Princeton is just not the kind of town that you first think of when you say gay. But 50 years ago it was the place in Central New Jersey to network with activists and meet LGBTQ people weekly.
In 1972 Frank Mahood was a part of the story. He was one of the founding members of “Gay People Princeton” (GPP) before it was even named that. And in 1972 a few activists decided it was time to have a gay place in the university town and named it Gay Alliance of Princeton, a university organization. And for more than three decades they did succeed — beyond their wildest dreams.
“Arthur Eisenbach put an ad in the Daily Princetonian at great risk,” said Mahood. “I mean this was when everyone was closeted in Princeton at that time and he got some response. Against all odds with the university, he was able to get funding [and] was able to get a space even though the university wanted to shut us down several times.
“Gradually more and more townspeople kept coming to these meetings to the point where Arthur was afraid the university was going to shut [the meetings] down. It wasn’t really a student group. This was a community group. But we continued as the Gay Alliance of Princeton even though I would say more than half of the people were townspeople who actually did the work, provided the refreshments, all of that.”
Mahood is a very fun and creative person and thought the group needed something. “I made the banner for the Gay Alliance of Princeton out of one of the bed sheets that we carried in the first parade in 1973 in New York. And by the fall of 1974, the townspeople were incorporated as Gay People Princeton and started to meet at the Unitarian church. That happened on a monthly or weekly basis up until 2005.”
Henry Baird was the program director in the 1970s, says Mahood. The group invited well-known writers, filmmakers, and politicians. And many enjoyed their GPP experience as guests. “In fact one of the most interesting meetings that we had at the Unitarian church was when Harvey Fierstein came to give us a preview of Torch Song Trilogy before it opened in New York. I mean it. We attracted that quality and caliber of people who wanted to come to Princeton.”
GPP also was able to draw from a much larger population in the surrounding area. Many of the active members didn’t even live in Princeton. “A lot of our loyal members were from Trenton, Lambertville, and New Hope,” he said. But people came and went regularly as with all organizations. That included him. “I dropped out for personal reasons — basically my partner and I broke up. I was working at the university but in 1981 I left. At that point, I became inactive in the group.”
Originally the group was about 20, but that number grew over time. The group was very large throughout most of the 1980s. ”Yeah it was probably 40-50 people at many of the meetings at that point,” said Mahood. “But if you get a chance to see the documentary I made on the history of GPP, a lot of the later people talk about the changes that the group went through over time.
“Being part of a group broadens your horizons,” he said. “That changed everything when I could talk intimately with a group of other men of what their experiences were, of what they felt, how they were able to cope with [being gay]. Up until that point, I felt that I was diseased. If I could have taken a pill to become straight, I would have done it. I have gone through my life journey and I’m proud to be gay. I wouldn’t want to change. I have gifts that I probably never would have discovered within myself if I had been heterosexual. So I mean that’s a long life journey. I’m 84 years old now.”
In 50 years so much has changed for the LGBTQ community. He tells a story of how much things have changed and tries to explain the demise of GPP and other groups that are no longer in existence.
“I was closeted except for among my gay friends, and I never came out to my family at all. Even after I got together with my partner, who is now my husband. My family knew we lived together but there was never any discussion of anything. Ten years ago, I was at a Christmas dinner with my family. My brother is three years older than me and a conservative Republican from western Pennsylvania. [He] took me aside and said, ‘When are you two going to get married?’ I mean that’s how far we’ve come.
“Later, the whole family took out their laptops and we planned when my wedding was going to be in Provincetown that fall. They all came to the wedding. I mean that is how much the culture has changed. And that has made these more limited groups not unimportant, but not as necessary.”
There was another big 1970s meeting (GPP dance, really) that Mahood is particularly proud of. “Oh, the dance in ’73. As I said, the townspeople were coming to the meetings, but at that point, GPP was really struggling with every meeting. That first year was only a few people and it was one meeting at some point, maybe in February, where there were only four people there — myself, Roy Thomas, who is also an editor at the University Press, Henry Baird, who was a community member, and a graduate student. We thought this is it. There are no students here. There are four of us and this was going to fold. And Arthur came in and he said, ‘I’m going to have a dance! It’s going to be on top of New South, the administration building. It has a big glass window on three sides on the 8th floor.’ It is a stunning location,” says Mahood.
And that just lit a fire. “We just all started to work. We went to a meeting at Rutgers where there were various gay student groups. We saw this performer, Olga, and the Cravats. [They] were kind of a trashy band group — kind of like that Bette Midler early period. We talked her into performing at the dance. The word just spread. I did the posters. We printed them up. I would post them all over campus and even on Nassau St. And they would be torn down almost as soon as they went out.
“I think some people wanted to collect them while other people wanted to trash them. But the word spread and over 300 people came! We went from 4 to almost 400 and it was just phenomenal. The next year because of the success of this dance, we got to meet in one of the really fancy rooms on campus and Arthur was able to start getting celebrities to come. Vito Russo came and did film clips before he ever put together all of The Celluloid Closet, people who were the founders of the National Gay Alliance before it became the GLTF. Plus GPP had writers like Edmund White visiting.”
GPP provided many other community services back before there was the Internet. They supported phone service for the NJ Gay Hotline, had attorneys available to give legal advice, and had a roster of doctors who would be friendly to gay people.
Mahood was a part of the New Jersey contingent at the first International Gay Rights Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland. He and his partner at the time represented the university group while others represented GPP. “The symbol of the inner circle male and female signs was nominated to be the international symbol for gay rights,” he said. “We didn’t even nominate it. Someone in attendance nominated it. But the Lambda symbol won the most votes.”
Mahood reconfigured the symbols back in New Jersey and the statewide LGBTQ organization, then known as the NJ Lesbian and Gay Coalition, used it as their logo for decades. “When I redesigned it for the New Jersey Coalition I turned the symbols sideways and interlocked them.”
GPP brings so many stories together for Mahood. “It was just the place to come. We had no difficulty continuing to attract that quality of people coming to give lectures. The name Princeton, I mean it, it’s a magical name. Henry talks in [Mahood’s] documentary that he would tell these people, well you know, we’re a community group. But they wouldn’t hear it. They would just hear Princeton.
“We never failed to get whoever we wanted to get. The little bit of money that was brought in at these meetings was to help get people here or to pay for providing the space. And I think we only charged like a dollar. If you joined you got a membership card that I designed; it was like $10 a year, or something. Then you got in for a dollar. Otherwise you pay $2. But that covered the rental fees.
“I did the refreshments. So, I remember I made a really great sangria. So eventually the church didn’t want us to serve alcohol anymore — but for all the time that I was doing refreshments, we still had my secret recipe of sangria. We also paid [invited speakers] for their train costs and most of the people came from New York or Philadelphia. We would pay for their transportation, and we would take them out to dinner at The Annex before the meeting.”
The Annex in Princeton was a friendly place but not as gay as The Peacock Inn, according to Mahood. He says the Peacock was, “way, way gay every Thursday. They had a bar that you entered from the outside in the cellar and The Peacock Alley was the name of the bar. Everyone knew about it.” The Peacock’s owners were very upset about this. Eventually, they closed the bar down for a whole year for remodeling, said Mahood. When it opened a year later it lost its gay clientele.
Mahood compares life today to 50 years ago and misses some of the camaraderie. He says there have been some trade-offs. “I think the trade-off is worth it. I mean just the fact that we can be legally recognized, I mean when I retire from work and I can add my husband to the annuity, I couldn’t have done that before. He will be protected when I pass away. We file joint income taxes. That recognition gives us a legitimacy that we’re not outlaws anymore.
“But I am worried. I really do believe that we are on our journey. We move ahead and then we get kicked back. And then we move ahead and we get kicked back. But we’re always moving further and further ahead. I have tremendous faith in the young people. They are not gonna let this happen.
“This is a backlash that is bad at the moment. And it’s going to be bad. I think it might even get worse. But it’s going to ultimately get better. I feel that within my soul. I worry about how bad the division is going to get. I worry about whether the government can accomplish anything when we’re so split. But ultimately the young people will take over. The splits [in politics] go way beyond the issues within the LGBTQ community. Justice moves in the right direction in the long run.”
You can join Frank Mahood every Monday at the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice in Princeton. He loves to help the visitors and guests just like 50 years ago at GPP meetings in Princeton.