“Our songs are the stories of our lives”: Two men remember the beginnings of gay liberation on campus; part 2

Alex Chun, Reporter

ALEX CHUN: For as long as he can remember, Vince McCoy has heard music in his head.

VINCE MCCOY: You know, I always was, from an early age, you know, I was just singing along to recordings. And I remember one of my favorite singers when I was a kid was Nina Simone, who was a jazz singer who also played piano. And I was just amazed that somebody could sing and play at the same time. It just seemed like, “How is she doing that?” You know? That just seems impossible. And I would just sing along with her.

ALEX CHUN: Vince would play along to Nina’s songs on a paper keyboard at home because he didn’t own a real piano. But his love for music broke down barriers. Vince was taught to play the trombone by his high school band director, but it wasn’t until Vince was a music cherub at Northwestern in 1968 that he had his first private lesson. 

VINCE MCCOY: And that’s when I actually really felt like I was connected to Northwestern. It was really kind of an intense three weeks, but you got to make music with kids from all over the country who were all really interested in music. Most of us in high school might have been the best musician at our high school. But then we came to a place where everybody was the best musicians in their high school. And that certainly raised the bar and made it really a very exciting summer for me. So I really loved coming to that program. I just knew that Northwestern was the place I wanted to come. 

ALEX CHUN: And in 1970, Vince stepped onto Northwestern’s campus as a freshman studying music education.

From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Alex Chun, and this is Defining Safe: a podcast about marginalized communities at Northwestern. This episode is the second part of a two-part series about two gay mens’ times at Northwestern in the 60s and 70s. The two men are Mr. Maher Ahmad (Communication ’71, ’74) and Mr. Vince McCoy (Bienen ’75, SPS ’03).

VINCE MCCOY: You know, it’s kind of an odd thing where what was just your life is now seen as history to other people. And I’m trying to kind of get used to that idea. You know, because I used to always say, “Well that’s not history, that’s just my life. Why is that of interest?”

ALEX CHUN: In 1970, fifty years ago, Maher Ahmad started the Gay Liberation Front with William Dry. Recently, I spoke with Maher, and he shared a part of his story with me. Check out the previous Defining Safe episode to hear Maher’s story.

In 1970, Vince McCoy would arrive to campus, eventually joining the Gay Liberation Front and becoming the first black president of the organization. 

Here’s Vince in November 2019 at an event hosted by Northwestern’s Black Professionals Network.

VINCENT MCCOY: We all have our own songs to sing, and our songs are the stories of our lives. You may not recognize my tune or understand all of my words, yet every song must be heard. So, today, I’m going to sing a little bit of my song for you.

ALEX CHUN: So, let’s listen to a bit of Vince’s song.

VINCE MCCOY: In 1970, that was kind of the time when we were all flower children, kind of semi-hippies, at least the Northwestern version of being a hippie, and everything was, you know, do your own thing. You know, everybody gets to be yourself and all that.

ALEX CHUN: When Vince arrived at Northwestern, things had recently changed on campus. It was only 17 years prior, in 1953, that Northwestern had desegregated the dorms, but white students could still refuse a black roommate.

VINCE MCCOY: When I came to be a student, I didn’t realize how bad things had been for black students at Northwestern and how much they had improved just by the time I got there. I was used to being at an integrated institution, my high school had been integrated, so there was no culture shock for me coming to Northwestern as far as, like, for some of those early students who had not really been around a lot of other white students. Plus, I had already come two summers as a cherub. So I felt like I was just coming back home.

ALEX CHUN: Vince lived in a triple in Asbury Hall. His two roommates were also music majors. There were around 30 men living in the dorm, and Vince said they were close and took care of one another.

VINCE MCCOY: I felt that I was in a safe place, and I didn’t really feel that overly anxious about coming out to my roommates. But really, coming out to them was less about them needing to know, as much as I needed to tell them. It was part of my coming out process for myself. So I wanted these two guys to be the first people that I told about it formally. There were other people who probably suspected. Their gaydar was probably going off. And, so, I made this big, big point of telling my roommates, “Okay, now I got to talk to you on Sunday night. Everybody has to be here at 7:00 on Sunday night.”

ALEX CHUN: Vince chose Sunday night because he knew it was one of the few times that the three of them wouldn’t be in rehearsals. So, Sunday night came. Vince sat down his roommates, and they looked at him expectantly. 

VINCE MCCOY: And I lost my nerve, went out in the hallway and started pacing the hallway. And that made them even more nervous. Like, “Oh my God, what is he gonna tell us?” So I finally got my nerve, came back into the room, told them, and they breathed this big sigh of relief. They said, “Oh my God, you know, you scared us. We thought you had killed somebody or something.” They just thought that I was going to tell them something really horrible, and they were just so relieved we had to laugh. We all had a good laugh over that because, you know, it was just something that I had just built up as a big event that turned out not to be with them.

ALEX CHUN: Vince had found community and support in his dorm. But he was also looking for something more. A community of those similar to him. And one day in class, he saw a classified ad in The Daily Northwestern. It said that the Gay Liberation Front was holding a meeting on Thursday, and that anyone interested in attending should call the number listed.

VINCE MCCOY: And when I saw that ad, the words “gay” just seemed to be strobing at me on the page. It was like, “Woah! Oh, my God.” And I slammed my paper shut, like other people around me could know that I was reading that, and they knew what I was thinking or something. So I remember slamming the paper shut and sticking it in my pocket. And then of course, in those days, we had no cell phones, so then I had to find a payphone someplace I could make a call privately. 

ALEX CHUN: The first meeting that Vince went to was held at the North Shore Hotel on Chicago Avenue. At the time, the University needed more housing and rented a floor in the hotel for students to live.

VINCE MCCOY: It took me forever to even go into the building. I think I circled the building about three times. And then when I went inside, it was a building that had a doorman and I thought, “Oh man, I gotta tell this doorman where I’m going?” And I just told him the apartment number but I thought, “Oh, he knows. He knows this little queer boy is going into some meeting.”

ALEX CHUN: When Vince finally reached the room, he could hear voices behind the door. But he was so nervous that it took him ten minutes to muster the courage to knock. When he did, the door swung open, and the first thing Vince saw… was a welcoming smile.

VINCE MCCOY: And that smile was just the thing that made me breathe a sigh of relief. It’s like, “Oh, good.” And he just pulled me in. Just, “Come in, come in,” you know? And when I went in there, all these guys would sit around on the floor, you know, this is the 70s, we love to sit on the floor. Even if there’s furniture, we’re going to sit on the floor. And they were having this heated discussion about going to some demonstration in Washington, D.C. that weekend, and I’m like, “Whoa, I’m not ready for that.” And so I just stood there just looking from face to face. But what struck me is I had never been in a room with gay men my own age. And that was kind of like, “Oh man, I’m home.” 

ALEX CHUN: Vince remembers there being around 25 men, but he says the Gay Liberation Front never kept rosters of who attended the meetings to ensure anonymity and protection. Vince remembers the Gay Liberation Front being very politically active during the first year he was involved. However, he wasn’t quite ready to participate in their demonstrations.

VINCE MCCOY: They were sort of founded right after Stonewall riots and all of that, at the start of the gay liberation movement, and they were about going to demonstrations, and that’s often what they did. And I didn’t ever participate in that, certainly not my first year, because I was just getting myself together personally, and I wasn’t ready to, you know, make that kind of open statement to be carrying a picket sign someplace.

ALEX CHUN: But as the years passed, the group slowly moved away from political demonstrations, focusing more on education and visibility.

VINCE MCCOY: I was always happy to go to a dorm and have a fireside and talk about gay issues, or go to a class and talk to the class about gay issues. And that has a political side to it too, because anytime any gay man is out there talking about gay issues and willing to be known on campus as a gay person, that’s political right in itself. 

ALEX CHUN: Vince made himself a public person on campus, never shying away from his identity. When he was 19, he was asked to be on Solid Black, a call-in show held in Chicago.

VINCE MCCOY: We went down there; I think there were four of us. I was the only one from Northwestern. The other three were from (the) University of Chicago, and it was a call-in show where it started out with the host asking us questions, and then people could call in with their questions. There was a question, I think, about being black and gay. And one of the issues that I had at the time — I wouldn’t say it was my issue — the issue that some people had, was they thought I should be spending more of my time with FMO and the black student organizations, rather than spending my time with the gay liberation groups. The stand I took was that I’m both black and gay, and I’m not going to separate them. So you don’t get to choose between them. So if you can’t take it as a match set, then I guess it’s just not gonna work for us.

ALEX CHUN: Eventually, Vince became the first black president of the Gay Liberation Front. He wanted to make the Gay Liberation Front more visible. At the time, Norris University Center had just been built, so Vince began hosting meetings in a reserved conference room.

VINCE MCCOY: Now one of the reasons was I lived in a dorm, and I didn’t have any place to host a meeting. But I also just wanted to just make it more visible. And I wanted myself to be more visible, so that way, when I would be recognized, say, walking down Sheridan Road, to me, that just meant I was doing my job. 

ALEX CHUN: As president, Vince held numerous fireside chats in dorms across campus, he formed a speaker’s bureau, so people could formally ask a speaker from the Gay Liberation Front to come to their class and speak about issues. And he also set up a phoneline that ran two nights a week for anyone who needed support or wanted to chat with a representative of the Gay Liberation Front. Every Friday night, the Gay Liberation Front hosted coffee house meetings as a social event.

VINCE MCCOY: And different people would come, you know, it wouldn’t always be the same people every week. Sometimes some of my fellow music students would come and we’d see each other and say, “Oh, hey, there you are!” And we would both think to ourselves, “I was pretty sure about you… now I know!” And that was always fun, when that happened. Because one time when that happened, I remember somebody, when they saw me, they turned around and left. So they weren’t quite ready to be seen by somebody they knew. 

ALEX CHUN: But Vince found more than community during his years with the Gay Liberation Front. It was in a meeting at Norris when Vince met the man who would eventually be his life partner.

VINCE MCCOY: I can see him walking in the room right now, looking scared, like it was his first time. I was president by that point, so I was leading the meeting. And I remember he came in and was looking scared and anxious as we all do the first time we came. He didn’t say very much. But then he called me later in the week, just to ask some question or something. And a friendship sort of developed from there.

ALEX CHUN: After he had graduated, Vince began working in the Northwestern Libraries, where he still works today. In 1995, he helped in the fight for same-sex benefits for Northwestern staff. This allowed for Vince’s partner, Wayne, to be covered by Vince’s insurance. Vince has also worked in Change Makers on campus and is a part of the Gender-Queer, Non-Binary, Transgender Task Force. In 2008, the Vince McCoy Honorary Leadership Award was created.

VINCE MCCOY: But what I’m proud to know is that there’s a continuous line of gay organizations, and that’s a pretty much unbroken line, you know, they’ve been more active some years, less active some years, but it’s never disappeared entirely. And that has kept up that entire time. 

ALEX CHUN: In 2019, Vince attended the Northwestern Lavender Graduation for the first time, a ceremony that celebrates the achievements of LGBTQ+ graduates.

VINCE MCCOY: They’ve had it certainly before last year, but this was the first time I ever went. In 1970 we never dreamed it would be an official University event — honoring LGBTQ students. Seeing all of those proud and joyful students in that room just brought me to tears. It was like a dream come true. It’s something that is like, this is what we’ve been working for for all these years. And here it is now. The smiles on their faces, it was just kind of overwhelming to me, because it was just something that felt like the culmination of what we’d been trying to do on campus. You know, the reason that I went and did firesides in all these dorms and went to talk to classes, here’s now the fruit of our labors.

VINCE MCCOY: My song is now finished, at least for today. Please, never be afraid to sing your own song.

ALEX CHUN: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Alex Chun. Thanks for listening to another episode of Defining Safe. This episode was reported and produced by me, Alex Chun. The summer managing editors of the Daily are Sneha Dey and James Pollard. The summer editor-in-chief is Emma Edmund. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @apchun01

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