The history of the LGBTQ+ activism in Central PA continues to be uncovered and explored, but from what we do know there is a long and rich history to be shared. The 1960’s were a time of developing such activism, such as through the first LGBTQ+ organization in Central PA- the Janus Society- established by Richard Schlegal in 1965. This was also a time when people started to gather at gay bars, however it was not uncommon for there to be police raids. Social groups continued to develop with the Lehigh Valley Homophile Organization in 1969, and then continued to develop into the 1970’s with university groups beginning with the Homophiles of Penn State in 1971. In 1976, Pennsylvania Governor Milton J. Shapp established the Pennsylvania Council for Sexual Minorities, which was the first of its kind across all states. In addition, the 1970’s was a time of newsletters emerging, which facilitated environments for greater connection amongst one another.
You will learn what life was like in Central PA before Stonewall, and then meet many of the major players in LGBTQ+ activism in this area. Then, you will be introduced to the many political and social groups that were created because of these influential leaders. Lastly, some of the publications that came out of these organizations are highlighted, giving a robust understanding of what early LGBTQ+ activism looked like in Central PA.
Civil Rights March in Harrisburg, PA, late 1970s. Photo by Bari Weaver. 1
PA Rural Gay Caucus at Philadelphia Gay Pride Parade, 1976. Courtesy of LGBT-029, DCA. 2
Before Stonewall and other important events for the LGBTQ+ community happened, life was very different for people who identified as a member of this community in Central PA. Hear about it directly from those who experienced it below.
“Where did I ever learn about homosexuality? You could hardly find it in any dictionary at that point. The only availability of any nude photos of any kind was in medical books.”
“I went to Penn State two years and I just knew that I had to get out of there, because after I had made this revelation to Summerfield, my roommate, and he blabbed around the fraternity and possibly elsewhere, the attitude changed. Because I have no reason to think that any of the other boys were gay.” (2)
“Whenever I didn’t go to school, the next day I went down to the bookstore and bought all of the copies I could find on—on—on anything about to do with homosexual.”
“...there were no books that I could find in the college catalog, in the card catalog, that started with the word homosexual. There were no books. There were no books on gay, which was a new term to me. I didn’t know gay when I started, actually.” (3)
Joe Burns at a PA Rural Gay Caucus reunion dinner, Christmas 1988. Courtesy of LGBT-001, DCA. (4)
“It was a very difficult time to be gay, in the early ‘70s and thereafter. I—when anything—whenever anything is a big problem, in my mind, I read a lot, and so I was trying--I’m trying to read everything I could get my hands on.”
“So it was at a time of upheaval in my own life, and it kind of took over my whole life—about, you know, figuring out who I really was, what my identity was, and I—I determined that I was so much more comfortable with women and attracted to women, and despite everything that my counselor at Shippensburg was telling me at the time, you know, I knew how my heart was, and I knew who I was falling in love with, really, and I just said, “Well, this is the way I need to go, however uncharted.” (6)
Mary Nancarrow @ First Community Recognition Banquet - circa 1992. Courtesy of LGBT-007, DCA. (5)
“I, ya know, I fit in, I compartmentalized any gender issues that I might have…”
“As for many transgender individuals, when I hit puberty, then my adolescence, then had lots more thoughts and feelings. But now we’re talking about the late 60s early 70s and there was no context for it. Ya know, I had heard and read about Christine Jorgensen, that was probably the only public reference that I could find of someone being transgender. So I didn’t understand it, and I compartmentalized it.” (7)
(Dr. Levine was born and raised in Massachusetts, but later moved to Central PA)
Rachel Levine, oral interview screenshot from 2017.
“We both knew that we had some sexual gayness about ourselves, but we never talked about it, but we knew it was there. We both knew it was there. We just never talked about it. We wore masks instead.” (8)
PA Rural Gay Caucus at Philadelphia Gay Pride Parade, photo 2 - 1976. Courtesy of LGBT-029, DCA.
Civil Rights March in Harrisburg, PA, late 1970s. Photo by Bari Weaver. Collection 041.
Susquehanna Valley Gays United Banner.1961-2015. Collection 041.
Sam Edmiston was born to Samuel Richard and Stella Mae Thomas Edmiston on July 17, 1945 in Middleburg, PA. He enrolled in U.S. Navy in April of 1963 three weeks after his high school graduation and then was dishonorably discharged for being gay in 1966. He fought to change the discharge and his papers were later changed to a “general discharge under general conditions.” He moved back in with his parents and started working at a local shoe factory, and then worked at Laurelton State Center (residential facility for the mentally and physically challenged). He attended Bloomsburg State College in 1973 and graduated with a degree in Sociology with a focus in social welfare. He worked various jobs and then retired after 7 years for personal health reasons. He then found a job with the Social Security Administration through Administrative Careers of America, then retired after 10 years and now resides in Central PA.
Throughout and after college he was active in the pursuit of gay rights. He started Susquehanna Valley Gay Rights United in 1976 (with his friend Sam Deetz), was the secretary for the PA Rural Gay Caucas, contributed to the Lancaster Gay Era Newspaper, and was part of Dignity/Central PA.
Joseph W. Burns was an early gay activist from Central Pennsylvania. He contributed a significant amount of materials to the LGBT Center of Central PA History Project collection at the Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections. In 1967 Burns came out and moved away from home, he began to go to different libraries and bookstores to research “about [anything] to do with homosexual.” (1) From this exploration of he discovered the Mattachine Society which was a early prominent gay organization located in major U.S. cities, he was in both the Philadelphia and New York chapters.
A few months after joining Mattachine in 1969, Burns got a letter from Ron Seeds, a fellow member of the Mattachine, who was interested in further establishing activist organizations in Central PA. Seeds had just founded the Lehigh Valley Homophile Organization, or more commonly referred to as Le-Hi-Ho. Burns joined Le-Hi-Ho and became very involved in the starting of the group.
As the gay liberation movement grew in the 1970s, Burns was heavily involved in LGBTQ+ and women's rights groups, protests, and marches. He also used his passion for activism at the state level with his contributions to both the PA Rural Gay Caucus and the Human Rights Commission when they were trying to pass a gay rights ordnance in the Leigh Valley.
Image: Courtesy of LGBT-001, DCA: Bari Weaver (left), Sam Deetz (middle), and Joe Burns (right), members of the PA Rural Gay Caucus - circa Christmas 1988.
Bari Weaver (left), Sam Deetz (middle), and Joe Burns (right), members of the PA Rural Gay Caucus.
Jerry was the second activist to form LGBTQ+ organizations in Harrisburg. The two organizations he formed were the Gay Switchboard of Harrisburg (April 1975) and Dignity/Central PA (July 1975). (4) Gay Switchboard of Harrisburg was said to be a "kind of queer 911" and produced newsletters as well. (5) Dignity/Central PA was a chapter of the Catholic gay organization. It allowed members--many who identified as Protestant or Jewish--to congregate beyond the bar scene. He was also a member of the Governor's Task Force that fought for gay right. (6)
Lorraine Kujawa, Mary Nancarrow, Cindy Mitzel, and several others were responsible for starting the Lavender Letter newsletter in 1983. The newsletter was a calendar of events for, by, and about lesbian women to create community in the Central PA area.
Image: Jude Sharp (Left) and Lorraine Kujawa (right) at the First Community Recognition Banquet hosted at Miss Garbo's Tea Room in Carlisle, PA. Courtesy of LGBT-007, DCA. (3)
Mary Nancarrow was born and raised in the Harrisburg area, she participated as an early activist with the movements for LGBTQ+ and women’s rights, in Central Pennsylvania. She was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Rural Gay Caucus which advocated for LGBTQ+ rights in conjunction with Governor Milton Shapp’s Council for Sexual Minorities.
Mary was also one of the creators of the Lavender Letter Newsletter in 1983 which was monthly calendar of social and other types of events that were hosted with the purpose and goal of having a community for lesbian women, created by lesbian women, in the Central Pennsylvania area.
Along with her work on the Rural Gay Cacus and her contributions to the Lavender Letter, Mary was extremely involved with the National Orginzation for Women (NOW). In 1983, she was elected NOW Pennsylvania President were she lobbied heavily for the Marital Rape Act and other resources for domestic violence and reproductive rights in PA. (3)
Mary Nancarrow at the First Community Recognition Banquet - circa 1992. Courtesy of LGBT-007, DCA