Out in the Redwoods

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Rain drenched the feathery redwoods, birthing sudden creeks that rushed all over campus, an abundance of rain. Another long California drought had ended. It was 1978. I was seventeen, and in my first year of college at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Anything seemed possible, even loving women. At UCSC, nurtured and sparked by a fantastic and fervent climate of lesbian feminism and gay liberation politics, I came out. I fell in love with women, with feminism, and with the soft redwoods and craggy coastal environment of this progressive small city ninety miles south of San Francisco.

Twenty-five years later I am still at UCSC, and work as an oral historian at the University Library. I walk the redwood-lined paths of today's UCSC, which has over 14,000 students. Picking my way through the muddy and chaotic building sites of today's campus, which seems eternally "under construction," my thoughts turn to the first gay or lesbian students who walked these paths four years before the Stonewall Riots. What was it like for them? Seeking the silent and sunny refuge of madrone and manzanita in the still pristine, undeveloped "back campus," I recall myself at age nineteen, running through these woods with a woman I had a hopeless crush on, fervently discussing the history we were learning in Bettina Aptheker's Introduction to Feminism course. I remember gay pride marches in the early-1980s, in the days when many of the bystanders on Pacific Avenue were not smiling. I think of the critical mass of GLBT staff that coalesced at UCSC in the early-1990s, a new-found family. I remember twenty-five years, not only of my life, but of a community. What stories hover here in these misty groves, linger in these burnished meadows?

Nearly forty years have passed since UCSC opened its doors in 1965, as the youngest campus in the nine-campus University of California system. Spanning the time period that begins before the Stonewall Riots of 1969, through the rise of the feminist, gay liberation, and other movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the growth of women's studies, the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, and the emergence of queer activism, the University has witnessed and participated in a complex era. Now in early middle age, UCSC stands at a remarkable crossroads in history, when an older generation of GLBT community members is able to openly share memories with a younger generation.

But before we can comprehend the history of the GLBT community at UCSC, we must grasp something of the singular history of the campus as a public institution of higher education. UCSC was founded in 1963, and the first class of students arrived in 1965. The business leaders of the city of Santa Cruz, which at that time was an economically depressed, predominantly white and conservative retirement community, worked hard to convince the UC Regents to build a campus on 2000 redwood-covered acres of the site formerly known as the Cowell Ranch. Commanding a stunning view overlooking the shimmering Monterey Bay, UCSC's setting is one of the most spectacular locations for any campus in the world.

But UCSC was unique not only in the beauty of its rugged, coastal natural environment; the new campus was also a visionary experiment in public higher education--the brainchild of Dean McHenry (founding chancellor) and Clark Kerr (president of the University). Influenced by the British universities of Cambridge and Oxford, which were organized around the college system, McHenry and Kerr sought to combine the intimacy and commitment to undergraduate education found in smaller liberal arts colleges together with the resources and accessibility of larger public universities. The Santa Cruz version of the residential university was a cluster of individual colleges, each with its own traditions, academic focus, and distinctive architecture. Even as campus enrollments grew (original projections were for 27,000 students), and more colleges were added, the small-scale, decentralized nature of the colleges would eliminate the kind of bureaucratic and congested atmosphere characteristic of larger campuses such as UC Berkeley. In addition to this, the narrative evaluation system took the place of letter grades, in order to foster a learning environment in which self-motivated students would pursue their education under the close mentorship of faculty.

The students who attended UCSC, particularly in the early years of the campus, felt part of a grand new adventure in education. It was alluring for faculty as well. Drawing national attention, the prestigious campus was able to attract creative and highly motivated students with excellent grades. During the increasingly rebellious climate of the 1960s, as the anti-war movement swept the country, many of these students demonstrated an impassioned commitment to social change. The clean-cut students photographed on opening day soon transformed into long-haired radicals. Student protests generated tensions between the liberal founders of the campus and some of the more radical members of the student body (as well as some younger faculty members). Relations also grew somewhat strained between the students and the still-conservative Santa Cruz community.

I do not want to perpetuate an uncritical, nostalgic myth of the early days of UC Santa Cruz. From the beginning, the campus has been overwhelmingly white and middle-class. Even now, forty years later, UCSC remains the whitest and wealthiest campus in the UC system. Despite recent progress in achieving campus diversity, the rural isolation of the campus, along with the high cost of living in the Santa Cruz area continue to be challenges, making the University a lonely and difficult place for many students of color and/or working-class students.

Furthermore, the educational innovations of UC Santa Cruz, such as the decentralized college system and the labor-intensive narrative evaluation system, were implemented without additional funding from the state of California. In other words, UC Santa Cruz received no more money per student than any other campus in the UC system, but decentralized residential colleges and the narrative evaluation system have been expensive to maintain. This has generated ongoing budgetary challenges. Finally, the emphasis on faculty teaching and involvement in the college system stood in conflict with the tenure system of research universities, which stresses research. Some early faculty members lost their jobs due to these unresolved tensions.

Nevertheless, this visionary experiment in higher public education seems to have created a space in the redwoods for gay and lesbian students, staff, and faculty. Why? Perhaps because, as James Graham points out in his oral history, there was a perception of UC Santa Cruz as "queer," in a more generalized sense of the word. This "queer" climate would shape a gay-friendly atmosphere on the campus as it matured and the GLBT movement developed. It is also imperative to acknowledge the impact that feminist activism and scholarship at UCSC had in fostering that atmosphere, beginning in the early-1970s.

For many years, UCSC has been on Planet Out's list of top-ten "gay and lesbian friendly" college campuses. In 2003, the Princeton Review ranked UCSC as the top public institution for gay and lesbian students! The gay students who lived in these redwoods in 1965 could scarcely have imagined that such a list would ever exist! How did we get here? What traces of the paths of astounding changes in GLBT life, culture, and politics in the United States could we discover in the history of one college campus? And how has this innovative public university helped shape the national GLBT and other movements? These are some of the questions which this project set out to answer.

Since 1963, the University Library's Regional History Project has been documenting through archival oral history interviews the history of UCSC and of the central coast of California. As an oral historian at the Regional History Project, as a lesbian who has been both a student and a longtime staff member at UCSC, and as the publisher of HerBooks lesbian feminist press, I was in a unique position to initiate and coordinate this documentary history project. My goal was to bring these experiences into the historical record and to the GLBT community. It is only since the 1990s that there have been any books on GLBT students or faculty in institutions of higher education. While some of these texts include compelling narratives by contemporary GLBT students or faculty, or are excellent practical handbooks for professionals working in the area of GLBT student affairs, none take a specifically historical approach.

The decision to include not only students and faculty, but also staff in this project is unusual. Staff are often overlooked in university institutional histories. But one cannot gain a complete picture of UCSC's GLBT history without looking at the contributions and experience of staff, who have fought many of the battles for GLBT rights on campus, and also served as important mentors for students.

From the very beginning, this was a community history project with participation by many people. I began by brainstorming with Deborah Abbott, director of the GLBT Resource Center at UCSC. Abbott became a key figure in the conception of this project, and in facilitating the networking needed for its success. David Kirk, then staff at the library, also helped with input and inspiration in this stage. Soon after, with the partnership of my co-conspirator, Jacquelyn Marie, who was the women's studies/reference librarian at the time, Out in the Redwoods was born.1

It soon grew into the largest and most complex endeavor the Regional History Project has undertaken, a three-year project with three components. 1) A series of twenty-seven oral history interviews were conducted by a team of UCSC students trained in an internship class, as well as by volunteers from the campus community, and myself. 2) We undertook the expansion and development of GLBT library archives which represent each of the four decades of GLBT history at UCSC. 3) We solicited narratives by GLBT alumni, staff, and faculty, ten of which were accepted for the project, and help broaden the representation of the community beyond what could be achieved through oral history alone.2

The complete collection of oral history transcripts is available on the accompanying cd-rom in PDF format. The full interviews also make fascinating (and fun) reading, and give a much more complete, coherent picture of the interviewees. For those doing more scholarly research, referring to the transcripts is important, as they are near-verbatim representations of the interviews. The transcripts were lightly edited for punctuation and paragraphing, and the interviewees also reviewed them for accuracy. Also included on the cd-rom is supplemental material about the project, more photographs, and other resources.

This paperback is a poetic, impressionistic, multi-vocal montage, which weaves together edited and condensed excerpts of the interviews in a chronological and thematic quartet. The book concludes with a reflective coda, "Looking Back, Looking Forward." To some extent this organizational structure is arbitrary; real life does not always fall neatly into decades or thematic divisions. What you will read here are a variety of representations of historical experience. Oral history is a powerful method for revealing the subjective ways in which human beings experience and shape history. But none of these words should be taken as statements of objective Truth about what GLBT history at UCSC has been. Rather, these oral histories and narratives should be seen as one source from which to reconstruct and understand the past. There is not a singular GLBT community; there are many overlapping communities, many intersecting trajectories of history represented here. History is a braided river.

A dynamic and nuanced understanding of how recent GLBT history has unfolded over the past forty years can inspire and empower all members of the campus community to see themselves as actors in history today. This sense of empowerment and belonging is essential for the recruitment and retention of students, staff, and faculty at UCSC. May this book be a small contribution towards this historical consciousness and continuing transformation.

Perhaps you are an alum of UCSC; maybe thirty years ago you fell in love here in a brief window of time among the redwoods, came out, and began a long journey of identity and politics. This book is for you. You can find yourself in history, discover what came before and after you. Or perhaps you have spent part of your working life as a staff member here, shaping this campus, watching it change over the decades. This book is for you, who are sometimes forgotten. Perhaps you came here to teach, and have dedicated years of your life to this place, seen a whole generation of students come out in your classroom. This book is for you. Or perhaps you are reading this in New Jersey, or Arkansas, or Alaska, and you have never been to UC Santa Cruz and do not care much about it, but you do care about how GLBT people fare at universities. This book is also for you. In a larger sense, this book is not only for GLBT folks and our allies, but for anyone who seeks to make sense of history.

--Irene Reti

Santa Cruz, California

  1. The partnership between Jacquelyn Marie, women's studies librarian, and the oral history office presented a powerful, and often neglected model for collaboration between oral history projects and libraries/archives. Marie spent years building the collection in GLBT studies--purchasing small press publications by lesbian and gay presses, magazines, films and videos, and other alternative materials. Her involvement in the microfilming of early gay and lesbian publications, including Santa Cruz's Rubyfruit Reader , also ensured that these kinds of materials would be preserved and accessible. This core collection, now expanded upon by the Out in the Redwoods archive, has been an essential resource for the campus community.

  2. For more details on the methodology of the project please see "Project History and Methodology." Although most of the Regional History Project's oral history interviews are published in archival, library-bound volumes, occasionally, if there is a wider audience for the material, we publish trade paperbacks such as this volume.

© 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.