In the early evening of March 10, 1972, while excited undergraduates prepared for a dance in the student union ballroom of the University of Georgia, a longhaired sophomore in tight pants was standing against the building's massive front columns, reviewing his band's set list, when a seedy looking older man laboriously made his way up the steps and startled him. The stranger — with a red face and a comb-over — came bearing a message: The Ku Klux Klan did not approve of the night's scheduled event.

Not even its organizers had completely believed this particular dance would take place, and disaster was still quite possible. Forbidding American college students to dance rarely seems like a tenable position, but up to the very day it was scheduled, administrators at the university felt they had not only public opinion but also the law on their side in blocking it. These students didn't merely want to dance. They wanted to dance with classmates of the same sex, in Memorial Ballroom no less. They wanted to raise awareness of the fledgling Committee on Gay Education, a group that had raised far more awareness already than the university was comfortable with in its three and a half months of existence.

Founded by two seniors, Bill Green and John Hoard, the Committee on Gay Education had secured the ballroom through subterfuge — another student organization had reserved the space. But the administration's trump card was that these troublemaking hippies were proposing to use school property to incite felonies — sodomy. With letters and calls pouring in from outraged parents and students, the situation had the potential to be "explosive," administrators agreed, not least because the dance organizers had booked Diamond Lil, a singing drag performer from Atlanta.

Hoard and Green's plan was not the first of its kind. By this time in America, early gay student groups had already held on-campus dances at Cornell, Oberlin, the University of Minnesota, and the University of California–Berkeley, and similar fêtes were in the works all over the country. Almost simultaneously, the Lawrence Gay Liberation Front at the University of Kansas was petitioning for formal recognition and planning its own first dance.

But this was the early 1970s in the Deep South. Could the Georgia students pull it off?

John Hoard as a college freshman, 1968-1969 (Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library/University of Georgia Libraries/The Big Roundtable)

John Hoard didn't know what to expect when he arrived at college in the fall of 1968. As the state's flagship university, chartered in 1785, the University of Georgia represented a bastion of Southern tradition, embodied in the campus' graceful 19th-century brick buildings and the gnarled oaks and magnolias that shaded its quads through the hot Athens days. While the school's football glory drew fans from all over the state, its bowl chances ranked fairly low on Hoard's list of concerns.

Would college be a kind of continuation of high school in Savannah? There he and his friends were consumed by schoolwork and competed for top academic honors, flying under the radar socially, neither popular nor the targets of bullies. No one in high school even seemed to notice that Hoard was gay, though to him it felt excruciatingly obvious.

He didn't know who he'd be in college. The shy boy lost in reveries during class about his crushes; who spent his afternoons in the public library reading academic treatises on homosexuality to understand the feelings he couldn't even tell his friends or parents about? Or the bolder young man who'd learned after graduation that all that time downtown Savannah had been a hotspot on weekends for gay people, who traveled from all over the region to congregate in its historic squares and cobbled streets. Hoard had spent a thrilling summer driving to South Carolina on weekends with his first gay friends to hit the wild nightclubs that admitted 17-year-olds.

In many ways it looked like he might be the former. His parents didn't have much money to fund his college education, and with his uncles' encouragement, he'd applied for and received an ROTC scholarship, which he felt somewhat ambivalent about. He'd also applied to attend Freshman Camp, a fall retreat for a few freshmen chosen by the university as potential leaders. When it came time to board the bus to get dumped off in the Oconee National Forest and sleep in cabins with a bunch of kids he didn't know, his social anxiety kicked in again.

Many American stories hinge on young people disappearing into forests and emerging changed, wiser and self-possessed. As it turned out, the muggy long weekend in the forest, probably routine for the administrators who put it on, would profoundly influence Hoard's life. The friends he met were smart but also cool, interested like he was in the Civil Rights and antiwar movements and passionate in their hatred of Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate in the upcoming presidential election. They took seriously the retreat's message that they could be leaders whether or not they joined the Greek system that had long dominated campus social life. They rapped in discussion sessions, put on skits, and hiked the woods. Visiting university officials delivered encomiums to their potential to make a difference and urged them to make the most of their time in college.

This encouragement would come to have unintended consequences for the university. Despite his shyness, Hoard quickly bonded with many fellow students, and one in particular stood out as a kindred spirit — Asa William Green, then known as Bill. Green came from Albany, Georgia and shared many of Hoard's intellectual interests as well as his idealism. "John and I hit it off real quickly," said Green in a 2013 interview. "We had the same sense of humor and just really liked each other." They also shared in common another trait that might not have been obvious to all their peers — Green was gay too, and out with his closer friends. He didn't see this as any hindrance to a bright future at the university. By the end of the weekend, the two friends returned to school energized to make their marks.

Asa "Bill" Green as a college freshman, 1968-1969 (Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library/University of Georgia Libraries/The Big Roundtable)

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!

Though William Wordsworth was writing of the French Revolution his words capture what many feel about the various revolutions of the 1960s, and particularly 1968, a thrilling time to be in college, especially for those infected with the passion to change the world. While UGA never experienced uprisings on the level of a Columbia or a Berkeley, before Hoard and Green's arrival a small but influential campus left had developed in the wake of the ugliness that surrounded the school's court-imposed desegregation in 1961. That year Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes had received taunts and physical threats when registering for classes as the university's first black undergraduates. A mob of 2,000 people had gathered outside Hunter's dorm, shouting racist epithets and hurling rocks, bricks, bottles, and even firecrackers, injuring the dean of men and breaking 60 windowpanes before police stopped them with fire hoses and tear gas.

For some white students at Southern universities, witnessing the struggles and successes of the brave black students who had begun organizing at African-American colleges in the late 1950s provided a catalyst for their own entrance into social justice activism. Hoard and Green were just two of the many young people who'd read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches, or wondered why black kids in their towns had attended dilapidated schools while they rode buses to air conditioned new ones. Compounding this trend, the student body of UGA nearly doubled during the 1960s, bringing greater diversity of opinion and belief. At the same time, an ongoing push to increase the university's national standing resulted in the hiring of a wave of younger professors from prestigious graduate programs, many of whom brought more liberal political perspectives.

Only a year earlier, female students had been forbidden to wear pants or shorts on campus, but in the fall of 1967, the Women's Student Government Association voted out the dress code. In the spring of 1968 the campus's tiny chapter of Students for a Democratic Society had helped plan a demonstration that eventually led to a three-day takeover of the ornate, white-columned Academic Building in protest of restrictive curfews and regulations imposed on female students. Several hundred students participated in what was the most dramatic manifestation of the student movement at UGA to date. By the fall, the student handbook no longer distinguished between women and men. Now girls were wearing flared jeans and boys were growing out their hair. Rock music floated from the windows of the dorms.

Anything was possible, even love. After Freshman Camp jump-started his social life, Hoard began to emerge from his shell. He'd never had a boyfriend, until one night when he attended a party at the home of the "Family," a local band of hippies who lived communally. There, he met Dave, a quiet, handsome social-work major with big muscles and a National Merit Scholarship. Dave and John soon became a couple. The next fall, instead of returning to the dorms they rented a small brick bungalow near campus that an elderly woman offered to the two fresh-faced "roommates" for only thirty-six dollars a month. They set up housekeeping, young and in love. Still, this aspect of their identities remained mostly private. "Back then it was okay if friends knew, but you didn't want anybody else knowing," said Green.

Athens was a quiet town at the time. Nearly half of its 40,000-plus population was university students, and it had only glimmerings of the bar and café scene that would later make it a destination. Apart from the university, the town's largest employers were manufacturing plants and textile mills. It was predominantly white and fairly conservative.


This story originally appeared at The Big Roundtable. Writers at The Big Roundtable depend on your generosity. All donations, minus a 10 percent commission to The Big Roundtable and PayPal's nominal fee, go to the author. Please donate.