The fraught history of LGBT performance at the College
Nearly 30 years ago, a performance touched the hearts of Dartmouth students and community members. In February of 1988, the Dartmouth Players put on a production of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” met by what a 1988 Boston Globe article described as “a tearful standing ovation.”
Set in New York in the early 1980s, the semi-autobiographical play follows Kramer’s on-stage alter ego Ned Weeks as he struggles to organize around raising awareness for an unidentified disease killing off gay men: AIDS.
Campus reaction to the performance marked the changing attitudes toward LGBT students in the previous decade.
Dartmouth’s Gay Student Association had formed just 10 years earlier, making Dartmouth the last school in the Ivy League to have a gay students’ organization. In the following years, LGBT students would push back against discrimination on institutional and individual levels, working to establish safe spaces on campus and update College discrimination policies.
Students who were openly out were subject to a wide range of hatred and condemnation from their peers; students received death threats, had their dorm doors urinated under and were targeted with derogatory slurs.
The GSA kept its membership secret in its early years. Nonetheless, it attracted the attention of groups who continued to view homosexuality as morally corrupt.
In a 1981 Dartmouth Review article profiling the GSA, Dinesh D’Souza ’83 included the names of five of the group’s officers, whose involvement had been mostly secret before, alongside excerpts of letters written by group members. According to a 1981 New York Times article, “One student named, according to his friends, became severely depressed and talked repeatedly of suicide. The grandfather of another who had not found the courage to tell his family of his homosexuality learned about his grandson when he got his copy of the Review in the mail.”
Winter term of 1984 saw the campus in uproar after three members of Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternity were kicked out for their sexual orientation.
That same year, a Dartmouth Review reporter secretly recorded a GSA meeting and published the recordings, which featured attendees speaking about their sexual experiences and experience being gay on campus, alongside pieces questioning the group’s worthiness of its $475 in COSO funding. The incident sparked national attention and, of course, litigation.
Then-editor of the Dartmouth Review Laura Ingraham ’85 defended the publication’s actions in a 1984 United Press International article: “The big thing is what does this organization [GSA] do with its money,” she said. “It seems they just have parties and talk about parties. There isn’t a heterosexual group that gets funding.”
Earlier in February of 1988, the Dartmouth Gay and Lesbian Association, formerly the GSA, held a vigil on the Green in remembrance of the “Tri-Kap purge” four years before.
Later that month, the College’s production of “The Normal Heart” opened.
The play received a favorable review in The Dartmouth:
“Anyone coming to see this play (and everyone should), must be prepared for some serious drama, and should definitely bring along some Kleenex,” wrote Andrew Camp ’89.
Theater professor Mara Sabinson, then in her fourth year of teaching at the College, directed the production. Mark Retik ’88 played Ned Weeks, and Michael Fanning ’88 played his lover, Felix Turner. The play included the pair holding hands, caressing and kissing on stage.
Despite the cast’s apprehension over what campus reaction to the play would be, Retik and Sabinson reported in a 1988 Boston Globe article that response had been positive.
All six of the show’s original performances, as well as an additional matinee, sold out.
As audiences entered the Bentley Theater, they were met by an interactive exhibit about AIDS, featuring a documentary by film professor Al LaValley following AIDS victims through their struggles and walls plastered with newspaper articles about the disease, prominently featuring pictures and names of victims.
According to the Globe article, 25 of Retik’s fraternity brothers attended one of the performances, joining in tearfully with a standing ovation and talking afterward until 5 a.m. about the issues raised in the play.
Of course, that’s not to say a production largely about cis-gendered white gay men marked the end of discrimination and hatred toward any marginalized groups on campus. Two years later, Dartmouth’s first openly gay valedictorian, Michael Lowenthal ’90, railed against the exclusion experienced by him and others at an institution founded on traditions that are “sexist, racist, [and] homophobic.” Campus groups today continue to work toward a Dartmouth that is more inclusive and respectful.
The experience within that theater, however, gave Dartmouth’s community a chance to sympathize with a group that had spent so long in the shadows on campus and a venue to mourn for the people who fell victim to a disease that was ignored by the majority for too long.