Gay at U.Va.: Part II
Is the University a welcoming place for its LGBTQ students?
Not even a decade ago, at University events like football games, where the "Good Ol' Song" was sung multiple times by a crowd of thousands, the lyrics "not gay" were often interjected into the second-to-last stanza of the song.
Known infamously as the "not gay chant," these words are no longer a presence at Scott Stadium. Through efforts of numerous student organizations, the tradition that was deemed ugly by most has finally gone out of style.
The popularity and eventual demise of the "not gay chant" tells a narrative not uncommon at the University. Although the University has become progressively more accepting of its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students and faculty, there have always been hurdles, both logistical and cultural, that the LGBTQ communities have had to face.
A rich history\nWhen Kate Ranson-Walsh came to the University as a College student in 1998, she immediately became active in the University's queer community. Her work with the University's Queer Student Union led to the founding of the University's LGBT Student Resource Center.
"I thought it was great that we had this history," Ranson-Walsh said. So she embarked on an academic journey that produced a 68-page thesis and a web archive chronicling the University's LGBTQ history. "I wanted to show that, actually, you are part of a long line of queers," she said.
That history is peppered with both struggles and victories.
Ranson-Walsh and Rod Davis, who graduated from the University in 1983 and now serves as president emeritus of the Serpentine Society, the University's LGBTQ alumni organization, recounted many of these moments, including when Bob Elkins became the first gay resident advisor in 1976.
"At that time LGBT life was locked away safely in the closet," Davis said. "As long as nobody did anything, everything was fine. He was one of the first people who really challenged the University."
Although Elkins was allowed to serve as an RA, he was forced to step down as a leader of what was then known as the Gay Student Union, Ranson-Walsh said. Elkins' story, however, brought together many minority groups on Grounds and engaged the student body, bringing LGBTQ issues to the forefront of University politics.
The GSU also prompted "Blue Jeans Day," an event in which students would wear blue jeans in support of the LGBTQ communities. While the event made it easy for students to show their support for the community, Davis said it also received some backlash from students. Kara Sheridan, who graduated from the University in 1983 and wrote about gay rights for The Cavalier Daily, recounted a similar tale. "Eighteen students signed a letter to the editor saying they had been 'humiliated' because they wore jeans by accident without knowing it was a sign of support and they felt tricked," Sheridan said. She said she and other students responded to the letters by writing letters of their own in support of "Blue Jeans Day."
Since the days of Bob Elkins, the University's LGBTQ communities have progressed substantially. The GSU, which was renamed the Queer Student Union years later, remains the oldest LGBTQ-oriented group in Charlottesville and has been joined by similar groups like Queer and Allied Activism, Sigma Omicron Rho - the University's first queer and allied co-ed fraternity - and groups aimed to serve graduate students, faculty and stuff.
An accepting community?\nBoth gay and straight students at the University have characterized its Grounds as a welcoming place for LGBTQ students - for the most part.
First-year College student Joe Leonard was impressed that the University took an outwardly accepting stance toward the LGBTQ communities during orientation.
"I felt like they had a place for me," he said, adding, "Compared to high school, the community seems much more accepting."
Other students expressed similar sentiments.
Apart from what he described as "a few awkward moments," third-year College student Jonas Creason, who underwent a female-to-male transition during his first year at the University, has had few negative experiences as a student at the University since undergoing his transition. "If you explain that you're a normal person, [other students] are fine with it," he said.
Straight students also seem to view the University as a safe place for LGBTQ students.
"One of my good friends is gay and I don't think he's run into any issues," first-year College student Alex Ham said.
Although some of the University's top administrators say the University values diversity, they also admit that not every group on Grounds stands with the University on that issue.
"We have many resources on Grounds that are geared towards making our community as safe as possible, and messages from all parts of the University that diversity is a value of the institution," said Joy Pugh, assistant dean of students and former program coordinator for the LGBT Resource Center. "At the same time, there is a reality that not all of our community members are supportive of LGBT people."
Allen Groves, associate vice president and dean of students, also noted the dichotomy on Grounds.
"It would be folly to assume that all students on Grounds are fully welcoming and accepting of their LGBT peers, but I believe the vast majority are," Groves said. Groves added that a generational gap relating to LGBTQ issues might also exist at the University. "That's what I love about this generation as opposed to my own: today's students are very comfortable with differences of many types," he said.
Ed Warwick, the current program coordinator for the LGBT Resource Center, said even though the University has many programs, policies and resources in place that suggest a strong value of diversity, the issue of whether or not a student feels safe and welcome as an LGBTQ student at the University depends on the student.
"Many students do feel comfortable and safe being out here," Warwick said. "However, there are certainly members of the U.Va. community that don't support the LGBT community."
The image of the University as a conservative, southern school, however, still remains a pervasive part of the University's culture, according to some students.
"I think that the image of a big southern school in general kind of has a bias against minorities. I'd definitely say there's more conservatism here and they're a little more\nopen about it," Ham said.
Other students acknowledged the role of convention at the University.
"U.Va. is really traditional and has rigid gender roles," said third-year college student Cindy Gray, who serves as co-president of the Queer Student Union. "To dress differently or act differently draws attention," she added.
Many LGBTQ students who feel on the "outside" of University culture often gravitate toward certain groups, while other students who identify as LGBTQ find their own social scene.
"It depends on the student and it depends on their personality," said fourth-year College student Max Krembs, who founded Sigma Omicron Rho. Krembs added that though there are certainly a number of students involved with queer-oriented organizations, that isn't necessarily the norm.
"There are people at U.Va. who are ignorant to the queer community and have a prejudice against us," Krembs said, "The thought is out there, and it's something I think we shouldn't pretend doesn't exist, but I do think it's something we should fight against."
Gay and Greek\nMany LGBTQ students expressed reservations toward the University's prominent Greek community.
"Greek culture is something I steer clear of," second-year College student Conor Sheehey said after recounting a story in which two of his friends were "thrown out" of a fraternity party last year because one of the brothers thought they were gay. "The fact that Greek life is so central to the social scene at U.Va., it makes it difficult," he said.
Sheehey's experience was not the only one of its kind.
"Everyone there is straight," Leonard said of fraternity parties. "You feel like an outcast, like the party isn't for you," he said. "In a society as big as U.Va., you're going to have different types of people. Not everyone is accepting, most would seem to be on Rugby [Road]."
Administrators acknowledge that throughout the years, the Greek system has become more sensitive to the gay community.
"Having been involved in the Greek system for many years now ... I have seen considerable change on this subject over the intervening years," Groves said, adding, "That said, I believe some Greek organizations on Grounds are far more welcoming to gay or lesbian students than many others."
At one point, the University even had a group of students organized around a gay and Greek identity, Warwick said. The group, called the Greek Men's Club, offered support for gay, bisexual and questioning Greek men. The group apparently disbanded, Warwick said, after its members "felt out and supported in their organizations."
The LGBT Resource Center has also worked directly with Greek organizations on Grounds, Warwick said. He added that panels of LGBTQ students and those knowledgeable about the University's "Safe Space" program - which gives individuals and organizations the opportunity to voice their support of the LGBTQ community - have reached out to Greek organizations on Grounds.
"We try to offer as much education on the community as we can to the Greek community, and some are quite receptive," Warwick said.
When it comes to being "out" and Greek, Warwick suggests that students find a house "that will support them and allow them to thrive."\nSome students have done exactly that. One such student is Ian Hollands, who graduated from the University in 2010 and was a brother in Delta Sigma Phi.
Although Hollands admits that coming out as a second year just after pledging was not the easiest experience, he said his relationship with his brothers improved as time went on.
"The response was anything but warm," Hollands said. "Some were actively accepting, some were actively rejecting, most were apathetic ... I expected them to accept me for what I had always known about myself, but which they had only known for a very short time," he said. "That was unfair of me."
But Hollands eventually saw a change in attitude. "They came around to be there for me in the end," he said, "just as I would be there for many of them throughout the coming years."
Hollands ultimately enjoyed a positive experience, but he admitted that his situation was probably unique.
"Although I don't for a second accept that there is not an abundance of gays in the Greek system, I think that few fraternities provide an environment which is conducive to coming out," Hollands said.
Although the University's administrators have worked toward creating a Greek system that is accepting of LGBTQ students, Hollands thought more needs to be done to change the Greek community's attitude toward LGBTQ students.
Hollands was also somewhat critical of organizations like the Greek Men's Club, despite being active in such groups while he was a student at the University.
"These groups do not work because their nature is antithetical to closeted and troubled gays, and furthermore, promises little to no anonymity or incentive to participating,"
Hollands said, adding, "You have to understand, the mind of a closeted gay is not a rational one: it is wrought with conspiracies and egocentrism that borders paranoia."
Dane Ferré, interim president of the Inter-Fraternity Council, also said the demand for such a group had been lacking in recent years and participation among its members had halted. However, Ferré said the IFC now has an opportunity to "determine how to meet the needs of gay, questioning or closeted men," to "facilitate a more inclusive and welcoming environment."
Ferre also recognized that while it is difficult to convey the attitudes of individual chapters, he is aware of many instances within the Greek system of gay men coming out as brothers within a fraternity. Ferre said the IFC is certainly in a position to learn from these experiences and to advance current educational resources such as safe space training.
Krembs, one of the founders of Sigma Omicron Rho, said the fraternity has started to fill a void in the LGBTQ communities, which had one organization that mostly focused on education and another that focused on activism, but did not have a group that focused solely on social activities.
"[My friend] saw a void in the community and wanted to create something more social. He had wanted to join the fraternity/sorority system when he was younger but didn't feel welcome in that community so much just because of the fact that he is a transgendered female to male," Krembs said.
While Sigma Omicron Rho currently runs as a contracted independent organization, Krembs said he hopes the organization will receive status within the Multicultural Greek Council in the near future.
Krembs also hopes that the organization will become a bridge between the LGBTQ communities and the general Greek population.
"One of our goals has been to reach out to the Greek community and bridge the gap between the Greek community and the queer community," Krembs said. "I know many people in the queer community don't interact a whole lot with the Greek community. I think that's something that would be a wonderful change, to have all of us interact with each other."
-Charlie Tyson contributed to this report.
Editor's note: This story is part of a three-part series about gay life at the University. Part III focuses on changes that some students believe need to be made moving forward. Part I discusses the University's support for LGBTQ employees.