Lumen Scholar chronicles rise of LGBTQ student groups

An Elon senior uses a top award to trace the evolution of organizations for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students at Duke and UNC.


Although gay and lesbian student groups are common on college campuses in the 21st century, that wasn’t the case four decades ago at the height of the Civil Rights Era as Americans confronted issues tied to race, gender and eventually sexual orientation.

The origins of formal LGBTQ groups on college campuses date to the mid 1960s, Columbia University in New York City being the first school to officially recognize such an organization. But even when student groups formed, it wasn’t for the same purpose as they do today.

The growth of campus LGBTQ organizations, and what it means for the future of gay, lesbian, queer and transgendered students in higher education, piqued the interest of Elon University senior Jess McDonald, and McDonald’s undergraduate research on that history is the latest to be featured this academic year in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2012.

“The campus evolution reflects the national movement. In the beginning, it really was about ‘there are other people like me on this campus,’” McDonald said of the movement’s origins. “A lot of emphasis through the ‘80s was showing that gay people exist and that they’re not evil or sick.”

By the 1990s, national attention was being paid to issues of HIV/AIDS, and campus groups such as the ones McDonald researched at Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill had morphed more into advocacy and educational organizations.

Through research under the guidance of Professor Mary Jo Festle, McDonald, a history and sociology double major, combed the archives of both schools for contemporary newspaper accounts and minutes from both student group and administrative body meetings. McDonald also reached out to alumni who attended college during the 1970s and 80s, conducting interviews with several figures from the early years of the LGBTQ groups.

Legal cases affected the movement, too, including LGBTQ students organizing in North Carolina. In 1983, Duke’s group briefly lost its charter when a university lawyer advised the student government president that the LGBTQ group’s social functions encouraged criminal behavior, referencing North Carolina laws against sodomy. This reasoning had already been proven illegal in earlier court cases.

The university soon reversed its decision, McDonald said, based on First Amendment arguments. Nearly 30 years later, not only do LGBTQ organizations still thrive, there are centers that have opened on college campuses to bridge student passion with the resources that faculty and staff can offer as part of a full-time presence.

For McDonald, the research is more than academic. It’s personal. As president of SPECTRUM, an awareness and advocacy organization for Elon University’s LGBTQ community, understanding the origins of similar organizations helps shape McDonald’s own perceptions of why gay, lesbian and bisexual groups evolved the way they did.

And as McDonald explains, by using the Lumen Prize to conduct research, McDonald has demonstrated to both parents that being queer is part of an identity. “Lumen has been helpful in starting conversations with my parents about this,” McDonald said. “They take me more seriously and realize it’s not a ‘phase,’ and that I’m doing serious research.”

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements.

Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects. Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development, and creative productions and performances.

The name for the Lumen Prize comes from Elon’s historic motto, “Numen Lumen,” Latin words for “spiritual light” and “intellectual light.”

“Jess has found some really wonderful sources in the archives – organizational documents that illustrate how students grappled with what their primary goals should be and how they should deal with incidents of homophobia, letters from trustees who don’t believe the university should even allow a gay student organization to exist, newspaper articles that demonstrate student support and opposition,” Festle said. “From Jess’ research, you get a real flavor of UNC and Duke at different times in the late 20th century.

“The work is original and the work is relevant. Jess is both a talented student of history and a person who is committed to social justice, learning about things that happened in the past that help us think about how we might approach inequality, discrimination, campus climate, cultural conflicts and misunderstandings.”

McDonald plans to take a year off after graduation from Elon University in May before pursuing a master’s degree in the field of student affairs in higher education, hopefully at UCLA. “I want to focus on diversity and LGBT issues,” McDonald said. “Ideally, I’d like to work in a center somewhere.”