Carson-Newman University (formerly Carson-Newman College) is a small, Tennessee Baptist affiliated University in Jefferson City; a rural town in Upper East Tennessee.
It is known for adhering to strict, moral codes of conduct that mirror the Tennessee Baptist Convention. In the mid-1980s when I was a student there, students weren’t even allowed to dance on campus. And it was rumored that if two people could smell alcohol on your breath, you were subject to suspension or expulsion.
The LGBT Alumni of Carson-Newman got its start about 5 years ago when I began to wonder how many other gay and lesbian people had attended CN. So, I started a facebook group.
During the first year about 6 alumni stumbled across the facebook group. The second year I believe we had about a dozen more alumni who found us.
Then through word of mouth our group began to really take off. We now have over 140 members made up of LGBTQ&A alumni, students, professors and staff.
Although our group started out as a place for people to reconnect with one another, it became clear that we had a higher calling. Specifically, we wanted to help current LGBT students at Carson-Newman.
Each one of us knew what it was like being gay or lesbian at CN. We knew well the fear and isolation. We knew about the schools views on homosexuality. Sexuality of any sort was frowned upon and forbidden.
To that end the LGBT Alumni of Carson-Newman decided to establish a mission to help LGBT students through support, affirmation, and any other way we believed that we could be of assistance.
I believe it was near the end of our second year that we were approached by a young gay student at CNU. He needed help purchasing his textbooks. His story saddened and frustrated us. Apparently he decided to declare “Theater Arts” as his major. His parents were not happy with his decision. They told him, “We’ll pay your tuition, but we’re not going to buy those ‘faggy’ books.”
He had been saving his money to purchase his first car. Being forced to buy his own textbooks would mean that he could not buy a car.
Our group sprung into action and began raising money. We took money from our own pockets. We solicited money from friends and family. And in a very short period of time we had raised the $850 needed to purchase his books.
I remember driving to Jefferson City to give him the check from the LGBT Alumni of Carson-Newman. He was overcome with joy and appreciation. He took me on a tour of the Theater department and showed me a set that he and his classmates were working on for an upcoming production.
A few months later several of our members received a letter from Carson-Newman asking for a donation to the new Alumni House that the university was constructing. After talking amongst ourselves we decided to raise money to support their efforts.
When we sent our check to CN we weren’t sure that they would accept it. Even though it was a sizable donation, there was a chance that the recipient would take one look at the check, see who had sent it, and return it to us.
We were overjoyed when the check cleared. We even received a letter of thanks from the project team.
We gave another scholarship during our third year. This time a young bisexual woman was tired of the judgmental comments and proselytizing she experienced from her peers. She wanted to move off campus, but needed funds to help with a security deposit and first month’s rent.
During our fourth and current year we turned our attentions to making Carson-Newman University a more inviting school for LGBT students. We were aware that LGBT youth were coming out at earlier ages. We also knew that most students don’t always have a great deal of input when it comes to where they will go to college.
As I mentioned earlier, Carson-Newman has a strict moral code that students must follow. Kids who tend to underperform or have behavior problems are sent to conservative institutions by parents in an effort to turn them around. LGBT kids are also sent to such schools in hopes that they might “straighten out”.
Don’t get me wrong. Carson-Newman is an excellent school. And administrators want high achieving students at the university. But parents can also have their own agendas.
In addition to parents sending their students to CN in hopes of getting them to buckle down and get a good education, many LGBT kids choose CNU because it is very easy to be closeted on the campus. Due the religious atmosphere, “hooking up” and “sexual exploration” isn’t as pervasive at CNU as one might expect on a college campus. Students, both male and female, aren’t afraid to admit that they are “saving themselves for marriage”. There isn’t a great deal of peer pressure to date.
This atmosphere provides the perfect cover for young and closeted LGBT individuals.
Nevertheless, our Alumni Group recognizes that LGBT youth are at high risk for several pitfalls; including: isolation, depression, self-harm, anxiety, poor school performance, substance abuse, family abandonment, spiritual crises, etc.
We made the decision to actively change the atmosphere at CNU to better address the needs of LGBT students.
Earlier this year we met at the Highlander Center (a bastion of liberalism and advocacy), which is located in New Market, TN. LGBT Alumni, professors, and other interested individuals discussed the issues that we believed needed to be addressed at CNU to aid LGBT students.
The result of that meeting led to LGBT sensitivity training for several key (volunteer) CNU professors and staff. We have also made plans for an off-campus LGBT Social-Support Group that will begin in the fall of 2014. I have met with some of CNU’s administrators to inform them of our group’s achievements and have been pleasantly surprised by their understanding and support.
One final goal that we are working on as a group is to establish an ongoing scholarship for LGBT students at CNU. We have set a goal of raising $2,000 so that we may give one $1,000 scholarship to a student per year and have a remaining $1,000 in reserve for future scholarships. Our plan is to continuously solicit donations to keep our scholarship fund flush. It is much more efficient this way instead of receiving a request from a student and then dealing with the pressure of raising the money all at once.
If you would like to donate to the LGBT Alumni of Carson-Newman Scholarship Fund, you may do so by going to PayPal and donating to our account: firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also send a check ( made payable to LGBT Alumni of Carson-Newman) to my address: 525 Renford Road, Apt. A114, Knoxville, TN 37919.
I will be adding future blogs to update you on our group. In addition I will discuss articles from various media sources that are of interest to the LGBTQ&A community, and will occasionally provide personal commentary on similar issues.
Thank you for visiting our blog and feel free to follow us on facebook https://www.facebook.com/groups/LGBTQAlliesAlumniCNU/ and twitter @lgbtalumniofcn
Tom Cogburn, Founder and Chair
LGBT Alumni of Carson-Newman
Class of 1988