Opening the Door

 

Pair recalls trials, triumph of founding The Bridge at Colby

By Sarah Tuff
Photography by Fred Field
 

It was 1974, five years after the hot summer night when Manhattan's Stonewall Bar was raided by police and gay patrons fought back"a seminal moment in the history of gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights. Seniors at Colby, Barbara Badger (now Euan Bear) and Nancy Snow (now Nancy Snow Littlefield) were on a path that would take them to a major milestone in the state of Maine.

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Bridge founders Nancy Snow Littlefield '74, left, and Euan Bear '74 (formerly Barbara Badger).
Illustration by Fred Field
Bear, who grew up in Maine and New Hampshire, and Littlefield, from New Jersey, had bonded through work at a Girl Scout camp and at break-of-dawn practices for the College's woodsmen's team"chopping trees, rolling logs, and tossing pulp. They also shared an interest in God and faith and joined Colby's chapter of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. But then, after they had moved in together for senior year, something changed.

"An ex-lover of mine came to visit," Bear said. "And [Littlefield] found herself being jealous."

"A light went on," Littlefield recalled.

"We became lovers," Bear said.

There were few local outlets for lesbians at the time; Bear recalls rumors of a gay bar in Waterville but was apprehensive about being assaulted or harassed while en route and never tried to find the place. They road-tripped with other Colby students to the University of Maine, where the brand-new Wilde-Stein Club held a dance. The Colby pair"with little grounding in gay culture or history"were taken aback by the people they saw, who seemed to embody all sorts of gay stereotypes. Finding little solace in the few copies of gay literature in Colby's stacks"Littlefield still remembers the call numbers, HQ76"they decided they would meet with the dean of students, Willard Wyman '56.

"I was both defiant and scared to death," Bear said. "We were breaking new ground."

"They wanted a student club and I saw nothing odd about it," said Wyman, who had returned to Colby from Stanford University, near the social-activism epicenter of San Francisco. That background, he said, "was probably helpful" in his handling of the proposal.

#glbttiqqalum#right#300#"We wanted an acknowledgment that not everyone was cut from the same cookie-cutter. That, guess what, all those dances and barely disguised husband/wife social events didn't mean anything to us," Bear said. "We wanted an officially sanctioned way to socialize and find each other. We wanted to do it safely."

Fine, said Wyman; they would just need a faculty advisor for their club. Bear and Littlefield approached Michelle Heitzman, who taught their women's studies course. "She wrote us back this letter that was so loving and caring," Bear recalled, her voice thick with emotion. "The opening line was 'Dear Gentlepeople,' and it talked about how proud and honored she was, that she would of course do it."

"She was way ahead of us," Littlefield said. "We were coming from the worst end and actually really struggling with it."

"I think we were a little ahead of most schools," Wyman said. "There were a lot of wonderful students [at Colby] with big hearts, and a milieu at the school that was kind."

But there were a couple of unkind reactions to the arrival of the new club on campus. Unsure of how their fellow students would react to the group, the women settled on the name "as kind of a hedge," said Littlefield. "We didn't want to say, 'We're gay!' but we wanted to be a bridge between the gay and the straight, not like 'We're wild-in-the-streets gay activists' or something."

"For the most part we were ignored or distantly accepted," Bear said. "Except for the frat guys ripping down our meeting and event notices. We received no death threats or anything like that"just all those pre-printed copies of sermons condemning homosexuality and consigning us to eternal hellfire. And I'm pretty sure those came from members of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship."

Eventually the women were kicked out of the prayer group. In the group's view, Bear recalls, she and Littlefield were "unrepentant" because they were unwilling to stop being lovers or leading and participating in The Bridge. "I have to laugh," Bear said. "Of course we were unrepentant; we were having a good time!"

But not entirely good. After meeting for weeks with the group for discussion and prayer, the pair found themselves being escorted by members from class to class, preached at and prayed over, Bear said. "We did not give in," she said. "We found spiritual sanctuary with the Roman Catholic priest who served the campus."

Some other students"including male and female members of the woodsmen's team"were accepting, Bear said. As Littlefield recalls, The Bridge decided to hold an open dance in the basement of Runnals, in the same room in which she and Bear had met with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. They bought snacks and posted signs while Wyman decided to lend a hand, including taking steps to deter any would-be troublemakers. "I got some guys who I knew who were wonderful people to go to the dance," he said.

The dance went smoothly, The Bridge continued to meet, and in the spring of 1974 Bear and Littlefield graduated and hightailed it out west, with little thought of what would happen to their club. "It wasn't my problem any more," Bear said.

"I really expected it to fade out," Littlefield said, "as it was so small at the time."

Thirty years later, The Bridge now has more than 100 members. Each week they are hosts for the Queer Tea, they travel to regional events, and they have invited speakers like Candace Gingrich, lesbian activist half-sister of conservative Congressman Newt Gingrich. To know that the work of The Bridge continues clearly touches Littlefield, who works in information technology for the University of Vermont, and Bear, an activist, author, and editor of Vermont's Out in the Mountains newspaper. Though they broke up shortly after graduation"Bear is now in a civil union with a long-time partner while Littlefield is in a straight marriage"they share a spark when reminiscing about The Bridge and its place in the world of gay rights.

"There's been tremendous progress, and the anti-gay marriage initiatives are actually evidence of that," Littlefield said. "Just moving from 'the love that dare not speak its name' to a central political issue is huge."

"We are a long way from a 'post-gay' world where orientation doesn't matter," Bear said, bringing up the decision in late 2004 by CBS and NBC to ban a "controversial" advertisement for the United Church of Christ that shows two men holding hands. "Once again, the powers that be will try to shove us back in the closet. But it's too late: we're out, at least two generations since Stonewall and the founding of The Bridge."