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Visibility Epidemic: Conversations on AIDS and Queerness at Princeton University, Part I

By Travis York ’23

with April C. Armstrong *14

As the first in a two-part series on AIDS at Princeton University, this post will cover the on-campus organizing that occurred surrounding AIDS awareness and prevention in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The second part of this series will focus on related discussions on campus that appeared in student newspapers and the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

“CLOSET QUEENS UNITE!” appeared in a classified ad in the Daily Princetonian (Prince) on May 12, 1972.  With additional text giving a phone number to contact “for information about organization of gay men and women at Princeton,” the ad may not have caught everyone’s attention, but its message was clear. Posted by Arthur Eisenbach ‘74, this ad was an open call for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) organizing on campus that would soon be answered.

CLOSET QUEENS UNITE! For information about organization of gay men and women at Princeton, call 452-2197. 673
Classified ad, Daily Princetonian, May 12, 1972.

The assembling of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) students was now underway with the informal student group meeting three times that spring. About ten students attended each meeting. The following fall, these students officially founded the Gay Alliance of Princeton (GAP) as a formally-recognized student organization.

Athur Eisenbach with text reading "He created a gap and then helped fill it."
Arthur Eisenbach ’74’s Nassau Herald entry is cryptic to those unaware of the context, but clear to those in the know: “He created a gap and then helped fill it.”

GAP’s program of activities remained somewhat small for many years, with GAP mostly holding spaces for student discussion along with an annual dance for the campus and broader community, which anyone could attend regardless of Princeton affiliation. GAP faced some difficulties in reaching all queer students, especially queer women. A May 9, 1979 article in the Prince reported that only four or five lesbian and/or bisexual women regularly attended GAP meetings. GAP thus found itself primarily serving and representing gay and bisexual men rather than women. The next decade saw several organizations form to fill other needs.

  •  In the Spring of 1983, Gay Women of Princeton (GWOP) emerged from the growing informal organizing of LGB women on campus. The group had previously been labeled Princeton Lesbians.
  • In the fall of 1987, a new organization emerged for queer women, the Bisexual and Lesbian Support System (BLSS). BLSS would quickly become the Lesbian Task Force, another short-lived organizational title. 
  • Later in 1987, GAP merged with the Lesbian Task Force to become the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Princeton (GALAP). 
  • In January 1990, GALAP underwent a new change due to the organization’s membership heavily swaying towards men. GALAP remained a unifying student organization, but out of GALAP grew the Gay and Bi Men on Campus (GBMOC) and the Lesbian/Bisexual Women’s Task Force (LBWTF). 
  • GALAP would last four years in total until the organization renamed itself the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Alliance (LGBA) in the fall of 1991. 
Two women sit back-to-back; one on a telephone says, "Well, no, I haven't met MR. Right, but..."
Cartoon from Disorientation Manual, 1990. Princeton University Publications Collection (AC364), Box 14.

While LGB students always existed at Princeton, LGB student advocacy had not held a significant presence on campus before May 1972. In the late 1980s and 1990s, during the height of the AIDS crisis, Americans and Princetonians would further acknowledge LGB advocacy, but there was some ambivalence about the approach to activism within student organizations.

When initially observed in 1981, AIDS was thought to be a disease only transmittable between gay men. Scientists labeled it GRID (Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease) in 1982. Even as the U.S. slowly came to understand AIDS as something anyone could contract when cases began to appear in other demographics, the stigma of AIDS as a “gay disease” continued. In response to the growing conversations around sexuality and AIDS, several student organizations on Princeton University’s campus were brought into the spotlight. Many of the student activities that occurred on campus were covered in Princeton University publications, which are available at Mudd Library and online.

Ad for a talk by Alison Bechdel, Progressive Review, December 1992. Princeton University Publications Collection (AC364), Box 14.

The general activities of various LGB student organizations included talks with esteemed guest speakers, movie nights, dances, and (most controversially) LGB awareness events. Campus representations of AIDS and LGB identity often separated the two, seemingly in an effort to show that AIDS was not just a “gay disease” but rather that it could impact anyone. Student organizations often centered their activities and activism around LGB identity, while occasionally covering topics such as AIDS. On-campus awareness of AIDS was minimal. As Philip Mahin ‘85 reflected in an oral history interview conducted in 2018,

…although it is absolutely true that the time that I was here was at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, it’s also true that I wasn’t really as aware of it as I think I would have been if I weren’t in a place like Princeton, which really at that time could feel somewhat apart from the outside world.

Many LGB students saw AIDS as a serious threat to LGB acceptance and visibility, but students also recognized the complexity of the issue. As a result, the sources I found suggest that on-campus activism surrounding AIDS was limited in its scope.

One regular event that GALAP held was Gay Jeans Day, its largest and most written-about event. On Gay Jeans Day, which often occurred during GALAP’s LGB Awareness Week on campus, those on campus were encouraged to wear jeans if they were LGB or supported LGB students. The event often caused much controversy among students who felt they were forced to publicly declare a political position. Other students, however, saw this as a metaphorical representation of the choices LGB students must make every day over whether or not to be open with their LGB identity. 

show your support for gay, lesbian, and bisexual empowerment and visability [sic]
Flyer advertising Gay Jeans Day at Princeton University, 1991. Lesbian Gay Bisexual Alliance Records (AC037), Box 1, Folder 5.

The first Gay Jeans Day happened to coincide with AIDS Awareness Day. Organizers of Gay Jeans Day acknowledged that the epidemic had been on their minds as they made their plans, while the overlap hadn’t been deliberate. Avery S. Miller ’90 wrote asking for support in light of the changed atmosphere:

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.

However, for the most part, Gay Jeans Day was only tangentially related to AIDS.

There were several other attempts by student organizations to advocate for AIDS awareness on campus and to pair that effort with advocacy for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. GALAP, and then later LGBA, worked to improve the status of LGB students on campus alongside raising awareness of AIDS. This is evident in the multiple “AIDS Awareness Week” programs GALAP promoted beginning around 1986. The “Lean on Me” AIDS benefit aimed to raise awareness and monetary support for AIDS prevention and activist organizations near Princeton. Yet, there was some care to distinguish between AIDS awareness advocacy and LGB activism. As Greg Christianson ‘89, Coalition Against Homophobia president and “Lean on Me” event organizer, was quoted in the Prince in 1989, the benefit would “not focus on the issue of homophobia, since the disease affects several groups.” AIDS events on campus generally aimed to promote awareness of the impacts AIDS has on all college students, not just LGB students.

By 1986, Princeton University’s on-campus McCosh Health Center had grown to see AIDS as a central concern for students, providing a pamphlet on AIDS to those seeking information on HIV and AIDS. The “AIDS: What Everyone Should Know” pamphlet outlined the best safe-sex practices to avoid the spread of HIV and AIDS. Later, in 1988, “in an effort to educate the community about the threat and prevention of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” Prince writer Heather Hirschfeld reported that McCosh Health Center would be “providing an AIDS information package, complete with a free condom, to all freshman students.” Still, student advocates said they felt a lack of institutional support for their efforts.

There were concerns about this pamphlet, in that some students did not think it accurately reflected and answered the questions and concerns of students on campus. In response, as a part of the AIDS Activist Coalition for Education (AACE), which was formed around 1990 to combat and inform the campus on issues related to HIV and AIDS, students created their own guide on safe-sex practices to reduce the transmission of AIDS. This guide, “Princeton Students’ Safer Sex Guide,” was curated by students and for students. As reported in the Prince, controversy began in the fall of 1990, because AACE believed their guide would be distributed by McCosh Health Center as part of their outreach. McCosh, however, claimed that the purpose of AACE’s guide was never to be a material distributed by McCosh, though the health center helped to create the guide. Several articles ran in the Prince in the fall of 1990 covering the incident, which reflected what students saw as an institutional lack of response to AIDS on behalf of Princeton University. In an oral history interview conducted in 2017, Curtis Schuhmacher ‘87 reflected upon why he felt the institution’s response fell short, stating: “[The university was] just completely not equipped or aware or invested in it.” He went on to say that there was 

zero institutional support other than the fact that they had– that GAP was a student organization. But other than that, nothing. I mean, really nothing, which honestly is a shame because I think at the time, those of us coming out really could have used a great deal of counseling support given the AIDS issue let alone just coming out generally.

The limits of university support for AIDS awareness and prevention did not stop students from advocating for these issues, but working with a small number of student volunteers – and an even smaller budget – also tended to limit student organizations’ on-campus actions.

This post has honed in on the on-campus activities relating to AIDS and queerness along with the coverage of these activities in various Princeton publications. In the next part of this story, I will show the response to AIDS within the context of student and alumni newspapers. Princeton publications, while covering AIDS occasionally, also appear to have generally circumvented the issue, highlighting LGB issues generally with little mention of AIDS.


Lesbian Gay Bisexual Alliance Records (AC037)

Papers of Princeton

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Princeton Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA) Oral History Project (AC465)

Princeton University Publications Collection (AC364)

Office of Communications Records (AC168)

For Further Reading:

Andriote, John-Manuel. Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Armstrong, April C. “‘Wear ‘Em’: Princeton University’s First Gay Jeans Day.

Bruce, Katherine E. and Lori J. Walker. “College Students’ Attitudes About AIDS: 1986 to 2000.” AIDS Education and Prevention, Vol. 13, No. 5, 2001, 428-437.

Cohen, Cathy J. The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Lee, Motoko Y., Alphonso R. Campbell, and Charles L. Mulford. “Victim-Blaming Tendency Toward People With AIDS Among College Students.” The Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 139, No. 3, 1999, 300-308.

Schulman, Sarah. Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021.

Walters, Suzanna Danuta. All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

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