“I was terrified” — Van Leer ’78 describes being gay in the 1970s

The Rev. Lois Van Leer attended Ripon at a time when gay students had very few outlets to discuss their sexuality. She realized as a sophomore that she is a lesbian, but she also knew she wanted to be a minister. At the time, those were considered conflicting interests by many. 

“I was at Ripon from 1974-1978. I was just coming into knowledge of my affectional identity as lesbian. I thought I was the only one in the world! That’s being 19 years old,” says Lois now. “To my knowledge, there were no out students or faculty, even though I would later find out about students and at least one faculty member who were queer. What I knew instinctively was that it had to be hidden at all costs, but it was a sort of glass closet. I am sure people knew, but it just wasn’t talked about. There was no student organization for queer folk during those years — not even an underground network. We were on our own.”

Lois recalls that Steve Gould, hall director for Scott Hall, tried to get her to open up one night. “Despite his efforts, I just wouldn’t. I was terrified,” she says. “We didn’t have words and there weren’t a lot of resources. Remember this was pre-Internet. It was rather isolating. As a friend said to me, ‘closets are no place for people.’” 

After graduating from Ripon in 1978, Lois went on to attend Yale Divinity School and was ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC) in 1983. Though she was not the first out lesbian to be ordained in the UCC, she was ordained at a time when openly gay clergy were not hired if they told the truth about who they were. Conversely, if they lied about who they were in order to get hired, then later told the truth they were quickly fired. She served as a campus minister at Oregon State University; and as the Minister to Youth and then the Associate Minister at the Corvallis First Congregational United Church of Christ in Corvallis, Oregon, a college town 80 miles south of Portland. In 2001, she began the process of seeking dual standing with the Unitarian Universalist Association and served their churches in Bozeman, Montana, Woodinville, Washington, and Eugene, Oregon. She retired in June 2021 and was made Minister Emerita in 2022.

In 1987, a number of anti-gay measures began to be placed on ballots throughout Oregon — efforts that would continue well into the 2000s. To fight this, Lois — together with her former partner and many others from the queer community — helped found After 8, an organization dedicated to political action, advocacy and education around queer rights. For her efforts, Lois was met with death threats (which she detailed in an article for the July 19, 1993, issue of TIME magazine called “Coming Out in the Country”).

Through her involvement with After 8, Lois helped bring many well-known Queer rights activists to Corvallis. She also wrote reader’s theater pieces about HIV/AIDS and Queer Youth that were performed in many venues in Oregon and Montana. After being divorced from her first wife, Lois focused her justice efforts around racial justice and empowering trans persons within the congregations she served.

Lois married her second wife, Lori, three times — once in a church ceremony prior to the United States legalization of same-sex marriage, once legally in Canada, and finally at City Hall in Seattle on Dec. 9, 2012, the first day it was legal for same-sex couples to marry in the state of Washington. Lori died in 2020 after years of illness.

Lois was inducted into the Ripon College Athletic Hall of Fame in 1998. She was a four-year letter winner in volleyball, basketball and track and field.

“It never occurred to me to share my identity with any faculty member,” Lois says. “That was beyond risky. I know now that Coach Elaine Coll would have been an incredible support.” 

She says both misogyny and homophobia were inherent in the athletic department during her time as a student at Ripon, though often those views “came out sideways rather than directly.” 

She is now an active grandmother to a 4-year-old granddaughter and 3-year-old grandson. She and her dog, Oso, live in Eugene, Oregon. In her free time, she travels, kayaks, reads, gardens and plays pickleball.

“I had blamed Ripon for what was a very painful and somewhat damaging time, but once again, in retrospect, those were the times,” she says. “And I had too much internalized homophobia of my own to be out.” 

In 1998, a group of Ripon College students participated in a Habitat for Humanity project in Oregon. Lois says the students made it a point to visit her at the church she was serving at the time. “When they heard my hurt about what Ripon was like for me, they wanted to know what they could do to make it better,” she says. “They ended up inviting me to campus to speak both in classes and to give a ‘lecture’ (she discussed the gay rights movement during a public talk in March 1999). It was a very healing process for me. I know that times have changed, and I know that Ripon has changed with them.”

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Photo of Ripon College alumna Lois Van Leer, Class of 1978