New exhibit highlights long history of UMaine's Wilde Stein club
When Steve Bull helped found Wilde Stein in 1973, he says the group was not trying to make a big splash. The club was named for the gay and lesbian writers Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein. But when Wilde Stein announced its first dance, the story was picked up by the Associated Press, and it quickly gained national attention.
"It was one thing to have gays organizing in New York or at Berkeley or in San Francisco, but what is this thing in central Maine?" Bull said. "So it became kind of a hot topic, and when the word got out about it then all these opposition forces started to form in Maine."
Despite extensive pushback, Bull says the organization narrowly gained provisional support from student senate. It was a time when gay and lesbian student groups around the country were seeking official recognition and were at the center of multiple court challenges.
"Really, I mean we were one of the battleground states, nationally," Bull said. "We had the first symposium and it was a who's who of gay liberation activists on the East Coast."
And with a membership as transient as college students, Bull says there was never a guarantee that Wilde Stein would last after he and other founders graduated.
"So it must have meant something, it must have filled a role for these students, and I'd like to hear that it made life better for them while they were at school," he said.
The founding and history of Wilde Stein is the subject of a new exhibit at the University of Maine Orono, opening Friday Oct. 13 at the Fogler Library on the Orono campus and online. An additional exhibit focusing on the group's annual symposiums will open at the University of Southern Maine next week.
Megan MacGregor, a librarian at the University of Southern Maine, who worked with Bull on the exhibit, says she was surprised to learn about Maine’s role at the forefront of gay rights, and how the documentation of that legacy has been somewhat lost over the last five decades.
"As a queer historian it's mind-boggling that we have that kind of thing especially since queer history is so hard to collect and gather, because a lot of it gets destroyed either by ourselves or by people who come after us or beside us," MacGregor said. "So the fact that Maine has a queer history is incredibly important."
The exhibit includes photos of the founders, news stories, university memos and documents from the club's first annual symposium in 1974.
Today, Wilde Stein remains focused on building community on campus, says current president Kass Belaya.
"I hope it helps to show people that this community is strong and will continue to be strong no matter what we face, that if fifty years couldn't break this club apart then nothing can, and that we will continue to stay strong and be here," Belaya said.
The club, now called Wilde Stein: Queer Straight Alliance still meets every Friday and hosts events throughout the year including an early Thanksgiving meal and spring drag show.