The LGBT community in the United States and at the University of Pennsylvania has come a long way since the 1970s. The Jeremy Duncan Nicholson* papers provide an illuminating snapshot of the efforts undertaken by students and faculty at Penn in the 1970s and 1980s to cultivate a vibrant gay and lesbian community on campus and in Philadephia, in which community members could fully enjoy the human and civil rights to which they were entitled. Moreover, the collection gives us a glimpse into the ways in which things have changed at Penn and in Philadelphia as well as how some things never seem to change. From my perspective as a current student, alumnus, and an active participant in campus life, including in the queer community, at Penn today, there were some very exciting and unexpected gems in this collection!
I loved this flyer from 1977 inviting incoming students to join Gays at Penn. Besides the offers of support and camaraderie, which are always necessary ingredients for building a healthy community, what stood out to me were the cookies! Having food at events is one of the surest ways of getting Penn students to come to your events. And who doesn’t love cookies?
Another thing that stood out to me was this note from Professor Ann Matter to Jeremy Duncan Nicholson from 1982. As far as we’ve come, we still sometimes have incidents involving students that we must attend to. Professor Matter was a resident faculty fellow in Van Pelt College House (now Gregory College House) when this note was written. Today, faculty fellows are still a valuable resource for students in the college houses.
In addition to the important work of faculty fellows, this note also draws my attention to changes in technology. Do you remember when you could call someone without using an area code? And when Professor Matter wrote that her phone died, she wasn’t talking about her cell phone battery dying. Technological advances have made it so that queer students can now communicate with faculty and each other at increasingly higher speeds and through several different avenues. One thing we may want to bring back, however, is the drama of referring to the repairing of your phone as a “resurrection!” (Ann Matter is a professor of religious studies.)
My favorite item from this collection is what seems to be a Gays at Penn membership card. The card is so simple against the backdrop of the complications of life as an LGBT student both in the 1970s and today. I have so many questions about this card, but I’ll only ask the most important one here: Where can I get mine?
Edit: I’ve figured out the mystery of the membership card! As much as I wanted this to be a cool sign of membership in the Gays at Penn student organization, the number on the card is in fact the account number for the organization itself within the system of funding for student organizations at the time, which I found on an old funding request form.
*Jeremy Duncan Nicholson (b. 1948) was a community organizer for the gay and lesbian community at the University of Pennsylvania and in Philadelphia, from roughly 1975-1982, when he was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. This collection includes material from several organizations of which Nicholson was a part, such as the Christian Association of the University of Pennsylvania (CA), the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force (PLGTF), Gay Peer Counseling (GPC), Gays at Penn, and Philadelphia community health organizations, including Lavender Health and the Eromin Center.