My Alma Mater: The Spirit of Activism

Gay Illini and library school set me on my path

Jim DeWalt in front of a wall of foliage. Gay Illini was one part activism and one part fun, recalls Jim DeWalt. “On weekends, we had the Balloon Saloon (mixed men and women) and Giovanni’s (mostly men).” (Image courtesy of Jim DeWalt)
Gay Illini and library school set me on my path

It was the mid-1970s and a time of great change in my life. I had just graduated from Penn State—linguistics and French—and was headed across the country to attend library school at Illinois. And not only that: I had recently come out as gay. 

When I moved to Urbana-Champaign, I expected to get a good education, but what I did not expect was the lasting impact that the U of I would have on my life. The people I met in Gay Illini and at the library school were responsible for that.

Gay Illini was constantly working on political and community support projects, and fighting for equal rights, both locally and nationally. One of the first things I did when I arrived on campus was attend a Gay Illini meeting at the Red Herring, and I got swept up in its spirit of activism. Eventually, I took part in every Gay Illini initiative (except for Gay Christians), staffed the Gay Switchboard (a phone service for “health, counseling and social information”) and participated in consciousness-raising groups around town. 

We felt that what we were doing—trying to help and educate others—was necessary and important. Unfortunately, we experienced discrimination all around us, and we were afraid of what might happen. 

I remember that, in order to be recognized as an official campus organization, our members had to sign a piece of paper; and in 1976, only a few of us were willing to do that. Anita Bryant’s “Save the Children” campaign was in full swing, and it was not a stretch for us to think about Weimar Germany, before the rise of Nazism, and to imagine worst-case scenarios about how things could turn out. 

Orange colored Gay Illini flyer promoting upcoming events.

1975 Gay Illini flyer (Image courtesy of Jim Dewalt)

But we persisted, and in that same year, Fern Bernstein and I co-founded the Gay Resource Center. After coming out as an undergrad, I had read everything I could get my hands on about gay culture—most of it negative. Fern and I wanted to share gay-friendly books with anyone who was interested, but they were not easy to find. Fortunately, there was a new catalog called The Gay Bibliography. The author was Barbara Gittings, head of the American Library Association’s Social Responsibilities Round Table. I wrote to her for advice, and about a week later I received a huge package of materials, which filled one shelf. That shelf was the beginning of the Gay Resource Center. Nearly 50 years later, I’m delighted that it still exists!

Being a part of the Gay Illini and the library school at Illinois set me on a course that I’ve followed ever since. After I moved back to Pennsylvania to work at the Free Library of Philadelphia, I continued to volunteer for political, legal and gay causes, such as the AIDS Library, where I licked a lot of envelopes and ate a lot of free pizza. Ultimately, I ended my library career not far from the AIDS Library, at Parkway Central, where I eventually became head of the Rare Book Department. I have been very happy in my career choice and proud of my volunteer work, and I’ll always be grateful to the U of I for helping me find my path.

Jim DeWalt met his partner in 1980, and they were married in 2005.

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