By Sydney Ramon
As Transgender Awareness Week comes to an end, many in our state and nation have spent this time celebrating and reflecting on the history and activism of the LGBTQ+ community. For Texas A&M students, one of the defining moments in our LGBTQ+ history is Gay Student Services v. Texas A&M University, a six-year case that wound its way through the courts until a final decision was made in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 1984.
The case began in 1976 when Texas A&M University denied official recognition to the Gay Student Services Organization on the grounds that homosexuality was illegal in Texas, and that the organization’s identified goals — providing educational information and referral services — were the responsibility of university staff and not students. This decision was reinforced by the conservative culture of Texas A&M University’s campus, donor base, former students, and administration.
Students in the Gay Student Services Organization sued the university for the violation of their First Amendment right to freedom of speech in February of 1977. Throughout the seven years of this case, several courts would rule in favor of Texas A&M; however, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals repeatedly overturned the verdict and would ultimately have the last word on August 3, 1984. The courts ultimately decided that Texas A&M had compromised the free speech rights of these students.
While this case spent six years weaving through the court system, these students did not sit by the wayside. A&M students organized countless protests on-campus, held meetings with any administrator or staff member who would listen, connected with other universities and student groups who could offer support, employed the resources of national LBGTQ+ organizations, created a network of current and former student allies, and garnered local media attention to build their credibility and visibility.
At Texas A&M University today, you can find many LGBTQ+ student organizations and campus-wide events where students can come together and find community. This is an incredibly different campus climate than the one found in 1977; however, this is still not without pushback. In 2020, the A&M Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer+ Pride Center held an on-campus event called “Draggieland”, a drag show featuring nine performers, including four students. The show was entirely sold out, and nearly every seat in Rudder Theatre was filled with an excited and energetic audience. Yet outside of the event, members of an opposing student organization held a demonstration where they prayed the rosary and held signs opposing the drag show. Despite the opposition and petition to shut it down, “Draggieland” remains a highly popular on-campus event where any student can find community and dynamic performances.
LGBTQ+ student organizations and events, such as Draggieland, on Texas A&M’s campus owe their existence to this definitive court ruling that granted deserved recognition for the local chapter of Gays and Lesbians Organized for Action (GLOA). Beyond this campus, it set a national precedent for LGBTQ+ campus-based groups. It serves as proof that students — even with all the odds against them — have the ability to create meaningful change — one organization, one campus, and one case at a time.
Still today, the fight against student censorship persists. As elected officials across the state and nation continue their effort to silence youth voices, we must be prepared to continue to defend our First Amendment right to freedom of speech whether that be supporting student activism or defending against attempts to censor classroom libraries and conversations.
Now, I encourage you to look around at your own campus and identify the areas in which you can make a difference on the issues that mean the most to you. Are your classmates registered to vote in these upcoming elections? Do historically oppressed students have adequate representation on your campus? Is your campus well-informed on volunteer opportunities within your community?
When our rights are under attack on our campuses, in our states, and across the nation, civic education and engagement must go beyond our classrooms and voting booths. So, how will you honor their legacies and create your own?
Read more about Texas A&M’s relationship with the LGBTQ community and other issues regarding youth censorship, here: