0:00 - Introduction/Biographic Information
2:27 - Freshman year/Coming out as a Sophomore
8:08 - Historical Context/ Becoming involved in Gay Student Alliance
Partial Transcript: But to put this in context, in 1977 Anita Bryant had just caused a huge stir within the country with the Save Our Children campaign in Dade, Florida.
Keywords: Alcohol laws; homophobia; religious; Save our Children campaign; Stonewall; Women's Collective; wrong assumptions
Subjects: Bryant, Anita; Gay rights movement; LGBT
16:09 - Living in the dorms/Harassment
Partial Transcript: there was no- you really couldn’t be out. It was dangerous. It was dangerous, and it was hard, and living in the dorms was brutal.
Keywords: dorms; drillfield; outed; overcoming fears; violence
Subjects: Coming out (Sexual orientation); Gay college students; harassment; LGBT; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
26:47 - Denim Day-organizing and aftermath
Partial Transcript: at that time one of the things that was going on in university campuses were having- they would have awareness weeks...
Keywords: basic human rights; collegiate times; corduroy; Dean James Dean; Gay awareness week; gay student alliance
Subjects: Gay rights movement; LGBT; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
39:06 - Community outreach/Complexities within LGBTQ organizations
49:31 - Enduring relationships/AIDS epidemic
Partial Transcript: So, I assume you feel that it’s because you faced the same social barriers and obstacles and faced them together that has a lot to do with how enduring your friendships have been?
Keywords: AIDS quilt; AIDS ward
Subjects: AIDS (Disease); AIDS (Disease)--Moral and ethical aspects; America responds to AIDS; LGBT
53:13 - First Friday group and leaving Tech/Importance of Denim Day now
Partial Transcript: When I graduated from [Virginia] Tech, which was actually in 81, in the winter of 81—or 80 anyway—I had an internship in Roanoke with Blue Ridge Public Television...
Keywords: community engagement; current political climate; diversity; First Friday; inclusion
Subjects: Duke University; Gay college students; Gay rights; LGBT
Narrator: Nancy Kelly
Interviewer: Joe Forte
Videographer: Slade Lellock
Date of Interview: January 4, 2019
Transcribed by: Kathryn Walters, January - February, 2019
Audit edited by: L.T. Wilkerson, February 14, 2019
Final edited by: Anthony Wright, March 14, 2019
Joe Forte: This is an oral history project attached to the fortieth anniversaryof Denim Day at Virginia Tech. Denim Day was an awareness event staged and sponsored by the what then was called the Gay Student Alliance 1979. We are in the current LGBTQ+ Resource Center working with some of the alumni who took part in that event to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Denim Day including this oral history project attached to all the events. My name is Joe Forte. I'll be interviewing Nancy Kelly who was one of the leading coordinators of the event and within the Gay Student Alliance at the time. We are in Newman Library on the Blacksburg campus of Virginia Tech. It is January fourth at 1:00 p.m. Welcome 1:00Nancy, would you like to introduce yourself?
Nancy Kelly: Absolutely. My name is Nancy Kelly, and I was born in 1958, comingup on my birthday, and in Denver, Colorado. I'm the youngest of five children. We lived there for a while. We moved to Potomac, Maryland where I grew up. I have two older brothers and two older sisters, and one older brother and one older sister went to Virginia Tech, so in growing up I never- I assumed that I always would go to college, and in high school I was very, very social. I was class president, very active socially and organizationally, and when it came time to choose a university or a college Virginia Tech was one of my first three 2:00choices, and when I was accepted it was my first choice. It felt very familiar, and I loved the fact that is was not in a metropolitan area, that it was in a town that was a town that was a place in the mountains. I was just very attracted to it and very excited about coming. I first came on campus in 1976 was my first year. I was a freshman, and at that time I was under the impression that I was heterosexual. I lived in West Eggleston Hall. I was very social. I dated guys. I was very- there were many Nancys on the hall 'cause it's a very 50s name, and I was crazy Nancy. I was fun Nancy, and -- and at that time I wasn't very aware of myself, and I knew I had always, deep profound attraction 3:00to women, but I was not aware of it, and I can't really describe it [laughter] other than that. I do know that much of the language has changed, so the language that I'm going to use is what I call my language. So way before there was LGBTQ, way before rainbow flags, before all of that, basically it was primarily gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, so it was really the- it was under the umbrella of gay. Trans really was not a medical option, and so trans have a whole separate timeline, so the words that I use are basically gay or lesbian, but that's just to acknowledge the time. At that time gay really meant gay men 4:00to me. A few times growing up heard what a homo was, and I asked about that and my friend told me. She said, well homo is like a man who wants to be sexually active with a man, and that was very relieved 'cause I thought well okay I'm not a man, I'm not sexually attracted to men so phew! There we go [laughter], but I still didn't exactly understand what was going on. When I was a freshman I was very social, and then it was the end of my freshman year that I became seriously attracted to a woman, and I didn't understand what was happening. In fact -- over the summer we started- got closer and then the beginning of my sophomore year, I had an experience with her, a sexual experience, and it was literally on 5:00one day, September 29th, 1977 is the day my life made sense. I went oh [laughter]. But at the time lesbians weren't visible. Gay meant men, so I didn't really understand, or didn't have role models, or didn't get what lesbians were. I know in my freshman year one of the things the Gay Student Alliance would do is that members of them would go and talk to classes, and it was in a panel discussion, a panel format, and, at the time I was--and I'm not proud of this, but what I really did just to be honest because many people do mean and cruel things, and they don't understand, or they don't mean to do it--but what I did as a freshman is that I heard that the Gay Student Alliance was coming to my 6:00sociology class, and I thought it would be hysterical, so I grabbed up my friends on West Eggleston Hall, and we all went to my sociology class and sat in the back of the room and heckled and laughed at these gay men. So, I had a little reckoning with what I had done and that was just mean, and I was fearful, and I didn't understand, so, when I came out as a sophomore, I had an experience with a woman, and I didn't fully understand how oppressed gay people were, and -- it was just very difficult to understand the isolation, and not knowing that 7:00I was a lesbian my whole life. I remember sitting out in front of the War Memorial Gym looking out at the Drillfield and being overwhelmed with, with the feeling in the, in the, in the society in general gay people were scorned. It was ridicule, it was hatred, it was fear, and I was overwhelmed with the thought that would be my life, and I felt very isolated. I felt I'm the only one, but of course I wasn't, you know, I knew that, so in meeting other people and meeting people that were funny, kind, generous, delightful people, and they were either 8:00gay men or lesbians I began to understand that we're just people. But to put this in context, in 1977 Anita Bryant had just caused a huge stir within the country with the Save Our Children campaign in Dade, Florida. So just historically, Stonewall happened, gay people were coming out, there was a political activism, gay people were marching, and being political along with people of color, Civil Rights Movement, Women's movement, it was part of it. And then what happened was--and laws started to change--so what happened was in Dade, Florida they had passed an ordinance that it was o- you wouldn't be fired if you were gay, and that outraged people because they thought, we should 9:00absolutely be able to fire you if you're gay, and so her stance was about religion which was based on two real completely wrong assumptions, one is that, gay people are pedophiles--which is not true--and second, if gay people are around children we are going to unduly influence them and make them be gay, and that still is a underpinning of much homophobia today. It's about adoption, it's about everything. It's this, this issue, but she brought it front and center, and so what that did is galvanized the community, so [clears throat] there was a tremendous resurgence in 1977, 78 of gay people going wait a minute. We are not pedophiles. We are not recruiting. We are not this and that. So that is part 10:00of what we got caught up in the Gay Student Alliance. It was the same time, but in Blacksburg it was very isolated, very close, very, very religious, and again those were the major concerns of those that are religious in addition to, you know, issue, you know, quoting bible verses. It was the influence on children, so I started getting to know people, and particularly women and then there were a few folks that- I went to my first gay bar over Thanksgiving break my sophomore year, and there we met a friend named Olga, and Olga's like you've got to come to the Women's Collective. And as soon as we came back we went to the Women's Collective. And as soon as we went to the Women's Collective--which was primarily a lesbian organization, but you couldn't say you were lesbian--that 11:00then I began to meet women with a feminist thought, and some who were politically active, and politically active just meant you were willing to say who you were. It's not that you were marching on the street. You would just say that that's who you were, at least to some people, so that whole brought about just a collection of people, and what happened in 1977 and 78, there had been a Gay Student Alliance previously. It was a-
F: Do you know when that organization founded?
K: Maybe, first it was called the Gay Liberation Front which I just loved thatname. I'm really sorry that they changed it, but, [laughter] it was for men- it was men. I know that in the mid 70s the Gay Student Alliance started meeting in Squires, but it was very hush, hush, shut doors. People wouldn't go because 12:00they would be identified, so it was very, very kind of underground, but at least it was at Squires. There was some public sense, so one of our friends that we met was actually the president of the Gay Student Alliance. His name is George, is now changed it to Drew, but at the time it was George, and George was the president of the Gay Student Alliance, and the women that I started hanging with were friends. They were in architecture, and we just became a group of friends, and it was at the point that there were really only five or six women that joined the Gay Student Alliance because we wanted to talk at classes, so literally one year after I had brought all my freshmen buddies to come and laugh their brains out at the Gay Student Alliance, I decided I would be in McBryde 100 on the panel, and when people were heckling and howling in the back of the 13:00room I would just let them know that actually it was just one year ago that that was me, and the other real big contextual difference is that there was no such thing as an ally. There were gay sympathizers. That if you liked someone that was gay you would always say, well I'm straight, but-- you would have to clarify your sexuality. There were no people that just felt that it was wrong or that the way that gay people were treated, so if you were an ally you were leaving yourself open to be suspect to be gay.
F: So are you saying that you and these four other women were the first to jointhe GSA?
K: We were the first women, and I was the first lesbian co-president of the GayStudent Alliance, so in 1978 we just decided we were wanting more political 14:00things, and I mean some of it was to meet each other, but we were the first women to join the Gay Student Alliance, and that actually attracted a lot more attention because instead of just being, we wanted to do things, or to also help other people come out because there was just a vacuum. There was just nothing- there was no one. Also, you have to understand there were bars. We would go to the bar. It was called Murphy's in Roanoke, so we would drive to Roanoke. It was not a gay bar, and at that time you would go, they would flash the lights on and off. If women were touching each other they would get on the loudspeaker and tell you to stop because at that time it was illegal to serve alcohol to a known homosexual, so we couldn't go to a bar,, and then in 1978 is when The Park 15:00opened, and they were a membership bar which is how they got around the alcohol laws at the time.
F: In Roanoke as well?
K: In Roanoke. It was in Roanoke, nothing in Blacksburg. So what we had to do inBlacksburg is that we would just have our own parties. So with the Gay Student Alliance--and the Women's Collective was sort of the lesbian organization, much smaller--we would just have parties at our house, so with the Gay Student Alliance and the Women's Collective we would put little ads in the paper, and at least with the Women's Collective we would say, call Jane, and so when- and these were our personal home, home phone numbers. When someone would call and ask for Jane then we would know, [laughter] and we laugh. We had a really big station wagon, and when it was time for our parties, which was at our little house on Jackson street, we would drive around the Drillfield and pick up all 16:00the little baby lesbians, and then take them to the party [laughter] and then bring them back, but there was no- you really couldn't be out. It was dangerous. It was dangerous, and it was hard, and living in the dorms was brutal. Um -- it was just very hard. Um, I get emotional about it because, because I do. Um, when i came out a woman that I knew screamed it on my hallway, that I was a lesbian, and, so immediately I had no- I was outed, and, so, it became very uncomfortable. I had a roommate that knew but that was okay, it was, it was a 17:00situation where, um -- like if I would go into the bathroom everyone would leave. Now that was good because I could always get a shower, so that was good, but it, it was terrible. I was working at the dining hall in Owens with my little hair net and my smock, and I wa- I got off early and one of my friends said, no don't go, don't go, and I was like, why? They're having a big prayer meeting for you, and, um -- the other thing that happened in- in my dorm was I was sitting in my dorm room, room 310 West Eggleston, and I heard all this commotion, and I didn't know what it was, and I smelled smoke, and at that time everybody just had all these papers and stuff on your dorm, your name, and you 18:00had all these notes, and it was all paper oriented. Anyway somebody had lit my door on fire, and then I opened the door, and its flames, and there's people running down the hallway laughing. So, you had to get out of the dorm, and there's- the guys had a worse stor- guys had way worse, more- much more violence, and- but at that time there was no one to tell. No, no forms to fill out. You wouldn't go to the police. You wouldn't go to anybody because then you would be subject to more stuff, so -- the most difficult thing that happened to me was I was walking on the Drillfield--and because we had come out more, and because I was in classes, and this was an experience for everybody, this is my own personal experience, but many people had lots of stories--I was walking on 19:00the Drillfield in front of my dorm, and I jus- there was a car came up, and I heard, that's her, and I didn't know what it was, and then all of a [sudden] something came out of the window, and it didn't go near me, but I just didn't know what it was. I went over, and it was a brick, and, so I looked at the brick, and I- the car sped off, and then it stopped, and then it backed up, and then the doors opened, and the guys came out, and I ran, and, I ran into a little alcove, and I don't even- I don't know if I tried to get in the door or not, but [clears throat] they have a little alcove, and I went in, and I jumped in a bush, and I sat behind a bush, and, and they ran past me, and I heard stuff, but then I just sat there, and I sat there for hours. I was terrified, 20:00and I felt hunted, and being somebody of privilege, being white, being somebody who thought they were heterosexual for a long time, I did not get what that feeling is of just hatred, and they were gonna beat me up at the least, and I remember sitting in behind this bush, like curled up and paralyzed, and I sat there for way too long. I knew they had gone, but I just couldn't move, and this peace came over me, and what I realized is, is that I, in that moment, chose to not live in fear. I had- it was peaceful to let that go, that I am not going to 21:00live in fear, and then it also gave me power because it's like I know who I am now, and I get that people hate me, but I found myself, and I went back to my dorm. I didn't tell anybody. I washed my hands, I cleaned up, and I went to bed, and it's a terrible thing to happen, but in some ways it- I'm very grateful because it gave me a clear sense of who I am, and what I'm willing to stand up for or not, and so then in doing things with the Gay Student Alliance it gave me power, and in many other things too, so I'm grateful that that happened, and 22:00that at nineteen years old I knew who I was even though I have edited, I have lied, I have compartmentalized myself [Laughter]. There are many things that we do to have a job, to deal with our family, to- you know, whatever. I've adopted children. We had to lie through that completely, so there's lots of things, but in my core I was like this is who I am. And, so, those stories, and and physically nothing happened to me, you know. I was very lucky that-, many people have had really horrible physical things happen to them.
F: Yeah, that sounds frightening, and I think back to that moment overlooking23:00the Drillfield, and what you're describing I see your worst fears--and maybe then some--becoming reality, but at the same time you're finding something, some acceptance, you finding your community, finding yourself.
K: Well also accepting myself.
F: Accepting yourself.
F: Yeah, and- the moment where you realize where you faced the fear you werefacing on the Drillfield of a life of loneliness and isolation, would you say a kind of activism was born out of that moment because of that realization, and then this then strengthened with experiences like the frightening one you described.
K: Right well what I think it did for me, or did to me, is that it made meunderstand that it's hard to be--and this is true in any kind of group--when you 24:00are one of the first to stand up you become a lightning rod for hate, for violence, for bigotry, everything, and you also become a beacon of light for others, and it's the others- that is why we did it. I didn't know I was a lesbian because I didn't never saw one that I knew of, but of course I've always seen them. We've always been here. They've always been at Virginia Tech. Just because there was a Gay Student Alliance in 1977 does not mean that we were the first gay students. There were first gay students were 150 years ago. You know? They just maybe didn't know it. Didn't feel comfortable, but blah, blah, blah.
F: Yeah. I mean, I guess in one sense that's the way college is right? The25:00timeline seems so short, right? From your realization of something that never occurred to you, previously to this just full embrace of the importance of your identity in yourself, your identity in the community, and I mean it seems it's a quick journey.
K: Very quick journey, but when you're outed in the seventies that's what it is,so either you go under, or in the closet, or not, and I chose not because the closet- and I have to be clear. I was not out to my parents, so there were a lot of people that I concealed and lied to simply- I was not like out to everybody. Some of the people in our Gay Student Alliance--in fact one woman Beth--came out in the newspaper, and her father was a professor. I mean people did amazing 26:00things, and I'm not the only one. As a group, how we did what we did- we didn't quite get it. We didn't have the historical perspective to get it. We were just trying to be ourselves, and trying to be nineteen and twenty and twenty-one, and to find people we loved, and to be who we were. We were really not trying to be activists. We were just- we were advocating for our lives and ourselves. You know, people used to say it was- and even I have said, this was a lifestyle. It's not a lifestyle, it's our lives, you know? It's not like a hairstyle. It's just who we are. So, at that time one of the things that was going on in university campuses were having- they would have awareness weeks because part of it is people just didn't understand that their brothers, their sisters, their cousins, their roommates, their study mates were gay, lesbian, bisexual, and I'm 27:00just not saying trans because that really- and yes trans, but it was just, you know, that just has a different timeline, so I, I cannot speak to that, so I want to honor them and not and not speak. So part of what we wanted to do was to have an awareness week. It wasn't terribly original [laughter]. There were some other colleges that had done it, so we thought well we'll just have a week, and I'm sure in the fall semester we planned it or thought about it. It was to do a radio show. It was to have like the coming out day or by the way, I'm gay day, and then there was a panel discussion so that we could speak for ourselves, and then we do a denim day. Now it had been done other places, and the whole issue- the only thing that we said at Denim Day was support gay rights, wear denim. Now 28:00we knew full well that every single student at Virginia Tech wore denim everyday, and it was in the middle of the winter. Of course they were wearing- but our point was really awareness. People took it so literally. Over the fall we planned it, and then in January--beginning of January--we went to this commission where we had to get a permission, and we got permission, and Gay Awareness Week was only ten days later. It wasn't like this big thing. But, as soon as- there was small little newspaper article that just said, the Gay Student Alliance has been doing this--and we would very rarely use our names. It was spokeswoman, spokesperson. We did not want to have our names used--and when that came out in the newspaper, beginning of January, and the campus absolutely erupted. It was stunning, and people were outraged that we were gonna co-opt 29:00their dress choice for a day, and you also have to understand contextually we had no cell phones--so there was one pay phone on every hall for a hundred people, and they were all plugged in the wall, and you had to know the number--no social media, no laptops, no computers. We had flyers, newspaper articles, television, and radio. But of course television only had four stations, so everything went through the Collegiate Times, so this little article created a huge uproar, and a record number of letters to the editor, and 30:00outrage. People were furious, and upset, and it's only ten days [laughter]. We didn't- and there was a lag time 'cause a letter- you had to actually write, put in mail, whatever. The university received twenty-five thousand letters. Twenty-five thousand. Now, it wasn't just in ten days, but over the time period. So, the letters to the editor, some were beautiful and understood what we were trying to do, and others were vitriolic and hateful, let's put 'em in pink dorms, and y'all are fine, but keep it to yourselves, and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Part of what we did at the Gay Student Alliance, we made flyers. One of the most effective things we did is, we did this little half flyer with a- in a dorm room closet. It had a pair of jeans and a denim jacket, and it had a 31:00person's hand coming out of the closet, and we had a little army of people, maybe--the Gay Student Alliance was twenty at the most. Five women, fifteen guys roughly--so we had a little army of people on the night before Denim Day. We made thousands of flyers, and we went under every single dorm room door, and just said don't forget tomorrow's Denim Day, so come Denim Day we learned that the Blacksburg merchants had more sales of dress clothing in the winter than had been recorded. People were pulling together their corduroys, anything but blue jeans. Some chose to wear denim skirts to mock us, and basically we went, and it 32:00was a sea of corduroy. I mean no one- and everyone knew what day it was. There was no, oh, is this today? Maybe a few people that lived off campus wore jeans, and then somehow understood what the implication was, but again there were no allies, so it's not like you would be an ally. The Campus Crusade refused, and said, we're gonna carry a toothbrush, and wear jeans, but our toothbrush says we don't support gay rights. We're just talking about basic human rights. It wasn't [laughter]- that's all we said support gay rights, wear denim.
F: Could you speak a little bit about your expectations regarding Denim Day, andI mean, clearly you didn't expect a wave of support given your experience.
K: No, no, no we thought- we didn't even know people would pay attention.
F: But you were trying- slipping under every dorm door.
K: Absolutely we tried, but the point was- we did not imagine- at that time33:00there were twenty thousand students, and then faculty and staff, so we did not imagine that there would be an upwelling of support for gay rights because gay people didn't have rights. It was unthinkable for us to be treated- to have equality in marriage or any- I mean that is- that was just like--I never believed that would ever happen personally--but the point was to think and to cause a conversation, to cause awareness so when people--even people today--I said we had Gay Awareness Week and we had Denim Day- support gay rights wear denim. Nobody wore denim. They're like whoa, whoa, you failed, it's like unh-uh. We started conversations, but most important for us is that we opened the door 34:00for many people that were questioning, or understanding, or just trying to understand themselves. [break] We had married people that are going, I have three kids, and I think I'm gay, and I don't know what to do. The other thing that it did is that it thrust us--these twenty kids--into being gay experts, like there were no resource centers. There were not- no therapists, no centers, so we got referrals from all over Southwest Virginia. People calling us, will you talk to these people? People didn't know what to do so it just was- so yes, we knew [laughter] people hated us. We just did it anyway. We did it anyway, and in any movement of any kind there has to be something that starts it, and the 35:00other thing is that everybody thought that gay people lived in New York City and in San Francisco and in Miami. They did not think that they were in Christiansburg and Shawsville and Elliston and in Blacksburg. So that was a big reckoning, and I think there have been so many changes, so many ways that have progressed because it's really about people, and like when you get to know someone then you realize, oh well they're just not this person, [laughter] they're- they're my brother, my- Anyway, so what happened after Denim Day was this huge eruption, and of course we not- and I have to say there were many gay people that were furious that we did this. We outed them we made them not wear 36:00jeans or, this or that, so they were upset, but it really wasn't our intention, but it is what happened. On that day there were like twenty people wearing jeans. [laughter] It wasn't many. I had on my bib overalls, I'd like to say, with my button that was very trendy at the time that said better blatant than latent because, if you admitted you were a gay person that meant you were being blatant. Denim Day came and went and then being a co-president, the other co-president and I, John, were hauled off to Burruss Hall and the Dean Dean, which his name was James Dean, sat us down and just said, you all have embarrassed your group in this university and you have embarrassed our university throughout the state, and we've heard from the governor's office, and 37:00I want to be very clear, you are never going to do this again. Hence, he was the gentleman that had to answer the twenty-five thousand letters [laughter] that the university had received.
F: Who was the governor at the time?
K: Dalton. John Dalton. We just said, mmm, okay. I mean, I don't have all thememory, but- it wasn't just the community at large. We were sat down by the administration to say, this is not okay, you know, supporting, you know, your stunt, your whatever, and it was just basically- I mean, if you can imagine now, changing the preferred dress the choice of twenty-five thousand people in the middle of winter, what that would take, even with social media, it was pretty epic. So, the next year I'm happy to say we tried to do it again, and I was 38:00there. I was, I believe, still co-president, but there was another guy, Scott, that was the new co-president, and we tried to do it again, and Dean Dean was there, and I remember him put his hands behind his head like, no way you're doing that again, and I think there's a quote in the paper that said, even if I lose my job you're not doin' this again. So, then we kind of scrambled and said well we'll have a pray for our gay oppressor day, so we'll just all get together and pray for y'all. Just like, hope you get over yourselves, but anyway, needless to say, it was not as effective, but for those of us in it I think it did- I mean we were leaders of a thing that was highly unpopular and dangerous, and we did it anyway. 39:00
F: A couple of questions occur to me from some of the stories you've beentelling. First, I'm struck by the- you touched on the fact that the students organizing Denim Day had become kind of default experts, and your advice, guidance had been sought out from arenas you hadn't expected. Was this a welcome role, or was it overwhelming?
K: We welcomed it. We welcomed it because we understood the isolation that folksface, and, so [clears throat] we were always willing to extend a welcome or meet 40:00someone for lunch or invite them to a party, or really just to find a safe haven, a community, and we just knew how important it was 'cause it just wasn't there- it wasn't there for us, and felt it was important that we do that, and we did that. At least when I was here that was a really important thing, and again these were like our personal phone lines- these were our personal addresses. We were completely open and vulnerable to whatever was gonna happen, but it was more important.
F: And who's reaching out. Like where is this coming from?
K: We would get calls from therapists. We would get calls from counselors, fromdepartments, or people who had friends of friends. We were the only helpline, 41:00but it wasn't really- I mean, I was a communications major, not a therapist, but somehow having that experience in that time, in that context, was sort of the first- we were the first ones that made ourselves public or made ourselves known and before that, at least in Blacksburg, there was a Gay Student Alliance, and one of the things that people don't understand that we don't always know who the officers were because we would never give our names or we would use our first name or spokesperson that, also when you're in college you're wanting to potentially be hired somewhere, and giving that information- you couldn't unhear it once you heard it, so I personally was protective of my name, and I was not always willing to be identified.
F: Sure. You seem to have a great appreciation for the complexity that lives in42:00this, and you say it was about living our lives, and just who we were and just wanted to be people, but also you recognize the importance of the activism, and the actors and standing as a resource for other folks. Was that a difficult balance to strike at nineteen? I mean, certainly have a mature and sophisticated appreciation for it now speaking about it. Was it the same then?
K: For me personally it was. It is something that I have done my whole lifesince then, and it might go back to being on the Drillfield and just looking out and seeing no one. It was a very powerful, and again, it's obviously painful for 43:00me, but I'm also grateful for it because living in that space of actually understanding who you are, even though you're still afraid, and you lie to people, and you cover, and, you know, dealing with parents and siblings and employers. That's- that feeling I have never gotten over. Just the, the joy and euphoria of getting who I am. Like, having your life make sense to you is a gift, and I got it early on. Especially when you're swimming against the current. When you're being different, and it's not easy.
F: And speaking of swimming against the current. I was reading some quotes yougave reporters of it looks like it's the Blacksburg Sun? 44:00
K: Right. [laughter]
F: I'm not familiar with that publication, but I looked it up.
K: It, yeah, it used to be-
F: It looked short lived.
K: Yeah short lived it. I think it was a daily. I don't know.
F: But you talk about the difference between lesbian and gay members of thestudent alliance and the distinction there, and it seems like you're appreciating complexities within the difficulties, within the impression. So, as a woman, as a gay woman in this community what were some of the ways in which these overlapping communities navigated the oppression, right? You speak of the 45:00difference between gay men, and lesbians, and there's race, class- were you aware of other distinctions, other complexities?
N. Sure. And to be very clear with the Gay Student Alliance we are primarilywhite, so people of color had a whole different experience which was much more difficult, and that really needs to be acknowledged. The time that I'm talking about was sort of my own little- we were ostracized, but we were white, and we were privileged. We were educated, and the complexities between gay men and lesbians is a complex thing. In current world LGBTQIA+ is an odd- it's a very large umbrella term for a lot of people that kind of go, hm! hm! [laughter] We're all together but gay- when you have a dynamic of two men being together 46:00and two women being together there's a big difference, and sometimes you don't often see gay groups integrated with men and women because we are so different, and I think this was a special time, and honestly the men that I knew at that time were some of the dearest, my dearest long term friends. The difficulties of navigating in the Gay Student Alliance for me as a woman is that a lot of the guys were sort of looking to hook up all the time, [laughter] and the women- we were too, but differently. We just bring a U-Haul, [laughter], anyway, that's a lesbian joke. So, in this Gay Student Alliance some of it was hard to navigate 47:00because to get an agreement of like the parties and whatever, but at time we somehow managed because what we did- I don't get what it's like to wanna be with a guy, and they don't get what it's like to wanna be with a woman, so that's like what we have in common- but what we really had in common was that we were being oppressed. We were oppressed differently. There was a different reaction to being a gay man than to being a lesbian. Being a gay man, often--first of all, heterosexual men, and by no means all, but many are extremely threatened by that and feel that they do not want to be sexually solicited and therefore they 48:00want to beat up gay men. Now in the heterosexual model if every man who made an unwanted advance on a woman, if she beat the crap out of them it would be a different world, so there's that.--But gay men in some way because if they had some identity that might not be completely identified as completely masculine than they were seen as less of a man, and for lesbians we were threatening because we didn't need men, and the kind of vitriol that we got was much more threatened like, you just don't know 'cause you haven't been with the right man and by the way I'm it. Thanks, no, we're good, so there's that kind of threatening that goes on, but, there can be a rub between gay men and lesbians, 49:00bisexual, trans, queer, like all of those. There can, but we get the fact that we are not in the majority of either our orientation or our gender identity, but gender identity is just a new word, like we never knew what that was.
F: So, I assume you feel that it's because you faced the same social barriersand obstacles and faced them together that has a lot to do with how enduring your friendships have been?
K: Absolutely. Well, and to be really honest until we started- the other thing Ihave to say is that we came out before the rainbow flag, before we knew what AIDS was going to be, before our dear friends died. You know, we watched them. 50:00It was terrifying. AIDS came out, it was a plague. It was, somebody had a cough, it didn't go away. Somebody found a lesion, it didn't happen. And those were our friends. Our dear friends, Leroy and Owen, who were very much part of the Gay Student Alliance. We watched them wither and die, and people laughed. People told gay jokes, told AIDS jokes. They withheld funding. They, you know- if you look at the news coverage in the eighty's when that was happening, and the reason why it was- there was an outrage is because it was for gay people, and until Ryan White, and until some very normal white, heterosexual people got AIDS 51:00it was like yeah whatever, but it was terrifying, and it- I remember Leroy before we knew he had- before he knew he had AIDS, he worked in bar in D.C., and seven of his coworkers had died within two months. Like if you can imagine your office environment [laughter] and having people get something that was a death sentence--There was no ifs, ands, or buts about it. You were gonna die--and when he had it- he was bright and funny and delightful and an architect, and he was an amazing man--and Owen also--but I experienced going to an AIDS ward, and -- you know when you see Holocaust survivors, when you see the Holocaust, it's all 52:00in black and white, but to walk into an AIDS ward was like going to a Holocaust, but they're wearing johnnies. They're young men, and it's all in color, and when you see that one of those faces is your dear friend it was horrible, and what was even worse was just the--not- it wasn't worse, but--just the reaction, the laughter and the underplaying of AIDS was horrible, and one of the most moving things I ever did was to go to the AIDS quilt, and our friend Leroy had a square, and it was just, it was a very important time, but we didn't know that 53:00was gonna happen, so, you know in the seventies that- we had no idea. [break] When I graduated from [Virginia] Tech, which was actually in 81, in the winter of 81--or 80 anyway--I had an internship in Roanoke with Blue Ridge Public Television, and I ended up working there and there was a group of women. Four of the sort of five or six of us actually moved to Roanoke eventually, and in Roanoke in 1981 something else sort of magical happened which was, there was a group of women that were getting together the first Friday of every month, and we started- we started and created an amazing lesbian community in Roanoke. We would have annual fancy balls, and we would do a big retreat. We 54:00produced performers, concerts, comedians that really went through the 1980s, so, for me, that's where I went. Honestly, Blacksburg held nothing for me. I felt we were treated badly, and it was a very hard place to live, and although I would come back socially, I really never came back to campus, until this summer. I did not walk at graduation. They called and asked me for money, and I told them I was dead, [laughter] so the fact in coming back has been actually wonderful experience, and very interesting. 55:00
F: You lived in Roanoke through the eighties?
K: Through the eighties, and then I moved to Durham, North Carolina which iswhere I live now. I've lived there for thirty-six years or so, and I work at Duke University. By profession I'm a meeting and event planner which started way back in the day of doing events. I'm the director of community engagement and events, so I handle all the large events for the school of the environment, Nicholas School of the Environment. I work with student groups, and the thing that I am most passionate about is I am head of a committee that deals with diversity, equity, and inclusion.
F: Of course, the climate has changed greatly, the broad climate. Is theresomething besides just the observance of the number forty years or is there some 56:00reason why you think it's important to look back, and talk about Denim Day now in this context, in this climate, to put these two context into conversation with each other?
K: Absolutely. The reason I came back was--there were several things--but one, Iwork with students--college students or graduate students primarily. Identity is very important. I started sharing some of my story with a few of them, and they were like, really? That it was like, yeah, it wasn't always okay to be gay. Now it's a little trendy, but, you know, now- it really wasn't, so I told them my story a little bit, and that inspired me, but honestly the biggest inspiration that I have is our current political climate where I see so many of our laws and 57:00rights are being challenged, are being rolled back or just chipped away a little bit, and those are things that have been long in coming way before me, and have been very hard fought, and I think it's so important that current students get that these- people don't give you rights because they should. Sometimes you have to stand up. It's unpopular. It's- you know, there's all sorts of reasons to not stand up for yourself, but we're talking basic human rights, and my hope is to inspire current students to understand that these things happen very incrementally, and when they start rolling back they roll back incrementally, and there's an ebb and a flow sometimes. You can't stop living your life because 58:00the laws aren't [laughter] to your liking, and that's- for us it's perfectly clear. We just did what we did, and we navigated laws, and we do things, but I think it is so important that people understand that you must pay things forward. You do things for yourself, but you must do them for the next generation, so that is sort of the reason that I felt it important. You know, for me, I'm sixty years old. Whether or not trans are in the military doesn't matter to me personally. I mean, it matters to me emotionally, but it's not my job, but I do think it is so important for all of us to stand up for each other.
F: And so I think the answer's probably somewhere in the middle, but, so then59:00are you still just advocating and pursuing this context within which people are talking to people about being people or is there some greater intention now to your activism, or do you even think of it as activism?
K: I don't think of it as an activism, really. Well we still don't have thebasic human rights. It's still not done, and it's never done. It's always about being more inclusive. Talking about people of color, talking about trans, talking about different gender identities. Those are concepts that in the 1970s like- it wasn't even part of a conversation. I understand it intuitively, but I think that when we can sort of deal with the underpinnings of racism and 60:00homophobia and sexism- those are things that keep us restrained, so I think it's really--I mean, I was just talking about, you know, obviously being a lesbian--but there's many, many more things to it, and when some of us are repressed, all of us are repressed, and maybe that's activism, but that's just my life. That's just how I feel. I am certainly much more political. I have made way more protest posters since 2016 than I ever did as a younger. Things have rolled back, and that's okay. Things do--it's not okay--but we just have to not give up. It's very important.
F: So then despite things like 2016 do you remain or are you hopeful? Is there a61:00progressive arc that you observe?
K: Yes. Yes. And it is because we have basic rights, but we also have allies.That is the single biggest difference in many ways because people get it. It's just human rights. It's like why would- why can't you love who you want to love? Why can't you be who you want to be? That's a basic human right, and now it's just more understood, and that won't roll back. There may be laws that will roll back, but that basic human understanding I don't believe will roll back.
F: Well to me that seems like a good place to stop unless there's something youfeel you'd still like to say or Slade if you feel like we have left anything out of the conversation.
K: That's plenty [laughter]. No, I mean, you know, that's yeah, yeah.62:00
F: Well thanks so much.
F: This has been great.
Slade Lellock: Thank you for sharing your story.
K: Sure. I'm thrilled that Virginia Tech like- I'm sort of like going really?[laughter] My cohorts, we're many coming from all over the world to come back for Gay Pride Week. Sorry, Pride Week. Sorry, it's not just gay. I know, I know. People are astounded like, really? [laughter] I won't say what they say, [whispering] are you fucking kidding me? I really appreciate your effort and your interest because it matters, and it all matters. It all matters for everything. This is a one particular thing that at the time we had no clue what 63:00it would be. Or even forty years later, but I just felt it's- I work with students now, and it's how you have to keep going.
F: Oh, for us it's a privilege to just be able to have these conversations with people.
F: About things they care about.
K: Well I'm going to sick a whole bunch other people on you, just so you know,be a different story.
L: Please do. We'll do it.
K: I have been the one pushing this issue like to do this, but I am in by nomeans the only person or the person that did amazing things. I think it's really important that we share our stories, and there are some incredible hilarious [laughter] people, and it's so exciting for us that we're in contact now. 64:00Because we haven't been. I mean like literally thirty-eight year, whatever. I would just say, hey fortieth anniversary Denim Day, even tracking people down, and I'd just send them like these weird Facebook messages and they're like, oh, but they're overwhelming, and the stories all bubble up, like, living in a dorm, oh my god, rough. It's hard, and the other thing I want to really open the opportunity for is that people change, so I know that- in fact one of the guys who wore a denim skirt has agreed to interview 'cause his sister's gay, and of course he realizes he's like, I know I was really five years too late on this situation, but people change, and I think that's part of it. Whomever did whatever forty years ago is just what happened forty years ago, and that there's a lot of room for forgiveness and consolatory, and love, and just acknowledging 65:00what happened and being honest about it, but then moving on, so I think that's important. It's very healing.
F: Yeah. Oh that is hopeful.
K: Yeah it is, and I am hopeful about it.
[end of interview]