It is a commonly held belief that the movement for gay and lesbian rights in the United States was, and is, an urban event. While one may not be surprised to hear about activism in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the history of activism in such places as Bethlehem (population 75,501) or Shippensburg, Pennsylvania (population 5,492) remains largely unappreciated. Pennsylvania’s Rural Gay Caucus, founded in 1975, united members of the gay and lesbian community from across Pennsylvania. The Rural Gay Caucus gave otherwise isolated gay Pennsylvanians an opportunity to meet fellow members of the gay community and a chance to advocate for gay and lesbian rights in their local communities and across the state.
There is a prevailing storyline in LGBTQ+ history that suggests queer people move from their rural homes to major cities like New York or San Francisco. J. Jack Halberstam coined the term “metronormative” to describe this narrative. He writes:
The metronormative narrative maps a story of migration onto the coming-out narrative. While the story of coming out tends to function as a temporal trajectory within which a period of disclosure follows a long period of repression, the metronormative story of migration from “country” to “town” is a spatial narrative within which the subject moves to a place of tolerance after enduring life in a place of suspicion, persecution, and secrecy.[efn_note] J. Jack Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press, 2005). 36. [/efn_note]
The metronormative narrative can be found in various works on the gay and lesbian rights movement in both subtle and overt forms. For example, in his recent attempt to “queer” US history, Michael Bronski dedicates an entire chapter to the gay community’s urban life and activism, offering only minor references to gay life in rural America in the early twentieth century.[efn_note] Michael Bronski, A Queer History of the United States (Boston: Beacon, 2011). [/efn_note] In contrast, Lillian Faderman includes rural stories in her history of the LGBTQ+ movements, but they are often set in opposition to urban ones. Faderman writes about an incident in which a woman was barred from visiting her paraplegic girlfriend because she was deemed to be predatory in a rural area (St. Cloud, MN) and then about the change and activism that arose in an urban area as a response.[efn_note] Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 447. [/efn_note] Often, rural gay and lesbian activism is left out of the story entirely, giving the impression that only major US cities had a role in the gay and lesbian rights movement.[efn_note] See, e.g., Adrian Brooks, The Right Side of History: 100 Years of LGBTQ Activism (New York: Cleis Press, 2015); Marcia M. Gallo, Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement (Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2007); Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); Kath Weston, The Families We Choose (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); G. Mucciaroni, Same Sex, Different Politics: Success and Failure in the Struggles over Gay Rights, 1st ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 2008); Simon Hall, “The American Gay Rights Movement and Patriotic Protest,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 19, no. 3 (2010). [/efn_note] My research seeks to shed light on those activists who operated outside of large cities. During the gay and lesbian rights movement of the 1970s, men and women in central Pennsylvania were actively working to gain equality, and the Rural Gay Caucus provides evidence of that fact.
The Rural Gay Caucus developed out of an effort by Pennsylvania Governor Milton Schapp to work with the gay and lesbian community through the creation of a Governor’s Council for Sexual Minorities in the mid-1970s.[efn_note] David Leas, transcript of an oral history conducted in 2017, LGBT History Project, LGBT Center of Central PA History Project, Dickinson College Library, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, 2017. [/efn_note] This move made Schapp the first governor in the United States to establish a council for sexual minorities and to sign an executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the state government.[efn_note] “Milton Shapp Was America’s First Equality Governor,” Out In Jersey, October 19, 2018, https://outinjersey.net/milton-shapp-was-americas-first-equality-governor/. [/efn_note] David Leas, a member of the Governor’s Council and an eventual founding member of the Rural Gay Caucus, expressed his frustration with the issues the council chose to address. Leas stated that the majority of the council members came from Pittsburgh or Philadelphia and therefore ignored issues that members like Leas, a Lancaster native, experienced outside of the two largest Pennsylvania cities.[efn_note] David Leas, transcript of an oral history conducted in 2017, LGBT History Project, LGBT Center of Central PA History Project, Dickinson College Library, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, 2017. [/efn_note] “So, through that,” Leas recalled in a recent oral history, “then we had—I don’t know what I would call it, an alliance or whatever[,] but we formed the—it was called the Rural Gay Caucus and what we were trying to do is be a funnel to feed info into the governor’s council.”[efn_note] David Leas, transcript of an oral history conducted in 2017, LGBT History Project, LGBT Center of Central PA History Project, Dickinson College Library, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, 2017. [/efn_note] The group contained gay men and women from small towns and small cities. One member, Daniel Maneval, explains, “It was the rural gays, like Harrisburg—I hate to say Harrisburg was rural, but it wasn’t the Philadelphia, the Pittsburgh, it was everybody else in between, from Allentown, Williamsport, Wilkes-Barre, State College, Harrisburg, all of the other communities that weren’t Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.”[efn_note] Daniel Maneval, transcript of an oral history conducted in 2015, LGBT History Project, LGBT Center of Central PA History Project, Dickinson College Library, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, 2015. [/efn_note] The Rural Gay Caucus became a state-wide organization that created a social network for gay and lesbian Pennsylvanians.
Owing to the organization’s multicounty membership, the Rural Gay Caucus had hundreds of members and a wide range of meeting locations, creating an important community for those who participated. At the first annual conference of the caucus, hundreds of people were in attendance. “I think it was at a Howard Johnsons at Delaware Water Gap at Straudsbury,” Maneval recalls. “I think that’s what it was. But I remember we took it over. We had several hundred people there, good workshops, big fancy Saturday night dinner, and then a dance afterward.”[efn_note] Daniel Maneval, transcript of an oral history conducted in 2015. [/efn_note] Not only did the caucus work on issues pertinent to the gay and lesbian community, it also held social events like the dance. The caucus also met once every month in various locations across the state during the year. Former Rural Gay Caucus member Anthony Silvestre remembers the ever-changing meeting locations due to their geographically diverse membership. “We didn’t have a central place,” one member, Joe Burns, recalled. “We had a church on Sundays once a month at the Friends Meeting House. After that, then we would meet wherever we could meet and wherever people—like, if they were—if the person in charge of the committee, they could name their own home town, that’s where we’d go for a meeting.”[efn_note] Joe Burns, transcript of an oral history conducted in 2014, LGBT History Project, LGBT Center of Central PA History Project, Dickinson College Library, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, 2014. [/efn_note] Like the conference, the meetings were not entirely informational. One member of the Rural Gay Caucus, the central Pennsylvania gay and lesbian advocate Mary Nancarrow, recalls that the group often had potlucks as well as a network that allowed members to locate gay-friendly locations across the state. “We would travel,” she said. “There was an underground knowledge and gay guides of where to go, and when I was on business trips, I would consult my little guide and see where the local gay bar was.”[efn_note] Mary Nancarrow, transcript of an oral history conducted in 2013, LGBT History Project, LGBT Center of Central PA History Project, Dickinson College Library, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, 2013. [/efn_note] The Rural Gay Caucus thus contributed to information exchange for nonurban gay men and women seeking community in 1970s Pennsylvania.
Of course, the main goal of the Rural Gay Caucus was to fight for gay and lesbian rights. The Caucus organized protests, drew attention to violence and discrimination against the gay and lesbian community in Pennsylvania, and appealed to people in positions of power. Silvestre explains some of the caucus’s foci: “We, our group, was very diverse, in every way … so we learned about some of the problems of our older members dealing with nursing homes and assisted living facilities[.] Of course our young people went to schools, and high schools, and colleges. Some of the employment problems that people had. Relations with the police, and state police, and so on.”[efn_note] Anthony Silvestre, transcript of an oral history conducted in 2016, LGBT History Project, LGBT Center of Central PA History Project, Dickinson College Library, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, 2016. [/efn_note] In a show of bravery and dedication, the Caucus engaged in a protest of antigay gospel singer Anita Bryant at the Bloomsburg fair. Nancarrow remembers the protest:
We had the Pennsylvania State Police at the beginning, but as we walked—or marched around the oval…[we were surrounded by] 10,000, easily 10,000, very hostile people. And we were chanting about gay rights, and I have never felt so frightened in my life. …[The police] disappeared after about the first ten steps, okay? So there was no protection there. We fortunately made it all the way around, but a lot of the heckling and the cat-calls and the hate in those people’s faces and voices and—them coming very, very close to us, into our personal space, as if they were going to hit us—that was very telling about the deep-seated hatred toward lesbians and gay people. And that—images that I’ll never forget.[efn_note] Mary Nancarrow, transcript of an oral history conducted in 2013, LGBT History Project, LGBT Center of Central PA History Project, Dickinson College Library, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, 2013. [/efn_note]
The caucus also attempted to address government officials directly. Joe Burns recounts an instance when the caucus attempted to schedule a meeting with the district attorney in Bucks County. The D.A. publicly responded with rejection noting, “I will not meet with the gays.”[efn_note] Joe Burns, transcript of an oral history conducted in 2014, LGBT History Project, LGBT Center of Central PA History Project, Dickinson College Library, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, 2014. [/efn_note] Burns notes that the incident actually resulted in much-needed press for the Caucus. Despite their frustration with the D.A., “we just had so much fun being together and enjoying each other.”[efn_note] Joe Burns, transcript of an oral history conducted in 2014. [/efn_note] The Rural Gay Caucus actively participated in the gay and lesbian rights movement across Pennsylvania, bringing much needed attention to the lives of gay men and women outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania’s Rural Gay Caucus demonstrates the efforts of nonurban gay men and women who participated in the gay and lesbian rights movement of the 1970s yet somehow fail to figure in mainstream accounts. Realizing the gay experience was not one size fits all, founding members of the Rural Gay Caucus such as Joe Burns, Daniel Maneval, David Leas, Anthony Silvestre, and Mary Nancarrow felt a new kind of organization was needed that would reach beyond the metropole to connect gay men and women across the state. The organization created a community in which rural men and women could express and advocate for their sexuality. The caucus’s conferences and meetings gave members an opportunity to voice their frustration and to freely express their sexual orientation. After about seven years, the Rural Gay Caucus was dissolved, but the organization continues to hold a special place in the memory of its members.
Emily Simpson is a MA student at the University of Chicago focusing on History. She is from Coshocton, OH. Her research interests are broadly gender and sexuality in the twentieth-century United States. Simpson’s thesis research is on the gay and lesbian rights movement outside of major US cities in the 1970s, mainly focused on northern Appalachia.