In 2011 Congress lifted the ban against gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military, and just this month President Obama nominated out defense official Eric K. Fanning to become Secretary of the Army. No one could have predicted such momentous events 30-plus years ago when a couple dozen students with the Gay-Straight Alliance at Bates College in Lewiston, ME challenged their classmates, faculty and administration to ban military recruiters from campus for their discriminatory policies. The effort was unsuccessful but groundbreaking for its time, and as one of the earliest challenges to the status quo should not be forgotten as today's LGBT victories are celebrated.
On March 2, 1983 about 25 GSA members led by the group's president Phillip Crawford Jr. (that's yours truly) staged a sit-in at the Bates College career center where Marine recruiters met with straight students who were curious about a military path. The previous month both the college administration and student government had rejected a GSA proposal to ban the military recruiters. The sit-in received extensive media coverage including a front-page article by Louis Berney for The Boston Globe. After all, as noted by Berney, if Bates enacted such a prohibition it would "become the first undergraduate college in the country to do so," and at that time only a handful of law schools already had enacted such a ban due to the military's discrimination against homosexuals.
These days Bates College may consider itself a progressive institution (even if only in lip service) but in 1983 the campus response to the GSA campaign to ban military recruiters involved cynical sophistry and reactionary ugliness. For example, the Dean's Office issued a public statement rationalizing the military's presence by extolling the need for competing ideas while conveniently ignoring that the recruitment activity involved a positive act which offered a real opportunity for straight students while denying it to gay ones:
We will continue our policy of allowing all organizations, including the military, to recruit on campus. It is not, in our estimation, appropriate for us to preclude individual students from interviewing with military recruiters if they wish, nor is it appropriate for us to impose our own beliefs about sexual preference on an outside agency. This would be contrary to our adherence to the principle that the college is an open forum where ideas and beliefs, no matter how much at variance with our own, can be freely represented.
In short, Bates College advanced discrimination under the guise of open debate. And in reaction to the GSA the Alliance of Straight People was launched which reportedly promised -- wrongly so, as it turned out -- that the entire football team dressed in camouflage fatigues would counter protest any gay sit-in against the military recruiters.
Thirty years later destiny would favor the GSA, and Bates College ended up on the wrong side of human history. Tony Kushner writes in Angels in America that "the world only spins forward." However, in 1983 at Bates College most people were trying to stall its movement. Thankfully, others were stronger, and we kept pushing forward.