A safe haven

INTRODUCTION: A THREE-PART SERIES

Vanderbilt today would have been unrecognizable to Dean K.C. Potter in 1987. Rainbow flags hang from fraternity houses. The Office of LGBTQI life sits prominently in its own building off Alumni Lawn. The Lambda Drag Show turns 21 this week.

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Dean KC Potter in his office in 1991, sporting his trademark mustache and bowtie. Vanderbilt University Special Collections.

But none of that would have been possible without Dean Potter. The story of the Vanderbilt Lambda Association is a story of courage. It’s a story of a dean who put his career on the line out of a deeply felt concern for his students, it’s a story of students who dared to be themselves in the face of hatred from peers, and perhaps even a chancellor. These brave trailblazers paved the way so that Lambda — the campus LGBTQI student organization — could blossom into the open, proud organization it is today, facilitating change and promoting inclusivity on campus.

It’s also a story of a difficult, heartbreaking past that Vanderbilt has to confront. But understanding where the campus came from can only help us move forward toward goals of acceptance. We’ve come a long way since 1987 — but there’s still more to be done.

“There is an individual with a lot of influence and power within the administration who stood up and said that there were students that needed support, who needed funding, who needed help and decided that they could make a change,” current Lambda president Kait Spear said about K.C.’s legacy.

“That’s just so incredibly important, especially for our community,” Spear said. “Because sometimes we get the feedback, ‘oh they’re such a small population, why do they need so much funding? Why do they need so much space, why do they need their voices to be amplified so much?’ And for a lot of different reasons, that’s really toxic thinking, and it just means so much that someone with influence could step up and say … we ought to help them out.”

This three-part series will trace the history of LGBTQI student experiences on campus and the history of Lambda,  from its roots as an underground student organization to its present — and goals for the future. The first chapter starts with the establishment of Lambda.


In the spring of 1987, three students sat down for lunch with the Dean of Residential and Judicial Affairs, K.C. Potter. The dean had invited them to lunch because they had jointly authored an opinion column in the Hustler, taking issue with a short story in a student magazine (the now-extinct Versus) that said to leave Centennial Park at night before the “faggots” came out. Only one of the three men was willing to sign his name.

K.C. had been distraught for a while at this point, following the tragic death of a student several years earlier. The student — who K.C. knew to be gay — had committed suicide, jumping out of Tower 3. K.C. can remember discovering his body after students ran to him for help.

“I went up there in his room, and here’s all these medications from psychiatrists. And that tells me that they were trying to change him,” K.C. said. “Then these girls came up to me afterwards, crying, because he’d asked them for a date. He was trying to change himself.”

“So if there was any courage exhibited, it was because I was in a hell with this, to go after this issue,” K.C. said. “That was the trigger that did it.” He wondered what he could have done to save that student.

Upon reading the three men’s op-ed, K.C. seized the opportunity to take action, asking his boss, Dean of Students Johan Madson, for permission to get in touch with the writers. While at first cautious that the university wasn’t ready, Madson ultimately gave K.C. the go-ahead.

The next semester, K.C. helped the students secure funding to run an ad in the Hustler. It advertised: “GAY, LESBIAN AND BISEXUAL STUDENTS NOW FORMING SOCIAL/SUPPORT GROUP;” “Confidentiality is assured.” With that, the Vanderbilt Lambda Association was born.

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Hustler ad, Sept. 15 1987. Vanderbilt University Special Collections.

Students interested in attending the first meeting had to write a note to the Station B post office box listed in the ad. The Lambda founders would then contact them, pick them up and bring them to the secret meeting location.

“Maybe it was a paranoia, but we were worried about safety and we were worried about confidentiality,” said Dan Caul (‘88), an anonymous author of the op-ed and Lambda founder. “We thought if we said it was at 7 p.m. in the following room in Sarratt, we didn’t know how many people would show up, because we didn’t know if people were willing to be out. … We wanted people to feel comfortable that they could come to a place without feeling worried about other people knowing why they were there.”

Maybe it wasn’t a paranoia. Vanderbilt in the late ’80s and early ’90s, at the time of Lambda’s founding, was a very different place — and a very hostile place to be gay. This was a pre-Will and Grace America (that’s how many alumni describe the times), and this was the height of the AIDS crisis. Most people on campus were southern, conservative Reagan supporters.

The Greek scene was dominant and ubiquitous, and it went without saying that gays were not welcome. Paul Feeney (‘95) remembers choosing to deactivate from AEPi after coming out.

“I remember going to the fraternity, and going in, and I mean you might’ve thought I was going in to confess to a murder,” Paul said. “I went in and I was sitting there with the chapter president with the door closed, and I wrote it on a piece of paper and I handed it to him.”

“The funny part of this whole story is, he has since come out many years later,” Paul said. He noted that several brothers were supportive, trying to get him to stay.

Being gay just wasn’t something that was talked about. Dan didn’t find out that two out of three of his suitemates in McTyiere were also gay until years after they’d graduated.  The secrecy was weird for Margaret Coble (‘89), who had been out before college.

“I had come to Vanderbilt already out of the closet in high school, and then I basically had to go back into the closet at Vanderbilt because it was so conservative there,” she said. She found a home in Lambda and McGill Hall, which was even then a “bastion of liberalism within the greater context of Vanderbilt,” packed with artists and philosophy majors.

It wasn’t just “hush-hush,” though — there was a real threat for the few students who were out at that point. In less than a week after its publication, the lone Hustler op-ed author who signed his name “had the misfortune to have an answering machine.”

“I received in the course of six days, 37 obscene, menacing, threatening phone calls,” he later told a university committee. “I had four death threats. I had women and men calling me everything from the standard faggot, fairy pussy to some of the more pungent ones.” 

David VanDalfsen (‘92) remembers a football player shoving him around in his dorm bathroom because he was gay. He wrote a letter to K.C., the football coach and the provost about the incident. K.C., as dean of judicial affairs, was in charge of determining a punishment.

“The punishment he arranged was we had lunch at the University Club, and after lunch we went to K.C. Potter’s office,” David said. “Then he said he had a few things to do in the front of the office, so he left us in the room and said, why don’t you boys talk to each other for a little while alone? I thought it was really the most brilliant way to deal with it — confronting the person who did that with the human impact of what he had done.”

There was a legitimate fear that people would try to infiltrate the Lambda meetings and out the organization’s members.

About 15 people showed up to the first meeting at the apartment of a pair of lesbian grad students. When they graduated, the group moved to the Divinity School.

“I suggested that a more anonymous place on the campus would be my home, which at that time was in Building B,” K.C. said. That building now houses the Project Safe Center. K.C. lived on the second floor and used the main floor for meetings and receptions — and then, the meetings for Lambda.

K.C. said the atmosphere was initially “uptight” because of all the secrecy — but it didn’t take long for students to start opening up. Gradually, gay students (and some straight allies) learned about the Thursday night, 8 p.m. Lambda meetings at K.C.’s house by word of mouth, and they began to fill up and grow to be more comfortable.

“Much of it was social,” K.C. said. “The kids couldn’t stop talking about gay issues, because this is their first opportunity to talk about gay issues.”Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 3.05.02 AM

“Some of it was just surprising. People I knew walked into the meeting and it was like, oh shit, I had no idea you were gay!” Dan laughed. “We had a lot of laughs about that.”

Lambda brought in speakers — some members of a gay commune a few towns away and a man from San Francisco who researched the genetics of homosexuality. When the group wanted to become a registered student org to receive AcFee money, they couldn’t get it without a list of members, but most of Lambda’s members weren’t out. K.C. signed his own name to represent each of those students who weren’t comfortable.

The first members were of varying age, gender, race — undergrads and graduate students, faculty, staff — and were all at different points in their journeys of coming out, sharing in each other’s challenges and in each other’s victories. A student from Jackson, Mississippi, went home for the express purpose of coming out to his parents.

“No matter what happens, we’ll be here for you,” the Lambda members told him (his mother’s reaction when he sat his parents down to deliver the news: “What’s new?”).

There was much discussion over the organization’s name. They settled on Lambda — a name affiliated with the national gay community, but more comfortable, for some, than dealing with which letters should or shouldn’t be included.

“We felt very safe there. It was a place we could go without raising any questions,” Dan said. “It was a huge help to us that Dean Potter reached out, and just a very courageous move on his part to support us and to openly support the founding of the group.”

After a while, students stopped knocking and just walked into the kitchen.

“People would sneak out of the dorm. You’d walk and keep your hood up and walk over to K.C.’s house and slip in the side door,” Paul said. “You didn’t want to be seen.”

Once you entered, though, everyone relaxed. “It was a wonderful and supportive environment, and everyone was joking around,” Paul said. “K.C. would always just kinda sit there in his arm chair, drinking Maker’s Mark and smirking, watching the whole thing.”

For many, this was the first time they were around other gay people. Members often dated one another. David said it was the first time he could imagine himself leading a gay life.

“I certainly felt that we were a little bit on the vanguard,” he said. “We were on the cutting edge of where things were going. I knew in my heart that homosexuality would become more accepted. I found it exciting being a part of that.” The alumni say it was the best part of the week.

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Dean K.C. Potter with students in 1977. K.C. worked at Vanderbilt for 33 years, retiring in 1998 to move to his farm in Hickman County, where he currently resides with his partner, Richard. Vanderbilt University Special Collections.

But outside of the meetings was still a different world. “On the sidewalks on campus, I would walk by people who I knew from K.C.’s, but we wouldn’t even say hi,” David said.

“It changed everything to have an advocate within the administration,” Dan said. “That was completely unexpected, and it completely changed everything in terms of creating a space for us as an organization and making us feel comfortable as LGBT students.”

As the Dean of Residential and Judicial Affairs, K.C. was known as the discipline guy.

“When I answered the door sometimes, there would be a knock and it would be a new person, a freshman. He would see me and freak, because I was the disciplinary dean and he thought he was in the wrong place,” K.C. laughed. “And I would say, you’re in the right place, come on in.”

Associate Dean Steve Caldwell said K.C.’s reputation as the well-respected disciplinary dean contributed to making Lambda a secure space for students, grad students, faculty and staff.

“It was a safe haven, because you have someone with the prestige and trust and integrity of K.C. anchoring that location. People felt safe when they got there,” Caldwell said.

“His support, his hosting all of it was so important,” agreed Lambda alum Chris Freeman (PhD ‘95). “He took a lot of professional risk to do that…It was a very homophobic environment, and there was nobody out of the closet.”

DANQUOTESenior Director of Residential Life Randy Tarkington, who used to go to the meetings, said that while K.C. is a “historic figure,” the importance of the student founders of the group can’t be understated.

“It wouldn’t have happened without [K.C.] and all that he offered, but it can’t be lost also that these very brave students from that time are the ones that drove that, who were the trailblazers who said we need this and we need a space, and we need to come together as a group and to make the experience better for all students who are here,” Tarkington said.

For K.C., his main concern was helping students.

“We decided that we would begin a group to help students deal with this on campus,” K.C. said. “That was our initial purpose. We didn’t set out at that point to change university policy, although I’d hoped that at some time the university would wake up.”

The university would start to wake up, as Lambda continued to grow and evolve. What mattered initially was that students had a safe space, a space to be themselves and meet other people like them on a campus that was not accepting of them.

“If you went through day to day life and you felt some level of discrimination or felt like you couldn’t be yourself and you had to hide who you were, to a large extent this provided at least once a week you could come to a place where it was safe,” Tarkington said. “People who spoke the language, who understood, who were going through the same thing.”

—Features editor Matt Lieberson and News reporter Sarah Friedman contributed to this report.

READ PART II HERE 

Editor’s note: the photo illustration at the top of the story depicts the building that is currently the Women’s Center. Lambda meetings occurred next door, at what is now Project Safe. Photo by Design Director Bosley Jarrett.

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