A Safe Space Turns 50

In the spring of 1971, the Undergraduate Dormitory Council and Furnald Hall residents granted the student group Gay People at Columbia the use of a lounge as a safe space for the campus gay community. Fifty years ago, Columbia had the first LGBTQ student lounge on a college campus.

Frontpage of the Columbia Owl, May 12, 1971. Headline "Gay People Take Lounge in Furnald."
“Gay People Take Lounge in Furnald” headline of The Columbia Owl, May 12, 1971. Scan 4944. Columbia LGBT records, University Archives.

In 1967 Robert Martin CC 1970, under the pseudonym of Stephen Donaldson, founded the Student Homophile League (SHL), the first gay student organization in U.S. history. According to Donaldson, the club included an equal number of gay and straight members and its goals were civil-libertarian: to educate the public and fight for equal rights.

After the first student founder graduated, a second student group, Gay People at Columbia (GPC), started in 1970. Led by Morty Manford CC 1973, this group hoped to find a space where members of the campus gay community could congregate with dignity and without fear. In 1971, they requested permission to use a Furnald Hall space as a GPC lounge. The Undergraduate Dormitory Council (UDC) granted the use of the space in the basement. Although not the most accommodating space on campus (in the basement, in a former utility closet, with cinder block walls and exposed pipes), the Gay Lounge flourished with poetry readings, lunches, the regular meetings of the GPC, and as a space to study and relax.

But this was 1971, and while the residents of Furnald Hall supported the lounge, Columbia College Dean Carl F. Hovde and University President William J. McGill did not. The ACLU reached out to Dean Hovde and even the New York City Council convened a committee hearing on the matter.  It would take a new administration at the College under Dean Peter Pouncy to show some support for the Lounge. The UDC then asked the Board of Trustees to reverse the official University position. This was the first time in Columbia’s history that a student organization appealed an administrative decision to the Trustees. But all the while, the Gay Lounge continued “unofficially” (and then finally officially) to serve its purpose. 

Flyer "Come to a Gay Birthday Party on Wednesday, May 1st, we will celebrate the Gay Lounge's 3rd Birthday."
Invitation to the Gay Lounge’s 3rd Birthday Party, May 1, 1974. Scan 4943. Historical Subject Files, University Archives.

Following Donaldson’s death from AIDS-related complications in 1996, the Gay Lounge in Furnald Hall was renamed the Stephen Donaldson Lounge in his memory. In 2017, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the HSL (now known as the Columbia Queer Alliance), the lounge moved to a new space (with windows) on the first floor of Schapiro Hall. And instead of just one student group, the Office of Multicultural Affairs currently supports and advises almost 20 LGBTQ student groups at the University.

For more information, please consult the University Archives’ research guide on LGBT student groups to help you find the relevant resources in our collections.