A few months ago, Bill Gallagher was grabbing pizza at Leonardo’s Pizza by the Slice and saw two young men sitting together, hand-in-hand. They looked young enough to be freshmen.
“It just warms my heart,” he said. “I just thought, ‘That didn’t happen 20 years ago.’”
Gallagher, 54, was a student at UF in 1987, when there were no rainbow crosswalks downtown, no public displays of affection between boyfriends and no on-campus organizations for LGBTQ+ students.
Before he came to UF, there was an organization called the University of Florida Lesbian and Gay Society, or UFLAGS. Founded in the early 1980’s, the group faced a near-constant struggle getting funds from Student Government, obtaining and keeping office space in the Reitz Union and dealing with homophobia from other students, according to Alligator archives. A few years after its founding, the group disbanded. So, Gallagher started a new one.
The Gay and Lesbian Student Union, or GLSU, started off-campus in 1987. The group began meeting in the churches and synagogues around campus, including the St. Augustine Catholic Student Center and the United Church of Gainesville, which Gallagher said were very supportive of the movement for LGBTQ+ rights. Sometimes they would have more than 100 people at their meetings, he added.
“We had a lot of progressive clergy and ministers that supported us, but there was a lot of just hatred and animus from people in the community,” he said.
The group became an official student group in 1991, and would eventually go on to become the Pride Student Union. It was around this time that Gallagher and others were lobbying the Alachua County Commission to include sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination ordinance.
“It was controversial, and things were heated,” he said. “We got a lot of pushback. I actually got a death threat.”
This inspired a “Walk For Freedom” on June 17, 1992, with Gallagher as one of the leaders. More than 600 people held hands, chanted and sang as they walked down University Avenue for more than a mile to the Alachua County Administration building. The protest was met with a mixture of support and animosity. According to Alligator archives, some people driving by yelled slurs, and Gainesville resident Vincent Mallet, who openly opposed rights for members of the LGBTQ+ community, got into a debate with one of the rabbis in attendance. The rabbi explained that the protestors were fighting for their civil rights, but Mallet said they didn’t deserve them. He tried to address the crowd, but they sang to silence him.
Gallagher recently moved to New Orleans with his spouse, who he married in Washington D.C. in 2012. He said it’s gratifying to see so much more support for LGBTQ+ rights now and appreciates the rainbow crosswalks downtown as a symbol of that.
“Right now, at least in Alachua County, it’s political suicide to oppose gay rights, LGBT rights,” he said. “We’ve come a long way.”
Kenneth Key, 57, who was a director of UFLAGS before the group disbanded, agrees. He said a lot of strides have been made with LGBTQ+ rights, like the recent Supreme Court decision to end workplace discrimination, but he said having antagonistic administrations in Washington and Tallahassee could lead to having those rights taken away.
“That’s why it’s so important to have proactive legislation passed,” Key said.
Before coming to UF, Key went to the Air Force Academy but had to resign after he came out. At the time, he could have been dishonorably discharged for this, but was instead able to resign, retain the credits he had earned and transfer to UF.
What he remembers most about being director of UFLAGS is the struggle for funding with Student Government. The organization wanted to host pride events and have speakers and panels to raise awareness but didn’t have a large budget. In 1984, after the group was given zero funding to host events for Gay Awareness Week, a sit-in was organized during a student Senate meeting.
The budget for the Activity and Service Fee Advisory committee, which was about $3 million, was supposed to be discussed that night. About 30 students, primarily from UFLAGS, who called themselves “Students for Fair Funding” sat in to “make their presence known,” according to Alligator archives. UFLAGS wanted $1,886 to fund events that week, including hosting actress Pat Bond, one of the first openly lesbian actresses, for a speaking event. It is unclear from Alligator archives if the group was able to secure funding, but Bond spoke in the Reitz Union Ballroom on April 6, 1984, about Eleanor Roosevelt’s alleged affair with journalist Lorena Hickok.
“It was a constant fight between UFLAGS and the Student Senate as far as getting our funding, getting our office space,” he said. “Everything we did was met with a major fight.”
Key said that people today have grown up in an entirely different era than he did. People are coming out at younger ages and are dealing with a much larger spectrum of sexualities than gay or straight, some of which he said he’s still learning the definitions of, he said.
“It’s kind of come down to the fact that it’s however you identify, it really is nobody else’s business. It’s what you feel that best signifies who you are,” he said. “And I’m okay with that. And the rest of society should be okay with that too.”