Find Events Find People Find Jobs Find Sites Find Help Index


March 4, 2002

Pride Banquet to celebrate 10 years of Emory progress

By Eric Rangus


Michael Norris and Alfred Hildebrand entered Emory College as freshmen in the fall of 1991. Neither graduated, but the legacy the pair left behind resonated long after they departed the campus.

An incident in which the two gay students were harassed led to a formal complaint to the administration, then a high-profile protest that morphed into a sit-in at the president’s office, which ushered in a blue-ribbon committee to study the campus climate regarding sexual orientation.

The end result was the creation of the President’s Commission on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Concerns and the expansion of the Office of LGBT Life. Those two organizations, once oddities, are now entrenched and uniformly accepted at Emory.

“I think we’re just a [regular] part of the campus now,” said Saralyn Chesnut, director of the Office of LGBT Life. “It’s not a big deal. When I was hired, it was very controversial and there was all this hoopla about it. In my job description, they couldn’t use the word ‘advocate.’ Now, things have improved dramatically.”

March 2, 1992, was a watershed date in the history of Emory. That afternoon, close to 100 students marched across campus, finishing with several of them staging a sit-in at the office of then-President James Laney. The students, who were primarily gay, were protesting the administration’s handling of a harassment case involving Norris and Hildebrand, and they delivered a nine-point proposal for improvement.

The two students were seen kissing in a common area in Thomas Hall. The ugliness that followed involved around 40 other students threatening them and showering them with obscenities.

Norris and Hildebrand lodged a formal complaint, but they and several other gays on campus were dissatisfied with the administration’s response—which, for instance, did not remove a student advisor who had participated in the harassment. The rally, which received national coverage, followed.

Less than a month after the sit-in, Laney created a blue-ribbon committee to study the campus climate toward homosexuals. That committee grew into the President’s Commission on LGBT Concerns, and each of the demonstrators’ proposed nine points—which included antihomophobia training and the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected category in Emory’s Equal Opportunity Policy statement—were eventually granted.

“Ten years ago, I never would’ve thought we’d make the strides we’ve had,” said Chesnut, who was a graduate student at Emory in 1992 and participated in the demonstration, which also led to the creation of her directorship that fall. Previously, the office had been staffed only by part-time employees.

Norris and Hildebrand, however, never saw the these changes come. Both transferred out of Emory.

Each year since 1993, the first week of March has featured the Pride Banquet, which honors the demonstrators who took to the Quadrangle in demand of equal rights for all lifestyles. it is now a staple of Emory’s spring schedule and carries with it the full blessing and participation of Emory’s highest administrators.

The first Pride Banquet, however, wasn’t really a banquet at all. Instead it was a collection of skits, written and performed primarily by students. A professor read some poetry. No administrator attended.

It wasn’t until a few years later that the event began to resemble its current format of a sit-down dinner with a guest speaker. President Bill Chace will be on hand to deliver a brief address and to present cash awards for best undergraduate and graduate essays on a queer studies topic. This year’s event, which will be held Tuesday, March 5, is undergoing only minor changes. For the first time, the banquet will be held in the Miller-Ward Alumni House, and the dinner will be buffet style.

Chris Copeland, ’97L–’97T, will be the guest speaker, and Mark Jordan, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Religion and chair of the LGBT commission, will emcee the event. A graduate of Emory’s Law and Religion Program, Copeland is associate pastor of Decatur’s Oakhurst Baptist Church. When Oakhurst hired Copeland, who is gay, the Georgia Baptist Convention expelled the church from its membership.

“Our mission is only half complete,” Jordan said. “We’ve made a lot of progress on the hot-point issues, like domestic-partner benefits and antihomophobic programming, but there are still large issues to be resolved.”

One of those large issues, he said, is the somewhat difficult relationship between homosexuals and the Methodist Church. According to Jordan, this struggle makes Copeland’s presence all the more relevant.

“His experiences remind us of the areas in which we haven’t made much progress,” Jordan said.