This is part II in an ongoing series about the untold history of the Vanderbilt Lambda Association and the LGBTQI community on campus (read part I here). The following is constructed from interviews with alumni and faculty, Vanderbilt Hustler archives and university documents. In the previous installment, Dean KC Potter opened up his home on campus in the late 80s as an anonymous, safe refuge for gay students and faculty to meet, amidst the toxic, homophobic climate at Vanderbilt. In part II, the Lambda leaders take an important step toward changing university policies and attitudes.
Andy Dailey (‘93) had a row to himself in his crowded history class lecture. The other students, keeping their distance, flashed middle fingers and threw erasers at him when the professor turned to write on the board.
“I sat down and everybody who was sitting in that row got back up and moved somewhere else, so I was sitting in a row by myself,” Andy said. “I couldn’t learn anything because people kept staring at me, or saying ugly words at me.”
He visited the professor’s office hours to ask for help, and she grabbed Andy’s hands, jerking him toward her.
“You’re not living a Biblical life,” the professor told him.
In 1989, Andy had come to Vanderbilt from a conservative family and a conservative town in rural west Tennessee. He’d never met anyone who wasn’t a southern protestant. Vanderbilt was new and exciting — but at the same time, the conservative, Greek culture on campus was stifling.
“As a gay man, you question yourself your whole life,” Andy said. “You are taught by culture that you’re wrong, you’re evil, you’re possessed by a demon. I had those thoughts.”
“It was a social outlet in a safe environment,” Andy said. “There was no political agenda at that time, no political notions of any sort — just a safe place to be.”
The meetings were held at Dean K.C. Potter’s house. K.C. didn’t come out until after retiring, but each week he welcomed the LGBT students into his home on West Side Row. When Andy arrived, the group’s membership was beginning to diminish. The group’s founders had graduated, and Andy remembers being one of three people at his first meeting. But he was ready to change that.
“It certainly evolved into a more powerful group once Andy got ahold of it,” K.C. remembers. “Andy is a student hero … He attracted people. He began to have activities that were more open to campus. He was a very effective student leader.”
“(Andy) was a very dynamic force on campus,” said fellow Lambda member Ron “DJ Ron” Slomowicz (‘95), who was known on campus and in Nashville for hosting his gay-centric radio show “Out of the Closet” on WRVU. “He really took the campus by storm.”
Andy organized a whitewater rafting trip for Lambda. He created a convention for gay and lesbian groups in the SEC, hosted on Vanderbilt’s campus.
Paul Feeney (‘95) remembers Lambda descending on campus at 2 a.m. the night before National Coming Out Day. They’d plaster hundreds of flyers around campus and on trees, 8.5” x 11” sheets with the names of famous gay people from Elton John to Roman emperors.
“St. Augustine was the one that really got the campus crusade fired up,” Paul remembers. “We took those boards at Rand Hall and completely plastered them, which was a total violation of the rules. Of course, the person who was charged with enforcing the sign policy was KC.”
Because Andy was known to be out on campus, Andy’s friends from Lambda meetings avoided him in public — afraid that they would be suspected of being gay themselves.
“The rest of the Lambda membership was very quiet. I had exposed myself, and they had seen what was happening to me,” Andy said.
As an education and history double major, Andy hoped to student teach to get his teaching certification. He sat down to meet with his adviser, a graduate dean in Peabody, and was bluntly told:
“Because of what you are, I will never allow you to be a teacher.”
He’d been denied his teaching certification, just because he was gay.
“Here you are: You’re an undergraduate student who’s studying education to become a teacher, and he tells that right to your face in a closed-door meeting,” Andy said. “It’s not written, it’s not recorded. I was stunned and had no defense. It’s all verbal, so what the hell are you going to do?”
Clearly, something had to change.
In an effort to fight discrimination, such as what Andy experienced, the Lambda Association had set its sights on revising the university’s nondiscrimination policy. The Vanderbilt nondiscrimination clause prohibited discrimination on grounds like race, religion or sex and protected students and faculty from harassment. Lambda wanted to add “sexual orientation” to the list of protected classes — so that, for example, a professor couldn’t be fired for being gay.
“The students began to say, ‘What can we do about the university’s policies to help protect gay students?’ My response was, ‘We need to get a petition to the Community Affairs Board,’” K.C. said. The clause was necessary so gay people on campus could be “treated like humans,” according to K.C.
“It would prevent employees from being fired for no good reason and not being able to legally retaliate. It would prevent professors from discriminating against gay people, as Andy Dailey was discriminated against by Peabody College faculty. It would cause students to be more comfortable in their sexual identity. It would attract faculty who either were gay or thought it was stupid that you should be homophobic,” K.C. said.
“We opened it up at the request of students, and that’s always important to the university — to listen to the students’ complaints and needs,” he continued.
K.C. served on the Community Affairs Board (CAB), the group that recommended policy to the chancellor at the time. Dean of Students Johan Madson, the same dean who helped K.C. get in touch with the Lambda founders to start the group, appointed the Subcommittee on Sexual Orientation and Minority Harassment, and granted K.C.’s request to be the chair.
The subcommittee was then faced with a choice. The obvious option was to meet, talk it over, and decide what to do.
“But I suggested, we’ve really got an educational effort in front of us for the entire university community,” K.C. said. “Therefore I recommend that we conduct hearings, like we’re a member of Congress.”
Throughout the next year, the subcommittee did exactly that. They advertised the meetings as open to the entire campus through an ad in the Vanderbilt Register, a university publication. Psychologists and psychiatrists came to speculate and present findings on the causes and nature of homosexuality. K.C. researched similar policies at peer schools. Religious leaders led the Board through what Deuteronomy and Leviticus had to offer on homosexuality, and student representatives from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) elected to come give their two cents and read Bible verses.
“I believe if Vanderbilt University is to insert this clause in there, that what that really does is to send out a message that homosexuality is okay,” an FCA member said.
Legal scholars presented their perspective. Homosexual activity was still on the books as a felony and “crime against nature” in the state of Tennessee, although generally unenforced at the time. ROTC would have to be exempt from the nondiscrimination clause, because it was not legal for gay people to join the Army.
One member of the subcommittee accused KC of trying to “invent dissent,” saying, “Would you invite a racist to come in and talk against a policy to keep from discriminating against people of color?”
“Sometimes I was criticized by the gay people because I allowed (dissenting organizations) to speak. I would always respond by saying, just because we allow them to speak doesn’t mean we have to believe them, but if they have a legitimate point of view we have to hear it,” K.C. said.
The process gave more legitimacy to the subcommittee’s recommendation and allowed the public to follow their decision-making.
Philosophy professors such as John Lachs came in to provide a moral point of view. Members of Lambda testified about their experiences confronting hatred and homophobia on campus.
“What we’re talking about here is not what people think, whether we’re right or wrong, or whether we’re the ultimate evil and will corrupt the body politic of the university and this kind of thing,” Julie Klein (M.A. ’91, Ph.D. ’96), philosophy grad student, told the subcommittee. “What we’re talking about is that people are threatened, people are abused, people are beaten up, people are fired. And I dare the bigots of this campus to condone that kind of behavior. If you think that’s right, stand up and say it: we discriminate against gay men and lesbians.”
Out faculty members talked about fearing for their jobs, and threats of tenure denial.
“I was told by my department chairman a couple of days ago, he said maybe I’d be more comfortable in San Francisco,” a faculty member said.
Ultimately, the subcommittee recommended that sexual orientation be added to the nondiscrimination clause, and K.C. presented the recommendations to the Faculty Senate.
“It was one of the more nervous times of my life because a number of the faculty on that Faculty Senate were my former teachers, and they had been merciless in examining me in class (at Vanderbilt Law School),” he said.
The report passed the Faculty Senate overwhelmingly in spring 1991, and they joined the CAB in recommending it to the chancellor.
That’s when Andy Dailey — then chair of Lambda — decided to write about coming out in a column in The Hustler, hoping to provide critics a clearer picture of the necessity of the nondiscrimination policy. He told his story — from going to church every morning where he was told that “homosexuals will be the first to be cast into the eternal pit of fire” to finding a family in Lambda, and encouraging others who needed it to seek out that family, too.
Two people cut out the column and mailed it to local newspapers in west Tennessee, the conservative area where Andy was from.
“I don’t know what it was for — to destroy my family or to destroy my reputation. It was mean-spirited … It gives you an idea of the level of rage and hatefulness that people have toward people like myself. Especially then, but of course we all know it continues,” Andy said.
The newspapers didn’t print the story, but they did call Andy’s family. The Daileys were outraged. They forced him to come home from school and cut him off financially. “For some years, they were afraid of me, I think,” Andy said. He was able to go back to school when K.C. found a way to get him extra work-study.
After the Senate recommended the addition to the clause, Chancellor Joe B. Wyatt sat on the recommendation for a summer. Then at the bi-annual faculty assembly that fall, the chancellor announced that he tabled the clause.
“These topics concern areas of the law that are unsettled and currently are the subject of both proposed legislation in Congress and pending litigation at various levels of the judicial system,” Wyatt said. “… It doesn’t seem to be a prudent time to pick a policy in which there is a good deal of ambiguity and with a murky definition of sexual orientation.”
Still, some advocates of the clause alleged that the chancellor had the pocketbooks of conservative alumni donors in mind.
The tabling of the clause set off another wave of heated campus debate. The dean of the Divinity School (to this day a stronghold of progressivism) rushed to the chapel to pray for the chancellor’s enlightenment. The Black Student Association, the Asian-American Student Association and the Student Government Association (predecessor to VSG) voted to support adding “sexual orientation” to the clause. Students debated the clause — sometimes viciously — in the op-ed pages of The Hustler and publicly on the wall at Rand. A boycott of the Senior Class Fund was launched, co-led by David van Dalfsen (‘92). Andy put a “National Coming Out Day” ad in the Hustler condemning Wyatt’s “outrageous” refusal to approve the clause, signed by mostly anonymous gay people on campus.
When someone suggested calling for faculty resignations in protest, as Divinity School professors did during Vanderbilt’s integration in the ‘60s, Professor Lachs called for Chancellor Wyatt’s resignation instead.
“I think the right way to go about this is to call for the Chancellor to resign,” Lachs had said. “… He has proven himself incapable of leading a national university. He is not a person who is willing to stand up for what is moral leadership, and without moral leadership, you can’t have a national university. I’m sorry. So the way to do it is either call on him to reverse himself or to get the hell out.”
Soon enough, Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs Jeff Carr, who had advised Wyatt at the time, realized the tabling of the clause would not be ignored. Carr defended the chancellor, claiming that “sexual orientation” wasn’t defined clearly enough to pass legal muster. He met with campus groups including Student Leaders Action Coalition (SLAC), a group that formed to advocate for the clause, Lambda and the Faculty Senate. Together, they drew up a version of the clause that sorted out some of the potential legal problems, to give to the Chancellor for approval.
The Board of Trust saw the outcry on campus, and determined that it also wanted to take up the matter — the powerful university body with the authority to confront (and fire) the chancellor. K.C. brought a number of students — including Andy and David — before the Board to testify about their experiences on campus.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking,” remembers David. “The next day, K.C. said one Board of Trust member who had previously been opposed to to the clause said his view had completely changed to the opposite perspective. I certainly remember that and how amazed I was that it really did make an impact on these people.”
K.C. said the Board of Trust “subtly overruled” the chancellor’s rejection of the clause, urging him to reconsider.
“They didn’t confront him, they just talked about it and said what their opinion was,” K.C. said. “But it convinced everybody that the chancellor needed to look at it again. Then he accepted it.”
The addition of the clause was an incredible victory for Lambda and the LGBT students. It was a recognition — in writing — of a community’s suffering, and of a need for protection. It was the university taking concrete action to affirm the experiences of these students, to affirm the courage of all the students who endured threats in their dorms or their columns being mailed home.
“We’re on our way to becoming a university,” Andy said at the time. “We’ve (gay, lesbian and bisexual community members) been shown that we’re accepted and welcome on this campus.”
“I don’t think there’s any doubt it will help faculty, students and staff who are gay in thinking the university isn’t negative about them,” K.C. had said. “For the university to say ‘We think you’re okay’ is a very important thing. A lot of students, faculty and staff will say ‘There’s empirical evidence I’m worthy of being in the University community.’”
“It was a huge victory and it felt like a lot of blood, sweat and tears were involved in making the change,” said Chris Freeman (Ph.D. ’95), who testified in front of the CAB. “It felt like progress.”
Neither a reluctant administration nor a hateful Peabody dean could stop Andy Dailey. Now, he lives in Albania, where he’s an educator working to start up two International Baccalaureate schools.
“I hope that our history can be appreciated, that the students who are there now who are gay and lesbian students can appreciate those of us who’ve gone before, who have made some of the things they have now possible. That we do not become complacent at the university. We should talk about what makes people different, we should educate ourselves. We have to be alert for ignorance,” Andy said.
Armed with the legal protection of the university, other courageous students would follow in Andy’s footsteps, forging ahead to effect change on campus.
—News reporter Sarah Friedman contributed to this report. Timeline by Sarah Friedman. Cover photo by Freddo Lin.