Catching Up … with Saralyn Chesnut, longtime Atlanta LGBT activist

Saralyn Chesnut was no late bloomer to activism. She was born in 1948 in Tifton, Georgia, the daughter of a liberal mother raised in a conservative town in the segregated South at the beginning of the civil rights movement.

She argued with other kids her age about race issues, and vividly recalls making friends with the first three black students to enroll at her formerly all-white high school. She always knew she was different, and wasn’t sure why until she fell in love with her roommate and sorority sister at the University of Georgia.

She eventually made her way to Atlanta in 1973, quickly getting involved in the lesbian feminist movement. After two decades as an academic and activist, an anti-gay incident led her to take a job as a professor and as the first full-time director of Emory University’s Office of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Life in 1993.

In her 15 years there, she led the charge for numerous causes, including getting sexual orientation added to the school’s anti-discrimination policy, creating employee domestic partnership benefits, adding the “T” in the Office of LGBT Life in 1998 and getting gender identity added to the school’s anti-discrimination policy in 2006.

Nowadays she’s a freelance writer (having co-written a history of Charis Books & More in 2009) and does oral history interviews with members of SAGE (Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders) Atlanta. Chesnut took a few minutes to reflect on a career in academia and activism over a 40-year period in Atlanta’s LGBT community.

So Saralyn, tell me about what it was like growing up in Tifton.

Well, there were good things and bad. Oddly enough I think I got a good education, especially my English teachers and I ended up being an English major. There were tons of kids my age for there to do things with. South Georgia, it stayed warm a lot, we ran around a lot outside barefoot.

On the downside, there wasn’t a whole lot to do. You could go to church and go to school. There was one movie theater but as soon as you’d seen the one movie, you had to wait for the next one to come along. It was also very conservative and somehow my mother was pretty liberal, so she taught us things like racism is wrong.

This was the segregated South and the beginning of the civil rights movement so I remember having a lot of arguments with people my age mostly, especially when I was a senior in high school and three black students came to the all white high school. I and some of my friends went out of our way to make friends with them and try to make them feel as welcome as they could possibly feel. So I always felt a little different, and for various reasons I was really glad to leave to go to college.

Did you ever know or hear about any gay people?

No. Looking back I can kind of see, you know for instance I think a couple of my teachers were known as spinsters or old maids. They lived with their parents which is what unmarried women did then. Looking back I don’t know if they acted on it or even knew what it was all about, but if they had they would have been lesbians. And then you know there were things like the church organist. I guess they were kind of the stereotypically southern closeted gay people. But at the time, no. I also think I was in love with one of my high school classmates but I didn’t fully really acknowledge that myself.

And you know, when I was too young to even know better, I would tell my mother, ‘You know, when I think about growing up and getting married, I think about marrying a girl.’ [laughs]

Really? How old were you when you told her that?

I was young enough that I didn’t think anything about it, maybe six? And she said, ‘Well you better watch out, there are women like that.’ Probably there were two thoughts, like ‘Oh it’s not a good thing’ and ‘Ahh, there are people like that?’ [laughs]. But it was probably not fully formed.

When did you figure out you were a lesbian?

When I was getting ready to graduate from college and I was in love with one of my roommates and sorority sisters. I was pretty sure she was in love with me too because we did everything together. We’d moved off campus into a house. Push came to shove and I realized unless I said something, she was talking about moving to Denver and I had a boyfriend that wanted to get married so I had to make a choice or I might never see her again.

So I remember telling her, ‘I think I know what’s going on with us. I think we’re in love.’ And she said, ‘Well I think you’re right.’ But the other thing she said was, ‘I don’t know about the sex part,’ so I had to wait a few days for her to decide that that was okay [laughs].

But we didn’t tell anybody about our relationship. That was in 1970 when that happened. We didn’t tell anybody about our relationship for the first two years that we were together.

And you moved to Atlanta in 1973 correct? Why Atlanta?

After I’d been in Savannah a few months, I could not find any lesbians. I kept going to these bars and there would just be gay men. My straight friend who I moved up here with said, ‘You know all the lesbians live up in Little Five Points.’ So I thought, ‘Ah-ha.’ [laughs]. But I didn’t know how to make contact.

Eventually I went to a meeting of Georgians for the Equal Rights Amendment. And of course there were lesbians running that. So through them I met other women involved in ALFA, the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance. And that really changed my life because the ALFA community was centered in Little Five Points and was really a community of women that were kind of countercultural, feminist and lesbian. We lived in communal households, we did everything together, we of course had a softball team [laughs].

So that really helped me form a positive identity as a lesbian because within lesbian feminism, a lesbian was the best thing you could possibly be [laughs]. You were like the ideal feminist. For us it was about social issues and saying, ‘The personal is political.’

What was the LGBT community like in those days?

We mostly hung out with each other. We did go to gay Pride marches, and some people were involved in the larger gay and lesbian movement. We were also involved in leftist groups, so people were political in various ways, including being lesbian feminists. There was women’s music back then, women’s printing presses and publishing houses, there was a lot of art, music. In ALFA we would bring in singers and all go to the concerts. We had a little theater. We really kind of did it all and we did it pretty much together.

And then the Great Speckled Bird, the alternative newspaper back then, the earliest women’s liberation movement came out of that group that worked on that paper. And some of the women that started ALFA also came out of that. So we kind of overlapped with a lot of other groups. Today we would all be for Bernie Sanders, you know? In fact, a lot of us are.

What were the Pride celebrations like back then?

We just had a Pride march. It would just be hundreds of people, not thousands. I remember there began to be floats and it became a parade but the first Pride marches were very small. It’s unbelievable how it’s grown over the years.

Was there much brushback at the time?

Well it was kind of daring to be out there doing it at the time. I remember we always got irritated because the coverage in the AJC would always focus on the most outrageous elements. Like the drag queens, not that there’s anything wrong with drag queens. They would just take a piece of the whole and focus on that.

Tell me about the incident at Emory in 1992.

A couple of freshman guys had been seen kissing each other in their dorm and they started being harassed. Because the office already existed, they were able to organize and there was a huge demonstration. So I did go back over to Emory for that, it was too good to pass up. It was really neat, we marched across campus and occupied the president’s office and got served Coca-Cola by his secretary [laughs].

After that, the Emory president had appointed a task force to assess the campus climate for LGB people and for ways to improve it, and one of their recommendations was to hire a full-time professional director for the Office of LGB Life.

I was out of town one weekend with a group of friends and one of them was reading the Southern Voice and saw an ad for the position. My friend asked me if I’d thought of applying for it. I was finishing up my degree and I decided after really thinking about it, I applied for it and went through the whole interviewing process and decided to take the job. And I got a faculty job as well as the administrative appointment so it was the perfect combination for me, an activist and academic position.

What were those early days like as director for the Office of LGBT Life? 

Well, the position was really controversial. They had to change the job description and instead of saying you were an advocate for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, it had to say you were educating the campus on these issues.

But the first thing we really had to do was change Emory’s policies, and the first step was to change the anti-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation. And that was quite a process. By then there was a president’s committee on lesbian, gay and bisexual concerns that I met with and put forward the proposal to change that policy and that went through finally.

Then building on that, next we wanted to get domestic partnerships benefits. I did research on that and talked to other schools with those benefits to find out how many people used them and it turns out it was really teeny, so I was able to show Emory that it wouldn’t cost them much. So we put that proposal forward and I did a lot of speaking to groups around campus to reassure people and at the same time to not back down from what we really needed to accomplish.

So those early years were really kind of spent dealing with that stuff and meeting with different student organizations. And in the beginning we just had one room for the office and had used equipment. The only employees were me and work study students and a couple of graduate students. Then we got more office space. Eventually I was able to hire a part-time administrative assistant and eventually he became full-time.

Our budget was increased and we put on a lot of different events. We brought in lecturers and did an annual film festival. And I tried to make these things available to the whole Atlanta community. We would get together with other organizations on campus to get extra funding and co-sponsor things. We would bring in filmmakers, we were really able to push the envelope because of academic freedom. We showed some pretty cutting edge films back then. It was ways to get the gay people on campus together. There was a really energized community.

There’s a lot of talk about transgender issues now, but you were an early champion of trans rights. What led you to take on that cause, and were there any trans people in particular that had an effect on you?

I don’t know, I was just aware of the transgender movement. I did come to know some Emory students who transitioned. I also was on boards in the community and did a lot of community service. I remember thinking it was awful that the Human Rights Campaign for a long time wouldn’t include trans people in the employment non-discrimination act. But I just remember thinking early on why we wouldn’t include transgender people as far as the community.

But because we were a university and because Emory is private and we didn’t have to worry about the Board of Regents or the legislature, we could push things. And because Emory wanted to be the Yale of the South, we could play on that. If you want to look like a truly international university, you have to do these truly progressive things. Plus Emory hates bad publicity, that demonstration was horrible for them [laughs].

And you left Emory in 2008 correct? Why then?

I was actually old enough to officially retire, and I felt like I had done what I was there to do. Policies were changed, things were in place, we had a safe space program where we trained people to be welcoming to gay people.

I thought I had accomplished a lot of what I wanted to accomplish, but it also had its stresses. Being an Emory employee and at the same time having to push against the administration to get some things done was tricky. My job was threatened more than once. That’s a long time to be doing a job like that.

What did you do after that?

I did some teaching at Clayton State, started working from home, wrote for a website as contract writer, still does freelance writing and editing, did oral history interviewing, have gotten involved with SAGE Atlanta doing oral history work with SAGE members, more visibility now that LGBT Institute is open, wants to do more research and the question of why lesbians a little older than her were married and had kids before they came out, interested in getting answers and forming theories.

Do you have any regrets about your time as an activist?

Umm, I really don’t, no. I feel really lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.

What are you most proud of in your time as an activist?

I think the accomplishments at Emory getting the climate changed and the policies changed. I think having that job and feeling like it really made a difference and continues to make a difference.

Also being part of that early lesbian feminist community. It wasn’t for everyone but for those of us who were involved in it, it was so important. And I think all of us from that era did some important work in getting visibility, just coming out of the closet and being visible and once people started getting to know, ‘Oh I know somebody that’s gay,’ I think that’s what got us where we are now. For young people in particular, it’s not a big deal. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be.