July 21, 2008
LGBT leader linked activism, academia to make a difference
By Kim Urquhart
In her 15-year tenure as director of the Office of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Life, Saralyn Chesnut ’94G promoted diversity, acceptance and equality, helping shape many of the University’s LGBT policies. So with a sense of satisfaction, she turned over the reins to new director Michael Shutt in June.
“I’m just really happy to have had the opportunity to be a part of making change. And I think Emory will keep moving in the right direction,” says Chesnut, who will continue to teach American and Women’s Studies courses as adjunct assistant professor in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts.
The longtime activist marched across campus and chanted with protesters in March of 1992, dissatisfied with the administration’s response when two gay students were harassed in their residence hall.
In the aftermath of this protest, President Jim Laney appointed a task force to assess the climate for LGB people at Emory and recommend ways to improve it. The first was to hire a full-time professional director to head what was then the Office of LGB Student Life, and enlarge its scope to encompass staff and faculty.
Chesnut was a doctoral candidate in the ILA and teaching writing at Georgia Tech when she saw the employment ad. “When this job came along it was the perfect combination of academia and activism. It was a chance to make a difference here, and also teach on a college campus,” she recalls.
She became the office’s first director in 1993. “At the time there were very few offices like this in the country,” she says. “When I was first hired there was so much energy and enthusiasm, a sense of community. Everyone was in it together pushing for these changes.”
Chesnut set out to ensure that the president’s task force recommendations were implemented. In her first year as director, the University revised its Equal Opportunity Policy to include sexual orientation as a protected category. She helped establish the Gay Pride banquet, Safe Space program, a speaker’s bureau and brought National Coming Out Day to campus.
The momentum continued. Chesnut and the Office of LGB Life were instrumental in winning benefits for students’ and employees’ same-sex domestic partners.
“Emory was on the forefront of universities at the time,” Chesnut says. “More importantly, because Emory is a major employer it really paved the way for the city and the area.”
Another major policy change Chesnut championed was protection for transgender people. In 1998, the department was renamed and expanded as the Office of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Life. In 2006 Emory’s Equal Opportunity Policy was revised to protect transgender people, based on a proposal from the President’s Commission on LGBT Concerns.
Each year, the office sees “more and more first-year students who have already come out,” she notes. “I think our society as a whole has reached a tipping point. I don’t think there is any going back on gay rights,” she says, but “that’s not to say there isn’t opposition.”
Raised in a Southern Baptist family in Tifton, Ga., “I sort of suspected something was different about me, even in high school,” recalls Chesnut. It wasn’t until she went to college at the University of Georgia and fell in love with her sorority sister that she came to terms with that difference.
She moved to Atlanta in the 1970s to join the thriving lesbian/feminist community in Little Five Points. She later published an oral history of the neighborhood’s Charis Books & More, the South’s oldest feminist bookstore.
Chesnut produces oral histories with students in her American and Women’s Studies courses. “It’s a different way to learn history,” she explains. “I’ve amassed quite a few oral histories of gay people here at Emory,” which she plans to archive at Woodruff Library.
She has also led dialogue groups for the Transforming Community Project, which is documenting the history of race at Emory.
“Social justice is one of my core values and I’ll keep being involved,” says Chesnut. She will continue her work with the Emory Gay and Lesbian Alumni association to raise funds for an endowed scholarship.
She also wants to travel, garden and cheer on the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. She plans to write as a freelancer, and is earning a Web certificate from Emory Center for Lifelong Learning. Her next project? Creating a wikipedia on gay history.