This continues a story about those older women (and one young man) who encouraged me along the path to gay activism.
I had no idea what I was getting into when Miss Palmer hired me.
The employment agency had sent me to Barnard College, and when I landed the job, Barnard took their $300 fee out of my next several paychecks. If I lasted six months, I’d get a refund, plus a week’s vacation.
Jean T. Palmer was the general secretary of the college, which meant that she oversaw everything non-academic, including fundraising and admissions. I would be her secretary. I saw her as a nice lady from the Midwest, probably upper middle class, warm, and with excellent manners. Short, with white hair and sparkling blue eyes, she was just about to turn 65 and would retire at the end of the academic year. I don’t know how she saw me.
I shared an office with Roberta, the bookkeeper, and the only Black woman that I noticed among the administrative or clerical staff. A hard worker, she once let me know that I was paid more than she was just because I had that B.A., and I had to agree with her. Typing wasn’t intrinsically more valuable than bookkeeping. Race likely played a role as well.
At the time I let my hair grow down below my shoulders, and we all had to wear skirts to work. But in the evening I switched to jeans and hung out with my lover Allison or went to Daughters of Bilitis meetings. Essentially, I was still living a double life.
* * *
My first assignment as spokesperson for DOB came when the professor of an abnormal psychology class at a local college requested that we send a representative. Jean Powers, the de facto president of the chapter, asked me if I would go, and I said yes. As an undergraduate, I’d spent some time in the CCNY psychology department library, reading what passed for scientific studies on homosexuality. The convention was for scientific papers to use “objective” language, so the authors talked about gay people as though we were lab rats. At the same time, more than a few of the articles verged on prurient. I hated the writers, yet their contempt seeped in and left me feeling like some kind of unwholesome freak.
But what I did learn from a statistics course was that “normal” just means you’re in the middle of a bell curve, or in the majority. It’s normal to be right-handed. In America, it’s normal to be white. So the first thing I did when addressing the class was to remind them of that definition. Next I’d pass out little slips of paper and ask the students to make an X if they were attracted to their own sex, a Y if attracted to the opposite, and XY if attracted to both. “Don’t let anyone else see what you wrote. Fold the papers and then pass them to me.” As usual, out of 30 students, 3 or 4 indicated they were gay or bisexual. I’d announce the results, knowing that the straight students would be wondering who among them was gay, and the gays would be feeling less alone.
* * *
Barnard was the sister school to all-male Columbia University across the street, where student Bob Martin had founded the first Student Homophile League (using the alias Stephen Donaldson). I don’t remember how we first met, but it may have been when I took part in an antiwar demonstration on campus along with his group. Naturally, in the fall of 1968, some of the straight protesters were uncomfortable with our presence.
Bob was bisexual and at that time I was still under the sway of Sullivanian therapists who had urged me to have relationships with both sexes. We started an affair. Since we were both speakers for gay organizations, this annoyed the older leaders in the homophile movement. They put up with us, though, because we were just kids (he was 22), and because not many people nationwide were willing to be publicly identified as gay.
One day Bob introduced me to LSD, guiding my adventure with music and, later that afternoon, taking me to the movies to see “2001.” We sat in the front row with all the other tripped-out hippies watching the light show. Dr. Keill, my therapist, had once warned me against the drug, saying it was like driving 90 mph blindfolded, but instead of crashing, I had a fantastic time—one of many experiences that drew me away from the Sullivanian influence. A few days later I taped a second poster over my desk: the first was of Martin Luther King, the new one a psychedelic illustration of the Beatles’ song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
* * *
My next assignment as DOB spokeswoman was an interview with a reporter for WOR radio, which was doing a show on the “sexual revolution,” to be aired the following day. I disliked the reporter and went home with a headache. The next morning I was sitting at my desk when Miss Palmer sailed in. “Guess what!” she said. “WOR Radio was here last night, interviewing girls from the new coed dormitory, and I just must stay up tonight and tune in.”
In a panic, I called Jean Powers. “What am I going to do? The boss is going to hear me on that program.”
“Just call the radio station and explain,” Jean replied in a soothing voice. “They’ll understand, and they’ll take that segment off the air.”
I couldn’t do it. Maybe it was the poster of Martin Luther King looking down at me. Maybe it was the question I’d always asked myself—what would you do if you’d been a German under the Nazi regime? Would you have been too cowardly to stand up for the persecuted, or brave enough to resist the regime? During the rest of the work day I was so obviously agitated that my coworkers wondered aloud what was wrong with me, though they didn’t ask directly.
At 5:00, just as the boss was about to leave, I gathered my courage. “Miss Palmer,” I said, “I’m going to be on that WOR radio program.”
“I’m representing the Daughters of Bilitis.”
“A civil rights organization.” I started to sweat. “For lesbians.”
Miss Palmer gave me a big wink. “How nice that you young people are involved in so many causes! Now help me on with my coat, dear. I’m going to be late for the opera.”
During the ensuing months I learned a lot more about this nice old lady from the Midwest.
To be continued…