Story by Andrew Wigdor, Editor-in-Chief
Photo courtesy of Joshua Rigsby
For almost two decades, the SpringOut! Pride Week has been held on MTSU’s campus, and, since its inception, it has continued to become larger and more inclusive for students.
The week of events, organized by MT Lambda, MTSU’s all-inclusive LGBT+ organization, began on Monday, wrapped up on Saturday and included a pride festival, multiple art and information tablings and the 2019 LGBT+ College Conference, which was held on campus from April 4 to 6.
Lambda was founded in 1988 and is the oldest LGBT+ higher-education organization in the Tennessee. The first-ever “Pride Week” event on MTSU’s campus dates back to 1998, but the first “SpringOut!” week of events was put on in spring 2003, making this year’s festivities the 17th anniversary of SpringOut!. This year’s conference included several workshops, learning sessions, panels and speakers, all with the purpose of building support for all identities in the community.
“The Pride Week has certainly grown tremendously since its inception in 2003,” said Joshua Rigsby, the main organizer of this year’s SpringOut! and a member of the college advisory board for the LGBT+ College Conference. “The current faculty adviser for the MTSU Lambda Association was part of the inaugural SpringOut! Committee and remembers they only had a couple of tables that first year and no broader university participation. This year, we had multiple student organizations present during the SpringOut! Pride Festival, five university departments and a few community organizations all participating in the event.”
“Last year was definitely smaller,” said Tina Moore, the vice president of MT Lambda. “This year we had like 15 different organizations, and last year we had like five tables. So we went to five tables to the entire commons (in front of the Student Union).”
Some of the organizations that participated in this year’s SpringOut! included MTSU’s counseling center and My House, a Nashville clinic that assists gay men with testing, counseling and other services.
Other byproducts of the week’s continued growth are corporate sponsors, visitors from universities across the nation and prestigious speakers.
Judy Shepard, mother of openly-gay student Matthew Shepard, who was brutally murdered in 1988; Meghan McCain, daughter of John McCain; Elizabeth Birch, the longest serving CEO of the national Human Rights Campaign organization; and Chaz Bono, Cher’s son who identifies as transgender, have all been keynote speakers for SpringOut!.
Since Pride Week’s creation, there has been more opportunity for students to learn about the LGBT community. MTSU now offers a handful of LGBT-related courses, and there are more Safe Zone-trained faculty and staff than ever. MTSU’s Safe Zone program is a voluntary two-and-a-half hour training that strives to create knowledgeable allies of the LGBT+ community.
Additionally, as of 2014, LGBT+ students are eligible for Diversity Scholarships at MTSU.
“We want students to know that we are proud to have them at MTSU,” Rigsby said. “While 20% of the student body identifies as LGBT+, that’s one in five students, there are still very few tangible resources specifically targeted toward or meeting the unique needs of LGBT+ students. Visible support for our students is crucial as we continue to build and expand what little resources we do have because ultimately we want our LGBT+ students to feel at home, welcome and most of all safe while they are on campus.”
The mission of safety for LGBT+ individuals on campus is as timely as ever.
According to a 2018 FBI report, anti-LGBT crimes rose by 3% in 2017. The report displayed 7,175 bias crimes with 8,828 victims. Of that number, victims who were singled out due to their sexual orientation or gender identity made up 1,410, or almost 17%.
“Murfreesboro Loves is one of the things we were inspired by for our conference this year, and our conference this year is focused on that: How do we build support, how do we engage the community and how do we get students involved?” Moore said. “There’s all kinds of legislation that affects students directly.”
In 2019, several bills that would potentially diminish rights of LGBT individuals in the state were introduced into the Tennessee legislature. An anti-gay marriage bill, titled “Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act;” a bill that would expand the offense of indecent exposure to include incidents occurring in bathrooms if the offender is of a different sex than the “sex designated for use;” and most recently, a bill that would allow adoption agencies to deny LGBT couples have been filed.
“What’s important for people to know is that this is an ally organization as well,” Moore said. “If you want to help LGBT students, if you want to understand LGBT students and issues, you need to meet us, you need to know us and see what we’re doing … That way we educate each other.”