“We were relatively happy”

What was it like to be a gay student in the College 40 years ago? Kevin Burke, AB’72, PhD’99—Pierce Hall resident, anthropology major, and member of the University’s first gay student organization—shares his memories.

Elizabeth Station

A retired professor of social work, Burke spoke by phone from his ranch in Mendocino County, California, “a place I homesteaded as part of the burnt-out San Francisco politico mass exodus to the country in the ‘70s.” The interview has been edited and abridged.


Tell me about Gay Liberation, the group you were involved in as a College student. You have mentioned an incident when you and others were arrested at the Quad Club in 1971.

Many in Chicago Gay Liberation had a Marxist leaning and we worked with many groups in coalition, including the Black Panther Party. We were really different from other gay liberation groups of the time in that we were political. There was this guy who prosecuted the Chicago Seven [Thomas Foran—Ed.] and he was running for governor of Illinois. One of his slogans was, “We’re losing our kids to the freaking fag revolution,” and so we all had buttons that said that we were freaking fag revolutionaries.

We had a strategy meeting and we decided that we were going to heckle him [when he spoke at the Quad Club] and perhaps disrupt him, thinking that we were on University property and never in a million years would the University want to embarrass itself and have anything untoward happen. Our strategy was wrong in that we didn’t realize that the University didn’t own the Quad Club.

The faculty called the cops in. We were heckling; we were being obnoxious. And the police took us out and beat us up.


You were beaten and arrested with Murray Edelman [PhD’73], and two other students. But the University bailed you out?

Yeah, they did. And they apologized and told us not to do it again. It was quite bizarre. This was two years after the sit-in [when 400 students occupied the Administration Building—Ed.] so things were still pretty raw. There was just general outrage that this happened, and it was a big deal.


Beyond this incident, how would you describe the climate for gay students at the University at the time?

I thought that gay male students had it much better than students as a whole in the College, in that we had support systems among other gay men that were incredibly good. It was really, really hard, just the academics. You studied, worked, and wrote nonstop, and you didn’t have any time for fun.


So why was it better for gay students?

There were closeted faculty who served as father or grandfather figures to a number of gay men, although they were freaked out by Gay Liberation and hated the idea of it. But there were some of us who went back and forth from old Hyde Park gay society to Gay Liberation–type society or people.

Also, we had an incredible amount of sex. We broke the monotony and the boredom by saying, “Let’s have sex.” None of my straight colleagues, my peers, were, and they were really sort of jealous. So that was another thing. We were relatively happy.

We would have these love-ins on the quads, where we’d make out in a group of like 20 gay men. As I recall, we never got bothered or heard catcalls or anything. It was sort of idyllic. We all thought the revolution was around the corner and we would talk about how the University would be then. We were quite naïve.


That’s quite a story.

It was a really interesting time. But my first two years in the College were truly miserable. I ended up at Billings Hospital once just because I couldn’t stop crying. That was my second year, and I realized I had to do something. Then I came out, and my second two years were wonderful. I was openly gay. I found somebody I loved to work with and academically I really blossomed. But I think a lot of it had to do with the gay support systems that were really instrumental to my wellbeing.


Watch videos of interviews with Murray Edelman, who talks about his activism before and after UChicago, on the Chicago Gay History website.


Gay pride pins from Burke’s collection. (Photo courtesy Burke)