overview

Now occupied by a public school, the campus of Staten Island Community College, later the Sunnyside campus of the College of Staten Island, was a center of LGBT activities on Staten Island from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Noteworthy events include the formation of an early student group in 1972 and the activities of gay rights activist and author Arnie Kantrowitz, who taught at the college from 1965 to 2006.

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Credit: Google Street View, 2017.

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History

Staten Island Community College (SICC) opened in 1956 in St. George and moved to this 40-acre campus in Sunnyside in 1967.

In the fall of 1969, Dr. William Birenbaum, a progressive educator, became president of SICC. In December 1971, he officially offered his support to lesbian and gay students at a national conference of Homophile Student Organizations at Queens College.

Under Birenbaum’s supportive leadership, Arnie Kantrowitz, who had been teaching in the English Department at SICC since 1965 and was then serving as vice president of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), began coming out to his students in fall 1971. In January 1972, either Kantrowitz or his friend, fellow English teacher David Doyle, a GAA activist best known for heading the GAA Firehouse Committee, placed an ad in the student newspaper announcing a meeting of “the gay people at SICC.” Ellen Walsh and James Hanlon, who attended the meeting, were part of an informal group of gay and lesbian students that had been gathering between classes on the “gay stairs” — the stairway outside the second floor fire exit of the library. Walsh recalls that “our little group was tired of meeting outside the library and were interested in starting a formal group with a charter.” Doyle became faculty advisor to the new group, the “Gay Liberation Club,” which received the support of President Birenbaum. Walsh became the club’s president. In the following weeks, she and Hanlon posted flyers all over campus and “set up a table outside the cafeteria in the student activities building.” In the fall of 1972, Walsh was able to secure a small lounge in the Student Activities Building C for the group. In 2019, she recalled, “This was where we met between classes and held meetings. During this time we were able to progress in a way we couldn’t before. Many people stopped in, came out, joined our group. Teachers were able to locate us and asked us to talk in classes. In the Spring of 1973 we had our first Dance/Party [in the lower cafeteria]. We advertised in the Village Voice and sent flyers to other colleges in the Metro area. … It was a packed house.”

In the fall of 1973 and the fall of 1974, Kantrowitz broke new ground by teaching one of the first courses in the country devoted to “Homosexuals & Literature.” Course readings covered authors from Walt Whitman to Rita Mae Brown. Due to its limited enrollment, the course was not repeated after 1974, but Kantrowitz’s articles about it attracted considerable academic notice and provided a model for future gay studies programs.

By autumn 1974, the original members of the Gay Liberation Club at Sunnyside had graduated and the club faded away. CUNY was facing severe financial problems as a result of New York City’s fiscal crisis. A number of faculty were let go, including Doyle. In 1976, in a cost-cutting measure, Staten Island Community College merged with Richmond College to form the College of Staten Island (CSI), and the SICC campus officially became the Sunnyside Campus of CSI. As programs and services were consolidated, the Gay Students Center at the St. George Campus (formerly Richmond College) became the primary focus for LGBT student activities.

After the merger, several LGBT faculty members at the Sunnyside Campus went on to have distinguished careers. Kantrowitz was the most openly gay, or as he put it “the campus queer.” He became a regular contributor to the Advocate and Christopher Street, and in 1977 published his memoir, Under the Rainbow: Growing Up Gay, which became a classic of coming out literature. He was also one of the founding members and officers of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Two lesbian members of the English Department made notable contributions to the field of Women’s Studies. Dure Jo Gillikin pioneered the study of 19th century women journal writers while Judith Stelboum, “taught the first Women’s Studies course in the newly consolidated College of Staten Island” and chaired the English Department for a number of years. In the early 1990s, Stelboum also began publishing essays, fiction, and poetry on lesbian subjects and taught lesbian studies courses at CSI, including a course with Arnie Kantrowitz on lesbian and gay literature.

In 1992, under the auspices of the Office of Student Activities, Stelboum and Kantrowitz helped organize and served as co-advisors for a new group, the CSI Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Alliance. Open to students, faculty, and staff, the Alliance was dedicated to providing a positive and affirming climate for LGBT individuals. At its first meeting (location undetermined) in November 1992, a large group viewed the film, “Out for the Count” and discussed the gay rights positions held by the presidential candidates, as well as college life from a LGBT perspective. In December 1992, it sponsored “An Evening with Holly Hughes,” the lesbian performance artist, (presumably in the Performing Arts Building at Sunnyside), and in April 1993 it organized a van pool to the “March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.” The group continues today as the CSI LGBTQ Resource Center in the CSI Campus Center.

After the College of Staten Island moved to its present campus on the grounds of the former Willowbrook State School in 1993, the Sunnyside campus was renovated for use as a public school serving pupils from kindergarten to 12th grade.

This entry, written by project consultant Gale Harris, is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

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