UNTIL A QUARTER century ago, gays were all but invisible on most Southern college campuses, and Emory was no exception. “In the late 1960s, nobody on any college campus talked about being gay,” says Saralyn Chesnut ’94PhD (left), director of Emory’s Office of LGBT Life, who received her undergraduate degree from the University of Georgia in 1972. “The only time I ever heard about it was in a class on abnormal psychology.”

Jim Marks ’70C, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Lambda Literary Foundation and editor of the Lambda Book Report, says that while there was no shortage of political activity on campus when he was a student in the late 1960s, the sexual revolution and accompanying openness about sexual orientation lagged behind. Marks was beginning to sense that he might be gay during his student days, but he didn’t feel secure enough to acknowledge his feelings to his friends.

“I think I did have some awareness, but I was just not comfortable coming out,” he says. “I sure didn’t want my fraternity brothers to know. But I came out the summer after I graduated, so I was definitely figuring things out at that point.”

A decade later, little had changed. Like Marks, Steve Koval ’83C remembers almost nothing about gays on the Emory campus. “I was oblivious to the gay scene, if there was one,” says Koval, an Atlanta attorney who came out as a gay man after being married a few years. “There is no question that people were just more closeted back then. To think I went through four years of college and can’t think of anyone I knew to be openly gay. That says something.”

The Student Government Association–of which Koval was president–funded a gay student organization, but the identities of the students were kept secret. “We didn’t even know who the contact person was,” Koval says. “It was such a touchy thing back then.”

In the mid-1980s, students formed the Emory Lesbian and Gay Organization (ELGO), a group that offered both support and advocacy. In 1987, ELGO leaders and a handful of openly gay faculty and staff members began an effort to get sexual orientation added to the protected categories of the University Equal Opportunity Policy. At that time, gay equality was fast becoming a hot issue on college campuses as the national movement picked up steam. More than sixty universities, most in the Northeast (and none in the South), had a policy that specifically protected gay people from discrimination in hiring, job security, benefits and use of facilities, and pay based on sexual orientation. Leaders of the 1987 effort cited Emory’s “progressive stance on human rights” in their argument for the change, while outlining the negative effects the omission of sexual orientation had on gays as well as the general University community.

ELGO conducted a survey of gays on campus, to which fifty-one gay or bisexual students, alumni, and staff responded. The results indicated that 95 percent of respondents had hidden their sexual orientation from at least one member of the Emory community. Seventy-one percent had experienced some form of violence or harassment, and 98 percent had heard anti-gay remarks from colleagues at Emory. “Many lesbian, gay, and bisexual members of the Emory community live in a world of secretiveness and fear,” the survey concluded.

Included in these records, now housed in the Office of LGBT Life, are fifteen personal statements from gay men and lesbians, most of them students. A 1988 graduate wrote of being asked to resign as a Bible study group leader because he was known to be gay. One recalled frantically scrubbing the word “FAG,” scrawled in red magic marker, off his door before his parents arrived to take him to lunch; a woman found the word “DYKE” scratched into her door and quickly taped up a poster to cover it. Another male student was asked to resign as student director of the choir after his photo appeared in the Emory Wheel carrying the ELGO banner.

Buried in the LGBT office files are also various pieces of documentation of ugly incidents, some of an alarmingly violent nature. A flyer faxed to ELGO around this period in 1987 has these words scrawled at the bottom: “Dear ELGO, I have a problem about homosexuality. It exists. It is obvious that all fags should be killed yet there are still organizations such as this. . . . Please post information concerning meeting times and locations so I will know where to hide the bombs. Sincerely, A concerned and moral citizen.”

By all accounts, such hateful extremism was the exception at Emory, and incidents were dealt with on a case-by-case basis. But without protective policies being spelled out, ELGO leaders argued, victims of harassment were at the mercy of individual administrators–however they might choose to interpret non-discrimination clauses.

When Donna Smith ’91PhD came to Emory as a graduate student, the fledgling gay community was beginning to flex its wings; yet the problems of anti-gay harassment had not been dealt with in any formal way. “Freshmen were showing up on campus who were out, they were getting harassed, and their [resident advisors] were not at all prepared to handle it,” Smith says. “The kids would get nasty notes, graffiti, snide remarks in the hallways. I felt like the undergraduates were the most vulnerable constituents we had. They needed to be focusing their energies on studying and developing as young adults, not dealing with harassing situations.”

With the leadership and support of Fox, then dean of Campus Life, Smith in 1991 helped to establish the Office of LGBT Life, which was staffed twenty hours a week by herself and Michael Wyatt.

“An increasing number of students were openly declaring their sexual orientation, and there were some I felt needed support systems,” Fox says. “My door was not being knocked down by students in trouble, but I had a general sense that the office was needed at that time in history.”

Less than two years later, Chesnut, a literature scholar, lesbian, feminist, and longtime Atlanta activist, was hired as director of the Office of LGBT Life. She told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “This just feels like the most natural thing in the world for me to be doing. My life feels a lot more integrated. As a gay person, you get so used to trying to hide a big part of yourself. It’s just such a relief to not have to do that.”

Chesnut set to work creating programs, counseling students, answering concerns, and generally warming the climate for gays at Emory. She rapidly became involved in making changes on the administrative side of the University as well, working with the President’s Commission on LGBT Concerns. Within a year of her arrival in January 1993, sexual orientation was added to Emory’s Equal Opportunity Policy, a move that had been urged and anticipated by gays and supporters since the unsuccessful 1987 campaign.

Next, Chesnut and a handful of other administrators set their sights on a new front: domestic partnership (DP) benefits. At the time, fewer than thirty universities nationwide–a list that included Harvard, Yale, and Stanford–offered benefits to the partners of employees not legally married (homosexual marriage being illegal in every U.S. state). In July 1995, Emory’s Board of Trustees approved the measure. Duke University took the step that same month, and Emory and Duke became the only two Southern universities to offer DP benefits.

The decision sparked a blaze of reaction on all sides. While Emory publications, the gay Atlanta newspaper Southern Voice, and the AJC received a cascade of letters and editorials lauding the move, there were plenty of dissenters, including a 1942 alumnus who wrote to the AJC that he was now “embarrassed” to call Emory his alma mater.

Today, some 106 University employees take advantage of these benefits, and they have attracted new faculty and staff from institutions that don’t offer such a program.

One of these is Mark Jordan (left) , Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Religion and departing chair of the President’s Commission on LGBT Concerns, who came to Emory in 1999. A highly respected Catholic scholar who is also openly gay, Jordan has written extensively on gays, homophobia, secrecy, and hypocrisy in the Catholic church. His work made him a controversial figure in his former post at the deeply Catholic Notre Dame. When Jordan got an offer from Emory, he called the academic dean at Notre Dame, who quickly promised that whatever Emory was proposing, he’d match it. But Jordan was weary of struggling as a gay Catholic scholar at a conservative institution. He says he had been asking for some time that sexual orientation be added to Notre Dame’s non-discrimination policy, and that gay student groups be officially recognized by the university, to no avail. Now he told the dean there was no point in making him a counter-offer unless it included adding sexual orientation to the non-discrimination clause. Notre Dame’s president said no, and Jordan packed his bags.

“It was an open-and-shut issue for me at that point,” Jordan says, relaxing in his office this spring, where he had been fielding dozens of calls from the New York Times and CNN about the Catholic priest scandal. “I knew Emory had sexual orientation in its non-discrimination and EEO policies. I knew it offered DP benefits. I knew about Saralyn’s office. I had talked to gay faculty here about their experience, and they assured me that, for faculty at least, it was very welcoming.”

When Drew Boles ’02C was looking at colleges, he wanted to find a campus where he could be himself. He had been openly gay since he was fifteen, and he wasn’t about to go back into the closet for the next four years–nor did he wish to spend them looking over his shoulder and scrubbing obscenities off his dorm room door. So finding an environment where he could be comfortably “out” was a top concern for Boles and his parents.

With this in mind, the entire Boles family dropped by Emory’s Office of LGBT Life during their initial visit to meet Chesnut and check out the school’s gay-friendly offerings. “They were concerned about me going to a place where I would be safe,” Boles says. “That was a very big factor in my decision to come to Emory.”

When Boles was a freshman on an all-male hall, someone did scrawl an anti-gay slur on his door. But, “I never felt in danger or anything,” he says. “My RA was very supportive. I just filed a complaint, followed the standard procedure, and went about my life. I think Emory is a really proactive campus, especially with having the office as a safe space. I have felt very comfortable here.”

Boles became the first Emory undergraduate to major in music composition and to present an honors project of original works. He requested and helped to develop the honors track in music composition. In March, three of his compositions were performed at an Emory world premiere.

Increasingly, Chesnut says, gay students, like Boles, are “out” when they arrive at Emory. The Office of LGBT Life produces a complete roster of social events and activities for gay students. Each year Emory’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival draws hundreds of spectators from both within the University community and beyond. Half-a-dozen organizations, including social, religious, and political groups, serve the needs of LGBT people on campus.

If gays at Emory face a challenge now, says Chesnut, it’s apathy.

“[The students] think everything has been done. We’ve become so much a part of the institution that we’ve lost our edge,” Chesnut says. “It’s both good and bad. We still need to raise visibility of gays on campus, to educate others–I still think there is more to be done, much more. We took things so far and we have an obligation to keep pushing, to not just stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. Being a student is about being active, creating social change.”

Others close to Emory suggest that maybe the gay community is just growing up, its members striving for a balanced life in which being gay is only a part of their identity. Catherine Young ’02C, former president of Emory Pride, says she found it tough to keep the one hundred members of this central gay student organization worked up about gay issues, because they were so busy with schoolwork and other time commitments.

But maybe, she suggests, that’s the whole point.

“Ah, the infamous Emory apathy,” she says, with a smile. “It actually gives me a kind of hope when Pride is not so active. It should be okay to not have a common enemy, to be focusing on other aspects of being a student. Maybe that’s a good thing.”



© 2002 Emory University