How a letter to the editor sparked Mount Holyoke’s first lesbian support group

Photo courtesy of the Mount Holyoke College Archives

Photo courtesy of the Mount Holyoke College Archives

BY LINDSEY MCGINNIS ’18

In September 1975, after years of living a self-described “double life,” an unidentified student penned a letter to the editor, hoping to ease the sense of isolation for “women who love other women.”

In the letter, she described a Friday night, two years prior, when she first came out as gay to a man from Amherst. “Friday nights have been lonely since then,” she wrote. “My cats receive a lot of attention on these nights, and my records are played to the bone. This is my anniversary, and I have no one to celebrate with… What I want to know is how many others on the MHC campus are lesbians. I look for you in the night; we are like stars. They can’t be seen during the day, but I know they’re there.” 

She signed it simply, “Astronomer.” 

Titled “Anniversary of loneliness,” the note was published on Oct. 2, a rare exception to the newspaper’s policy against anonymous letters to the editor. But the writer’s bravery — and the newspaper’s editorial decision — quickly paid off. 

The following week, an interview with the “Astronomer” dominated the front page and the paper, then called Choragos, detailed off-campus resources for lesbians and bisexuals in an article headlined “Valley colleges forming lesbian support groups.” This issue also featured several letters in support of the Astronomer, one co-signed by 14 students, and seven 20-cent messages in the Personals section (then called “Bulletin Board”) addressed to the Astronomer:

Astronomer from b.e.: “I will not banish love to empty rain.” —Wright

Astronomer: Friday nite, 7 p.m. Call 534-3068. Star.

Astronomer: You have my support. x3056

Astronomer: Count three more.

Astronomer, from b.s.: “...what softness between women.” Anais Nin

Astronomer, from r.f.: The evening star / Is the most / beautiful / of all stars —Sappho

Astronomer: You are not alone. Come to Eliot House Thursday night. 8:30, and see the stars.

  The last message was purchased by a group of students who shared the Astronomer’s dream of creating a supportive community for lesbian and bisexual women. This group included Valerie Barr ’77, current chair of the Mount Holyoke computer science department.  

“All of my friends, my cohorts, were concerned that this person was feeling so isolated,” she recalled. “I imagine there were people on campus who were very upset by [the letter] … but those people weren’t part of my bubble.” 

In the weeks that followed, Barr’s cohorts continued to take out personals addressed to “All Astronomers,” and the Thursday night meetings continued to grow. According to the Choragos’ report titled “Supportive lesbian group begins to coalesce,” the lesbian support group had about 30 regular attendees by the end of October, who expressed an “overwhelming sense of relief and joy at having a place where they can go and feel comfortable about an important aspect of their lives.”

Lesbians, bisexuals and students questioning their sexual identity would go to the Eliot House and discuss issues that mattered to them — but these meetings were as much about dancing and drinking as they were debating.

“It was important to have those kinds of events where people could just feel comfortable and relax and dance and listen to music and drink beer,” said Barr, “and just be in a safe space. I’m not sure we used that language then, but looking back that’s what [it was].”

Several members agreed that Mount Holyoke’s gay community — which the Astronomer described as “so far underground that it’s like digging for oil” — was finally surfacing. By the end of the year, Barr said she “knew a lot of people who were out on campus.”

The group applied for SGA funding and became an official student org in 1976. Barr served as the group’s treasurer. “I remembergoing to the bank in town to open the checking account for the gay support group and my very straight roommate came with me as an ally.”

However, as a 1984 letter to the editor “On lesbian funding” revealed, the Lesbian Alliance’s status as an official group did not go unchallenged. The authors, who asked to withhold their names in print so that their personal views wouldn’t be confused with those of their campus organizations, took issue with the fact that their $80 student activities fee would be going, in part, toward “this sexual preference group.”

“Sexuality of any kind,” they argued, “is and should be an extremely private matter. The student body should not financially bear the burden of any such personal quests.”

But just as it was in 1975, the student body’s response was quick and clear: nine letters to the editor, submitted by individuals and groups, ran in the following week’s issue, all expressing unconditional support for the Lesbian Alliance’s status as an official organization. 

As one letter phrased it, “The accusation that the Lesbian Alliance does not ‘reflect the majority of the student body’s wishes’ could have been waged against any minority group. Attacks on diversity affect us all.”

The group, renamed the Lesbian Bisexual Alliance, was challenged again in 1992 when students formed the “Heterosexual Alliance.” The parody organization hung posters of straight people having sex, a jab at the LBA’s marketing campaign for an upcoming dance, and chalked homophobic messages, including “Dykes leave” near the Blanchard post office. The Oct. 29 article“Homophobic incident causes controversy” described how the Women’s Sexuality Discussion Group (which was not associated with the LBA) held an open forum in response to the attack. The entire incident, including the forum, revealed that while the LBA enjoyed general support (or at least acceptance) among the student body, there was still tension within the Mount Holyoke community. 

Margaret Flitsch ’93, the newspaper’s photo editor at the time, remembers that LGBT activism in the early 90s was still pretty basic. “Gay issues were a thing,” she said, “but not trans issues, not even gay marriage.” From her years on the Mount Holyoke News, Flitsch described the general activist agenda as “just don’t kill people, how about that?”

But the rallies and forums of the 90s would not have been possible without the political organization over a decade before. Student archivist Sam Snodgrass ’18 credits the newspaper’s ability to connect students with one another as “how the Lesbian Alliance got created on campus, which eventually morphed into other forms, like the Lesbian Bisexual Alliance. It was the paper that facilitated that coming together.”

“Maybe it would have happened eventually that year,” said Barr about the formation of the first Gay support group, “because of all the other conversations that were going on about politics… but my memory of it is that it was totally inspired by that [letter].”

By coming out in the newspaper, albeit anonymously, the unnamed Astronomer paved the way for years of campus activism, and, in her own time at Mount Holyoke, pulled a community out of the shadows.

 

Additional reporting by Emily Bernstein ’18.

MHN 100 is a bi-weekly column celebrating the newspaper’s 100 years of student journalism. Archival copies of the Mount Holyoke News can be found at compass.fivecolleges.edu.

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