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Panel explores LGBT experience at MIT

Although it has not been an entirely easy road, MIT has always been one step ahead in terms of accepting differences, a panel of gay, lesbian and transgender alumni told a crowd gathered in Building 34 on Thursday, April 20.

The seven MIT alumni from the 1970s, '80s and '90s were on campus as part of the "Gay in the Day: The LGBT Experience Throughout the Years" panel sponsored by BGALA, MIT's Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Alumni and the MIT Alumni Association.

Kathryn Willmore, vice president and secretary of the MIT Corporation, moderated the panel.

"MIT is a great meritocracy," Willmore said, responding to a question about why MIT has been so ahead of the curve on equality issues. "Students who come to MIT earn their way in. People are taken more for who they are than their name or pedigree."

Willmore spoke about her early days working at the Institute (when only 2 percent of the faculty and 4 percent of the undergraduates were women), the strength of the women's community in the 1970s and coming out as a lesbian in the 1980s.

She provided a timeline of the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender (LGBT) experience at MIT, a project she said "brought back a lot I had not thought about in years," noting that in the 1970s Tech Talk was restrictive about what roommate ads it would run.

In contrast, in 2004, Tech Talk ran a full-page feature article on lesbian and gay members of the MIT community who got married after same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts.

The timeline began with the founding of the Students Homophile League (SHL) in 1969 -- one month before the Stonewall riots in New York City, which were considered a major turning point in the struggle for homosexual equality.

SHL was co-founded by Stan Tillotson (S.B. 1971) and Irv Englander (S.M. 1970 and Ph.D. 1978), both of whom were panelists in last Thursday's discussion.

"For gay students at that time, there wasn't anything to do socially," Tillotson said. SHL was open to students from Harvard, Boston University and other local schools that did not have similar groups.

"When I started at MIT, I was out to myself, but not publicly," said Englander.

The group was responsible for many of the changes that took place during the 1970s at MIT, including the first dance for homosexuals. Students themselves helped bring about these changes, with the assistance of supportive administration members, according to panelist Stewart Landers (S.B. 1978).

"We were very conscious of the need to make progress," Landers said. "It was a political time at MIT."

During Landers' time at the Institute, Physical Plant (now Facilities) installed a glass case to protect SHL's posters from being torn down.

Panelist Wilson Wong (S.B. 1989) spoke of gay students starting to attend the MIT dorm parties. "We all had to pay the student dormitory fees that paid for those parties, so we decided we should be able to attend them."

Now, more than 35 years later, a person walking the halls, classrooms and cubicles of the MIT campus would notice small cards with rainbows stating, "You are welcome here" provided by Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender at MIT (LBGT), one of many groups at MIT dedicated to promoting equal rights.

Panelist Marissa Martinez (S.B. 1983 and S.M. 2002) came out as a lesbian during her first stint as an MIT student, an experience she called "the scariest and most lonely moment of my college career." Martinez read excepts from a memoir she is working on about her time as an undergraduate at MIT.

"Things have changed a lot over the years," Martinez said.

Other alumni panelists in the April 20 discussion were Lee Swislow (S.B. 1971) and Hudson Nummerdor (S.B. 1994).

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 26, 2006 (download PDF).

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