The Queer Student Union has overcome fear, prejudice and discrimination to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and recognition for the past half century. Colorful and lively celebrations have taken place around Grounds to commemorate this historic milestone. In light of this anniversary, members of the University community have reflected on the early and difficult past of the organization, what they have achieved and what they still strive to accomplish.
First established as the Gay Student Union in 1972, the organization quickly faced its first obstacle after requesting $45 from the Student Council for general needs. This simple request for funds was met with bureaucratic opposition, eventually reaching the Student Affairs and Athletics Committee of the Board of Visitors. The issue concluded with the Board suggesting to deny the request for funds on the basis of preserving the heteronornative notion that sexual behavior should only occur between males and females.
This was just the beginning of the many challenges the GSU would face throughout its existence at the University. In the 1970s, the organization struggled to find a safe place on Grounds to exist.
Andy Humm, College alumnus and president of GSU in 1975, recounted how the group used to meet in the Wesleyan Church. He described the difficulties of being openly gay at the University and the harrasment he endured.
“After I came out in my fourth year — publicly — [my first-year roommate] wouldn't speak to me anymore,” Humm said. “[Someone] painted my car and painted a big penis on my driveway … I also taught Sunday school in those days of the Catholic parish, there were people who wanted to have me fired. [But] the priest stood up for me.”
Edward Finley, assistant commerce professor and 1987 College alumnus, said he had to hide his identity throughout his college career in order to protect himself from discrimination and hostility. Finley attended the GSU dances, but under the radar. Finley was a student just under a decade after smoke bombs and firecrackers had been thrown into two GSU dances, demonstrating the present danger of participating in the organization’s events.
“The very first time that I went [to a dance], there was still a fair bit of stigma attached to it. It's not clear how much of that was in my head, and how much was around me, but I'm pretty sure there was plenty around me,” Finley said. “So therefore, I had to lie to my suitemates and make some excuse for where I was going and worried that I might see somebody [I knew] in there.”
The lack of a safe space for LGBTQ+ students persisted through the 1990s. In November of 1996, three men, posing under the false pretenses of potential male partners, brutally beat Evan James Kittredge, University employee and alumnus, going as far as to urinate on him and burn him with a cigarette. Kittredge was left severely injured and locked in the trunk of his own car before authorities discovered him roughly 40 hours later. Despite this, the GSU continued to make an effort in becoming a more representative organization of LGBTQ+ students at the University.
In 1998, the group changed its name to the Lesbian and Gay Student Union in order to include women. By 2002, however, the organization had changed its name to encompass students of all kinds of identities and orientations to what it is today — the Queer Student Union.
Mae Hovland, fourth-year Architecture student and president of the QSU, takes pride in how far the organization has come since its founding by becoming more inclusive of all LGBTQ+ students and students of color through its name.
“Gay [Student Union] as a whole was a very white male [organization],” Hovland said. “Within the past 30 yeras, we became what we’re called now — QSU — which is trying to include all groups within that umbrella.
In a society where heterosexuality has been established as the norm, QSU has provided students with a sense of solidarity and community. Second-year College student Hannah Luviano expressed how the organization has helped her feel connected.
“I think that it provided a sense of comfort and community and given me the opportunity to know that there's other people who understand how I feel — they understand my same anxieties about being queer at U.Va., predominantly in a heteronormative world, they understand me, relate to me and they're willing to listen to me,” Luviano said.
In 2001, the organization was also able to obtain a spot in Newcomb Hall to meet as an organization in the LGBTQ+ Center, which is commonly known as QC for short. The center originally resided in the basement of Newcomb, but acquired a space on the third floor in 2020 that has more floor space and windows to allow natural lighting in through student advocacy.
Emily Garcia, fourth-year College student and QC volunteer, witnessed the transition of the center from a small, cramped basement space to a more elegant and colorful social area on the third floor. She was pleased with the change and how it helps promote visibility and recognition for LGBTQ+ students at the University.
“I think representation does matter, and the fact that it's been raised up [to the third floor] means that we're more visible to the school and more people in general just walking by will see the center and be able to converse to different people,” Garcia said.
The QC has served as a safe space for many students at the University who seek to find more people like themselves without fear of judgment or exclusion. The creation of the QC has also enabled Multicultural Student Services and QSU to host a variety of events for students to engage with one another and find shared meaning in their community.
Ankit Agrawal, fourth-year Commerce student and QC volunteer, spoke to this sentiment and how it has transformed his experiences at the University.
“Having a space like the Queer Student Union, and other similar queer spaces like the LGBTQ+ Center, they’re supporting systems with programming and [enabled] meeting some of the other people who were involved,” Agrawal said. “I think really [it] served as a space for not only finding support, but also friendship — people that I've met through those kinds of spaces are some of the closest friends that I've made at this university.”
The QSU has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the organization’s founding by hosting events like Drag Bingo and the Sapphic Circle Picnic. Agrawal attended the group’s Histories of QTBIPOC Excellence and described how it highlighted important LGBTQ+ alumni of color at the University and spoke about their work.
“They discussed figures that were historic, alumni and current students, who were queer students of color who have done [and] amazing work and progress at this university.” Agrawal said.
One of these figures at the University right now is fourth-year College student Abel Liu — the University’s first Chinese American Student Council President and the first university student government president who was openly transgender upon election in the country.
Liu recognizes the monumentality of his presidency and how it has helped shed light on trans and LGBTQ+ issues that students like him face every day.
“The most significant part of my being trans and being president is that the representation idea also serves as a means of education for a lot of administrators who may not have had direct exposure to queer trans issues before our relationship,” Liu said. “Now they realize how their work impacts queer and trans students every day.”
Though the group has made great strides towards supporting LGBTQ+ students at the University, members of the organization also noted some shortcomings. Agrawal acknowledged a lack of diversity within the group, which he attributed to the University as a predominately white institution more broadly. Still, Agrawal expressed satisfaction in how QSU has made an effort to be more inclusive and cognizant of supporting marginalized groups.
“U.Va., in and of itself, is very white — it's a predominantly white institution,” Agrawal said. “Its history means that it was built and made and primarily serves white people — white cis and straight students. In that context, I think the QSU has been able to make strides and leaps and bounds towards offering a space of support and community for queer students, and I think that they're continuing to do that work now for queer students of color.”
Luviano agreed, adding that not all spaces meant for LGBTQ+ students at the University always feel particularly accepting for students of color.
“A lot of the queer spaces at U.V.a. are very dominantly white and they don't feel very welcoming to students of color,” Luviano said. “I think making more efforts to emphasize the work that queer people of color have done for the LGBT community within QSU’s broader goals and emphasis [would improve QSU], and just having more people of color volunteers in the center.”
Looking to the future, QSU is currently working on several initiatives to improve student life for LGBTQ+ on Grounds and gain more recognition. Hovland looks to enact change in the University community through the QSU’s three priorities of activism, education and community engagement.
“We've been working for a while on trying to get more open housing options, so if you don't fit in male or female dorms,” Hovland said. “Education can be within the communities, so sexual health education, or can be trying to educate the broader U.Va. community about queer issues.”
Luviano feels that the University does not do enough to help educate students on safe sex practices, which can perpetuate misunderstandings. As a first-year resident advisor, Luviano recognizes the importance of using gender inclusive language and pushing for safe sex practices for all kinds of students and situations.
“As a resident advisor, I tried to break some of that [heteronormativity] down by trying to use gender inclusive language by providing both dental dams and female condoms and male condoms to my residents,” Luviano said. “[I’m] just trying to encourage open and inclusive language when we are talking about relationships or hookups or crushes — we need to work on being more inclusive rather than just assuming someone's orientation.”
As an alumnus, Finley added that from his experience as a student in the 1980s, as well as a member of College Republicans and Honor, have led him to hope for QSU to be more inclusive of students from the entire political spectrum.
“We're talking about ideological diversity, intellectual diversity [and] racial diversity in so many aspects at the University today — the middle [of the political spectrum] seems to be missing,” Finley said. “I think what I would want for the Queer Student Union, is to find ways … to make their organization more welcome to people who maybe don't share their political ideology.”
Assistant Director of MSS Alex Winkowski is grateful to be able to witness the 50th anniversary of the QSU’s existence after being a part of the University community itself for three years. They look forward to the future to continue and stregthen the legacy that the QSU and other LGBTQ+ advocates have begun.
“I continue to work toward a future at U.Va. where every trans and queer student has a place where they feel affirmed,” Winkowski said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily. “The LGBTQ+ community is not a monolith, and I’m excited to work with QSU to explore more ways to create inclusive environments for trans and queer students.”
With the past and present in mind, students are excited to see the future of the QSU and LGBTQ+ activism at the University in their efforts to create a more equitable and safe environment.
“I'm excited to see where they go,” Agrawal said. “We'll be able to continue to see the queer community and queer people of color flourish even more.”