The 1980's

Out in the Redwoods

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We Have The Power: The 1980s

The 1980s were marked tragically by the onset of the AIDS epidemic. AIDS hit Santa Cruz and UCSC hard, as it did every gay community across the country. The deaths of activists, such as UCSC student Gary Reynolds, community members Ray Martinez, Gilbert Moreno, and Michael Perlman, and UCSC administrator Jay Walker (in the 1980s and the 1990s), represented a tremendous emotional and political loss. The Santa Cruz AIDS Project was founded in 1985, one of the first such grassroots organizations in the country. As professor Carter Wilson describes in his narration, UCSC became a center of AIDS related work and activism. To some extent, the AIDS epidemic also fostered a rapprochement between gay men and lesbians, who did much of the political and social support work and caretaking for gay men with AIDS. But this story is complex, because not all lesbians saw AIDS work as a central part of their agenda.

In the early-1980s, two influential courses began to be offered at UCSC. Politics professor David Thomas began teaching Sexual Politics: Gay Politics, which was the first regular course taught by a faculty member to be centered on GLBT curricula. Responding to pressure from some of his lesbian feminist students, Thomas soon retitled the course Sexual Politics: Lesbian and Gay Politics. In pace with political changes in the GLBT movement, in the middle of the 1990s it was renamed Queer Politics, the title that stuck until Thomas retired and stopped teaching the course. In 1980, women's studies professor Bettina Aptheker arrived on campus and began teaching her inspirational and transformative course, Introduction to Feminism.

The year 1981 also saw the publication of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherr'e Moraga and Gloria Anzald'a, which articulated differences between white women and women of color in the feminist movement, and challenged what was often a white-centered and singular notion of feminism. Other groundbreaking anthologies such as All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies, edited by Gloria (Akasha) Hull were published in that time period. It is important to mention that Gloria Anzald'a and Gloria [Akasha] Hull, as well as other theorists and writers such as bell hooks and Angela Davis have taught, or are currently teaching at UC Santa Cruz.
Inspired by these anthologies, and by the activism of lesbians of color, Alison Kim, Cristy Chung, and A. Kaweah Lemeshewsky gathered the work of Asian lesbians, and with the chancellor's "Year Towards Community Fund", published Between the Lines: A Pacific/Asian Lesbian Anthology, another first-of-its-kind anthology. At that time there were no other anthologies of Asian lesbian writing published anywhere in the world, and the three editors traveled across the United States distributing their book to a network of feminist bookstores and community organizations.1  In addition to the anthology, they helped organize the first Asian Pacific Islander Lesbian Network conference (in 1989), and Alison Kim entered and won second prize in McHenry Library's annual book collection contest with her collection of Asian/ Pacific Islander lesbian writings. In 1988, a group of students, including Alison Kim, founded the Lesbians of Color Alliance (LOCA), UCSC's first organization for lesbians of color.

Other key feminist and GLBT organizations were formed during the 1980s, while those which began in the 1970s continued to flourish. The UCSC Women's Center opened in 1985, becoming a critical resource on campus. Take Back the Night marches empowered many women, and the Myth California beauty pageant protests in downtown Santa Cruz were a creative and impassioned site of feminist protest. Santa Cruz also became a hotbed of feminist sex radicalism centered in the Bulkhead Gallery, founded by Wendy Chapkis and others. By the late-1980s, sex radicals were clashing intensely with lesbian feminists, many of whom were deeply disturbed by and vehemently opposed to pornography and sadomasochism. As Wendy Chapkis pointed out in her oral history, 'Santa Cruz is this interesting place in that it has created and sustained both very high profile anti-prostitution, anti-SM, anti-pornography, antianonymous sex feminist activists like Nicki Craft and Ann Simonton, and feminist sex radicals like Susie Bright, or myself. We have all been nurtured and produced by the same community.'

In the area of civil rights, UCSC amended the non-discrimination policy of the University to include sexual orientation in 1983. John Laird was elected mayor of Santa Cruz in the same year, and became the first openly gay mayor in the United States. In 1986, the county and city of Santa Cruz counted among the first communities in the United States to extend domestic partner benefits to their employees. The Task Force for the Concerns of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Students (now known as the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Campus Concerns Committee) also convened in that year.
Another important tenure battle took place in 1982. Professor of community studies, Nancy Shaw (now Nancy Stoller), had taught many courses with lesbian and/or feminist content. A veteran of the civil rights movement (SNCC), who had grown up in a progressive Jewish family in the segregated South, as well as of the feminist health movement in Boston (she was one of the original members of the Boston Women's Health Collective which published Our Bodies/Ourselves), Stoller brought a long history of political commitment with her when she arrived at UCSC in 1973. She did not come out as a lesbian until a year or two later. At that time she became the only out, tenure-track lesbian faculty member. Her classes became a 'safe space' for lesbian students.

Stoller taught many women's studies courses in the 1970s. In 1982, she was denied tenure because her work on women's health in prisons (among other topics) was not seen as scholarly enough. As in the Sable case, while it was not explicitly stated that she was not given tenure because she was a lesbian, this was almost certainly a contributing factor. Stoller fought a nationally prominent legal battle with the University (described in detail in her oral history transcript), and finally won tenure in 1987, when she returned to UCSC. She continues to teach courses with queer content such as Lesbian and Gay Social Worlds.

In 1987, GALA dissolved into a series of smaller organizations. The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Network (GLBN) was formed that year; the Lesbian, Bisexual, Questioning (LBQ) and the Stonewall Men's Group were formed in 1988. In 1989, GLBN moved into the Merrill Recreation Room and began operating a resource center with a staff of volunteers. In 1997, this was to become the GLBT Resource Center under the directorship of Deborah Abbott.

In the late-1980s, 'The Alternative Fashion Show,' was organized by gay and lesbian students, and developed into the wild theatrical extravaganza now known as the Queer Fashion Show.

Finally, the 1980s saw the beginnings of the inclusion of bisexuals in what then became called the GLB community. Earlier, bisexuality was viewed by many as either a phase on the road to becoming a 'real' lesbian or gay man, a cop-out, or a treasonous (in the case of women) act of 'loving the enemy.' The vehemence of those battles over bisexuality is startling to recall today.

In the 1980s, staff and faculty began to be out in larger numbers on campus, although this varied (and continues to vary) considerably between departments. In all, despite the rising conservatism of the Reagan years, the 1980s at UCSC were a period of flourishing feminist and gay, lesbian, and bisexual activism, and witnessed the beginnings of the institutionalization of those changes into the curriculum and power structures of the University.

  1. The book is now out of print, but will be digitized and made available on the Out in the Redwoods website through the UCSC library. Kim has continued her work in this area, and her extensive archive of Pacific Asian/Lesbian material is also available in the library

© 2003 - Out in the Redwoods © 2004 by the Regents of the University of California. Edited by Irene Reti. Any reproduction of these interviews, including electronic reproduction, is prohibited by United States copyright law.