“The aim of a good community should be, among other things, to comprehend the simple and yet profound fact that sexual identity and affinity is mysterious, profound, and crucial to human life.”

–President William M. Chace

LAST MARCH, the University celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Emory Pride Banquet–in this case not pride in scholarship or sports or service, but gay pride. More than a hundred students, faculty, administrators, and alumni gathered in the Miller-Ward Alumni House to mark the occasion. When President William M. Chace dispensed awards, Katie Kilborn ’02C, a tall, lanky young woman with close-cropped hair dyed hot pink, came forward to claim her prize for having written the top undergraduate essay in the field of gay studies. Her parents clapped proudly as she shook Chace’s hand.

“I want to thank Emory for being so welcoming to its gay students,” Kilborn said. “I would not be here if it did not have such good policies and support. That’s why I chose Emory.”

A pause.

“Well, actually, I came here because when I drove in to visit with my mom, I saw a girl with a shaved head going into Caribou Coffee,” she admitted. “But I’m sure she would not have been here if Emory were not so welcoming to gay people.”

Kilborn, an interdisciplinary studies major and theater minor, graduated with honors in May. As a student, says she always felt fairly comfortable being open about her sexual orientation. But unlike her heterosexual peers, she did not take this comfort for granted.

Over the last decade in particular, University leaders have taken deliberate, and sometimes difficult, steps to ensure its gay students, faculty, and staff the welcoming atmosphere Kilborn so casually described. “It’s very unusual to have the system above you be more progressive than the peer group you’re a part of,” she says.

The annual Pride Banquet marks the anniversary of a landmark in Emory’s history, a 1992 demonstration in which about a hundred gay students gathered to protest what they took to be a lack of fairness and support from University leadership. Those students’ widely publicized action did not represent the first time gays on the Emory campus were acknowledged by the administration, but it was the first time they drew together and spoke out with one voice. Then-President James T. Laney listened and answered with an attitude of tolerance and unapologetic respect that set a new tone for the University community. In the months and years that followed, Emory became a pioneer among Southern universities by taking a supportive stance on gay issues.

Prior to the protest, gays had one clear protection under University policy: sexual orientation was included in a statement forbidding “discriminatory harassment.” Gay support groups had long been a fixture on the student activities scene, and in 1991, then-Dean of Campus Life William H. Fox ’79PhD had helped establish an Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) Life, which was staffed part-time by graduate students.

“I felt we were already ahead of the rest of the South on these issues, and Laney’s response to those students only affirmed our commitment,” says Fox, now senior vice president of Institutional Advancement. “Laney was responding to the real needs of the students, not to the fact that they held a protest. But that event did raise our sensitivity and awareness. And we were not speaking hollow words. I’m still very proud of what we’ve done.”

Less than a year after the demonstration, the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Life got a full-time director, at the time the only position of its kind in the relatively conservative South. A committee appointed in 1992 by Laney to advise him on gay issues grew into the President’s Commission on LGBT Concerns, a body still at work today. In 1993, Emory became one of the first Southern institutions to add sexual orientation to those categories protected by its Equal Employment Opportunity Policy. And in 1995, administrators and the Board of Trustees again led the region by offering domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples.

These achievements, among others, were praised at the Pride Banquet’s tenth anniversary: a celebratory dinner set against a backdrop of rainbow balloons and a life-size cardboard likeness of Xena (the TV warrior princess made famous by her lesbian cult following), who stood behind the podium sporting a rainbow lei. When he took the podium to present Kilborn with her award, President Chace unexpectedly grabbed Xena and pulled her suggestively close, amid appreciative laughter and cheering. Although his playful manner at that moment belied the controversy and criticism he may have faced at times, Chace has kept to the path, forged by Laney, of inclusion and acceptance of gay people at Emory. He has not missed the Emory Pride Banquet since his arrival in 1993.

“The aim of a good community should be, among other things, to comprehend the simple and yet profound fact that sexual identity and affinity is mysterious, profound, and crucial to human life.” Chace says. “This community has gone a long way in understanding that fact; doubtless it has further steps to take before the mystery, in all of its contradictions and confusions, will be disclosed. I cannot predict the next unfolding, but history tells us that the steps are infinite. I am proud of how far we have gone.”

Read about the 1992 genesis of Emory pride > > >




© 2002 Emory University