ORONO, Maine — Four decades ago, a group of University of Maine students banded together to start a group that would attract people who felt ostracized and closed off from the rest of society because of their sexual preferences.
Their decision to start the Wilde-Stein Club, the first openly gay student organization in Maine, in 1973, and subsequent efforts to hold a statewide gay and lesbian symposium the next year, set off a media firestorm. It pitted college students against church pastors and state legislators who didn’t want public money to have anything to do with the group or its efforts.
The organization was named after British playwright Oscar Wilde and American writer Gertrude Stein, as a representation of the role gays and lesbians can play in society. Today, the group is called The Wilde-Stein Alliance for Sexual Diversity and provides a place for people across the spectrum of sexuality and genders.
On Friday night, two of the group’s founders, Steven Bull and John Frank, met with the group’s current members and university officials to tell the story about the club’s beginnings and to celebrate the changes that have taken place in the 40 years since its founding.
“Gay and lesbian groups were springing up across the country,” in the early and mid 1970s, according to Bull. Many formed in response to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which erupted at a New York City bar frequented by gay patrons who rioted June 28, 1969 after one of NYPD’s regular raids on the bar.
In an early milestone for the gay rights movement, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1974, giving a boost to the gay rights movement and sparking the formation of more groups.
The Wilde-Stein Club faced opposition from the start, according to Bull. The student senate spent hours debating in the fall of 1973 about whether to recognize the group. But when the group announced plans to sponsor the first statewide gay and lesbian symposium in 1974, “all hell broke loose,” Bull said.
Some legislators called for the state to withhold funding for the university if it allowed such an event on its public campus.
“We were probably the top news story in Maine for the next three months,” he added, pointing out that the Bangor Daily News carried nearly 40 stories about the group, 14 of which appeared on the front page. The issue also drew hundreds of letters to the editor, Bull said.
Bull came out to his family shortly before a local news station asked to interview him for a story about a clash between his fledgling group and state and church officials. His parents later became active in the group now known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, he said.
In the end, the three-day symposium went off without a hitch and the debate quieted, but the group continued to focus on the advancement of gay rights.
Four decades later, current members of Wilde-Stein, marvelled at how much things have changed. No longer does a member of the military have to hide the fact that they are gay in order to serve. In Maine and 13 other U.S. states, it is now legal for same-sex couples to marry.
Kaiya Hansen, a fourth-year chemistry major and president of Wilde-Stein, said during Friday’s event that while the LGBT community hasn’t “gained full acceptance yet,” the progress made over the past 40 years shouldn’t be ignored.
“We’ve come a long way since 1973,” she said. “Tonight’s a good night to recognize what we’ve accomplished.”
UMaine’s Student Life LGBT Liaison Services will host Coming Out Week Oct. 21-26. Events start Monday with a flag raising on the Mall at noon. More information and a list of events may be found at umaine.edu/lgbt/events.