Dear Vanderbilt, Here’s Your Chance

Posted June 27, 2016 by Shawn Reilly

To Vanderbilt Chancellor Zeppos and Vice Chancellor Hill,

In the wake of Orlando, I have felt reverberations of pain, anger, disbelief, sadness and hopelessness pulse through my queer and trans communities. Watching hours of news coverage of the horrific event, the rattle of the automatic weapon drums in my temples. Sometimes, I am so overwhelmed I shake, sometimes I’m overcome by tears. There are so many issues that this tragedy touches on, and it will take our community years if not decades to process and move through it. If the midst of all of this chaos, I find government officials, school administrators, community leaders, and a whole array of people commenting on moving forward, and healing, and praying.

This is all needed. We all need to give our positive energy to the healing of the queer and trans communities, Latinx communities, Muslim communities, and the Orlando community affected by this. But it’s time to move from words to action. Too many times, we have lost good people to mass shootings in this country. Too many times, queer and trans people (and many people of historically marginalized identities) are targeted for nothing other than whom they are.

To the dear leaders of Vanderbilt, it is time to put in the work. I’m over the press statements. I’m over the bureaucracy surrounding decisions that are affecting student’s everyday lives. It is time some changes are made to support the queer and trans people at Vanderbilt’s campus.

We need scholarships. So many of my queer peers are fighting to stay afloat at Vanderbilt. We should be implementing incentives to attract queer students to our campus. We need to show prospective students that there are structural supports in place for them, from the get-go. We need to inquire (but not require) about their sexual orientation, their gender identity, their pronouns on our school’s application. We need statistics. We need to know how many people are on campus, so we can give the appropriate time and energy to this vulnerable and potentially powerful group.

We need pronouns. Everywhere. In my opinion, they should be on nametags. Anchorlink forms. Bylines for the Hustler. First day of class surveys. RA rosters. Attendance forms. Everywhere. Let us normalize what has been deemed as bizarre by society, but which helps transgender and gender variant folk live more freely every day.

We need staff members. Since coming to Vanderbilt, the K.C. Potter Center has lost a program coordinator position. What I don’t think everyone realizes is, the employees at the K.C. Potter Center are some of the only people getting paid for full time work on queer issues in Nashville. Yes, they are working for the good of queer and trans Vanderbilt community members. But what isn’t fully appreciated, in my opinion, is how their work on our campus spreads to the entire community. The Out In Front conference attracts hundreds of people to learn more about topics related to gender and sexuality. In the past, Transgender Day of Remembrance has in large part been orchestrated by the office. Pride events, the Drag show (which donates proceeds to queer organizations), and keynote speakers are all things that impact our wider Nashville and even Tennessee community. When you employ someone to the K.C. Potter Center, you’re doing your job in carving your space into the progressive movement. You are helping our world heal from events like this and move forward. You are making real, institutional change. We need our program coordinator position reinstated. Even better, we should also be hiring some kind of counselor specific to our center (and the centers across campus) to help our students process through the very real and very present trauma that they face in our country and on our campus.

What we need is not another e-mail. We need real, proactive, tangible changes to the structure of Vanderbilt. What happens at Vanderbilt matters. We are setting an example for institutions in Nashville, institutions of higher education, and even the wider South. What we do is reported on and talked about across the country. Why not use this opportunity to show Vanderbilt students that you care about those of us who are queer, or trans, or an ally in any way? You have the power. Be the change.

Peace and Power,
Shawn Reilly
(they/them/theirs)

Originally published in Nashville’s LGBT newspaper website, Out and About Nashville.