When one thinks of key events in the fight for LGBTQ rights, the Stonewall Uprising is likely the first to come to mind. Six days of riots began on June 28, 1969, after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in New York City’s Greenwich Village. This upheaval ultimately launched the gay rights movement in not only the U.S., but around the world.
However, this fight didn’t begin with Stonewall. In fact, one of the largest gay rights protests prior to the riots took place on May 9, 1968 at Bucks County Community College, an event that was practically forgotten for over 50 years.
That is, until historian Marc Stein, a professor at San Francisco State University, noticed a few mentions in local newspapers about the protest. Intrigued, he contacted the college’s librarians, who found several weeks’ worth of articles on the subject and passed them along to him.
Earlier this month, on the 54th anniversary, Stein presented his research in a forum entitled “Bucks Looks Back: Gay Rights History Made Here” at the Newtown Campus and on video conference.
“This is an important episode in pre-Stonewall LGBT history, as well as an important episode in the history of higher education and student activism,” said Stein. “It shows us evidence of changing and conflicting attitudes about homosexuality in the 1960s, especially among young people.”
It all started when Ralph Sassi Jr., a Levittown native and 1968 student government president, approved a request by the cultural affairs committee to hire Richard Leitch, a New York City gay rights activist who had made headlines for challenging the city’s ban on serving the LGBT community in bars, to host a lecture.
“I felt that my job was to represent all of the needs of the students, from whatever was needed to learn and to broaden the educational experience,” said Sassi. “I didn’t think anything of having this speaker come.”
Yet after receiving much backlash from the community, Dr. Charles Rollins, college president at the time, canceled Leitch’s lecture a mere three hours before it was scheduled to begin. This, in turn, led to an hours-long rally in the Tyler Hall courtyard, where Sassi and nearly 200 students held a peaceful demonstration and discussion.
Little did the group know at the time that they were making history.
“What’s particularly important to note about this event is the power of our students,” said Associate Provost Kelly Kelleway. “It was our student body who stood up and showed us this way forward. It was our student body who led us down the path to where we are today.
“Today, this college exists to not only improve lives and opportunities for our students and community, but to expand minds in the truest sense of the word. And 54 years ago today, our students perhaps lit a spark to help us get there.”
Also at the forum were panelists Professor Martin Sutton, who has been teaching at the college since it opened in 1965; Professor Max Probst, who has advised the Open Door Club for LGBTQ+ students and allies; and Monica Kuna, director of libraries who played a pivotal role in helping Stein discover the event’s historical significance.
Over the past five decades, Bucks County Community College has become a more accepting place for people of all backgrounds, including the LGBTQ community. Several months ago, state Sen. Steve Santarsiero hosted at the school a public forum that discussed the limited human rights protections for Pennsylvania’s LGBTQ population.
Dr. Felicia Ganther, who began her tenure as BCCC’s fifth president in July 2021 and was formally installed last month, said at the time that “equality and civil rights and fair and just treatment of all should be at the paramount of everything that we do.”
Stein’s research is published as an online digital exhibit in “Where Perversion is Taught: The Untold History of a Gay Rights Demonstration at Bucks County Community College in 1968” at OutHistory.org. The event will also be included in “Out on Campus: A History of LGBTQ+ Activism at Pennsylvania Colleges and Universities,” a traveling and online digital exhibit by the Pennsylvania LGBT History Network coming in September. Additionally, it will be added to the digital exhibit at CentralPaLGBTHistory.org.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org