In 1976, the first Southeastern Gay Conference in the United States was held on UNC's campus.
More than four decades later, the Carolina Pride Alumni Network has raised over $90,000 to preserve the history of the University’s LGBTQ+ students, faculty and staff through “The Story of Us,” a collaboration with the Wilson Library and the Southern Oral History Program.
University Archivist Nicholas Graham said the experiences of marginalized or underrepresented students are often missing from archives.
“This is a way to make sure their experiences become a part of the permanent record of UNC’s history,” Graham said. "If a student approaching the archives now wants to know what it was like to be gay at Carolina in the 1970s, they will have access to interviews and archival documents to learn that history."
Launching a historic initiative
The stirrings of the project that would become “The Story of Us” first appeared in spring 2019, when the Carolina Pride Alumni Network reached out to the Wilson Library and the Southern Oral History Program to begin hiring necessary staff and researchers.
The project was publicly announced in May of that year. They sought to raise $92,000 in order to hire archivists and researchers, as well as maintain a permanent collection of LGBTQ+ testimonies at Wilson Library.
Hogan Medlin, a 2011 graduate, former student body president and current CPAN president, said the fundraising effort was highly successful, with many alumni who identify as LGBTQ+ or are allies happy to contribute to important historical research.
“There are direct benefits for current students, both undergraduate and graduates, who will in the future be able to access this archive, find themselves in it, find inspiration from it and hopefully see that they too fit in and they count at Carolina,” said Medlin, who is also pursuing a master's in public administration at UNC. “It’s incredibly important for any marginalized community, but in particular this community, given that our history has not yet been captured.”
Hooper Schultz, who graduated from the University in 2014, was hired in the fall of 2020 to act as a field scholar and researcher for the project. As a graduate student at the University of Mississippi, Schultz collected the oral histories of LGBTQ Mississippians for his thesis.
Now, as a doctoral student at UNC collaborating with “The Story of Us,” he records the oral histories and gathers documents related to past gay and transgender rights activism at UNC.
“LGBTQ people have been at the university, have been on campus and have had a big impact," Schultz said. "There has been increased attention to LGBTQ history in the U.S. South, and oral history is one way that historically marginalized groups can pass down their history.”
The organizers of “The Story of Us” called for CPAN members and other gay alumni of UNC to share their experiences as gay and transgender students while at the University. Schultz said that while the history of the LGBTQ+ community in heavily populated northern cities has been documented extensively, many southern states in the U.S. lack accessible historical records of the existence of queer communities.
“Oftentimes, in the broader public imagining, we think of queer people leaving their rural homes or leaving the South altogether and traveling to a large urban center,” Schultz said. “I think that’s an important part of this project, saying, ‘No, we’ve been here doing these things not only in a large urban center, but in a small college town in the South.’”
Schultz said the project had gathered testimonies from alumni who attended as long ago as the 1940s — coming of age at a time when homophobic and transphobic laws were place across several states. Upon gathering more testimonies, a “hidden geography” of spaces marked by LGBTQ+ people on UNC's campus and in Chapel Hill, Durham and Carrboro emerged.
“All over campus, all over town — they might not be the same bar or the same venue, but the physical space is still there," Schultz said. "Those kinds of things are really valuable. It helps us to see the physical world in a different way, knowing those queer histories are all around us.”
A community for everyone
“The Story of Us” has received an overwhelmingly positive reception from the public and LGBTQ+ alumni, Medlin and Schultz said.
"It became a whole coordinated effort – the library system, the communications department, the graduate students who are running the project – it’s kind of snowballed into everyone wanting us to succeed," Medlin said. "There’s a lot of great minds and hearts at work in bringing this home.”
Schultz said he believed the excitement of people who contacted CPAN about the project was indicative of its importance to the LGBTQ+ people at UNC and across North Carolina.
“People want to make sure their voices are heard; they haven’t necessarily seen themselves in the archive at UNC before as queer people, or they haven’t seen history written about LGBTQ people in North Carolina,” Schultz said. “I think that that’s something that people see as really democratizing the archive. It kind of gives them a sense of belonging.”
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