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Burns ’77 discusses sexual identity at Hamilton

By Jack Cartwright '15

May 2, 2013

“I knew I was gay since I was a really little kid,” said Richard Burns. “So Hamilton was a really odd college choice.”   Burns, a lifelong social justice activist specifically with regard to gay rights, and the executive director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City since December 1986 spoke on Wednesday at a talk titled “A Queer Justice Journey from 1970’s Hamilton to our movement today.”

Burns has been back to the College several times to speak about his activism.  He recalled a time in 1989 when, after he was sitting in a prison cell in Washington D.C. after being arrested in front of the White House for protesting President George H.W. Bush’s inadequate response to the AIDS crisis, he was worried he would not be on time for his flight taking him to Hamilton.

He detailed at length what it was like to be like as one of the only openly gay men on Hamilton’s campus in the 1970’s.  He arrived on the Hill and said that there were no openly gay people here that he knew about.  “I made a lot of great friends here, but I was a pretty unhappy,” said Burns.  “By the beginning of my sophomore year I didn’t think I could take it anymore hiding who I was.”

Then, Burns found, by chance, a poster advertising a gay group on campus.  The group was an early meeting of a new “homophile” support group.  “It was a ‘homophile’ group because you could go and not [necessarily] have to be gay,” he said.  “The group didn’t do a lot, but it broke that isolation for me.”  The group consisted of mainly lesbian women from the Kirkland campus, however.

Then soon afterwards he became the only openly gay man on campus, and, after being interview by The Spectator, he became “somewhat known” on campus.  “People knew me as ‘that tall skinny gay guy,’” he said.  He said he was occasionally verbally harassed, and mentioned one instance in which members of the football team stood outside a bathroom he happened to be using while yelling, “Faggot! Faggot! Faggot!”  He said that there was never any physical harassment,  but nevertheless acknowledged incidents of physical confrontations specifically targeting gay students on campus.

Burns said that the original gay and lesbian group became the Hamilton and Kirkland Gay and Lesbian Alliance.  The group was very political, he said. It organized gay dances inviting gay and lesbian groups from Cornell and Syracuse Universities, and coorinated porgramming with speakers and other events.Their advertisements in The Spectator’s calendar notices were also considered political.  At one point, Dean of Students R. Gordon Bingham called Burns into his office.  “I’m getting a lot of pressure to prevent you from using student meeting space,” Bingham said according to Burns.

Bingham suggested that the group formally request to become a chartered organization recognized by the student Senate.  After great debate, the Senate approved their request.  A number of years later, after graduation, a voting member of the Senate contacted Burns.  He said he had been in the closet at Hamilton and the Burns’ push for a charter gave him hope.  It was then when Burns realized “the importance of power and visibility” of the gay and lesbian community.

Overall, he characterized gay and lesbian students’ relationship as love-hate: “we got a great education, we made lifelong friends, but it was a very hard place to be.”

After leaving Hamilton, Burns moved to Boston to work for the Boston Gay Community News, one of the only gay newspapers in the world.  It was there that Burns developed his ideological foundations not only in regard to gay rights, but also in terms of abortion rights and anti-racism.  The mission of the paper was a “hedonistic and ideological battle against monogamy,” and that the gay agenda back then was to “smash the nuclear family and dismantle the military.”  He joked that now the gay and lesbian movement “fought to serve in the military and we’re fighting for marriage equality.” 

Burns later became the editor of Gay Community News, “largely because I [he] had gone through the incredibly torturous [Hamilton] English department.”  He wanted to point out how different the public viewed the gay rights movement back then by pointing out that in 1982 the Gay Community News building was set on fire, yet he boasted that they still did not miss an issue.  It was there that he realized that he realized that fighting for LGBT rights was his passion, and that he wanted to pursue it as a career.

“I’m telling the story about this newspaper because I hope that you will find that [your passion] when you leave here,” Burns said.   “I hope that you will think about where your passion is and where you’ll make a difference.”

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