‘Queerolina’ exhibit explores LGBTQ history at UNC-Chapel Hill

By: - July 2, 2022 6:00 am

Carolina Pride Alumni Network, UNC Libraries. (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.)

Carolina Pride Alumni Network, UNC Libraries. (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.)

As LGBTQ Pride month came to a close this past week, queer people in North Carolina are more visible than they’ve been in generations — holding parades and celebrations in the state’s largest cities and its smaller towns, embraced by major corporations, and celebrated in government proclamations.

June was also a tumultuous month for LGBTQ North Carolinians, however. Even as transgender people in the state saw important legal victories, they were targeted by state legislation and local GOP officials. Meanwhile, masked right-wing protesters attempted to shut down drag queen story time events at libraries and private businesses.

These latter events are indicative of an environment LGBTQ advocates say reflects the mainstreaming of extremist beliefs and political scapegoating of queer communities.

This month a new online exhibit from the UNC-Chapel Hill University Libraries illuminates the true history of LGBTQ people at the flagship school of the state’s university system.

“Queerolina: Experiences of Place and Space Through Oral Histories” is part of the larger “Story of Us” archive project begun by the Carolina Pride Alum Network. It includes an interactive map of the campus and surrounding area, with markers that activate the stories of LGBTQ alumni in their own voices.

Filling historical gaps and shining a light

Hooper Schultz, the PhD student and oral historian who helped organize the exhibit, said the project helps fill in important gaps in Carolina’s history that are too common.

“Historically in archival collections like at Wilson Libary or elsewhere, the fact that someone was gay was often hidden — it was something that was considered an embarrassment,” Hooper told Policy Watch this week.

Hooper Schultz

“Sometimes the family or the library themselves were restricting those records or not tagging them as queer. So there’s a whole history that is there, but isn’t apparent unless you know who to talk to about it.”

The exhibit’s oral histories stretch back to before the second World War thanks to interviews with alumni conducted by Chris McGinnis in the 90s and early 2000s. The alumni stories document periods in which LGBTQ students, faculty and staff had to stay in the closet or risk expulsion, firing or even jail. But it was just as important to highlight stories of queer people finding themselves and their community at Carolina, Schultz said.

“I think there’s this idea of the abject queer person before 1995 or whatever year you want to say, where queer people really just existed and were miserable and trying to escape to the city,” Schultz said. “And that really wasn’t the case. You have stories of queer people in Tarboro in 1945. As a historian I’m always aware of that, that we need to present the people we’re studying as well rounded, fully human, not one flattened image.”

Too much of queer history is a document of persecution and adversity, Schultz said. While that’s part of the story, he said, it isn’t enough.

“To only focus on what was and is bad is not doing my community justice, not doing the University of North Carolina justice,” Schultz said. It’s important to say ‘yes, there were people who were outed at the university, who had horrible experiences of injustice.’ But there were also people who came from another place in North Carolina were able to come to the university and be out. Many years ago it had that reputation and they had that experience. That’s very important for this project.”

Finding community

Alum Michael Williams tells one such story of finding community at Carolina in one of the exhibit’s stories from 1991.

While in the interviewing process for the Teaching Fellows program, Williams said he was going to choose N.C. State as his top, preferred school. Then a friend who was a year ahead of him, in her first year at Chapel Hill, came back to visit their old high school and told him about the campus.

“And she said, in the course of telling me what Chapel Hill was like, ‘Well, there are so many faggots that they practically have orgies in The Pit,’” Williams recalled.

“Well, I didn’t know what The Pit was, and I had never seen the campus at UNC Chapel Hill before in my life,” Williams said. “But the next weekend at the last interview, that last question was, ‘Do you want to change anything about your ranking of school choice?’ And I said ‘Yes, I would like to put UNC Chapel Hill at the top of my list’. My Number One preferred school. Just on that basis alone.”

“I just thought, if there are so many Queer people out and proud at UNC Chapel Hill, that this woman, who went on to become a raging homophobe right-winger, and is no longer a friend — very quickly stopped being a friend once I got to college, in fact —  if she’s able to see it happen, and it happens so much that she feels the need to comment on it, 250 miles away, I’ve got to get to that place.”

Young queer people finding a more supportive environment in university and college towns is still common, Schultz said, and is a particularly important part of queer history in the South.

“There were a number of colleges in the South — Athens with UGA, VCU in Richmond, the University of Texas at Austin, where early on, Gay Liberation Front organizing is happening and students are moving to these towns with the expectation that it’s a liberal college town,” Schultz said. “We certainly saw that with Jesse Helms saying you didn’t need a zoo, you could just put a fence around Chapel Hill.”

Helms began railing against the increased visibility of queer people on campus in the 1960s though a syndicated newspaper column, Schultz said, before his rise to political power as a U.S. Senator.

“In the 1960s you begin to see on UNC’s campus things like the Human Sexuality Information Counseling organization,” Schultz said. “By then you’re seeing an openness about the existence of queer people in North Carolina.”

Allies and opponents

Some prominent modern political figures — including North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and current UNC System President Peter Hans — fought to defund LGBTQ groups at Carolina during their time as students there.

It’s important for modern queer young people to see the repeated scapegoating of the LGBTQ people as a political tactic, Schultz said, but also that the community has always pushed through it.

“It’s important to realize that many of those same people were trying to defund the campus women’s groups, the Black Student Movement and the Carolina Gay Association all at the same time,” Schultz said. “It has less to do with their visibility and more to do with the fact that the state is giving them funds and people invested in a straight, white, patriarchal state are going to be opposed to those things.”

But queer history at Carolina is also one of important allies, Schultz said.

“One interesting piece of the longer history of UNC is how the dean of students, Dean [Donald] Bolton, was an extremely consistent ally to queer students in the second half of the 20th century,” he said. “Over and over again you see the dean writing letters to corporations and legislatures and concerned people about how these students had the right right to have these organizations on campus. That wasn’t happening on every campus in 1975. That’s one of the reasons you have some of the oldest LGBT student groups anywhere in the country at UNC.”

Schultz said he hopes LGBTQ alumni will finally see themselves as part of the documented history of the university though the project — and that it will be something for current and future students to look to, as well.

“Obviously it’s important for queer people to be proud of who they are,” he said. “Narratives that paint people as deviant and potentially dangerous to children are extremely damaging to young people. So much of this project for me is what would I have liked to see as a young queer person growing up in North Carolina. Presenting a presence on UNC’s campus, showing these amazing, myriad queer people who have come through UNC’s campus.”

Schultz points to George Chauncey, the professor of American history at Columbia who recently became the first scholar of LGBTQ history to win the prestigious Kluge Humanities Prize from the Library of Congress.

“He talks about how you can see who counts and who doesn’t in America by looking at our historical narratives,” Schultz said. “To present something that says queer people aren’t this anathema, dangerous group but instead we’re queer people and we’re part of your communities, we’re here and we’ve always been here — that’s important.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.