This exhibit will lay out the history of the Pennsylvania Rural Gay Caucus. Specifically, it highlights the accomplishments of the organization such as public demonstrations for LGBTQ+ rights and the first Gay Education or Lobby Day, the Caucus’s key players, associated organizations, as well as how the Caucus pushed back against opposition they encountered.
By the mid-1970s, Pennsylvania had a large number of LGBTQ+ organizations located in small cities and towns and on college campuses. Governor Milton Shapp was a strong supporter of gay rights and he established one of the first government organizations whose goal was to end discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. “The Governor’s Task Force on Sexual Minorities” was formed in 1974 by Shapp and was comprised of government officials and members of LGBTQ+ communities across Pennsylvania who would advise state agencies on improving public policy for the LGBTQ+ population. It soon became clear that the concerns and needs of LGBTQ+ communities in large urban areas (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) were much different than those living in rural areas (anywhere outside Philadelphia or Allegheny County). Thus, in 1975, the Rural Gay Caucus was formed. Its purpose was to inform the committee on issues LGBTQ+ people faced in rural areas in Pennsylvania.
The title of the television documentary and this 1966 primary brochure heralded Shapp as “The Man Against the Machine.” Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-309
“The Man Against the Machine.” Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-309
In his 2013 Oral History, Sam Deetz discussed Governor Shapp's election and re-election to public office, specifically how he quickly began to work to make important changes for the LGTBQ+ community in PA. He recalled his "proclamation" (executive order) that state employees in PA would stop facing discrimination for their sexual orientation and his creation of the task force that would evaluate the concerns and provide assistance to LGBTQ+ communities. Deetz then described the formation of the Caucus, and how Shapp's policies as well as the Gay Activist Alliance in Philadelphia influenced him to reach out to people in surrounding areas to form their own organization.
William "Miss Tina" Horn discussed how Shapp's proclamation served as motivation for the gay community to enact social and political change. They recalled their attendance to the crowded Governor's meeting at the Capitol, in which they deliberated and decided on a name for their group: the Pennsylvania Commission for Sexual Minorities.
The Caucus first convened on October 18, 1975. The organization's purpose was to identify problems faced by gay men and women in Pennsylvania and to discuss potential solutions to these issues. At the 1975 conference, the Caucus identified four main problems:
Solution: Fostering awareness of the Caucus, the Gay rights movement, and issues faced by the LGBTQ community through media and publications, and by working with libraries, schools, and churches
Solution: Creating discussion groups (both within the gay community and with the straight community), publishing newsletters, providing entertainment within the gay community
Solution: Lessening isolation through social interaction, tapping into resources from cities and interacting with LGBTQ organizations
Solution: Educating parents on the LGBTQ community and creating parent groups to promote interaction and acceptance
"We constructed the Rural Gay Caucus so as to avoid some of the problems that the big cities were having in the lesbian and gay rights movement: being fractured along gender lines. The men were not very appreciative of the women, and the women were always tangling with the chauvinistic attitudes of the men, so we instituted gender parity in the Rural Gay Caucus, so that we had co-chairs, one man and one woman." -Mary Nancarrow, LGBT Oral History – 084A, Dickinson College Archives Special Collections.
The caucus focused on being an inclusive movement that could efficiently lobby for their rights. Mary Nancarrow, one of the Caucus's founders, acknowledged that other movements such as the women's, civil rights, and anti-war movement played pivotal roles in the organizing of LGBTQ+ movements and organizations. She described how the Caucus examined problems that existed within other movements in order to preemptively address them within their own organization.
The PA Rural Gay Caucus was established to “create affirmative action programs, counseling centers, progressive books on homosexuality for libraries, representation in student government and put sexuality and gay liberation in academic courses.” They often sought feedback from students, staff, and parents to learn more about the experiences of members of LGBTQ+ communities in a school system that privileges heterosexuality. They used newsletters to try to find ways to better support LGBTQ+ community members and to educate the general public. They had a focus on supporting LGBTQ+ identifying students as several Caucus members were impacted by suicides of LGBTQ+ youths.
Image: "Gay Switchboard Newsletter", November 1981. LGBT-061 Colin Kreitzer Collection. Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections.
"LE-HI-HO (Lehigh Valley Homophile Organization, Bethlehem/Allentown): One of the oldest LGBTQ+ organizations in Pennsylvania, first convening in June 1969. The goal of the group was to provide social engagement for LGBTQ+ people, outside of gay bars, in the Lehigh Valley region. They published monthly newspapers announcing social gatherings and field trips, activist opportunities, national news on the Gay Liberation Movement, and eventually HIV/AIDS information. It was part of the Caucus until October 1976, due to a breakdown of productivity because of infighting amongst the groups; and rejoined in April 1977.
Susquehanna Valley Gays United (SVGU, Northumberland): Founded in 1976 by Sam Edmiston and Sam Deetz. The SVGU was pivotal in organizing the first Gay Education Day.
Gay Coordinating Society of Berks County (G. C. S., Reading): Founded in December of 1974 and was a LGBTQ+ organization in the Berks County area and a fundamental part of the Pennsylvania Rural Gay Caucus. They published a newsletter which informed community members of state-wide and local LGBTQ+ issues.
Gay League of Lebanon: was an LGBTQ+ organization located mainly in Lebanon, PA. It was founded in 1976, and was a member organization of the PA Rural Gay Caucus.
Gays United of Lancaster (GUL, Lancaster): Founded in the mid-1970s by a beautician named Bari Weaver. One of the major LGBTQ+ groups in Pennsylvania at the time, and a founding member unit of the Caucus.
Gay Students at Shippensburg (Shippensburg State College): The Gay Students at Shippensburg had extremely high interest in the Rural Gay Caucus. Because of this at Shippensburg State College they were able to host some of the Rural Gay Caucus meetings. They were able to host them in the Student Union Building. When the Caucus was being threatened of its existence. It is because of the “high interest” of this group and the determination that the Caucus would be able to continue that the Caucus was able to meet in Shippensburg in order to “heal wounds”. And to continue the missions of the Caucus. The Gay Students at Shippensburg State College passed a nondiscriminatory clause which was passed by the Student Senate and supported by the Commonwealth Association of Students. What the nondiscriminatory clause said specifically was not stated.
Gay League of Edinboro (Edinboro State College): Small LGBTQ+ organization located on Edinboro State College campus.
Gay League of Indiana (Indiana University of Pennsylvania): Small LGBTQ+ organization located on Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus.
Gay Students at West Chester (West Chester State College): West Chester State University was the first of the 14 state-owned campuses to include "sexual orientation" in its official antidiscrimination policy, thanks to the efforts of Gay Students of West Chester. Drawing from both students and the surrounding local community, group members lobbied for inclusion and LGBT rights. The group established a small telephone counseling and referral line staffed by members during their evening meetings. Members particularly emphasized the importance of education in the form of easily accessible resources for gay students and inclusion in the curriculum. The group is still active today under the name LGBTQIA+ Caucus.
Dignity, Central Pennsylvania (for gay Catholics, Harrisburg): Dignity/USA was and still is an organization LGBTQ+ Catholics and friends that aims to provide a safe space for people of all sexual and gender identities in the eyes of God and the Church. The Central Pennsylvania chapter of Dignity was chartered in 1975, though the members began meeting in 1974. Dignity/Central PA is now considered “the oldest continually operating LGBT organization in Central Pennsylvania.”
Metropolitan Community Church, Harrisburg (non-denominational): Founded in 1980 by Reverend Bruce Hughes and Gary Norton. The aims of the church were to create a space that included everybody– LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and people of all races. They strive to use inclusive language in all of their spiritual work and deeply value diversity.
Gay Community Services (GCS, Harrisburg): Formed in 1973 by activist Jerry Brennan when he became discontented with the centrality of bars to the social life of the gay community in Harrisburg. No records from the group itself have survived, but its goal was to provide an opportunity for socializing and politically organizing outside of the gay bar scene. Comprised of around 10-15 members, the group discussed unmet needs among the gay community in Harrisburg, coming up with two major areas that were lacking: spiritual and social-emotional needs. To help fill these needs, the group recommended the establishment of a crisis hotline, a spiritual and social venue where gay members could worship, and an informational organization to point individuals to LGBT resources.
Gay Switchboard of Harrisburg: Later renamed the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard of Harrisburg, was established in April 1975 by the GCS. A hotline for crisis situations and information about the local gay community, it was initially located in the garage of a house belonging to a gay couple at Verbeke and Penn streets. It would move several times over its existence until settling into its final location in a building at North and Verbeke Streets. Though the volunteers that staffed it were not social workers, they were trained in handling crisis situations by CONTACT, a social service organization. Throughout the years, the Switchboard provided invaluable services to the community and connected gay individuals throughout Harrisburg by referring them to appropriate resources, community events, or just providing someone to talk to. The Switchboard shut down shortly after the turn of the century, as the Internet began taking over the role of such services.
North Eastern Pennsylvania Gay Association (NEPGA, Wilkesbarre): Founded in the early 1970s, the North Eastern Pennsylvania Gay Association was a major LGBT+ organization serving the north-east of Pennsylvania. Publishing a monthly newsletter, the group connected LGBT individuals in the area, organized many local activities and educational outreach, and reportedly formed a singing group that performed locally.
Homophiles of Penn State (HOPS, State College): Officially titled “The Other Vision: Homophiles of Penn State” but commonly shortened to HOPS, was the first gay student organization on the Penn State campus. It emerged out of a "free university" course entitled Homosexuality: A Growing Subculture, when a group of students attending the class had the idea to create a campus group for the community. On April 20, 1971, the Penn State Undergraduate Student Supreme Court awarded the group its official charter. Yet weeks after receiving this charter, Raymond O. Murphy, acting vice president for Student Affairs suspended the group’s privileges and tore down all its promotional material as the “legality” of the group was under investigation. Despite pushback from prominent homophile leaders Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny, Murphy revoked the group’s charter. HOPS would not be deterred, however, continuing to host meetings on and off campus and growing to over 60 members. They filed a suit against the administration in February 1972, regaining their charter. Although records of its activities are sporadic after its reinstatement, it continued to host gay events on campus, including a 1972 Gay Awareness Festival. It ceased operation in the early 80s, but was succeeded by the numerous campus gay organizations that it led the way for in the years following.
"PA Rural Gay Caucus 'Identifying the Rural Gay Caucus' Flier", LGBT-001 Joseph W. Burns Collection, Archives and Special Collections at Dickinson College.
"PA Rural Gay Caucus Report", LGBT-001 Joseph W. Burns Collection, Archives and Special Collections at Dickinson College.
Gay Lobby Day, also known as Gay Education Day, took place on March 23, 1976, where LGBTQ activists in Pennsylvania went to Harrisburg to lobby legislators on Gay Rights issues. The main issue targeted was the presentation of Senate Bill 743 (among other bills), which would bar Gay people, along with those with mental illnesses, from jobs in the state government and State Police. This was not only blatant discrimination against LGBTQ people, but it also categorized being Gay as having a "mental defect.” It also was not the first discriminatory bill proposed to the Pennsylvania Senate. Governor Shapp previously vetoed such bills that were passed, and was dedicated to protecting the civil rights of LGBTQ people. The goal was to approach these state legislators and have face-to-face interactions with activists, in order to humanize and discourage legislators from making laws that allowed discrimination (especially in state jobs). More than 100 of gay men and women, marked with pink triangles, gathered in the state capitol gained the attention of state legislators and their staff, as well as many people who heard about the event through newspapers, TV, or the radio. They received mostly positive responses: with about 30% of legislators reacting positively, 30% reacting negatively, and the rest being indifferent/neutral.
Image: "Gay Lobby Day Flyers". LGBT-001 Joseph W. Burns Collection. LGBT History Project, Archives & Special Collections at Waidner-Spahr Library, Dickinson College.
"Gay Lobby Day Flyers". LGBT-001 Joseph W. Burns Collection.
"You might ask, ‘Who were these lobbyists?' Well, they were teachers, laborers, coal miners (female), counselors, ministers, shipping foremen, computer analysts, sociologists, accountants, and many more. They were women and men, young and old, single and married, parents and children. Most importantly, they were all people with a mission and a willingness to work for it.” -Gay Lobby Day Report, 1976
Unfortunately, senate bill 743 was overwhelmingly passed in the Senate, and would pass easily in the House. The reason is clear: votes. The post-event report found that many Senators voted ‘yes’ without thinking or reading the bill. However, the lobbyists raised the consciousness of Senators and lawmakers, so that the next time they would think first. Some legislators even said that they had changed their viewpoints after talking with lobbyists.
Image: "Gay Lobby Day Report," April 11, 1976, LGBT-001 Joseph W. Burns Collection, Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections.
Sam Deetz talking about the creation of the Rural Gay Caucus and first Gay Lobby Day, LGBT Oral History – Deetz, Sam – 025, Dickinson College Archives Special Collections.
Sam Deetz on Gay Lobby Day, Dickinson College Archives and Special collections.
The Pennsylvania Rural Gay Caucus was made up of passionate activists whose work built the foundation for its successes. These individuals' stories tell us the broader narrative of the Caucus, and we gain a better understanding of the organization's challenges and triumphs through their experiences. Here are some of the key players that worked to advance LGBT rights in Central PA through and with the Caucus (and we recognize that this list is by no means exhaustive and many more were influential in the fight for gay rights in Pennsylvania).
Milton J. Shapp was Pennsylvania’s 40th Governor serving from January 19th, 1971 to January 16th, 1979. He was an outspoken, Jewish democrat originally from Cleveland, Ohio. Born Milton Shapiro, he changed his last name to Shapp over concerns of antisemitism. Governor Shapp continuously involved himself in political and social issues but began his career founding a cable television equipment company which he later sold in 1966. According to the National Governor’s Association, during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, Governor Shapp wrote him a memo that was said to be the inspiration for the establishment of the Peace Corps. Before his successful election into office, many, including his predecessor David L. Lawrence, believed Shapp to be unqualified for the job, considering he had never held official political office previously. Shapp ran an unsuccessful campaign for President of the United States in 1976.
Governor Shapp proved a notable official, establishing not only the Pennsylvania State Lottery but also the Pennsylvania Council for Sexual Minorities. This Council for Sexual Minorities, one of the first governmental organizations of its kind, was established by Governor Shapp in 1974 with the objective to end discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, and later Governor Dick Thornburgh used this council at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic for instituting policies and research into prevention and awareness. The Rural Gay Caucus was established from the Council in order to bring to light more issues of the rural gay community instead of focusing solely on larger cities, such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
“Milton Jerrold Shapp.” National Governors Association, 2022. https://www.nga.org/governor/milton-jerrold-shapp/.
University of Pittsburgh. “Center for LGBT Health Research: Center History.” Center for LGBT Health Research | University of Pittsburgh Center for LGBT Health Research, 2022. https://pre.lgbthlres.pitt.edu/center-history/.
Source: Gay Era.
Samuel Deetz was born in Quakertown, Pennsylvania in 1951. He became a strong advocate in the Susquehanna Valley Gays United (SGVU), and also instrumental in organizing and arranging meetings in order for other gay and lesbians groups to blossom within their own communities. He was one of the founding members of the PA Rural Gay Caucus and was instrumental in organizing the first Gay Education Day in Harrisburg.
Sam Deetz on Gay Lobby Day, Dickinson College Archives and Special collections.
Anthony Silvestre was born in 1946 in the Bronx, New York. He was introduced to the gay rights movement while studying at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, and Penn State. He was elected president of Homophiles of Penn State, and went on to serve as chair for the Pennsylvania Council on Sexual Minorities, as well as a leader in the PA Rural Gay Caucus. Some of the causes he has been passionate about include serving LGBTQ+ youth, which he accomplished while working with the state department of Children and Youth Services, and HIV/AIDS activism, which led him to serve in one of the first community advisory boards on HIV.
In the PA Rural Gay Caucus, he helped to organize Gay Lobby Day. He worked with Spencer Cox, head of the Philadelphia Branch of the ACLU, recalling the “discretion” he employed in their lobbying efforts. He observes of his experience with Gay Lobby Day that “no matter how rural or conservative the district, the members of the legislature [...] were always very responsive and supportive.” He attributes this responsiveness to the national social context of the 70s, in which “there was a lot of movement in the country and even in the state, in support of various commissions and issues related to feminism and even gay rights so we didn’t surprise them [members of the legislature].”
With his background in LGBT activism in PA colleges, Silvestre noted a connection between the Rural Gay Caucus and college LGBTQ+ organizations. He recalls that many of these groups were “inspired” by the Governor’s Council and Rural Gay Caucus to form in their own groups on campuses. “Many members of the council themselves,” he asserts, were faculty members and through this position were able to provide crucial support and assistance to these organizations. Their connection to the state government gave them leverage to campaign the State Department of Education to issue protections for LGBTQ+ students and faculty members.
LGBT Oral History 107. LGBT History Project, Archives & Special Collections at Waidner-Spahr Library, Dickinson College.
Joe Burns has been active in LGBTQ+ marches, organizations, and protests from the 60s through to the 80s and 90s. Through his involvement in such Rural Gay Caucus groups as the Gay Coordinating Society of Berks County and Le-Hi-Ho, he participated in an attempt to pass a gay rights ordinance for the Lehigh Valley area through the Human Rights Commission. Unfortunately, it appeared that the area was not yet ready for such a measure, and this attempt failed. As Burns recalls, the city solicitor made a judgment that gay rights were “not legal in the state” and “exceed[ed] the authority” of the Human Rights Commission.
He emphasizes the importance of intersectionality within the LGBTQ+ movement and respecting the voices of women and people of color, and speaks at length about how his experiences in central Rural Gay Caucus activism, especially in the Gay Coordinating Society of Berks County, deepened his admiration for female leaders in the community. He recalls being guided by a maxim repeated by Dixie White, president of Pennsylvania NOW: “Don’t put in today’s world what you don’t want in tomorrow’s world.” As for the Coordinating Society of Berks County, Burns notes that it was unusually gender-balanced for its time, observing that “at times, there were more women than there were men, and that was pretty rare, in those days.” His memories reveal that although there was an awkwardness produced by the differences between gay men and lesbians, including lesbians’ more pronounced differentiation into the categories “butch” or “femme,” but ultimately it appears that these differences were productive, leading to learning opportunities for both groups.
LGBT Oral History 12A: Joseph W. Burns. LGBT History Project, Archives & Special Collections at Waidner-Spahr Library, Dickinson College.
Image: Bari Weaver (left), Sam Deetz (middle), and Joseph W. Burns (right) at dinner - circa 1988. LGBT-001 Joseph W. Burns Collection. LGBT History Project, Archives & Special Collections at Waidner-Spahr Library, Dickinson College.
Mary Nancarrow was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Rural Gay Caucus and was very active in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. She was born in Penbrook, Harrisburg in 1951. She attended Shippensburg State College (now Shippensburg Universtiy), before returning to Harrisburg in the 1970s. She cited her first experience being discriminated against as when her landlord in Shippensburg informed her that she was no longer welcome because of her relationship with her partner. She stated that life in rural Pennsylvania was a perpetual state of “being in the closet,” because one would face social persecution if they showed any indication that they were gay. From this, she explained, emerged the creation of the Rural Gay Caucus, which would try to raise awareness of the gay community as well as provide a space to collect stories from those facing discrimination which they hoped would influence the Human Relations Act. Mary later went on to join the staff of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and became president of the Pennsylvania state chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
Image; Mary Nancarrow at the First Community Recognition Banquet hosted at Miss Garbo's Tea Room in Carlisle, PA in 1992. LGBT-007 Dan Miller Collection. Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections.
Mary Nancarrow at the First Community Recognition Banquet hosted at Miss Garbo's Tea Room in Carlisl
The Pennsylvania Rural Gay Caucus was actively involved in protests against Anita Bryant. Bryant, who was an American singer and anti-gay activist, led a campaign in 1977 called "Save Our Children," in which she advocated for the repeal of an ordinance instituted in Florida which restricted discrimination against one's sexual orientation.
LGBT-011 Sam Deetz Collection, T-Shirt “Guess Who Sucks” with Oranges, Anita Bryant – 1978
LGBT Oral History – Maneval, Dan – 072B. Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections.
During the Pride Conference of 1978, that was sponsored by the PA Rural Gay Caucus and the Governor’s Council for Sexual Minorities, a motion to create a state-wide gay support group was passed, with the PA Rural Gay Caucus hosting a forum for this discussion. During the summer of 1978, the discussion progressed establishing that this support-group should be separate from the Caucus, and in July of 1978 the Pennsylvania Lesbian/Gay Support Network was formed. With this formation, the PA Rural Gay Caucus was officially dissolved as an organization in August of 1978. Still, during its years of operation, the Caucus was groundbreaking in mobilizing the gay rural vote and its contribution to the LGBT movement in Pennsylvania that still reverberates today.
"Its short existence notwithstanding, the caucus was a powerful political force in gay activism in the commonwealth between 1975 and 1978. Combining the voices of about a dozen small groups from the rural areas of Pennsylvania turned out to be as powerful as activist efforts in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Members of the caucus created change not only in broad strokes across the commonwealth but also at a local level in their own communities."
Burton, William, and Barry Loveland. Out in Central Pennsylvania: The History of an LGBTQ Community. Penn State University Press, 2020. pg. 101