In the Fall of 1991, what we now know as the Office of LGBT Life was founded. Then called the Office of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Student Life, the office began to serve the needs of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. At the time, the Office was staffed by two graduate students, Donna Smith and Rev. Michael Wyatt.
The Office would soon be expanded, in large part due to an event we all refer to as “The Kiss”. In December 1991, two first-year gay male students were harassed for kissing in a residence hall. A complaint was filed under Emory’s Discriminatory Harassment Policy, but everyone involved was dissatisfied with the response of university administration. The Emory community reacted March 2, 1992, as hundreds of Emory students and employees marched across campus in protest. Following the protest, Emory President James T. Laney appointed a taskforce to assess the climate for lesbian, bisexual, and gay people at Emory and make recommendations for improvement. In March 27, 1992, the taskforce presented their recommendations. The first was to hire a full-time director and the second was to expand the services of the Office to faculty and staff.
Following these recommendations, Saralyn Chesnut was hired as the first full-time director, beginning her role in January 1993. During her time as director, Saralyn ushered in several important changes. The first of these changes was the expansion of Emory’s Equal Opportunity Policy in 1993 to include protections for sexual orientation. Shortly thereafter, Emory also began to offer benefits to domestic partners of students and employees. Also in her first year, Saralyn hosted the first Emory Pride Banquet on March 2, 1993. The event has occurred each year since 1993 to remember the March 2nd protest and to celebrate the progress made toward LGBT equality in the previous year.
Saralyn Chesnut also started several Office programs designed to build awareness of and support for the lesbian, bisexual, and gay community. The programs started during these years include the Speakers Bureau, the Emory Safe Space program, and the Coming Out Support Group. Tasked with changing an entire campus climate, the Office received a second professional staff member. Beginning as a part-time position in 1996, this second position would quickly be expanded to full-time and become the Assistant Dean position in 2008. In 1998, the Office was renamed to the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Life to address the needs and concerns of the transgender community. In line with the new focus on transgender students, the Office worked to expand the Equal Opportunity Policy again in 2007 to include gender identity as a protected category.
After 15 years of service, Saralyn Chesnut retired from her position as Director and Michael Shutt was hired as the second director of the Office of LGBT Life. Jumping right in, Michael Shutt began to design a new Safe Space curriculum in 2008 and started to work with a committee to develop a five-year strategic plan. Several accomplishments were soon to follow. In March 2009, GALA presented its first leadership scholarship, endowed the following year in March 2010. Following a flood in the fall of 2009, the Office of LGBT Life was remodeled to address structural issues and make the Office more accessible to students. The newly furnished Office held its Grand Reopening in January 2010. That year Danielle Steele was hired as our Program Coordinator and assumed various Office tasks such as supervision of student staff and management of the Safe Space Program. After the summer, the Office of LGBT Life also began its partnership with the Center for Women to offer Queer Discussion Groups. Beginning with the Queer Students of Color (now Black & Queer, or BlaQ) and Queer Women’s groups, the program was expanded in 2011 with the addition of the Queer Interfaith Discussion Group. Also in 2011, a group of students began the group Queer & Asian (Q&A) to address the concerns of queer Asian students, and Danielle assumed more responsibilities to become the Interim Director of the Office of LGBT Life.
Some of the most rapid accomplishments for the Office of LGBT Life have focused on transgender students, faculty, and staff. In January 2009, the first group to specifically address the transgender community was created. Formed as Trans-Forming Emory, the group sought to create a sense of community among transgender students, faculty, and staff as well as among allies and partners. Policy soon began to address the needs of the transgender community with the expansion of the student health insurance policy in August 2010 to include hormone and therapy treatment for transgender students. Benefits would be expanded again the following year in 2011 to include surgery for transgender students. That year also saw the inclusion of hormone and therapy treatments for faculty and staff. 2011 also saw Emory hosting the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s (WPATH) Conference with the leading health professionals in the field gathered in Atlanta.