A brief unofficial history of activities and policies affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender persons at the University of Florida.
University of Florida faculty, students, and staff who identified themselves as being lesbian and gay were somewhat inconspicuous and silent until the early 1980’s. This invisibility no doubt was due partly to the homophobic attitudes and bias that existed in the general society as well as on the University campus. Another important factor appears to be the legacy of the infamous Johns Committee, a Florida state senate committee that spent time between 1957 and the early 1960’s at the University of Florida attempting to identify persons who were thought to be homosexuals. Homosexual behavior was illegal, and Committee members also believed that such persons were reprehensible and should not be part of the University of Florida.
Members of the Committee and their staff used intimidation, various forms of entrapment, and/or issued summons for individuals to appear before the Committee without providing the reason for the summons. As a result of the Committee’s activities, several University of Florida male faculty members were fired or were forced to resign. Female faculty members do not appear to have been targeted, possibly because there were relatively few women on the faculty at that time. In addition, several female and male students were disciplined and typically were asked to leave the University. An important and unfortunate aspect of the Johns Committee’s activities was the cooperation and complicity of President J. Wayne Reitz. As a result, accused faculty members and students received little or no administrative support. An excellent documentary entitled “Behind Closed Doors” and co-produced by Allyson Beutke provides a more detailed description of the actions and the personal consequences of the Johns Committee.
Finally in the early 1980’s a group of lesbian and gay students formed the University of Florida Lesbian and Gay Society (UFLAGS) and became a registered student organization. When the group requested office space at the Reitz Union, members encountered much harassment and hostility. UFLAGS finally received limited office space, but members experienced on the general campus blatant discrimination, harassment, and homophobic acts such as derogatory posters and other printed materials. After unrelenting harassment and loss of office space, several members decided to form an off-campus organization entitled Gay and Lesbian Student Union (GLSU).
Committee on Sexism and Homophobia
In 1989, Irene Stevens and Phyllis Meek, two Deans in the Office for Student Services, decided to form a Planning Committee on Sexism and Homophobia. Careful consideration was given to the actual name of the Committee in that it was believed that a Committee on Homophobia alone politically and strategically was not feasible at that time. This was true despite the fact that one of the main reasons for establishing the Committee was to provide proactive ways in which to combat the bigotry and homophobia that existed on campus. Another purpose of the Committee was to demonstrate administrative support for lesbian and gay students as well as to encourage the off-campus GLSU to return as an on-campus organization. A concerted effort was made to include representatives from GLSU to become active members of the Committee. This effort was successful, and several members joined the Committee as did other lesbian and gay students. In addition, representatives from other “traditional” groups and organizations were involved with the Committee.
After several meetings, it became obvious that the Planning Committee could provide needed educational programming and other functions. With funding and support from Dr. James Scott, Dean for Student Services, the group decided to name itself the Committee on Sexism and Homophobia in the Fall, 1989. Irene Stevens and Phyllis Meek served as either Co-Chairs or alternated in being Chair of the Committee.
Activities of the Committee on Sexism and Homophobia included providing educational workshops on both homophobia and sexism, producing brochures and other publications as well as a video, sponsoring well-known speakers during campus-wide events such as People Awareness Week and Women’s History Month, and other similar activities. In addition, an ally group, Friends of Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals, was established.
Some of the Committee activities, including various publications as well as public statements and stances on particular issues, created controversy among certain campus groups and publications as well as among some University administrators. As a result, at various times harassment and efforts to intimidate were directed at the Chairs of the Committee.
Soon after the Committee was formed, lesbian and gay faculty, staff, and students contacted the Chairs and/or other Committee members to express concerns about their own experiences of discrimination and/or harassment. As a result of these interactions, it became apparent that there was need for an official university committee to deal with policy issues, particularly the negative effects of sexual orientation not being included in the University’s anti-discrimination policy. Among these negative effects was the lack of protection against discrimination in such areas as promotion, tenure, job security, and the like for faculty members. In addition, there was no provision for partner benefits. Another problem was the Division of Housing’s policy that prohibited same-gendered couples from living in Family Housing.
In 1999 the Committee on Sexism and Homophobia began the FRIENDS program, an ally program for LGBT students, where faculty and staff who are open and friendly can receive a packet of information and place a FRIENDS sticker on their doors to denote that the office is a safe space.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Concerns Committee
Members of the Committee on Sexism and Homophobia sent in fall 1990, a proposal for the establishment of a Committee On Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Concerns to Provost Andrew Sorensen. The proposal included the rationale, the functions, the composition, and the administrative structure of the Committee. It was recommended that the Committee should be advisory to the Provost of the University and that the Provost should appoint the Committee members. Provost Sorensen was receptive to the idea of the Committee, but he requested additional information and time before approving its establishment. After much delay and with additional pressure from members of the Committee on Sexism and Homophobia, the Concerns Committee was appointed in Fall, 1992.
Quality of Life Survey
One of the important activities of the Concerns Committee was to conduct in fall 1993, a Quality of Life survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual faculty, staff, and students. Since the names of lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons were not available, the survey was distributed by the “snowball” method, i.e., surveys were given to specific individuals who in turn asked lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons to fill out and return the surveys. Names of respondents were not asked, but some demographic information was requested. Among the most important survey results were the reluctance and the fear of many individuals to reveal their sexual orientation because of concerns about reprisals and retaliations if particularly their supervisors, faculty members, and others knew their orientation. More specifically, 91 percent of the respondents indicated that they had experienced disapproval from other University of Florida students, faculty, and staff. In addition, 67 percent reported that they felt pressure to keep their sexual orientation a secret.
Additional information from the Quality of Life Survey results were suggested changes for lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons at the University. The major areas mentioned were: the inclusion of sexual orientation in the University’s anti-discrimination policy; the availability of fringe benefits, e.g., health insurance, for same sex partners; specific efforts made to increase campus awareness of and sensitivity to lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues and concerns; deal proactively on campus with negative attitudes toward lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons; more support, visibility, and affirming actions directed toward and on behalf of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals.
The GLB Concerns Committee submitted a request to the University Senate in 2000 to support adding sexual orientation to the University’s anti-discrimination policy. After a heated debate, the Senate voted in favor of the motion. In 2002 the committee (now called the LGBT Concerns Committee) requested that President Charles Young get Board approval for adding the terms sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to the non-discrimination clause. The Board unanimously approved adding sexual orientation to the anti-discrimination policy in July of 2003. The President promised to come back with gender identity and expression, but retired before that was accomplished.
The Concerns Committee submitted a request to the University Senate in 2001 to support providing partner benefits to University employees and it passed. The committee went to President Young with a request that the University obtain partner benefits. Because the State would not approve such a request, he decided to wait until we were under the control of a Board of Trustees. In the meantime, he requested the Benefits Office to look into ways in which partner benefits could be provided to faculty and staff. To date no action has been taken on that request, but much research had been conducted to obtain an insurance carrier that would provide these benefits.
In 2002 another campus climate survey was administered and the findings revealed that even straight students believe that LGBT students are the targets of the most discrimination and harassment on campus. The report of the campus climate committee was finally released in 2004.
Return of Gay and Lesbian Student Union
In spring 1991, the Gay and Lesbian Student Union decided to return as a registered student organization. The group was able to obtain both office space in the Reitz Union and some funding from Student Government. GLSU in 1993 changed its name to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Student Union (LGBSU) and increasingly became visible with activities such as Coming Out Week and Lesbian and Gay Awareness Week. Student Government funding increased, and due to lobbying efforts and more involvement in student politics, a Student Government cabinet position directed at lesbian, gay, and bisexual students was established. In spring 2000, the organization’s name was changed to Pride Student Union. With increased funding from Student Government and increased membership, Pride Student Union currently sponsors an annual Pride Awareness Month that involves speakers, entertainment, and the like as well as being involved in other activities throughout the academic year. Beginning in 2002, each fall the Pride Student Union sponsors an Intercollegiate Conference for LGBT leaders at Universities throughout the state.
Another student group, the Gator Gay-Straight Alliance, was formed in fall 2000. The major purpose of the organization is to build connections between gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender students and “straight” students, with the mutual goal of ending homophobia and all forms of discrimination. The group has been very proactive and provides a variety of campus activities as well as working closely with other organizations such as Pride Student Union, the Committee on Sexism and Homophobia, and other similar groups. The GatorGSA conducts training sessions each semester for housing personnel and Greek leaders. Some of the GSA’s more memorable activities are Same-Sex Handholding Days, I’m not a Cutout Project, photos of people “coming out” through a door for National Coming Out Day.
A faculty and staff organization, the Rainbow Alliance, also was established in 2000, with Charles Brown as President. This organization conducts social activities, produces a newsletter containing information pertinent to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, and fund-raises. Since 1991 the Rainbow Alliance has awarded two annual scholarship awards to students for LGBT Research and Service. The Rainbow Alliance has a Fund at the Florida Foundation that is laying the groundwork for an LGBT Research and Resource Center at the University of Florida.
Activities of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Concerns Committee
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Concerns Committee has continued to deal with various issues affecting LGBT faculty, staff, and students. The Committee particularly has been unrelenting in its focus on the need for the inclusion of sexual orientation in the University’s anti-discrimination policy. With the strong support of President Charles Young, the University’s Board of Trustees voted in June 2003, to add sexual orientation to the University’s anti-discrimination policy. This addition to the anti-discrimination policy has many positive implications for LGBT persons on campus. Committee Member Kendal Broad met with several transgender members of the faculty and staff during the 2003-2004 academic year and created a Guide to Workplace Transition.
For the 150th Anniversary of the University of Florida the LGBT Concerns Committee sponsored a panel that presented the history of LGBT people in Gainesville and at the University of Florida. The panel included James Schnur, a historian and professor at USF who has studied the Johns’ Committee, Phyllis Meek, retired dean of students, Joe Antonelli, community representative and Pride member, and Mike Malecki, former UF student. They showed the tape “Behind Closed Doors” by Allison Beuke about the Johns Committee.
In May 2003, Andrea Zimbardi, a UF softball player, filed a lawsuit against the University of Florida Athletic Association (UAA) alleging that she was discriminated against because she is a lesbian. In response to the situation created by the law suit, Jeremy Foley, director of the UF Athletic Association, contacted Dr. Roberta Seldman at Student Mental Health Services. Foley requested in-service training for UF coaches and staff about sexual orientation issues. Seldman put together a team of four counselors, two from Student Mental Health Services and two from the UF Counseling Center. Foley agreed to allow the team of four individuals, to conduct a 45-minute session for men’s and women’s coaches.
The LGBT Concerns Committee has taken a proactive stance by inviting administrators to our meetings and expressing our concern for acceptance of LGBT faculty, students, and staff. We have had meetings with: Chief of Police, Linda Stump, who then arranged for sensitivity training for the UF Police Department. Carlos Hernandez organized that training. We met with the head of the women’s athletic department, and she, too had scheduled training, but from an outside consultant.
The Concerns Committee met with Bernie Machen on March 17, 2004, where the President stated that he wanted to do something about the campus climate survey. He decided to immediately search for a Director of LGBT Affairs, adopt an inclusive diversity policy for UF, and promised to work toward Domestic Partner Benefits. In September 2004, Tamara Cohen became UF’s first Director of LGBT Affairs. Cohen, who was promoted to become Assistant Dean and Director of Multicultural and Diversity Affairs, was succeeded by Nora Spencer in August, 2006. AC Stokes was the third person to take on the role of Director of LGBT Affairs from 2009-2011. LB Hannahs became the fourth director in 2011.