The events of October 11, 1989, Princeton’s first “Gay Jeans Day,” reverberated far beyond the confines of a 24-hour period. Both then and much later, the day highlighted attitudes among students and alumni toward the LGBTQIA+ community as they existed in the late 1980s. The Princeton LGBTQIA+ Oral History Project (AC465) further gives us insight into the long-term impact, as well as a glimpse into the lives of closeted Princetonians we can’t see in the records made at the time.
With pink flyers stenciled in black letters, organizers of Princeton’s first Gay Jeans Day urged the campus to “wear ’em” without further details. Many took it to mean that wearing jeans would be a declaration of their own homosexuality. The idea wasn’t well-received. As quickly as they could put them up, organizers reported, their flyers would be torn down.
In the broader context of such events on college campuses, especially at nearby Rutgers University, this is unsurprising. Gay Jeans Day, which by 1989 was being observed on campuses across America, had begun as Blue Jeans Day and appears to have originated in conjunction with the “Symposium on Gay Liberation and Education” co-sponsored by the Rutgers Student Homophile League in 1974. The League had advertised this and subsequent Blue Jeans Days as an opportunity to declare one’s homosexuality through a clothing choice and stationed strategically-placed “counters” to pretend to be noting who wore jeans and who did not. As students at Rutgers continued to organize these events throughout the 1970s and 1980s, they were met with aggression and hostility from their peers.
Organizers at Princeton did not envision their event in quite the same way. Wearing jeans on Gay Jeans Day was meant to show one’s support for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students, and was therefore intended to be inclusive of straight students as well. In the late 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, gay Americans were particularly prominent subjects of social discourse, often in a negative way. The first Gay Jeans Day happened to coincide with AIDS Awareness Day. Though this appears to have been unintentional, organizers of Gay Jeans Day did acknowledge that the epidemic had been on their minds as they made their plans. Avery S. Miller ’90 wrote asking for support:
Ironically, it may be harder coming out in 1989 than it was 10 or 20 years ago. In the mid ‘70s, an American homosexual lived in a ‘liberated’ nation without the presence of the current ‘New Right’ and the fear of AIDS. Today, homosexuals feel threatened by a general cultural disdain inflicted by political and religious movements and a devastating epidemic.
Many students did not want to take the chance they might be seen as gay and resented the perceived demand to take sides, as Myles W. Derieg ’92 wrote in a letter to the editor of the Daily Princetonian: “If I wear jeans, I will be labelled as a homosexual. If I don’t wear jeans, people will call me homophobic. There is no middle ground on Gay Jeans Day for someone who is undecided or who frankly doesn’t care.” Other students said they felt their own rights were being trampled, with David H. Im ’90 saying he thought the right to free speech should include the right to remain silent. “The promoters of Gay Jeans Day have expressed nothing but contempt for the law of the land. Their littering the whole bloody campus with their flyers was a constant reminder to me that my rights were being infringed upon.”
For organizers and supporters, this discomfort was the point of the exercise. Miller explained in an editorial the day before the event,
The decision [to wear jeans or not] is similar to the dilemma that gays, lesbians and bisexuals face every day. How are they going to package themselves to appear before peers who often view homosexuality as different, an aberration? How are they going to brace themselves for the labels which have crept into our vernacular?
Afterward, event organizers tended to view it as a success. Suszanne Bernat ’91 wrote that homophobic slurs had been hurled at her brother when he visited her on campus earlier that year, and the tensions that arose over wearing jeans had helped to highlight what it was like to be conspicuously different. “I think that Gay Jeans Day…brought a flavor of this personal violation home to many students who felt their defenses go up…”
Peers did take note of the choices made, and what those choices had been lingered in their minds. Nearly a year later, Rachel Cohen ’91 wrote,
The excuse some gave for not wearing jeans was that they did not want to be forced to make a statement simply by getting dressed. But their attire on that day did make a clear statement, at least to me. To me, it said, ‘I am a bigot; I am prejudiced against a segment of the population, and I do not support them.’ … Prejudice, on one day last year, was condoned and even encouraged by the majority of the student body, and this frightens and embarrasses me.
Discussion continued for weeks in the pages of the Prince and made it into the Princeton Alumni Weekly as well, after Matt Henshon ’91 reported on the scenes around campus. Henshon said that more women than men had worn jeans (an observation echoed by Ken Griggs ’91, head of the Coalition Against Homophobia), with about 44% of the people he had seen wearing them, and that the day felt awkward with everyone looking at everyone else’s legs. His article closed with an expressed hope that those who were on campus at the time could have their hearts softened to the plight of gay students.
Alumni, like the students then on campus, were sharply divided. Loring McAlpin ’83 wrote that his time at Princeton as a closeted gay man had been deeply painful and described the environment as “repressive.” Rather than merely softening hearts, McAlpin wrote that he wanted something more. “I would much rather they experience anger, the anger from being told there is only one acceptable way. Students might then begin to question not only their behavior but the institutional system that fosters homophobia and narrows thinking about life choices.”
Robert H. Braunohler ’68 aligned his views more closely with those of the students who were against Gay Jeans Day and compared homosexuality to a disability:
we should draw the line when militant elements of the homosexual population attempt to blame the institutions of society at large for the unhappiness that may result from their dilemma. A disabled person can feel anger that others are not similarly afflicted, but this type of anger is better characterized as frustration; clearly, it is irrational. Where homosexuality is concerned, there seems to be a growing acceptance of such irrationality as a legitimate social movement.
As they reflected on it later in interviews, the Princetonians the event was meant to support had mixed feelings as well. Alongside the visible support, it gave students an opportunity to see overt rejection they might not have otherwise. Jen Rexford ’91, who was closeted in college, wore jeans, but observed that her fellow engineering majors mostly did not, and said some students wore shorts on a cold day to pointedly avoid wearing jeans.
Melody Maia Monet ’93, who was on the outskirts of Princeton’s LGBTQIA+ community because she was a transgender woman but not ready to fully acknowledge it until her 40s, said she thought if there had been more attention paid to transgender issues she would have found it easier to accept herself. However, the focus had always been on gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. “I would wear jeans on those days. But I don’t really recall the word transgender even being used in these spaces.”
Some students who were closeted at the time felt wearing jeans would be outing themselves before they were prepared to do so. This was the case for Kevin Gonzalez ’94, who had a friend who was from Puerto Rico like him and refused to wear jeans because it would signal homosexuality. Wanting to fit in kept Gonzalez from wearing jeans, too. “But because he didn’t wear jeans that day, I felt like I couldn’t wear jeans, which again, looking back at it, it’s so silly. But again, I’m 17 years old having just left Puerto Rico. I was like, ‘I just want to blend in. I don’t want to stand out.’”
Sue Ann Steffey Morrow, who was Associate Dean of the Chapel at the time Gay Jeans Day was first organized at Princeton, said in 1989 that the Chapel was sponsoring it because “We believe that the university can do better in giving gay students a strong and welcoming place in this community.” Later, Morrow reflected, “even if the gay and lesbian students weren’t ready, they became quite visible…” Kathryn Hamm ’91 described her experience with Gay Jeans Day as a closeted student as “really traumatic” in 2019.
Gay Jeans Day was observed at Princeton until the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, around the same time as the opening of the campus LGBT Center in 2006. Although for the most part the intensity surrounding it faded as people became more accustomed to it, it always brought division. Thomas Lipp ’08, co-vice president of the Pride Alliance, explained that LGBT students no longer had a need to fight for their “right to exist,” while noting that the campus climate “is still not ideal.” Social activism among LGBT students took different forms, but the impact of Gay Jeans Day remained with those who experienced it.
Historical Subject Files (AC109)
For Further Reading:
Armstrong, April C. “‘This Ceremony Was Not Sanctioned’: Gay Marriage at Princeton.”
Astorga, Maria E. Lynn. “Behind the Desk: The Experiences of LGBT Higher Education Administrators.” E.D. thesis, Rutgers University, May 2016.
Becker, Ron. Gay TV and Straight America. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2006.
Nichols, David and Morris J. Kafka-Hozchlag. “The Rutgers University Lesbian/Gay Alliance 1969-1989: The First Twenty Years.” The Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries 51, no. 2 (December 1989): 55-95.
Ulrich, Brandon S. “Tolerance Towards Lesbians and Gays: A Factor Analysis of Princeton Undergraduate Attitudes.” Senior Thesis, Princeton University, 1996.