Headlines in the Lansing State Journal in the 1950s, then simply the State Journal, tell a skewed story about people we now understand as LGBTQ. In the decades before Stonewall, the proverbial “first draft of history” of journalists was decidedly slanted in the local mainstream press, as it was in newspapers across the country.
The few overt accounts about queer folk that made the LSJ focused on criminality.
Case in point was coverage of several homosexual arrests in the bathroom of the MSU Union in late 1955. An undercover sting operation nabbed four men in their 20s and charged them with gross indecency. The paper printed their names, ages, occupations and addresses — in effect stoking a minor media panic.
On behalf of university officials, public safety director Arthur F. Brandstatter expressed alarm at what he called an “invasion of undesirables.” He claimed that the accused men were unaffiliated with MSU and threatened students and the general security of the campus. Brandstatter apparently ignored the fact that one of the arrestees was a 26-year-old sophomore, who was forced to withdraw from his coursework.
Other, more subtle glimpses in the paper hint at how lesbians generally escaped notice, yet not entirely.
Lucile Portwood and Evelyn Sanders shared a home together for several decades on Dobie Road in Okemos. Their cohabitation garnered multiple mentions in the Lansing State Journal from 1957 to 1962, all in connection to their Scottish terrier competing at various kennel shows.
One article noted their champion dog’s name was “Glendoune Gaytime.” Another article identified “Sandbark Gay Fantasy” as their winning pooch.
Sanders was a professor of microbiology at MSU. She and Portwood, known to friends as “Porty,” both arrived from Texas in the early 1940s to pursue their doctorates. While a grad student, Portwood discovered a vaccine for whooping cough and later went on to an esteemed career as a scientist with the Michigan Department of Public Health.
April Allison interviewed Portwood about her graduate school years for “Moving Forward: Lesbians and Gay Men at Michigan State University,” an institutional self-study released in 1992 for which Portwood used the pseudonym “Mary.”
“We were very tightly closeted, but it was very comfortable. We were invisible, so there weren’t all these finger-pointings,” Portwood told Allison.
In a recent exchange via Zoom and email, Allison recalled her interview with Portwood and the intergenerational friendship they developed. “It’s interesting that Porty emphasized to me how comfortable and happy she was in this totally closeted environment,” Allison noted.
Other fragments of evidence help reveal history not captured in the pages of our local press. Stray puzzle pieces from the area’s LGBTQ past help show how queer people navigated harsh social stigma at a time when the country was deeply enmeshed in what historian David K. Johnson has termed the Lavender Scare.
John DeCecco served on the humanities faculty at MSU from 1955 to 1960. DeCecco discussed shielding himself from scrutiny while he taught in East Lansing. “I was having my sex with auto workers, who couldn’t care less about Michigan State University,” he said.
DeCecco was more discreet closer to school, where most homosexual faculty remained circumspect. Despite this, he had a few close friends he could confide in. One, in particular, “was much more openly gay,” DeCecco remembered, “so we could talk and we could cruise, and we could even occasionally share a trick.”
“I had other colleagues who were gay, but it was very tortured,” DeCecco recalled. “Some of them were married.” His circle of friends dared to socialize mainly through “elaborate” dinner parties.
DeCecco attributed the hostile campus atmosphere in part to MSU President John A. Hannah, who had ties to state and federal government and had ambitions to compete with the University of Michigan. “He was very much afraid of the reputation of the place getting sullied. So, it was very bad.”
“I knew other faculty members who just sort of disappeared,” DeCecco explained. “People just vanished from sight if they got in any trouble at all.”
This happened to one of his best friends, Findlay Hooper, with whom DeCecco describes as having “one of these gay bitch relationships.” The university pressured Hooper to relinquish his faculty position after he made a sexual advance to someone at a local bar that he believed was gay but turned out not to be. Fortunately for Hooper, his connections and academic stature landed him a job at Wayne State in Detroit.
The swirl of accusations and fear left students especially vulnerable. A two-page police report from 1957 that came to light in 2016 reveals how campus authorities targeted even undergrads for surveillance. MSU archivist Susan O’Brien created a copy of the document with names redacted to make it available to researchers.
According to the report, Officer Ralph Ryal interrogated an accused student, forcing him to reveal meeting places and name names. Ryal observed that “most of his contacts had been made at Olsen’s Bar, 325 N. Washington Ave. Lansing.”
Even in the midst of social intimidation, local queer folk found ways to find one another.
Joseph Dougherty, for one, connected to a wider homophile movement that was just emerging on the East and West coasts. Dougherty, then a 24-year-old Michigan State student from Pontiac, wrote to the pioneering ONE magazine in October 1953, a mere 10 months after the publication began. “I wish to offer my congratulations on a fine magazine,” his letter said. “My copy of ‘ONE’ is always read from cover to cover by myself as well as by many others here at Michigan State.”
It is unclear how Dougherty learned of ONE or how he became acquainted with others on campus like himself. Perhaps it was at Olsen’s Bar.
Although Lansing gay bars of the 1950s do not seem as well established as those in Detroit, Flint, Ann Arbor, or Grand Rapids, over the next 10 years a notable scene emerged.
A national gay travel directory called the International Guild Guide included the Wentworth Hotel Bar in downtown Lansing among its listings for 1967 and 1968. Since the hotel was razed in 1966, the publisher was likely relying on outdated information.
There’s more definitive documentation for the Rustic Bar, later known as Stober’s, which first appeared in the Damron Address Book in 1968, with the next year’s edition noting it was “very popular.”
Don Savolainen shared his fond memories of the Rustic in a 2019 segment on WKAR about gay life in Lansing at the time of Stonewall. “You got to meet a total mix of the Lansing area. MSU students and business community, regular working people, factory people,” Savolainen said. “It was a good place to have friendships.”
Even so, this earlier LGBTQ world remained mostly hidden to outsiders. Soon enough, area locals would have their relative invisibility upended.
(Historian Tim Retzloff teaches LGBTQ Studies at Michigan State University.)