Library debuts ‘Gay Bears’ website
New online tour highlights rich, underappreciated theme in campus history
|Gay Bears slideshow: The hidden history of the Berkeley campus||High bandwidth >
Low bandwidth >
| 16 January 2003
Image courtesy of Gay Bears website
Early in 1919, a Berkeley faculty member dressed in flowing scarlet robes whipped a Greek Theatre audience into a patriotic frenzy with “Canticle of Praise,” a dramatic oratorio featuring six male voices, a chorus of 500 Berkeley schoolchildren, and a phalanx of young men in uniform. Poet-professor Witter Bynner — a gay man who created this early-20th-century happening to celebrate the end of the First World War (and who later appeared in fictionalized form in D.H. Lawrence’s novel “The Plumed Serpent”) — is among a fascinating cast of characters who take center stage on a new campus website, “Gay Bears.”
Subtitled “The Hidden History of the Berkeley Campus,” the
electronic archive — found on the Library’s server at sunsite.berkeley.edu/gaybears — tells
the story of sexual minorities who have studied, taught,
worked at, and visited the Berkeley campus virtually since
its beginning. The project grew out of a gay/lesbian-
themed tour of campus that staff members William Benemann and Steve Finacom created last spring.
“ When we prepared for the tour, we were surprised at how rich the campus was with gay and lesbian associations, and how few of them were known,” recalls Finacom, a planning analyst in Capital Projects who pursues UC-history projects on his own time. “We realized a website would clearly reach more people.”
Undergraduate Erik Klavon did web design for the site; Library staffer Mary Scott created the graphic frames.
Campus people, places
Visitors to the Gay Bears site will discover early campus figures such as sugar heiress Annie Alexander and undergraduate Hubert Stowitts. The former was a philanthropist and scientist who — along with Louise Kellogg, her companion of 42 years — collected, documented, and donated tens of thousands of specimens to two campus museums she helped establish, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and the Museum of Paleontology. Renaissance man Hubert “Jay” Stowitts, ’15, excelled both in sports (he was on the Cal track and field team) and the arts. After being “discovered” in 1915 by the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova, Stowitts “became the first American to star with a Russian ballet troupe,” the site says. He later took up visual art — arousing the ire of the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin with his paintings of nude male athletes.
The online tour stops at Oakland’s White Horse Inn, “the nation’s second oldest gay bar,” as well as Canyon Pool, a men-only pool in Strawberry Canyon during the early 20th century, depicted as an eroticized corner of campus in several works, including “The Western Shore,” Clarkson Crane’s 1925 novel about a homosexual English professor.
Also highlighted are individuals such as sculptor Douglas Tilden, creator of the university’s first permanent outdoor artwork, “The Football Players”; coach Garret Cochran, who at the end of the 19th century “almost single-handedly created the institution of Cal football”; and writers James Baldwin, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, and Thornton Wilder. From the more recent past come entries on poet-professor June Jordan, who died last year; the late documentary filmmaker and journalism professor Marlon Riggs; and Cal alum and rugby player Mark Bingham, ’93, who helped foil the plans of hijackers aboard United Flight 93, the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.
Research work to create the site yielded many unexpected discoveries. One of the most exciting for Benemann, a librarian at the law school, concerned the renowned poet-playwright Oscar Wilde.
“I knew he had made an American tour, and that he had spoken in San Francisco,” Benemann recalls. Hoping that Wilde’s 1882 appearance in the city was covered by the campus student newspaper (then called the Berkeleyan), he consulted microfilm copies of the publication. What he found instead of a review was a report on Oscar Wilde’s visit to campus.
“The prophet of High Art,” wrote the Berkeleyan, “braved the perils of plug-uglies and Barbary Coast hoodlums to the extent of visiting the University. The news of his approach rapidly spread, and the general interest in the Library suddenly increased. We are happy to announce that the students restrained their inherent depravity, and that Mr. Wilde departed uninjured. Considering the discreditable conduct of which he was the victim at some more pretentious institutions, we have reason to congratulate ourselves.”
Another research foray netted a groundbreaking series of articles penned in 1965 for the Daily Californian by student journalist Konstantin Berlandt. The series quoted students, staff, and alumni (all speaking anonymously), who described the campus’s underground gay culture. Although “tame by today’s standards,” as the Gay Bears entry puts it, the reportage was allegedly edited mid-stream “to tone down the content of the final articles.” Nonetheless, the series sparked a flurry of news reports and letters to the editor — all reprinted on the Gay Bears site.
Finacom describes the letters to the editor as “remarkable for both their sympathy and their venom.” The criticism was framed, he says, as “‘this is bad journalism; how could you publish these articles citing anonymous sources?’ But when you read them you realize, how could Berlandt quote anybody but anonymous sources, given the political and social climate of the times?”
Some information on the site is based on materials in the University Archives’ collection of the same name, Gay Bears, but the lion’s share is original to the web project. Each entry includes a brief narrative, followed by citations that point the visitor to readings, available at the Library, and web links to additional materials. “It would be ideal if it generated further research,” says Benemann. “The whole idea is to jumpstart the study of gay/lesbian campus history.”
To contact Gay Bears, e-mail William Benemann at email@example.com.