June 26, 2015 was a historic day for human rights. After years of advocating for the equal right to marriage, the LGBTQ+ community finally achieved a tremendous victory when the Supreme Court ruled that all states must allow same-sex marriage.
Across the nation celebrations could be seen. People gathered in streets and buildings as diverse as The White House and the One World Trade Center which were lit with the colors of the pride flag. It would seem we had arrived at a point of unmatched progress and equality, but, like the civil rights movement post-desegregation, day-to-day discrimination doesn’t simply end with a court ruling.
On Oct. 6, just months after the Supreme Court’s ruling, a meeting was held at the Blount County Courthouse to vote on a law “condemning judicial tyranny and petitioning God’s mercy.” Proposed by Commissioner Karen Miller, the law essentially served to beg God’s forgiveness for complying with the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, while simultaneously serving as a rallying cry for further discrimination against the Blount County LGBTQ+ community. The bill was not passed, but its existence serves as a hollow reminder that the fight for LGBTQ+ equality is far from finished.
While it is easy to write Blount County off as just another small, conservative and religious county within a Red State, one need only look to Maryville College – located only a short walk from the courthouse itself – to find that, for all the county’s proposed laws against the LGBTQ+ community, there are people ready and willing to protest resolutions like Miller’s.
Roger Myers – Associate Professor and Reference/Instruction Librarian at Maryville College as well as faculty sponsor for the campus’ LGBTQ+ group, The Alliance (previously the Gay Straight Alliance) – recalls the huge number of people who showed up to protest Miller’s proposal. “I think the area around us is pretty conservative, pretty evangelical. What was amazing, though, is when this bill was trying to be passed, people came from all over to oppose the legislation,” said Myers.
Not least among these protestors were a large number of students and faculty from the college. As I walked with a group of familiar Alliance members, we were continually joined by more and more students on our way to the courthouse, eventually arriving to an even larger crowd of both students and community members. “That made me feel like my community was a good place,” Myers remarked.
For many students, Maryville College has been a safe haven from the more conservative surrounding area. “People here are awful. I’m not even comfortable holding my partners hand in public,” said Christopher Payne, a former Maryville College student who identifies as queer and non-binary. “[At Heritage High school] I was called homophobic slurs daily. It was miserable being who I was. Maryville was so much better for me and let me grow into the queer person I am today.”
“The surrounding Maryville area definitely has a conservative and intolerant vibe compared to on campus,” said Hannah Wilson, a current Maryville College sophomore who identifies as bisexual. “I always mentally prepare myself when going out because I never know if someone will say or do something rude.”
Myers stated that more and more, Maryville College’s LGBTQ+ friendly environment has become a draw for students. “Our students on campus feel like they have a place where they can go . . . it tells our community that this is a welcoming campus.” He cited that even though the college does not widely advertise its acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals, through word of mouth alone students become aware of its reputation, and that becomes a deciding factor in them choosing to attend the college.
This reputation becomes even more significant when compared to the next closest college, the University of Tennessee (UT). Beginning in May, when a bill defunding UT’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion was allowed to pass, the college has faced an uphill battle in establishing an LGBTQ+ friendly environment, with persistent vandalism to the campus’ Pride Center and protests from governmental benefactors.
“Because UTK is large and publicly funded, there are a lot of local politics that influence what UT can and cannot do,” said a member of UT’s admissions office, who wished to remain anonymous. “Think of who [Maryville College’s] campus authorities are: people like Anne McKee and Vandy Kemp. Because MC is small and private, people like that are able to influence the campus’ culture.”
“I think in the midst of being in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and being a large research institution, social justice ends up falling through the cracks. Even though there are absolutely people here like Anne McKee and Vandy Kemp who want to be champions for marginalized students, their voices are often silenced by people with more money and public influence. It’s just a totally different environment with its own set of priorities.”
These priorities appear to be reflected in UT’s response to the Pride Center vandalism, or lack thereof, as some students see it. “These acts of hate are simply deplorable and the reaction from the University has been lackluster,” the UTK Pride Center posted on its Facebook page. “I would hope if something like that happened here, faculty would be up in arms,” Myers said when asked about the vandalism. “I just think that whole situation is sad.”
Maryville College was, in fact, hit with vandalism over Fall Break just weeks ago, and, as Myers hoped, students and faculty were avid about quickly joining together to clean it from the campus. Though the vandalism was directed at the college as a whole rather than the LGBTQ+ community, Maryville College has demonstrated that it will not sit quietly while people attempt to harm its campus and community.
Though Maryville College is only one institute, and a small one at that, it has provided a bastion of hope for the LGBTQ+ community in a place that desperately needs it. “I often wonder how my life would be if I went [somewhere else],” Rogers said when remembering his graduation from UT and subsequent decision to remain in East Tennessee, despite the discrimination he faces here as a gay man.
“I guess it’s good that people stay behind, because this area needs people like us,” said Myers.