Retzloff presented different pictures to pinpoint three main eras central to LGBTQ history: the modern era (1991 to present), the ’70s and ’80s, and the pre-Stonewall era. Retzloff focused on periods in which the University adapted to accept, or at least tolerate, LGBTQ individuals. He also discussed points when LGBTQ people faced extreme isolation.
“The outcast portion (of the append) … reflected the official hostility of the University toward homosexual people and reflected how people that we now see as LGBTQ were outcasts,” Retzloff said.
Retzloff discussed in detail the effects of the 1959 and 1960 crackdowns at the University on homosexual activity that occurred in various campus restrooms. Reminiscent of the Communist era, people staked down men engaging in sexual behavior in the bathroom and then arrested them for gross indecency. According to Retzloff, they were sentenced to five years of probation and had to pay a $275 fine. This was a particularly harsh punishment, he noted, as others charged with gross indecency in Detroit at this time had to pay much less.
Further troubles arose in 2003, Retzloff said, as the records of the crackdowns and other controversial occurrences on campus had vanished.
LSA sophomore Kevin Keegan, one of the students who attended the event, was intrigued by this notion.
“There’s still limited stories that are accessible about LGBTQ people and definitely as thinking about the erasure of stories as a form of discrimination and how that can allow discrimination to continue by erasing the hardships of the past,” Keegan said.
While much of what Retzloff described was negative, as time progressed there were certain landmarks that made the University notable in terms of being one of the first to recognize and accept LGBTQ people.
In 1984, University President Harold Shapiro instituted a policy statement that the University could not discriminate based on sexuality.
“The experience of queer people at Flint and Dearborn in the 1980s were worlds away from what was available here in Ann Arbor,” Retzloff said.
There were many people who were active in contributing to LGBTQ history, Retzloff said, including Nancy Wechsler, the first openly LGBTQ City Councilmember in Ann Arbor.
Retzloff included a picture of himself with a friend making a poster for the first gay and lesbian awareness day at the University in 1988. He noted this was a pivotal moment as a gay man and it was then that he was empowered through documenting the history.
He also spoke on the creation of the then-named Human Sexuality Office in the ’60s. He explained the students had to petition the University for an office space like other student organizations. The University did not want to have a name that specifically dealt with "gay" or "lesbian" students when they agreed upon the establishment of the office.
The Midwest, and Michigan in particular, offers a different narrative of LGBTQ history, which Retzloff studies. While cities like New York and San Francisco have a well-documented history, social change within the LGBTQ movement also comes from areas like the Midwest and often get overlooked. Retzloff is currently writing a book on Detroit as a “gay city.”
When asked about how he felt impacted by this work, David Hutchinson, a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department, said it is vital to learn about the University’s relationship with activism.
“I think it’s important to learn about how queer students in the past navigated the very halls that we walked through today to understand how it is we are able to make up our lives that we live now,” he said.
Jennifer Jones, LSA collegiate postdoctoral fellow in the History Department, also enjoyed hearing about the Midwest’s role in LGBTQ history.
“I love the way in which the talk says yes there was violence, yes there was discrimination, but there was also opportunity to forge connections and build community and create lives,” Jones concluded.