Fight for Sexual Freedom

In the early seventies, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln slowly started to broaden academic discussions about sexuality.  This change was gradual and met strong backlash from university administrators, government officials, a few outspoken UNL students, and the state of Nebraska as a whole. In 1971, UNL began offering a course on homosexuality called the “Proseminar in Homophile Studies”. The same year, ASUN sponsored a conference on sexuality. Both projects sought to expand conversations about sexuality on UNL’s campus, and both were met with great resistance. These academic projects illustrate the varying attitudes towards sexuality at this time, and point out the widespread homophobia during this period.

Homophile Course

In the fall of 1971, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s psychology department offered a new two hundred level ‘homophile’ course. Thirty-four students took the class, which was taught by English professor Louis Crompton, psychology professor James Cole, and University Health Service psychiatrist Louis Martin. The course was met with large resistance, especially from State Senator Terry Carpenter of Scottsbluff, and State Senator Henry Pedersen Jr of Omaha. Senator Carpenter argued that the course was “a terrible thing”. Senator Pedersen shared similar sentiments:

For a long time it was understood that a queer was a queer. Do you have to take a 40-hour course to be told there are nice literary queers as well as dirty queers? I hope this course teaches that homosexuality is abnormal conduct which should be avoided.

-State Senator Henry Pedersen Jr. of Omaha

“I hope this course teaches that homosexuality is abnormal conduct which should be avoided”. -State Senator Carpenter

“This course is not going to have a long life if I have my way,” said Senator Carpenter. “The Board of Regents will rue the day they ever thought of it” (Bangert). 

Senator Carpenter tried to abolish the course, and demanded a hearing be held to discuss its constitutionality. Eighteen people testified during the two-day hearing, most of whom were UNL administrators and mental health professionals. In his testimony, Dr. Duane Spiers—the director of Creighton Medical School’s behavioral science division at the time— officially supported the course, arguing that “significant improvements of human sexual adjustments” would come from “open and objective” discussions of homosexuality.

As an Omaha World Herald writer reported, State Senators Terry Carpenter and Henry Pedersen were extremely concerned that the course, and professors teaching the course, were actively endorsing homosexuality. Senators Carpenter and Pedersen “repeatedly asked whether the course was designed to discourage homosexuality or whether the course might promote it,” and pressured Martin and Cole to disclose their personal views on the subject. Senator Carpenter also questioned the authority Crompton, Martin, and Cole had to teach the course.

I would think that all these instructors ought to go out and try it [homosexuality] if they’re going to teach.

-State Senator Terry Carpenter of Scottsbluff

During his testimony Martin took a neutral stance, and explained that the homophile course did not take any kind of “moral stand.” “We [the professors of the course] all feel that it isn’t our job to propagate any particular moral teaching,” said Martin. UNL administrators, on the other hand, adamantly denied that the course “encouraged homosexuality.” The Regents, as the Omaha World Herald reported, “said that they would halt the course immediately if they learned it promoted homosexuality.”

“No course,” C. Peter Magrath, Dean of Faculties, said, “has ever been as carefully examined and measured”. Academic freedom at UNL, he went on to say, must “be diligently protected—for the benefit of every one of us, regardless of whether or not we individually approve of a particular course”.

Senator Carpenter also criticized Magrath for not releasing the names of the students enrolled in the homophile course. Senator Carpenter argued that the roster should be “spot-checked” to ensure that students’ parents were aware their children had enrolled in the course. His request was denied by the university. While students’ schedules are confidential, the university largely denied Senator Carpenters request because, as UNL’s legal representative put it, “releasing the names might lead to the erroneous assumption [that] the students are homosexuals or interested in becoming homosexuals.”

Time-Out Conference on Human Sexuality

The same year (1971), ASUN sponsored the “Time-Out Conference on Human Sexuality” which, like the ‘homophile’ course, generated controversy within the university and the state. Most of the protestors criticized the conference for including two gay couples, who were slated to speak about same-sex marriage.

In October 1971, Regent James Moylan moved that the Board stop the conference; Regent Robert Prokop also supported the motion. Moylan argued that the conference violated students’ rights to “have a normal educational experience”.

A satirical award given to Regent Robert Prokop in 1971, courtesy of the Cornhusker.

A satirical award given to Regent Robert Prokop in 1971, courtesy of the Cornhusker.His column on homosexuality was also criticized for plagiarizing from Dr. Edmund Bergler’s book, Homosexuality: Disease or a Way of Life.

The Regents, who debated about the conference in a manner “rarely seen at Regents’ meetings”, eventually blocked Regent Moylan’s motion in a 1-5-1 vote. The motion was blocked on the grounds of free speech. As the Board of Regents explained in an official statement:

These [constitutional] rights must be respected, even in cases where the subject matter under consideration or the speakers involved are considered by the Regents to be offensive to a majority of the citizens of the state and damaging to the relationship of the university to its constituents and to the Legislature.

Others in the community, however, continued to fight against the conference.

Two UNL students argued that student fees should not be used to fund the conference. A petition filed at Lancaster County also attempted to stop the conference; it maintained that the “Time-Out” conference would “adversely affect the public health and welfare of those in attendance”.

Though it met considerable resistance, the “Time-Out Conference on Human Sexuality” took place as scheduled. Most of the conference’s sessions, the Cornhusker reported, had an overflow of attendees. Jack Baker and Mike McConnel, the United States’ first legally married gay couple, were two of the conference’s speakers. So were Del Martin her partner and Phyllis Lyon, who spoke about their relationship and criticized the way lesbian women were “doubly oppressed”.

“The entire controversy raised over the 1971 Time-Out Conference on Human Sexuality serves to indicate the wide scope of attitudes concerning discussions and behavior in relationship to sexuality,” the Cornhusker commented.

Students Rebel 

“More people are having sex”, an anonymous student said to Cornhusker staff writer Barry Piger in 1972.

While UNL administrators and state officials were concerned with the ways UNL students should be allowed to discuss sexuality in the classroom, how did UNL students feel about sex and sexuality in the early seventies?

According to a poll conducted by the Daily Nebraskan in 1971, over half of UNL’s single students reported being sexually active. “NU students,” the article quipped, “are doing more than just studying.”  Barry Piger, a writer for the Cornhusker, agreed. “Attitudes and behavior have changed in spite of the feelings of the university and the state,” he wrote. “Sexual behavior among NU students is a choice, and there are growing numbers of them who feel they have made the choice wisely.”

The University Health Center also began offering a wider range of services during the seventies, including birth control, education about STDs, and abortion counseling. UNL’s Board of Regents, however, continued to try to restrain conversations about sex. As a Cornhusker staffer reported, in November of 1972, the Board of Regents “investigate[d] the distribution of Birth Control Handbooks in the dorms.”

Images of dorm life in 1972,  captured by the Cornhusker.

Images of dorm life in 1972, captured by the Cornhusker.