Columbia University’s Earl Hall was recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in recognition of Earl Hall as a venue for meetings and dances of Columbia’s Student Homophile League, which was the first gay student organization in the country.
In 1966, Columbia became the first collegiate institution in the United States — and possibly the first in the world — with an LGBT student group. In the fall of that year, then-sophomore Robert Martin CC’69 (using the pseudonym Stephen Donaldson) founded the Student Homophile League following a meeting with Columbia University and Barnard College representatives, religious advisers and two national leaders for gay and lesbian rights, Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.
The small student group had the support of the university chaplain and, thus, gained space in Earl Hall, the center of student religious life. The university officially recognized the group in April 1967. In 1970, the Student Homophile League became the more activist Gay People at Columbia (also known as Gay People at Columbia-Barnard), which sponsored a series of popular Friday-night dances in Earl Hall’s auditorium.
Photo: Columbia University Facilities
Earl Hall was nominated to the State and National Registers of Historic Places by the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, a cultural heritage initiative and educational resource dedicated to broadening people’s knowledge of LGBT history. This is the fourth LGBT historic site the project has successfully nominated to the State and National Registers since 2016.
“We are thrilled that the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, with the support of Columbia University and the New York State Office of Historic Preservation, has been able to prepare the documentation that resulted in the Federal government’s recognition of Earl Hall's significance to LGBT history and American history. … The State and National Register listings are validation of LGBT history’s significance to all Americans,” said Andrew Dolkart GSAPP’77, professor of historic preservation, who was the project co-director and lead author of the nomination.
With Earl Hall, Columbia has six buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places,. Earl Hall is the first for its LGBT significance. The listing concludes a long process of archival research as well as oral history interviews of people who attended the dances and social events, culminating in the project’s 2017 nomination of the Earl Hall site.
The first gay dance open to the public was held at Earl Hall on June 19, 1970, and the dances soon became a rare publicly accessible event that provided primarily young gay people with a safe social space to gather and socialize. Over the next five years, the importance of the dances increased.
In 1981, the AIDS virus began its destructive path through the gay community. Four years later, the year 1985 marked a watershed in the understanding of the severity of the crisis in New York City. In the same year, the drinking age in New York State was raised to 21. This meant that most younger gay students were more restricted in where they could dance legally, increasing the importance of the Columbia dances a social venue.