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Gay activists at UNC reflect on 40 years

Supporters of the Carolina Gay Association gathered on Saturday to celebrate the 40th reunion of the organization.
Supporters of the Carolina Gay Association gathered on Saturday to celebrate the 40th reunion of the organization.

“We all tend to find each other,” he said.

The CGA, now called the Sexuality and Gender Alliance, held its 40th reunion this weekend. The CGA started in 1974 and was the first gay student group in the southeast.

Michael Grissom helped found the association when he was a graduate student at UNC. He said part of his motivation was a need for visibility.

“For some reason, a bunch of us got together and formed the organization to bring people together to form a community to get visibility on campus and relationships with the student body and the administration,” he said.

Grissom said the organization received a fair amount of recognition while he was a student.

“We had various speakers and a lot of people came from around the southeast,” he said. “We were very active on campus and did get recognition from the senior dean’s office.”

CGA dealt with negativity as well, Grissom said.

“We had some battles,” he said. “Getting student funding, which was modest, but we won some and we lost some. That’s life.”

According to Aluminate, the alumni newsletter for the UNC LGBTQ Center, the Campus Governing Council — the previous name for Student Congress — gave CGA only $535 out of the available $250,000 in 1974.

Grissom said he is pleased with the UNC’s activist climate.

“The fact that there are committees and the (LGBTQ) center, that says to me that a lot has been accomplished and that the realm of activism has moved to regular participation in the student life,” he said.

Senior Brian Beaman, co-president of the Sexuality and Gender Alliance, said in an email the group has gone through many name changes.

It expanded to include lesbians in the 1980s and bisexuals in the 1990s, but settled on SAGA in 2012 in order to include every person, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identification.

“The moral of the story is that our organization has evolved to try to be inclusive of everyone’s identity,” Beaman said.

Kleinschmidt said he is grateful for the work that CGA did then and the work that SAGA is doing now.

“This organization and its history transformed this campus and transformed this town into a place that is as welcoming as we could have hoped for in that time,” he said.

Kleinschmidt said CGA made Chapel Hill feel welcoming.

“(Chapel Hill) became my hometown because this organization existed,” he said.

Though SAGA has helped improve campus culture for LGBTQ people, the state legislation still has room for improvement.

It is still legal to fire someone in North Carolina because of their sexual orientation.

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Kleinschmidt said this could be different for tenured faculty because firing a tenured faculty member requires cause, but it applies to anyone hired under at-will employment.

“(At-will) means you can get fired because your boss doesn’t like the suit you are wearing that day,” he said. “You can get fired for whatever reason as long as it’s not a reason that is protected in the law.”

Kleinschmidt said it is important to look at this as a next step.

“Being a lesbian or being a gay man would fall under the same category as, ‘I don’t like the suit you are wearing,’” he said. “That is the kind of discrimination that we need to fight against as the next step in the LGBT movement.”