Written by Alissa Kane, Graduate Assistant
Warning: Some of the content in this blog post and the exhibits contain hateful speech and descriptions of violence toward LGBT+ people.
I am grateful that I have the opportunity to work for the Albert Gore Research Center because they highly encourage their Graduate Assistants to pursue projects in all areas of public history, not just archives. Early on, I indicated to Sarah that I had an interest in curation; that same day I was assigned a project to create exhibits on the history of MT Lambda, an LGBT+ group on MTSU’s campus. This October was the 30th anniversary of MT Lambda’s establishment, and they wished to create an exhibit commemorating the many experiences of this group. I was thrilled to be put on a project relating to this because, as public historians, we need to work hard at telling everyone’s story.
Walking into the first planning meeting for the exhibit, I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been a part of putting an exhibit together and I was nervous, but also incredibly excited. From this meeting I learned that I would be choosing the objects and documents to put on display, and that I would also be writing text panels to interpret these items. Joshua Rigsby, who is the LGBT+ Program Assistant at Intercultural & Diversity Affairs, had been a member/president of MT Lambda when they attended MTSU. Joshua and Donna became the people I touched base with while planning these exhibits. Joshua knew the most about MT Lambda’s history, while Donna helped me with the fabrication of the exhibit displays.
There were a total of three exhibit spaces, and Joshua laid out what they wanted each case to cover thematically. It was my job to choose what went into each case. As I was rummaging through the MT Lambda collection looking for items and documents to put on display, I was struck by how much hate the group was receiving and how recent it was. As I was searching for newspaper articles for the Gore Center exhibit (which focused on print media) I was blown away by the amount of homophobia that was present at the time. A quote from one of these articles is on prominent display at the Gore Center exhibit and it reads, “God knows I would rather have both of my arms cut off than be gay.” This quote was from a Sidelines article published in 1993, only five years after MT Lambda’s founding. There are many more examples of hateful articles on display at the Gore center, but there are also articles displaying triumphs such the group’s founding, and a march for rights in Washington, D.C.
The second exhibit space at the MT One Stop tells the story of the Uniform Equality Committee (UEC) and their fight to have MTSU include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policy. One of the cases at this location contains testimony from students and other people in support of amending the policy. Some students spoke of fearing for their lives due to the intensity of harassment they were enduring. Some spoke of being afraid to come out because of the hatred they were seeing towards LGBT+ people in general. Some people were LGBT+ allies who wanted those within the community to be equal and feel supported. The non-discrimination policy eventually passed in 2001, six years after the formation of the UEC. In 2009, gender identity/expression was added to this policy as well. This was not met with nearly as much contention as the 1995 effort.
The third exhibit space was located at James E. Walker Library. This exhibit space covered MT Lambda’s history and the many events they have hosted since the group’s founding. One story that impacted me from this exhibit space was the story of Matthew Shephard, who was an LGBT+ college student at the University of Wyoming in 1998. Matthew was 21 when he was brutally attacked, tied to a fence and tortured. He died from his injuries five days later. As a result of his death, protest for LGBT+ rights erupted throughout the United States. Matthew Shephard’s mother, Judy, was a guest speaker at MTSU for MT Lambda’s annual Spring Out! event. This October was the 20th anniversary of Matthew’s death. Much more recent events, such as the Pulse night club shooting in Orlando, cast a dark shadow and make us question how far we have really come.
Our main goal in creating these exhibits was to show that LGBT+ students at MTSU have seen this hatred, have lived through it, and have had to overcome it. The LGBT+ community has seen great triumphs in working toward equality, like the 2015 United States Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that declared protection for same-sex marriages under the 14th Amendment. Times have changed for the better since 1980s, when this group was first founded, but achieving true equality is an uphill battle, even today. All we can do is hope and work towards a better future.
See the slideshow below for images of the exhibit at Walker Libary: