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Ahead of their time

Out and proud at the University of Texas in a year of self-discovery: The Arcadia that was Austin

Out and proud at the University of Texas in a year of self-discovery: The Arcadia that was Austin

News_Vance Muse_Bob Speer, 1972
Ahead of their time: Vance Muse, left, and Bob Speer were an openly gay couple on the UT campus in 1972 Courtesy of Vance Muse
News_Vance Muse_The Texas Book_book cover
The Texas Book Two: More Profiles, History and Reminiscences of the University Courtesy of UT Press
News_Vance Muse_Sherri Grasmuck_on the UT campus, 1973
Vance Muse, right, and his good friend Sherri Grasmuch on the UT campus in 1973 Courtesy of Vance Muse
News_Vance Muse_Bob Speer, 1972
News_Vance Muse_The Texas Book_book cover
News_Vance Muse_Sherri Grasmuck_on the UT campus, 1973

Editor's Note: In a new editorial series, CultureMap presents excerpts of books featuring Houston writers. First up: In The Texas Book Two, showcasing essays about the University of Texas, Houston author Vance Muse recalls coming to terms with — and celebrating — his sexual orientation as a student more than 40 years ago.

I remember the fall of 1971 as being particularly crisp and colorful, the sharp air and crystalline skies adding extra spark to the new school year. The semester had hardly begun when I found my go-to spot on campus, an ideal afternoon recharge zone: the dappled South Mall, where I could chill out (or cram for exams) beneath that extravagant canopy of live oaks.

Propped up against a tree or lying on the grass, I might wrestle through a bit of Marshall McLuhan for Joseph Kruppa's controversial English class (its very name shook all of my assumptions about curriculum —Twentieth-Century Literature and Electronic Media), dive into Lefebvre's history of the French Revolution for my Western Civ course (taught by the other amazing Dr. Kruppa, Patricia), or simply gaze up at the clouds, feeling fortunate to be where I was.

And so that semester went, one remarkable day, and discovery, after another.

 Heading back to class, I found that I was now walking all the way down the Mall and circling Littlefield Fountain for the sole purpose of stealing glances at the muscular bronze equestrians emerging from the spray. This, it seemed, would also be a year of self-discovery. 

Not all those discoveries were academic in nature. One afternoon I realized that I had begun making a slight detour in my regular route. Heading back to class, I found that I was now walking all the way down the Mall and circling Littlefield Fountain for the sole purpose of stealing glances at the muscular bronze equestrians emerging from the spray. This, it seemed, would also be a year of self-discovery.

At twilight, friends and I would gather at Les Amis — our own Les Deux Magots, or so we fancied. Crowded together at jolly tables under the café's bright red awning, we compared notes on professors and reading lists, politics and film, usually agreeing but sometimes arguing into the night — the conversations could go on for hours, covering all things curricular and extracurricular.

This was everything I wanted my college experience to be; bookish and bohemian, stimulating and somehow sensual. I had found my groove on the enormous, ever-expanding University of Texas campus, and wished that I could stay in school forever. I felt embraced by the camaraderie of like-minded people and also by the natural and man-made beauty of the place, from the great gnarly trees and gorgeous sunsets to the warm, harmonic architecture of the original forty acres. The only thing missing, I dimly and only occasionally thought at the time, was a romantic relationship of any kind, though I didn't dwell on the lack.

In that department, like Garbo, I just wanted to be alone. Or so I thought.

The fraternity-house scene, I had learned, wasn't for me, but neither was dormitory living. And so, starting junior year, I set out to find a room of my own. Bicycling one morning past a small compound of green-shingled, well-kept houses two blocks west of campus, I spotted the hand-painted sign: "Efficiency Apartment, $77/month." I couldn't brake and get off my bike fast enough.

I can still smell the flat's paste-wax-scented air, see the amber light slanting through wooden blinds, and feel the warmth of the little fireplace on a chilly day. But its most alluring feature by far was the Murphy bed, stashed upright behind double closet doors. "Very La Bohème!" exclaimed my friend Robin when she appeared one day bearing a housewarming gift (a hideous, smiling, crescent-moon candle I thought was beautiful).

The sound track of our lives, however, was no opera but Getz/Gilberto, Joni Mitchell's every LP, and Laura Nyro's dark and mysterious New York Tendaberry. (These and a few other essential album covers I displayed on the fireplace mantel, perfect twelve-inch-square works of art.)

I was 20. And gay, though I hadn't come to terms with that fact or expressed my true orientation and desires — not to Robin, to my family, or to myself. But the University atmosphere was making the prospect of doing so easier to contemplate, even inevitable.

Two summers before, the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village had given birth to an empowering gay consciousness that was beginning to filter down to our part of the country. At Columbia, Berkeley, the University of Michigan and other schools, gay student organizations and national groups such as the Gay Liberation Front were making noise and demands ("Proud to be a Gay American" and "Out is IN" proclaimed two of the battle cries).

Even in Austin anyone could see, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that we weren't in Kansas anymore; one afternoon, browsing the University Co-op newsstand, I was astonished by the headline blazoned across the cover of the latest issue of the Washington Monthly: "Gay Is Good for Us All."  The bold words — orange-pink on a dark green background — were shocking in their matter-of-factness.

Over coffee at Les Amis one evening, Robin, who turned out to know me better than I knew myself, mentioned a friend who was visiting from San Francisco. Without telling me exactly what was on her mind, she set us up on a date. On the appointed evening, a green-and-white Volkswagen bus — peace symbol gleaming in place of the round VW ornament — pulled up to my apartment house. Out stepped Craig, a handsome emissary from Haight-Ashbury sporting beads, sandals, a tie-dyed shirt, and hair down to his shoulders.

What might have been fearsome — expressing "the love that dare not speak its name" — turned out to be not so scary after all. 

We went off to Bag End (the name came, of course, from The Hobbit), a classic college-town vegetarian restaurant of the era, occupying a grand Victorian heap whose wainscoted rooms dripped with macramé.  After much, um, revealing conversation (over plates of tofu and brown rice and chipped cups of chamomile tea), Craig and I ended the evening back at my place, where I pulled down the Murphy bed with new purpose.

The gesture —and the mechanism of that novel piece of furniture —added some dramatic flair, and literal meaning, to my coming out of the closet.

That indelible night was also a sleepless one for me. At some point I slipped out of bed, careful not to awaken Craig, pulled on a pair of jeans, and made my way over to campus for a barefoot stroll in the moonlight. How different the world seemed: I now saw that I was living in a romantic Mediterranean village, fragrant with cedar and filled with terra-cotta archways, wisteria-covered pergolas, chiming bell towers, red-tile rooftops. Not to mention baroque fountains brimming with male nudes.

What might have been fearsome — expressing "the love that dare not speak its name" — turned out to be not so scary after all. I felt at ease with, even emboldened by, my newly realized minority status. Boy, did I; as a witty commentator put it at the time, in one of the many national news stories about the burgeoning gay-rights movement, homosexuality was fast becoming the love that wouldn't shut up.

I felt compelled to share my self-revelation with the world, coming out to anyone who would listen — family, friends, classmates, and some of my professors. To a person, they all pretty much shrugged in response. It was a charmed, intoxicating time, when proclaiming one's identity, including sexual orientation, was a requirement of the new world order, post–Age of Aquarius. Gay liberation, to the most inclusive and progressive ways of thinking, was brother and sister to feminism and a child of the civil rights movement.

Positive reinforcement was not hard to find at UT for anyone who knew where to look. I was fortunate to have teachers who encouraged the study of topics ranging from the complicated domestic relationships of the Bloomsbury group to nascent gay politics. In Kursten Dodge's English literature class, our analysis of the novels of D. H. Lawrence included a riveting discussion of Ken Russell's flamboyant film version of Women in Love, with its famous wrestling match (or was it a love scene?) between a naked Alan Bates and Oliver Reed.

My government professor, Robert Hardgrave, turned me loose on a single-topic tutorial, resulting in a long paper in which I (no doubt laboriously) drew comparisons between different minority-group struggles to achieve equal opportunity and legal protection in matters of housing, employment, and public accommodation. For a marketing-class project, my friend Joanne and I came up with a public-service advertising campaign designed to combat negative gay stereotypes in the media. One of the posters we plastered around the journalism building featured curly-haired characters who looked a lot like the two of us, down to her granny glasses, my moustache, and our ridiculously short cutoff jeans (I shudder to think what we all wore to class in those days). "Two-four-six-eight," went our unoriginal slogan, "Gay is OK — just like Straight."

 One night, at a small gathering in her candlelit, incense-filled garage apartment, I announced my homosexuality to all present —a bit too bluntly, apparently. Our host — that rock of radicalism —blinked and made it clear that I should leave — and never call again.  

In the Arcadia that was Austin, Craig and I would sneak off after my classes to watch the sunset from a secret spot we called "The Ledge," an idyllic rocky perch somewhere high above and west of Barton Springs (that would one day vanish into a real estate development). Though he hailed from a small West Texas town and spoke in a soft country-boy accent, Craig to me was most cosmopolitan and worldly, my guide to the pleasures of the counterculture as well as the flesh.

We spent languid afternoons at my flat, pondering Castaneda and gazing at Cadmus's once-censored illustrations of Cavafy poems. Wearing down its grooves in the background was Craig's favorite album, Tumbleweed Connection (I didn't believe it when he told me that the new artist, with the interesting name of Elton John, was gay). This was my dizzying first crush; when it came time for Craig to head back to San Francisco, I ached.

Single again, I made a point of getting out — dropping in on the nightly salon at Les Amis; crashing fraternity-house parties with Robin on my arm (I had to admit, those Delts knew how to blow off steam); making something not very tasty from the one cookbook I owned, Adele Davis's Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit, for Sunday potluck suppers.

Some nights I hunkered down with homework in a turquoise-vinyl window booth at Nighthawk (where you could picture yourself as one of the all-night-diner figures in Edward Hopper's classic painting of almost the same name, Nighthawks). Afterward, I might venture over to Pearl Street Warehouse, a friendly gay club a few blocks south of campus, where I watched, enthralled, as lanky Texas boys joyously executed the fast-and-fancy footwork of the "Love Train" line dance and the two-step.

And I couldn't get enough of Cinema Texas and Varsity Theater offerings. One night I walked over to catch Sunday Bloody Sunday. It's a daring film, in which Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch are in love with the same young man, played by Murray Head. In an early scene Finch and Head embrace, then kiss — on the mouth. Many in the audience groaned or gasped. I gasped, too, but in wonder: here was homosexuality honestly presented on the big screen, without apologies or stereotypes.

Exhilarating and affirming as that moment in cinema history was, those groans also made me slink down into my seat. To be sure, I was aware that to most people, even those who dwelled in zip code 78712, gay was not good. But UT seemed to be — to me — a safe haven from homophobia (a word not yet in currency); I had begun to see the walled campus and its immediate environs as Austin's gay neighborhood, an answer to New York's Greenwich Village, the French Quarter in New Orleans, and Houston's Montrose.

In the spring, I made a new friend, a young woman deeply involved in the antiwar protests that were still rocking college campuses across the country and that at UT would culminate in the 20,000-strong moratorium march. Coming from a proper San Antonio family and an East Coast school, she was a glamorous radical; beautiful, fiery, and eloquent, she galvanized crowds. "I love the antiwar movement," she proclaimed through a bullhorn at campus rallies. "But I'd rather not have to do this job!"

Given her militancy and her devotion to myriad social causes, it seemed only natural that we discuss my very personal interest in gay activism. One night, at a small gathering in her candlelit, incense-filled garage apartment, I announced my homosexuality to all present —a bit too bluntly, apparently. Our host — that rock of radicalism —blinked and made it clear that I should leave — and never call again.

That such a revolutionary, someone seemingly so caring and daring, could be shocked by the confession —and not sense the kindred political issues at hand —might have made me wonder whether I ought to rein in my confrontational ways. It didn't, and I didn't, more than getting by with more than a little help from my friends.

Had I needed a formal support group back then, I would have been out of luck. Today, tellingly, anyone looking into the history of the gay experience at UT is directed to the Student Counseling archives, where evidence shows that not all students had such an easy time of it. Many struggled with their sexuality, to the point of needing crisis intervention. This, after all, was during an era when homosexual acts between consenting adults were criminalized and the American Psychiatric Association still classified homosexuality as a mental disorder (along with illnesses such as schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa). 

 Bob and I were as out as a couple could be on campus, marching with friends behind Gay Pride banners and taking it upon ourselves to "liberate" events like the Fall Mall Ball, where we danced together (not always fearlessly, but never inciting incident). 

It wasn't until 1973 that UT's first gay student organization was founded. That same year's Cactus reflects the effort at inclusion in its introduction to the section on student life: "Whether a University lifestyle included health foods, homosexuality, hard drugs, hard liquor, Hippie Hollow, or the Broken Spoke, an individual in most cases could find other people with similar interests. Although these lifestyles may not be condoned by everyone, the individual could usually act without much opposition and perhaps with some acceptance."

The well-meaning words are both unintentionally hurtful and hilarious. I wince at seeing homosexuals (and boot-scooters and eaters of whole grains, for that matter) lassoed in along with druggies and drunks, but such words and sentiments are simply, painfully enough, accurate reflections of their time.

At the start of senior year, I met Bob, a graduate student who worked half days at Garner & Smith Bookstore, a cluttered, bibliophile's Eden located across from the newly built Humanities Research Center (the hulking, fortresslike structure, according to all the talk, was designed to withstand the force of student riots). The owners —courtly gentlemen of a certain age and longtime companions — filled the shop with well-read clerks who unfailingly knew, and kept in stock, all the books you were looking for (and many others you didn't realize you wanted or needed).

A sandy-haired jock standing six feet two, Bob struck up a conversation with me one day about Maurice, E. M. Forster's posthumously published gay novel, which was making much literary news. I bought the book on the spot and was soon sharing a rambling Arts and Crafts bungalow with Bob and two good friends, also UT students and newly hitched, Sherri and Michael. We called it a commune, and our theme song was "Our House" (along with the requisite two cats in the yard, as the song goes, we also had a very fine rescue puppy, Blanche).

Bob and I were as out as a couple could be on campus, marching with friends behind Gay Pride banners and taking it upon ourselves to "liberate" events like the Fall Mall Ball, where we danced together (not always fearlessly, but never inciting incident). Mostly, though, he and I just lived our lives as an openly gay couple, on and off campus. I suppose that was a pretty bold thing to do at the time, but it never seemed that way to us.

I eventually followed Bob to New York City, where we both worked in book publishing — he at Viking Press, I at Simon & Schuster. Though we had landed smack in the middle of the nation's gay mecca just as openly homosexual candidates were beginning to run for municipal office and Bette Midler was moving her "Divine Miss M" act from the Continental Baths to the Palace Theatre on Broadway, I felt no more at home in madly progressive Manhattan than I had in my other, gentler Oz.

Visiting Austin now, years after Les Amis and so many other haunts and hangouts are gone, that is still the case. As I stroll the South Mall, thinking back on those dreamy days, another sweet lyric from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young plays in my head: "All my changes were there."

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Excerpted from The Texas Book Two, edited by David Dettmer. Published by University of Texas Press, Austin. All Rights Reserved. UT Press offers the book for sale at $23.42 (plus shipping and handling). Click here for more information.

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Vance Muse, communications director at The Menil Collection, is the author of Old New Orleans (1988), two volumes of the Smithsonian Guide to Historic America (Northern New England, revised edition, 1998; Deep South, revised edition, 1998), and We Bombed in Burbank: A Joyride to Prime Time (1994), as well as coauthor, with Raymond W. Daum, of Walking with Garbo: Conversations and Recollections (1991). He is at work on a new book, We Were Here, about an early 20th-century gay summer colony in New England.

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