The year 2000 marked a shift in the direction of both queer life and activism at the University of Richmond. While the ’90s had produced notable gains for the protections of LGBTQ individuals, primarily with the inclusion of sexual orientation in the non-discrimination policy, life in the early 2000s posed many challenges. The lake continued to gender-segregate housing, making causal friendships difficult to forge between men and women.

The Lambda Coalition, the student LGBTQ organization from the late ’80s and ’90s had gone defunct, and thus there was no student organization to either meet other queer students or to organize. In the early 2000s, three different organizations with different purposes began to form to suit different needs. Icebreakers, originally entitled UR Family, was a private group geared toward closeted individuals for discussing issues of sexuality. Common Ground, initially formed in 2003 as the Common Ground Commission, became an office within the University in the summer of 2006, with Glyn Hughes serving as director. With this office, an institutional space for LGBTQ issues and individuals was carved on campus for the first time. Safe Zone continued to run trainings and create campus-wide network, although it was temporarily stopped in 2005-06 due to sabbaticals and burn-out of key faculty and staff leaders; it was revitalized and institutionalized in the office of Common Ground in the fall of 2006.  

Despite the multiple groups and support available, challenges persisted. New Directions, a LGBTQ student advocacy group, often faced hostility on campus, as their posters were torn down and defaced, and multiple Collegian op-eds were published throughout the decade condemning LGBTQ individuals or using ‘gay’ as an insult. Additionally, after somewhat achieving its goal of greater visibility of queer life at the University and challenging the idea that “Richmond doesn’t have any gay people,” New Directions struggled to envision where it wanted to go and what its direction would be. New Directions lost key leaders and started to burn out; it was revitalized in 2009 under the name SASD, the Student Alliance for Sexual Diversity.

The Collegian published “Letter from the Closet” in Jan. 2009, documenting one student’s struggle as a closeted student. The story revealed that Richmond continued to be an unwelcoming place for LGBTQ individuals and provoked discussion and dialogue throughout the campus. In Aug. 2010, the Black Alliance for Sexual-Minority Equality (BASE) formed, aiming to address the intersections of race and sexuality. Progress toward LGBTQ continued to fluctuate, though, as evidenced by decisions made both on campus and in the community. In Aug. 2009 the University allowed the Family Foundation of Virginia to use university facilities for a board of directors retreat, despite its anti-gay policies and advocacy; the Student Alliance for Sexual Diversity (SASD) organized a protest. Despite this, within that same year, the Jepson School of Leadership Studies awarded Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, its 10th Year Reunion Recognition Award. In 2010, the Virginia attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, issued a letter to Virginia’s public colleges and universities advising administrations to eliminate sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression from their non-discrimination clauses. Despite being a private university and thus unaffected by the letter, this incident reveals the continued struggle LGBTQ individuals faced for full inclusion and acceptance on college campuses. It reflects that the gains made by the LGBTQ community in the preceding decade continued to be tenuous and susceptible to removal.

Expand All
  • New Direction

    In fall 1999, Urvashi Vaid, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, spoke on campus. The following spring, New Directions, an LGBTQ student advocacy group, formed. From its inception, New Directions was controversial on campus. One of its first acts was to place posters in residence halls with questions such as, “When did you decide you were heterosexual?” and “Do you consider it safe to expose your children to heterosexual teachers, coaches, and scout leaders, when the great majority of child molesters are heterosexual?” The questions were attempting to humorously subvert and challenge questions targeted toward LGBTQ individuals every day. However, the posters were not positively received by many in the campus community, and one individual even wrote an op-ed within The Collegian decrying the ‘double standards’ the posters promoted against heterosexuals. Religious arguments continued to be used against LGBTQ individuals, often sparking intense debates in Collegian editorials.

    New Directions also helped form a more clearly defined queer community that began challenging campus cultural norms. With a more radical edge than previous groups, New Directions began not only advocating for tolerance but also agitating for a re-working of the campus’ institutional structures and visibility. One member remembers the group’s activism as having a “I’m not here to be nice” edge to it, doing things that seemed outlandish or radical for the current students. In the words of Matt Rafalow, ’06, “They did events that were designed to shock and push the envelope,” often using “humor with a sharp edge.” A faculty mentor to the group, described the group as “humorous and outgoing.”

    Jill Crocker, ’04, president of New Directions from 2003-04, described her experience: “What we did, in the context of Richmond, was crazy. We would stand out in front of D-hall handing out candy and Valentine’s Day cards with same gender couples holding hands; people gave us looks.” She also remembered, “Once there was a Board of Trustees meeting going on down the hall from an event of ours, and we got complaints because we were using the word vagina.”

    Live Homosexual Acts

    One of the most memorable events New Directions staged was “Live Homosexual Acts” in February 2003. It was hyped up with a risqué name, but in reality was just a bunch of New Directions members sitting around the Commons reading and doing normal student activities. Crocker describes, “We roped off an area of the Commons and set it up as a ‘zoo,’ with a bunch of queer people. It was Val Kennedy with a microphone narrating what was happening as we did everyday things. We emphasized that people should meet a queer person; the goal was the recognition of the reality that some understanding might be achieved, or some tension alleviated, through personal connections. Someone came up to me and said, ‘you’re the first queer person I’ve ever met.’ It was a very weird conversation at the time, but in retrospect it was a really important one to have.”

    Austin Scharf ,’06 described the event as “a bunch of people from New Directions sitting in one area of the Commons doing homework and eating and chatting. We were just being people—but it got quite a bit of backlash from people who thought it was offensive because it was titled ‘risqué’ although that was not the intent at all.”

    Reaction from the campus community was mixed; within New Directions there was also debate as to how effective it was at reaching out. Crocker remembers that, “People thought it was crazy and, if anything, were annoyed that they had to listen to Val for four hours on the microphone, as she was being really loud. But it was a really great event and got attention, which we could use as a stepping off point for educational programming.” A faculty member present described, “in general there was embarrassment and discomfort with the people walking by, but the event did help shift the climate. Today there is much more awareness and support.”

    George Jones*, ’06, said, “we were encouraging people to come up and meet a gay person, but no one would come up so some people just walked up to people walking around in the Commons and gave them a hug; it was a very confrontational environment. We were arguing for years about it, and it created this huge debate over what level of activism is best.”

    In addition to “Live Homosexual Acts,” New Directions presented other events and engaged regularly with the city of Richmond community. A core group of volunteers spent time helping at Diversity Thrift and the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth (ROSMY). They helped organize and sponsor “Fruit Fests,” handing out fruit smoothies in celebration of Coming Out Day in October; worked with other organizations to propose a diversity center in the Commons; presented panels on sexuality; and hosted “Gay Prom.”

    Scharf describes New Directions “as two sets of things. One was the social aspect; we had things like the LGBT prom, and we would go to the Richmond Pride festival as a group some years. The other set was community events, things like coming out week, a lot of tabling and hanging banners, and we did day of silence every year I was there.”  

    Rafalow viewed social events as an effective form of activism, reflecting on the drag ball and gay prom: “I’m really proud of prom and in some ways view it was the most significant form of activism I did for that community at Richmond. Not everyone can be reached by a lecture or event, so we decided to throw a party. I fundraised like crazy for that event, got funding from student governments and created stickers and buttons with “see you at prom” on it. An artist friend of mine drew a picture of a cruise ship on a rainbow river; it was the gayest thing ever. The event sold out and turned out awesome-there were even straight guys who came in drag. It was hard to be gay socially at Richmond, so this was a really significant event.

    ¿Carpet Muncher¿ Controversy

    New Directions also reacted to heterosexism and discrimination on campus. The Collegian ran an op-ed written by Ryan Bonner in November 2003 ‘joking’ that WILL teaches its members to be “man-hating carpet munchers.” Further in his article he wrote “I apologize for using the phrase ‘carpet munchers’ a few paragraphs ago. I was going to take it out, but I forgot.” The strong reaction to the article indicated a changing campus culture and the greater visibility of LGBTQ individuals. New Directions led a campaign wearing and handing out pieces of carpet and held an open forum to discuss the comments.

    Bonner, the author, criticized their reaction, stating, “their aggressive response has caused more hate and resentment for their cause than those two stupid words ever could.” At the time, New Directions members were frustrated in a lack of administrative response. Rob Mayer, ’04, a member of New Directions, stated at the forum, “the administration should do something to support students who were offended by Bonner’s comments. The administration needs to get up off their asses and say what they think.” President William Cooper had sent a campuswide email, but it did not discuss specifics of the event.

    In addition, The Collegian ran an apology for printing the article. It also featured six letters to the editors criticizing the language used in the article, and three letters defending it. However, it also featured a cartoon poking fun of ‘politically correct’ dialogue as being empty. Bonner did not apologize the following week but instead ran a column stating that “What surprised me about the whole thing is that people took it seriously…behind my often pathetic attempts at humor, I’m totally supportive of gay and lesbian issues. I am one of the most liberal people you will find on this campus.”

    There was also some tension over New Directions future, particularly as it began to gain the visibility it had been seeking to establish. Crocker describes, “When New Directions was at Richmond the institutionalization of LGBT issues, from students perspectives, often felt nascent in many ways, especially prior to 2002. There were really visible things to go up against. It was stressful for students, but good for organizing since we had something to be up against. Kind of like that old labor joke, that ‘management is the best organizer.’ Once we had more allies it almost became more difficult, since we didn’t know where New Directions was going to head next. We didn’t do a good job creating a mission beyond visibility.”

    As the organization grew it also became more difficult to manage and organize. Crocker reflects: “I think it was very tough, because on one hand you’re the president in an organization with diverse voices and experiences as well as a very tight-knit group of friends. Balancing personalities can be a challenge, as at one point we had 80 people at membership meetings regularly. I tried to use a consensus model with 60-80 people, it was very well intentioned but I didn’t really know the nuts and bolts on how to run that way. It was certainly challenging, but also had a lot of fun at the same time. At one point we were coming off a really amazing semester with three huge events and had a huge group; I didn’t know how to manage so many people and eventually created separate event managers. It was a really cool and exceptional group at the time, but what’s tough is that it was almost too good for one of us, namely, me, not to screw it up in some way.”

    The conversations became ‘outlandish’ at times. Crocker recalls, “I remember one conversation with Rob Mayer who suggested renting (or buying a bus), spray painting a rainbow on it, calling it the ‘sodomy’ bus and offering free blow jobs. Although it obviously never happened, that was the level of outrageous, informal conversations and ideas we were having. Rob, as were so many others, was and is an incredibly creative guy, and we were working hard to come up with creative ways to increase visibility and to create space for discussion about political issues. We had to sometimes work to bring it back to Richmond’s campus.” Jones* called “the level of activism a very in-your-face approach. I never really agreed that this was the best way, especially in the South.”

    Rafalow reflects, “New Directions at the time was very underground and almost taboo to be involved with, but it was literally the only space for queer people. I became very involved with it my second and fourth year, and some of the other leaders acted as mentors for me. They did events that were designed to shock and push the envelope. One year New Directions members wore a bright green t-shirt that said “homo” on the front and “sapien” on the back—it was very edgy for the University at the time.”

    There were also some race and gender divisions within the group. Jones* said “By my senior year it felt very male dominated; I complained because it felt like it had become a bicurious girls club with some flamboyant gay men. There were no lesbian women involved with New Directions in the end; lesbian culture had gotten submerged and it became gay male centric.”

    However, Haven Herrin, ’04, states, "New Directions was white-washed. Race and class were not talked about on campus; they didn’t get named and were never prioritized. New Directions as a group did not have an understanding of the intersections of sexuality and race. That is sad and a weakness, but I probably did not see or get that when I was there. However, I feel like I never got an education from Richmond to talk about these issues; I took a class on Brazilian history and the word ’racism’ was never once spoken."

    Scharf recalls “In my last year or so I was one of the people that stopped going as frequently to New Directions meetings. My feeling was that it was getting a bit militant, and it was not particularly community-focused activism anymore. The things we were doing were in an attempt to be a bit more confrontational. It started to be a little bit more of social clique where meetings tended to be chit chat about what everybody had been up to, rather than actually planning events that were in line with the mission of the organization.”

    He further reflects, “One thing that got me frustrated was that it felt like it wasn’t accessible to new members. I knew several people who came out over the course of college and never wanted to associate with New Directions, in part because of the rumor mill, but also because they didn’t want to have their stuff spread all over the gay community on campus.”

    However, most of those involved recall the group fondly and with great esteem. Rafalow describes, “Being involved in this community was awesome and one of the best activist experiences in my life; after Richmond, my standard for a queer community was too high.”  Herrin similarly reflects that, “New Directions at the time was a hilarious group and had a lot of really great energy. For the people involved, it built a cohesive bunch of people and was pretty successful as an organization. Campus in general was ‘status quo’ in many ways, and a lot of people didn’t care about changing campus culture. New Directions challenged that and wanted to do something scary and different. It was a very singular statement, and was very inspiring.”

    The effectiveness of reaching out across the student body to non-LGBTQ individuals however may have been hampered by its provocative approach. Jonathan Zur, ’03, recalls that it was “somewhat provocative and a fringe group on campus. It wasn’t something I was involved with and seemed like a small percentage of students; it wasn’t really supported or embraced by the rest of campus.”



  • LGBTQIA Social Life

    Richmond was often a lonely, isolating place for LGBTQ individuals in the early 2000s.

    According to Haven Herrin, ’04, “The University was a very heternormative institution, very invested in the fact that there were two sexes and two genders and the lake divides the two. It suggested that there were two kinds of people, boys and girls, and they should be attracted to each other, not intentional but that was the result. I just did not see a lot of queer people at Richmond...being gay or queer was not a part of the main social scene at all. If it was there, it was segmented away from social life on campus. Social life was dominated by the fraternities, which are also super invested in the boy/girl gender binary and conformity to that binary. It never felt safe to be different at Richmond. It wasn’t normal to be queer.

    “In the ways that institutions and systems can be oppressive that’s how the University was; I felt invisible within the gender binary and the housing system, as there were not single rooms for females, so no choices for autonomy. It felt like there was not space to discover or be seen and valued for who I was. There were phenomenal opportunities at Richmond, but I did not see myself in particular reflected in the vision of the student they promoted.”

    Matt Rafalow, ’06, also struggled during his time at Richmond. He says, “I didn’t know I was gay when I came to the University. When I came here I met other out people and found a lot of friendship within the queer community. I saw that they were struggling but having a good time anyways I realized being gay was an option. I came out the fall of my second year; in many ways since Richmond was so repressive it galvanized me to come out. The climate was really pretty hostile, mostly from other students, and I felt isolated. People didn’t believe I was straight and it felt like people weren’t comfortable around me.

    “This was before Lawrence vs. Texas, and gay students were terrified of holding hands. They would literally hide in a car if a cop drove by. Even the gay bars that were legal were regularly raided by cops. Imagine the courage and confidence needed to put on a tight t-shirt and go to a bar like that and then have the added fear of illegality, as you hear sirens going and cops barge in checking IDs and threatening to fine people.”

    Jonathan Zur, ’03, describes coming to campus in ’99 by saying: “There was Safe Zone and I knew it existed, but it felt pretty insubstantial and small, very few students, that was really it. I think there was a student organization but I wasn’t involved. It felt like there was this one gay kid and he was on every panel; it was a very tokenizing experience. I was an RA for three years and RA training included a session on LGB issues; it was a sort of controversial at the time and there were grumbles of, ‘why do we have to sit through this’.”

    “People connected online at the time—instant messenger was big.”

    The housing structure also highly shaped interactions. Zur states, “I lived for four years in the coordinate system and it shaped my comfort level being out or not; my friends in college were predominantly men not women. It was rare to ever have social justice conversations in the hall; I felt my interests were out there compared to those of other men. It felt like there was WILL for women who were interested in these issues, but nothing for men, like men interested in these things were an anomaly. The lake divided the gender by housing; we talked about the ‘lake effect’ at the time and the walk of shame (for women) on Saturday mornings and the walk of fame for men. When I think back now, I realize that most of my close friendships from college who I stay in contact with are men.” 

    Austin Scharf ,’06, remembers, “The one place we went regularly was Babe’s in Carytown. We’d all go, since it was one of the very few places you could go that were 18+. We’d get a senior to drive us and go out for the night. We didn’t usually get much further into Richmond than that, although some seniors went to other bars. Most of the social life on campus was in dorm rooms; one year Keller Hall was a hub of social life for LGBT/out people. We found place[s] to congregate and socialize, to hang out with people we had commonalities with. For a while there was a section of the dining hall where we would all sit all the time; nothing formal but it just grew naturally.”

    The LGBTQ community on campus was also predominantly gay men. Vickey Allen, ’09, recalls that it was “hard to meet other out girls” and that in some ways “it was much harder to be female and queer than male” due to the small numbers and lack of visibility. To meet people, “I started going to gay bars; that’s how I met those who weren’t activists but in the social scene.”

    Despite this, Allen describes the campus climate as “apathetic” and that “people were nice enough,” however “since I was female and bi, and I was dating both guys and girls, it may have softened the blow to people.” She was also involved with The Sirens, a women’s a cappella group, and remembers “them making a lot of homoerotic jokes, which made it hard to relax around people; I didn’t know how interact with that. Once they knew, they made concessions in their life (such as not saying ‘that’s so gay’ around me). I was dating a girl and they were completely fine with it. We would hold hands around campus and got weird looks, but no one ever said anything.”

    WILL was often identified as a queer-friendly space for women. Allen remembers, “WILL was my defining group. When I think of college, I think of my time with WILL. The professors were very supportive; if you had a problem they would help you. I really loved the coordinate college and felt connected to Westhampton [College (WC)] because the sense of community WILL created. I feel that the administration in WC is so supportive of people who don’t fit into the gender binary; it seems like Richmond College is for men and WC is for everyone else.”

    Similarly, Emily Miller, ’10 remembers, “I was president of WILL my senior year, and it became a major part of my social life. I really valued the safe space the program created on campus and was so excited to have a community of women who could work through issues together. I have a love/hate relationship with the coordinate college because I see all the problems wrapped up in it, but for me it created a safe space that I wouldn’t have felt as in comfortable if there were men. "

    Alex Rooke, ’12, served as president of WILL from 2011-12, and reflects, “In WILL I found my sense of belonging. I felt like I was in WILL and Richmond, not in Westhampton College. I absolutely see how the coordinate college reinforces the gender binary, but I also see how having [Richmond College] and WC provides opportunities for women that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Although it would be better not to have two colleges, society doesn’t give me much hope of having women’s leadership positions.”

    Herrin states, "I don’t identify as a woman; WILL and WC are not welcoming to me. Partially I didn’t have time for the minor involved with WILL, but I also think you make people invisible and cut people out of the picture when the program is so identity-driven and centered around women."

    The coordinate college and WILL have been the source for considerable debate over their role in both creating safe spaces for LGBTQ individuals and solidifying gender and sexuality norms. Jane Geaney, associate professor of religious studies, reflects, “I think the coordinate college is the worst thing about this university because it totally inhibits the possibility of deconstructing gender. Students here are remarkably conservative, and I think the coordinate college has something to do with it, by creating these either/or boxes.”

    John Frank, ’09, states, “I do think it’s hard to develop a social life on campus where being gay is celebrated and you can meet other queer people. A queer scene was hard to find; I had to develop relationships with people off campus and VCU to socialize in a majority queer environment. It was hard because you had to be willing to drink; if you didn’t like the club environment you were out of luck.”

    Miller states, “I didn’t come out until the second half of my first semester. I tried to navigate the social scene my first semester, go to apartment parties with women from my hall, but it wasn’t really my thing. I joined the women’s’ rugby team; they became my friends and my social life. Once I spent more time with them, I realized I was dealing with identity issues. In fall 2006 I saw The Collegian article about a Richmond student protesting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because LGBT individuals were not allowed to join. I found out that she was one of my friends from rugby. I came back from fall break and came out to her; it was very well received and a pivotal moment for my social life.”

  • Heterosexism & the Campus Climate

    Jonathan Zur, ’03, states that one frequent occurrence was “genitalia drawings on doors; I took it as a part of drunk male culture at the time, even though it was homophobic. There was little institutional response to these things and incidents like that weren’t addressed.”

    Zur continues, “There was a period where the Westhampton College dean was changing what seemed like every year—one was Ellie Sturgis. It was a big deal that she might be lesbian, and then she disappeared and left abruptly and some thought it had to do with her sexual orientation.” Although Sturgis left for medical reasons, the pervasive rumor that it was due to her sexual identity suggests a student belief (however unfounded) at the time that the administration was not LGBTQ-friendly.

    Jones* reflects, “Overall the University felt antagonistic and was not considered an open place among students. I didn’t think it was a very welcoming place. Within the LGBTQ community there was some infighting and it was kind of fractured.” 

    Matt Rafalow, ’06, stated, “The first year I was there people drew genitalia in permanent markers on doors in residence halls. A couple got a rock thrown at them; I was called fag a lot at night when people were out and partying. The fraternity scene was incredibly homophobic and not a good place to be. When I was at the drag ball, I was in half drag and a group of people who walked by and screamed ‘fag’ and ‘disgusting.’”

    However, by most accounts, President William Cooper was LGBTQ friendly and the first Richmond president who made queer issues explicitly part of his agenda. According to de Sa, “he was actively committed to the cause” and helped pass same-sex partner benefits. He also helped convince the board of trustees to include sexual orientation in the non-discrimination policy and spoke at coming out day celebrations in the early 2000s.

    Emily Miller, ’10, describes: “The atmosphere of Richmond was never hostile; if it ever felt hostile it was probably because of my own paranoia. But I didn’t feel like I could do the identity work I needed to do at the University; I needed to be around queer women, which is why I took to the city. Richmond wasn’t welcoming but it wasn’t unwelcoming. I wanted to be able to relax around queer people in a community, and it just wasn’t there on campus, especially for women.”

    Rafalow states, “I got mixed support from administrators, who at higher levels were sometimes hostile. I can’t say enough about the Westhampton administrators, who were incredibly supportive and I really took advantage of WC and WILL’s programing. At the same time, while it was incredible what WC provided, it’s terribly sad that the men’s school couldn’t and didn’t. I did at one point meet with RC administrators and told them there was no support or programming or even a safe space for people like me. At the time, it was impossible to be a gay student who didn’t care about gay activism. If you were gay you got a lot of hate; the only way to be gay was to be an activist since being gay was so transgressive. There were, however, a lot of closeted people. I would frequently get anonymous e-mails from students saying how much they appreciated my Collegian columns on gay life.”

    According to Jones*, “Richmond College really supported this hypermasculine identity and Westhampton College this ultra feminine Southern belle identity; this really alienated the LGBTQ community. I truly believe the coordinate college is far more detrimental than anything else. However, I will say, that after I published an article in the Collegian my senior year Dean Landphair invited me to a personal conversation and asked me about my opinions of Richmond. I told her about some of my experiences that were difficult (such as having to share a bathroom with men), and told her to get rid of the dual college system. I asked her what she would do if a trans student applied; she said I don’t know what she would do and that scares her. She recognized it as a real problem and I realized she just didn’t know how to handle it. Richmond College basically ignored me and didn’t want anything to do with me, didn’t want to deal with it. The administration wasn’t anti-gay or anti-LGBT, but they didn’t know how to work those students into the old Southern system.”

    Jones also struggled with the conformist atmosphere at the University. “A large part of my concern is that Richmond needs to be more diverse,” he says. “People should be able to be gay without it being an issue. At Richmond you either fit in or you didn’t, and if you didn’t it caused problems. There was an assimilate or die mentality, as well as an upper-class WASP-y mentality that was opposed to anything that deviated from the norm, creating a highly segregated community.” 

    Haven Herrin, ’04, reflects, “I really wish I had had some queer role models. It would have helped create a space for young people to figure out other ways of being. It really would have meant the world to me to have a queer mentor and faculty.”

    With increased visibility of LGBTQ individuals in the early 2000s came increased backlash, as heterosexist slurs in the Collegian, graffiti defacing lodges, and resistance continued to occur. Fraternity lodges had “GAY” spray-painted on them and New Directions posters were pulled down and ripped. Miller recalls, “There were a lot of controversies in The Collegian; it felt like every time there were queer issues in public there was a backlash.” 

    John Frank, ’09, states, “When I first got to Richmond I was in the closet. I met people through Facebook and Icebreakers; there was only a small circle of people on campus who knew I was gay. My first impression of the climate was that it was conservative and that it wasn’t really a safe space to be openly gay; these perceptions informed my decision to come out (or not). I never felt as though my sexuality was something I would feel comfortable advertising. As I began coming out and connecting with the queer community on campus, by taking trips to Godfrey’s with a small group of people, my perception of the LGBTQ community on campus was that it was limited to around 20 people. The people I connected with were a small, closely knit group. I went to Collegetown my sophomore year and came out publicly there. I was then involved in the small LGBT effort to revamp Icebreakers; I was elected co-president.

    "While at Richmond, I was aware of the jokes made about gay people by students on campus and in dorms; there were negative undercurrents within the social stuff. The frats seemed to foster a negative, unwelcoming climate generally; that’s not to say that everyone on campus and involved in these organizations were bad or anti-gay. There were pockets of people who were supportive and I worked to develop a social network with these people. But the most vocal presence on campus kind of treated it as a joke, something to put down and ridicule. Hearing the jokes and stories of people being targeted on campus lead me to believe that the campus generally was not supportive. Among the negative stories I head about frats on campus, I remember one event vividly. A pledge was made to wear a t-shirt which said ’Punish Me, I’m Gay.’ I remember this being discussed among the community but feeling let down due to a limited, almost non-existent response from the administration."

    Miller remembers, “I went to a forum about a Collegian article and I became so frustrated I felt close to tears. There was a student reading Bible verses; I thought he was gay but he had been leading the charge against LGBTQ people. I was getting so frustrated because he was just regurgitating these things he had obviously heard from other people, and that’s when I realized how big of a fight it is and how deep it runs. John Frank pulled me aside and told me not to flip out at this guy because he is ingrained with it. It made it so much harder to fight with him because I realized people he trusts and loves have told him that. The controversy reminded me how best to do activist work and how the big the fight is.” However, she further stated that she was, “generally positively surprised by the welcome I felt from men on campus.”

    Miller further reflects, "On campus, we need more mandatory discussions of certain topics. I was a proponent of making Intro to WGSS required for everyone; that’s not logistically realistic, but we do need some way to have these conversations where they’re not happening. While there were pockets of awareness to be found, I wish there were a way to educate and reach out to other populations."

    Within the faculty and staff, LGBTQ individuals felt greater support and acceptance. Bob Rodgers states, “I consider myself very lucky for working with enlightened people who are supportive. I came out to a supervisor in 1995 and she was very good about it; being gay has never been a problem.”

    There was some resistance to attempts to alter some university traditions to make them more friendly to LGBTQ individuals. Jane Geaney remembers, “One thing I tried to do was ’queer’ Ring Dance and make it an activist event. My idea was for students in ’Queers in Religion’ to dress in drag as a group as an optional assignment for class, and from that position, analyze the symbolic system encoded in the ritual; the dress, the gestures, the physical environment, etc. I also invited some staff and faculty members to join us. I must have struck a very sore nerve, because various people in the administration then got involved an effort to prevent my students from attending in drag, on the grounds that my assignment constituted an unauthorized social science experiment! I should emphasize that in my fifteen years at Richmond that was the single time anyone has ever intervened in anything having to do with how I teach my classes. In the end, a handful of students dressed in drag and attended Ring Dance anyway. And the rest of the students in the class wrote papers analyzing the rhetoric in the email exchanges about prohibiting the assignment.

    “The idea of queer is about subverting norms. It is playfully ‘in your face.’ It is not about being careful not to offend people who preserve genteel traditions, especially those that are rooted in heteronormativity, sexism, racism, and classism. Maybe my understanding of queer is like a ‘bull in a china shop,’ but I think being disruptive is how queer things get done.

    "When I started coordinating the WGSS program in 2008, I brought up the subject of Ring Dance at a open meeting for WGSS faculty and staff. I discovered that there were faculty who felt we should not get involved with student things, even if they involved sexist and heterosexist norms. There was a vibe of ’let students handle it for themselves.’ Some faculty also argued that,
    because participation in Ring Dance isn’t compulsory, we should not interfere. But that ignores the subtle ways in which it is compulsory for students."


  • Safe Zone

    During the 2000s Safe Zone continued to grow and operate. Safe Zone members were the driving force to gain same-sex partner benefits at the University, as well as having the alumni magazine list same-sex partners. Safe Zone also fought for curriculum changes, primarily including LGBTQ authors and texts within Core, the then required seminar for first year students.

    In Jan. 2005, Safe Zone members became aware that an administrator within the development office had turned down a donor interested in creating an endowed scholarship for students involved with LGBTQ and German studies. Safe Zone members investigated the matter and requested an apology and specific policy statement concerning donations earmarked for LGBTQ issues.

    School psychologist Elizabeth Stott states “After the incident with the scholarship, everyone was very much at each other at that point—there was some burnout. Safe Zone was so big and we didn’t have a core group of people who could communicate anymore. I think to an extent Del [McWhorter] felt burnt out and unappreciated. Safe Zone had lost direction and we didn’t know what to do next. It was time for a new generation to take over; as it grew successful there were too many people not sure which way to go. It ultimately got passed on to Glyn [Hughes].”

    Bob Rodgers, UR’s catering services manager, reflectes that “It became that Safe Zone was the only place gay and lesbian issues went to. This was overwhelming—because it raised this question of what is the purpose of safe zones. There became a real need for new blood in the organization.”

    Safe Zone briefly slowed down and was inactive in the years 2005-06, and when it was revitalized it became institutionalized as a part of the University through the Office of Common Ground. This gave it both greater resources and funding, but did pose some challenges as it became a part of the University structure and was no longer run on a completely independent basis.

    Rafael de Sa says, “My perception is that Common Ground is an organization with similar functions as Safe Zone, but as a university associated institution. The danger with this is that it can become a public relations matter but doesn’t actually change behavior. I get the notion that Common Ground is very focused on the student climate, but Safe Zone went beyond that. We need more informal activities; the LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff used to get together for beers and appetizers at the Cellar. We need diversity on all levels; Common Ground should focus more broadly than just student.” 

    John Frank, ’09, reflects that “Common Ground created a lot of opportunities for community building and activism on campus and was a positive force during my time at Richmond. Among its other important contributions, Common Ground created spaces and events on campus where I could talk to people with similar interests and connect with people around social justice issues. On a campus where it is easy to feel alone as a gay male, the work of Common Ground made me feel less lonely.”