Banners with information about LGBTQ+ activism and history line the rotunda in Lehigh's Linderman Library for the "Out on Campus" exhibit. (Lanxin Lin//B&W Staff)

Piecing together Lehigh’s queer history: Out on Campus


The stained glass windows of the Linderman Library rotunda were complemented by pride flags representing various identities for over a week. 

The flags were hung along the banisters of each floor as part of an archival exhibit hosted by The Pride Center, Library and Technology Services, and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies department. The exhibit, which was hosted from March 7-16, displayed the history of queer people and student activism at Lehigh.

The exhibit was part of the Central Pennsylvania LGBT Center’s project “Out on Campus: A History of LGBTQ+ Activism at Pennsylvania Colleges and Universities,” which includes histories of 11 Pennsylvanian schools.

It is a combination of collected historical narratives, photographs, documents, posters and oral histories that attempt to piece together what life was like for LGBTQ+ students at Lehigh during the 1970s and onwards.

Even with help from Lehigh librarians, Mary Foltz, English professor and co-organizer of the exhibit, said finding this information was not easy. As her team reviewed archival materials, they found little documented evidence of LGBTQ+ students. They pieced together Lehigh’s LGBTQ+ history through alumni’s oral accounts.

Barry Loveland, chair of the LGBT history project for the Central Pennsylvania LGBT Center, said this is a common phenomenon and leads to the erasure of important historical LGBTQ+ experiences. 

While LGBTQ+ history is well documented in big cities, he said it is often forgotten about or ignored in more rural parts of the country.

“There were a lot of leaders in small towns, as well, who led efforts in their own communities to pass local civil rights legislation that was important in the movement,” Loveland said. “These people are not documented, and it’s important that their stories are told, as well as the accomplishments they made. It fills out the history of the whole LGBTQ+ movement.”

Foltz said the exhibit emphasizes the importance of student activism as a crucial starting point to influence change locally and beyond, especially since college is a formative time period where students are exposed to a diversity of people and ideas.

Loveland said campuses create a training ground for student activists to develop into community activists and fight for LGBTQ+ equality into their adult lives.

Within this archive are the often untold stories of alumni who Foltz said shaped the Lehigh experience for generations to come by creating student groups, advocating for acceptance and pushing back against discrimination efforts.

After graduation, Thomas Duane, ‘77, went on to serve in New York as the first openly gay and HIV-positive senator, becoming the lead sponsor of gay marriage legislation.

Foltz said Duane’s activism started when he was a Lehigh student. He became heavily involved in pushing the university’s administration to allow a university-sanctioned club for LGBTQ+ students.

Scott Burden, director of the Pride Center and co-organizer of the exhibit, said the present and future of student activism exists in student groups like the Pride Center and Spectrum Club that create safe spaces for all people on campus.

“I am particularly proud of this exhibition and the Lehigh panel because it allows us as a community to reflect on our history — where we’ve been as an institution in terms of including LGBTQIA+ people and where we are today,” Foltz said. “It promises a bright future for us as an institution.”

While uncovering this history allows for the celebration of lesser-known successes, it also unveils Lehigh’s exclusionary history.

Foltz said Duane’s fight for a university-sanctioned LGBTQ+ club was met with significant pushback from administration.

“Conservative cultures and hostile administrators created more difficulty for LGBTQ+ students as they tried to build supportive organizations or advocacy groups,” Foltz said. 

Unlike when Duane was at Lehigh, support was apparent at the exhibit’s opening ceremony on March 9, where more than 30 Lehigh community members gathered to read the stories of Pennsylvania’s queer history. 

Given Lehigh’s exclusionary history, Gregory Reihman, vice provost of Library and Technology Services, said the choice to display the exhibit at Linderman instead of Fairchild-Martindale Library or another academic building was intentional.

Reihman said Linderman is one of the most iconic buildings on campus, and Lehigh is known for it internationally. 

He said the exhibit presented a powerful moment of acknowledging historic wrongdoings and sent the message that “if we can’t transform from the past into the future, then we get stuck in the past. ”

Although the exhibit has left Linderman, the information is available through the online exhibit.

Burden said even though the panels and pride flags have been taken down, the symbolism behind this exhibit in Linderman will last.

“Lehigh has a history of exclusion,” Burden said. “This is one of the oldest buildings on campus and walls hold memories so by being here, we’re having new memories that these walls can hold, and that’s really powerful.”

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1 Comment

  1. Your comment about Lehigh having a history of exclusion is somewhat distorted considering Lehigh was founded as an all male institution in a completely different America than exists today.

    It would be more appropriate to say that Lehigh evolved slower than most colleges to acknowledge queers predominately because Lehigh was not a liberal arts college.

    The conservative roots upon which Lehigh was built as a rugged breeding ground for Engineers & business leaders of American industry speak to its slower transition to our current American culture of equity of outcome philosophy.

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