Vanderbilt reaffirms its commitment to inclusiveness with the expanded Office of LGBTQI Life
by Kara Furlong
photography by John Russell
Ten years ago this spring, K.C. Potter, Vanderbilt’s long-serving dean of residential and judicial affairs, retired from campus life. In his 33 years at the university – 36 if you count the three he spent as a Vanderbilt Law student – Potter witnessed a great deal of change on campus, both institutional and cultural.
As the man charged with meting out discipline to wayward students, Potter had a reputation for being tough but fair. But that toughness belied a warmth and genuineness that drew students to him for conversation and counsel.
“One of my principles was that all of my staff had to be very approachable,” Potter said. “After all, Vanderbilt is a residential campus and the students are far from home. We took an extraordinary pride in making sure we reached out to people.
“There’s a long tradition of that at Vanderbilt,” he said. “Dean Madison Sarratt had that same approach. Rob Roy Purdy, senior vice chancellor, had that approach. And (current Associate Deans of Students) Steve Caldwell, Sandy Stahl and others have always been at the forefront of that.”
The “Eyes and Ears”
From his campus residence on West Side Row, sandwiched between student dorms and fraternity houses, Potter had a unique vantage of the life lived by Vanderbilt students between classes and after hours.
Much of what he saw was positive. “There has always been a great spirit on this campus,” he said.
But occasionally, what he saw was troubling.
“K.C. was always concerned about students who, for whatever reason, felt marginalized, and he always tried to help them,” said Stahl, who worked under Potter for more than 15 years.
Among the groups in particular that garnered Potter’s concern were Vanderbilt’s gay students, long rendered silent on the conservative, Southern campus. Potter was the first administrator to reach out to them, give them a voice, and help them stake their claim of campus life.
Now, a decade after Potter’s retirement and more than two since Vanderbilt’s gay students first organized formally, Vanderbilt is renewing its commitment to this community with the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) Life. Following a national search, the university hired Nora Spencer to direct the office full-time and is in the process of hiring a full-time program coordinator.
The new office is an expansion of a part-time resource office that was located in the Community Partnership House annex. LGBTQI Life has relocated to the Euclid building on West Side Row, just a few doors down from where Potter once lived.
In honor of the spirit of inclusiveness he engendered on campus, the space has been named the K.C. Potter Center and may eventually house other Student Life resource offices.
A Complicated History
Students facing sexual orientation and gender identity issues have always been a part of Vanderbilt, but haven’t always felt welcome – perhaps more so than other minority groups, Potter said.
“There have always been students on campus that are different, but gay students are the only ones who felt they had to be secretive,” he said.
That sense of secrecy was fueled by a current of homophobia on campus, as well as ambivalence among some past administrators in combating it.
In the fall of 1987, Potter decided to take action. “I told my superior, Johan Madson, who was the associate provost for student affairs at the time, that I was going to have lunch with some of the students, and he had no objection,” Potter said. “At that lunch we decided to form some sort of support group.”
Initially, the students were afraid to convene on campus, reluctant even to reserve a meeting space. For several months they gathered at an off-campus apartment. When that location became unavailable, Potter invited them to meet at his home on West Side Row. Vanderbilt’s Lambda Association was born.
“They came every Thursday night for 10 years,” Potter said. “They didn’t miss those meetings.”
The students found camaraderie in the comfortable setting.
“The thing that I noticed was they couldn’t stop talking,” Potter said. “They always looked forward to socializing before the meeting, and then sometimes they would stay long hours socializing after the meeting – just couldn’t stop talking.”
Spencer, the new director of LGBTQI Life, said the sharing of stories is a fundamental part of gender and sexuality education – among members of the gay community and outside of it.
“I think the most powerful way to promote understanding, and to combat misunderstanding and even bias or homophobia, is to tell one’s story,” she said. “Every chance I get in my work, I teach students how to craft their stories in ways that are compelling and may dismantle some of the oppression they’ve experienced.”
In the late 1980s, Potter chaired Vanderbilt’s first Student Life committee examining LGBT issues on campus. Under his guidance, Lambda’s membership flourished. At the hands of proactive leaders within the organization, its mission was no longer a secret at Vanderbilt, but a visible part of campus life.
Passing the Torch
The climate for gay students was much improved – though far from perfect – when Potter underwent open-heart surgery in 1997. Anticipating an extended recuperation away from campus, he arranged for Lambda to move its weekly meeting to the Tarpley building under the sponsorship of the Office of Religious Life.
Over the next decade, LGBT services at Vanderbilt were strengthened, and an office was created to meet the needs not only of undergraduates, but graduate and professional students, faculty, and staff as well. These constituencies had established their own support groups over the years, and along with Lambda formed a loosely organized network on campus.
Gary White, associate director of religious life, began serving as adviser to Lambda in 2001. Along with a series of graduate students employed part-time to organize the LGBT office, White built an impressive resource center and oversaw student programming.
But the task of supporting Vanderbilt’s LGBT community – if truly done right – requires full-time professionals and a fully staffed center – a fact wholeheartedly acknowledged by the folks in Religious Life.
“While it has become increasingly easier to be gay and out at Vanderbilt, it’s still hard,” said Gay Welch, director of religious life. “This naming of a center, putting it somewhere, putting a sign out and saying, ‘We actively affirm this as a constituency of our student body, our mission and our general educational goals,’ is big.”
“This has been the needed thing,” White agreed. “Vanderbilt has long needed a comprehensive approach to the LGBT life on this campus, reaching all the way from the recruitment of students to alumni and development. Having someone who can sit with all of these departments and spend the time necessary to formulate an approach is invaluable.”
A New Energy
The person hired for that job is Spencer, who comes from the University of Florida, where she was assistant director of multicultural and diversity affairs and director of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender affairs. The Lancaster, Pa., native and graduate of Omaha’s Creighton University brings a wealth of experience working in gender and sexuality education and advocating social justice issues.
Spencer received an M.F.A. in creative writing at Florida and studied under David Leavitt, a prominent gay fiction writer. She openly identifies as queer, reflecting the fluidity she values in sexual orientation and gender and her academic interests in queer theory and cultural criticism.
“At Florida I took a ton of courses in queer theory and started looking at how gender and sexuality are constructed, and how those constructions are both helpful and unhelpful in their current existence,” Spencer said. She hopes to incorporate her critical expertise and creative side into her work at Vanderbilt.
“In addition to providing resources to the campus, I would love for the office to become a cultural space, where people walk in the door and understand, ‘This is part of what it means to participate in queer culture’ – literature, art, music, dance and more.”
“We talk here at Vanderbilt about curricular infusion – of getting issues that need to be dealt with on a daily basis into our classroom curriculum,” Stahl said. “Issues of diversity; issues of socioeconomic differentials; issues of sexual orientation. Nora, I think, will help activate an infusion of LGBTQI issues into the overall community.”
Something for Everyone
Community building is a priority for Spencer, who believes her office can benefit and serve everyone at Vanderbilt.
“Foremost, we educate about gender and sexuality,” she said. “Whether it’s for one’s personal benefit, or research for a paper, or for further understanding about the world, we’re here as a resource.
“I think students – even straight students – are interested in talking about gender and sexuality,” she said. “The truth is, they are already talking about it. We’re all negotiating gender roles and sexual dynamics all the time.”
LGBTQI Life – the acronym expanded, Spencer explained, to better recognize the unique identities that comprise that community – will continue to facilitate programming and provide support on campus, a function as important now as it was in Potter’s day.
“It’s still unsafe to be gay and out in many, many places,” Spencer said. “And when you have a minority identity that some people feel pretty adamantly opposed to, it’s tricky figuring out the complexities of living in community or even being on a college campus. We’re here to help students negotiate that realm and support their development.”
Out in the World
The goal – as with all undergraduates – is to help LGBTQI students realize their full potential as healthy, productive, Vanderbilt-degree-carrying adults.
“Studies show that the later students come out, the further behind they are in their professional development because they’ve been wrestling with identity issues,” Spencer said. “They may need additional career resources support, as well as additional support in other areas of their lives.”
With a program coordinator on board, Spencer hopes her office can tap the rich resource that is Nashville’s gay community.
“There’s a GLBT Chamber of Commerce in Nashville, which is unique for a city this size,” she said. “What if an out student wants to learn what it’s like to be an out business owner, or even an equitable business owner? We could create an internship program in which they get to see that.”
Spencer said it’s important for students to realize that beyond their initial coming out on campus, an entire gay community off campus and lifetime of experience awaits.
The Time is Right
As a newcomer to Vanderbilt, Spencer said she’s noticed an interesting – but positive – tension surrounding the expanded LGBTQI program.
“Even during my interview process, people were ripe with questions, suggestions, ideas, requests. They were already connecting,” she said. “The timing feels right, I think, because so many people have been waiting for this for so long.”
Those with longer ties to campus agree.
“Having a dedicated space such as the K.C. Potter Center in the heart of campus is a visible representation of Vanderbilt’s commitment to diversity and support of all students,” said Klint Peebles, the current president of Lambda and a senior in the College of Arts and Science. “The center establishes Vanderbilt’s view that each student is important and can make significant contributions to the life and development of the university, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
“From this point forward, many of our students will have a much better experience,” White said. “I’ve heard from many gay alumni, who had negative, lonely and isolating experiences here, who are finally excited to come back to campus.”
Perhaps best of all, future generations of Vanderbilt students will know the name and work of K.C. Potter through the center that bears his name.
“The fact that Vanderbilt is establishing a full-time office simply means the world to me,” he said.
LGBTQI: Understanding the Acronym
L – Lesbian: a woman who is primarily emotionally, romantically, sexually, affectionately and relationally attracted to other women and self-identifies as a lesbian.
G – Gay: anyone who is primarily emotionally, romantically, sexually, affectionately and relationally attracted to someone of the same gender and self-identifies as gay.
B – Bisexual: someone who is primarily emotionally, romantically, sexually, affectionately and relationally attracted to men and women and who self-identifies as bisexual.
T – Transgender: an umbrella term describing anyone with a gender identity outside of the male/female binary who also self-identifies as transgender.
Q – Queer: once a derogatory term, now reclaimed as an identity that acknowledges the fluidity of gender and sexuality and invokes the unique culture, history and academic discourse around queer identities.
I – Intersex: someone with any one of a number of characteristics that are outside of the physical standards for medically assigning sex. These could be physical, genetic or hormonal characteristics.
Sexual Orientation vs. Gender Identity and Expression
Most people have a sexual orientation and gender identity, which we express in ways that feel true to us. Sexual orientation is defined by whom we’re primarily attracted to and how we self-identify. Gender identity is our inner sense of being masculine, feminine, androgynous or something else. We express our gender identity in the clothes we wear, the products we use, the way we communicate, the manner in which we carry ourselves and in other ways.
Source: Nora Spencer, director of LGBTQI Life
An Indelible Impact