Longtime activist, scholar reflects on 40 years in Atlanta’s LGBT community
By PATRICK SAUNDERS
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
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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.