Long­time ac­tivist, scholar re­flects on 40 years in At­lanta’s LGBT com­mu­nity

GA Voice - - Outspoken - Sar­a­lyn Ch­es­nut


Sar­a­lyn Ch­es­nut was no late bloomer to ac­tivism. She was born in 1948 in Tifton, Ge­or­gia, the daugh­ter of a lib­eral mother raised in a con­ser­va­tive town in the seg­re­gated South at the be­gin­ning of the civil rights move­ment.

She ar­gued with other kids her age about race is­sues, and vividly re­calls mak­ing friends with the first three black stu­dents to en­roll at her for­merly all-white high school.

She even­tu­ally made her way to At­lanta in 1973, quickly get­ting in­volved in the les­bian fem­i­nist move­ment. Af­ter two decades as an aca­demic and ac­tivist, an anti-gay in­ci­dent led her to take a job as a pro­fes­sor and as the first full-time di­rec­tor of Emory Univer­sity’s Of­fice of Les­bian, Gay and Bi­sex­ual Life in 1993.

In her 15 years there, she led the charge for nu­mer­ous causes, in­clud­ing get­ting sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion added to the school’s an­tidis­crim­i­na­tion pol­icy, cre­at­ing em­ployee do­mes­tic part­ner­ship ben­e­fits, adding the “T” in the Of­fice of LGBT Life in 1998 and get­ting gen­der iden­tity added to the school’s anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion pol­icy in 2006.

Nowa­days she’s a free­lance writer (hav­ing co-writ­ten a history of Charis Books & More in 2009) and does oral history in­ter­views with mem­bers of SAGE (Ser­vices & Ad­vo­cacy for Gay, Les­bian, Bi­sex­ual & Trans­gen­der El­ders) At­lanta. Ch­es­nut took a few min­utes to re­flect on a ca­reer in academia and ac­tivism over a 40year pe­riod in At­lanta’s LGBT com­mu­nity.

How did you first get in­volved in the les­bian fem­i­nist move­ment in At­lanta?

I went to a meet­ing of Ge­or­gians for the Equal Rights Amend­ment. And of course there were les­bians run­ning that.

So through them I met other women in­volved in ALFA, the At­lanta Les­bian Fem­i­nist Al­liance.

So that re­ally helped me form a pos­i­tive iden­tity as a les­bian be­cause within les­bian fem­i­nism, a les­bian was the best thing you could pos­si­bly

Oc­to­ber 2, 2015

be [laughs]. You were like the ideal fem­i­nist.

What were the Pride cel­e­bra­tions like back then?

We just had a Pride march, it wasn’t a whole week­end. It would just be hun­dreds of peo­ple, not thou­sands. I re­mem­ber there be­gan to be floats and it be­came a pa­rade but the first Pride marches were very small.

Tell me about the in­ci­dent at Emory in 1992.

A cou­ple of fresh­man guys had been seen kiss­ing each other in their dorm and they started be­ing ha­rassed. Be­cause the [Of­fice of Les­bian, Gay and Bi­sex­ual Life] al­ready ex­isted, they were able to or­ga­nize and there was a huge demon­stra­tion. It was too good to pass up. It was re­ally neat, we marched across cam­pus and oc­cu­pied the pres­i­dent’s of­fice and got served Coca-Cola by his sec­re­tary [laughs].

Af­ter that, the Emory pres­i­dent ap­pointed a task force to as­sess the cam­pus cli­mate for les­bian, gay and bi­sex­ual peo­ple and one of their rec­om­men­da­tions was to hire a full­time pro­fes­sional di­rec­tor for the Of­fice of Les­bian, Gay and Bi­sex­ual Life. I ap­plied for it and de­cided to take the job.

What were those early days like as di­rec­tor for the Of­fice of LGB Life?

The first step was to change the anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion pol­icy to in­clude sex­ual ori­enta- tion. And that was quite a process. By then there was a pres­i­dent’s com­mit­tee on les­bian, gay and bi­sex­ual con­cerns that I met with and put for­ward the pro­posal to change that pol­icy and that went through fi­nally.

Then build­ing on that, next we wanted to get do­mes­tic part­ner­ship ben­e­fits. So we put that pro­posal for­ward and I did a lot of speak­ing to groups around cam­pus to re­as­sure peo­ple and at the same time to not back down from what we re­ally needed to ac­com­plish.

You were an early cham­pion of trans rights. What led you to take on that cause?

I did come to know some Emory stu­dents who tran­si­tioned. I re­mem­ber think­ing it was aw­ful that the Hu­man Rights Cam­paign for a long time wouldn’t in­clude trans peo­ple in the Em­ploy­ment Non-Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act.

But be­cause we were a univer­sity and be­cause Emory is pri­vate and we didn’t have to worry about the Board of Re­gents or the leg­is­la­ture, we could push things. And be­cause Emory wanted to be the Yale of the South, we could play on that. If you want to look like a truly in­ter­na­tional univer­sity, you have to do these truly pro­gres­sive things. Plus Emory hates bad pub­lic­ity, and that demon­stra­tion was hor­ri­ble for them [laughs].

Why did you feel it was time to leave Emory when you did in 2008?

I was old enough to of­fi­cially re­tire, and I felt like I had done what I was there to do. Poli­cies were changed, things were in place, we had a safe space pro­gram where we trained peo­ple to be wel­com­ing to gay peo­ple.

It also had its stresses. Be­ing an Emory em­ployee and at the same time hav­ing to push against the ad­min­is­tra­tion to get some things done was tricky. My job was threat­ened more than once.

What are you most proud of in your time as an ac­tivist?

I think the ac­com­plish­ments at Emory get­ting the cli­mate changed and the poli­cies changed. Also be­ing part of that early les­bian fem­i­nist com­mu­nity. It wasn’t for ev­ery­one but for those of us who were in­volved in it, it was so im­por­tant.

And I think all of us from that era did some im­por­tant work in get­ting vis­i­bil­ity, just com­ing out of the closet and be­ing vis­i­ble and once peo­ple started get­ting to know, ‘Oh I know some­body that’s gay,’ I think that’s what got us where we are now. For young peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar, it’s not a big deal. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be.

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