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“I found that indeed there was a homosexual behind every tree…”: Dan Leonard and the CGA

By Corinne White for the SOHP Field Notes Blog

He still has a bright blue Vote Against Amendment 1 yard sign on the front porch of his crumbling split level, and a tiny rainbow pinwheel flag adorns the top of his driveway.

Inside, from where I sat on the leather La-Z-Boy couch, I could see a bookshelf full of psychological and medical literature about homosexuality, embroidered Bible verses on the walls and a kitschy collection of mugs.

A few sunny Fridays ago, I interviewed Dan Leonard, founder of the Carolina Gay Association, Carrboro resident and registered nurse. During his time at UNC-Chapel Hill, Leonard also worked as a counselor in the Human Sexuality Information and Counseling Services.

When my fellow interns and I decided we would tackle sexuality at UNC in the 1970s as our research topic, I was hesitant to take on such a sensitive topic. But as I dug deeper into the archives in Wilson Library, uncovering letters from alumni angry about the CGA, finding old Lambda newsletters and learning more generally about the LGBT rights movement I became more excited to tackle an under-documented part of history.

As a lifelong North Carolinian, Leonard had extremely valuable insights to share regarding southern identity, discrimination and especially gay life in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area.

Growing up in rural Davidson County, he remembered feeling like an outsider: “I just didn’t fit in. I talked – since my parents were college-educated – I talked like my parents and not country southern people talked. So that got me being odd right off. So being odd or different from such an early age was sort of normative for me, that I never really fit the mainstream anyway. As I say negative statements about homosexuality were not made because it wasn’t discussed.”

Before coming to Chapel Hill for medical school, he had quite an interesting impression of the town: “I had heard from the time I was in junior high or high school that ‘Now, in Chapel Hill there is a queer and a Communist behind every tree.” So you know, when I came here in 1965, I found that indeed there was a homosexual behind every tree – well, every other tree – the Communists were behind every other tree.”

He decided to establish the Carolina Gay Association to give gay students a safe space to meet each other, and most importantly to take part in consciousness-raising groups. The CGA first met at the Newman Catholic Student Center. To increase visibility on campus, the organization posted on the cube in front of the student union, and, in one humorous occasion, on the pillars of Wilson Library: “You know when rush in the fall and all those fraternities and sororities put up rush notices. So one year, someone designed and made a poster that had ‘Lambda Lambda Lambda’ on it and it said ‘Rush the CGA!’”

Leonard continues his work as an advocate for LGBT rights today, as a member of a group for LGBT seniors at Carrboro Town Center.

Listen to other Southern Oral History Program interviews on the history of gay men in the south here.