‘It really feels like I belong less’: App State students criticize university’s decisions affecting the LGBTQ community

Photo: Dylan Rhoney/Cardinal & Pine

By Dylan Rhoney

May 1, 2024

A series of decisions, including the renaming of Pride Week, the cancellation of a drag event, and the firing of LGBTQ staff led students to protest and ask the university to change course.

Natalie Allen chose to attend Appalachian State University because she believed it to be a welcoming place.

The sophomore psychology major grew up in Columbia, S.C., and was eager to go to school in a place where she thought she could openly be herself as a bisexual woman.

“I was excited to be in a place where I felt like I could be supported,” Allen said.

Appalachian State depicts itself as an institution that embraces equality and diversity and supports LGBTQ rights. Since 2008, the Henderson Springs LGBTQ+ Center has been on campus “to provide resources, support, information, and a welcoming atmosphere for LGBT individuals and their allies.”

For some students, the reality is a bit more complicated. Recent events and decisions at the university have left them feeling that the institution is not living up to its promise as a welcoming place for members of the LGBTQ community.

“There’s not that support that I thought there was,” Allen said. “I’m scared to walk around on campus holding hands with my girlfriend because I feel like I don’t have the support that I used to have.”

What’s happened at Appalachian State?

Beginning in March, students at Appalachian State University started expressing their concerns and protested over a series of decisions by the university that some felt targeted the school’s LGBTQ community.

On March 1, then-Chancellor Sheri Everts announced that the Expression Tunnel would be renovated and that students would no longer be able to spray paint or write messages in it. The tunnel has been a fixture on the campus for decades as a place where students could express themselves through graffiti art and event promotion.

Later in March, the university announced that its long-standing Pride Week would be renamed Spring Fest. The move drew criticism from students and faculty, especially members of the LGBTQ community, who argued the change was intended to erase or at least minimize LGBTQ identity.

Allen said she has noticed an increase in students uttering slurs on campus following the decision to rename Pride Week and the ensuing protests the decision caused.

“Obviously there’s always going to be people who aren’t accepting or supportive of the LGBT community, but it feels more open now,” Allen explained.

A drag bingo event scheduled to take place on campus was also canceled.

These decisions have affected LGBTQ students at the school, many of whom expressed feeling as if they don’t belong at the school.

“Campus doesn’t really feel the same anymore, even though I do know the Pride Week events are still happening. It really feels like I belong less,” Evan Foster, a freshman studying Public Health who identifies as gay, told Cardinal & Pine last month.

Oliver Scanlon is a graduate student studying marriage and family therapy, and is nonbinary. They said the university’s decision to change the name of Pride Week was hurtful.

“To me it kind of stated, ‘you can have your events as long as they don’t appear queer,’ and as someone who can’t not appear queer, that felt very invalidating.”

“That felt especially hurtful for me because it’s not like I can hide my queerness. It’s pretty visible,” Scanlon added.

In an email to students, faculty, and staff on April 2, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs JJ Brown acknowledged the concerns that have been raised about the changing of the name ‘Pride Week,’ and left the door open for the decision to be reversed in the future.

“I hear and understand the concerns related to the title change of the week this year, and we will absolutely take this into account as we plan events for next year,” he said.

A lack of communication

In response to the decisions to rename Pride Week and close the expression tunnel, the Appalachian State College Democrats put out a statement condemning the moves.

The following Wednesday, the group organized a rally on Sanford Mall, which was attended by almost 150 students.

“The protest was called the Save our Voices Rally. What we really wanted to do is uplift the students’ voices on campus,” Jack Yordy, the President of the Appalachian State Young Democrats, said. “We wanted to make sure that the voices of the students who were dealing with these issues that are happening on App State’s campus were heard.”

Former North Carolina State Senator Sam Searcy, an alumni of the university, believes better communication is needed from school leadership to the students.

“The administration just needs to listen. Clearly if more than 100 people are showing up to a protest, there’s something going on that people are unhappy about,” he said.

Searcy said that the leadership at the university had not taken that step when he spoke to Cardinal & Pine in mid-April.

“I get the sense that this administration looks at protest and gets annoyed. I think I would look at something like that and say, ‘OK, do we have a genuine issue here? If so, let’s dig into it, let’s listen, let’s get engaged and see what we can do about it,’” he said.

Boone Town Council Member Dalton George, also an alumni, echoed Searcy’s remarks on what the university can do to repair trust with the students.

“Meet with the students that have gotten everybody activated. There are some key leaders that have some real feelings about this and represent large swaths of the community,” he said.

Four LGBTQ staff members fired within a year

The university’s administration has also come under scrutiny for a series of recent decisions related to staff. In the past year, four LGBTQ employees have been let go by the university.

Jax Lastinger, who worked at the university as the Director of DEI Educational Development and Campus Climate Strategies, was one of the LGBTQ staff members let go by the university.

In their role with the DEI Department, they said part of their job was to hold trainings for students, faculty, and staff to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion at the university. Lastinger says they also planned campus events to highlight underserved communities. This included a called ‘We’re Here’ panel series, which featured current students, alumni, staff, and faculty who were members of underrepresented groups, and provided them with the opportunity to share their experiences .

On March 5, Lastinger had a meeting with their supervisor. Their supervisor informed them that they were being dismissed from their position, effective immediately. When Lastinger asked about any performance related issues or if there was any specific incident that caused their employment to be terminated, no answer was given.

“‘There is no reason given at this time, you’re an at-will employee,’” Lastinger recalled the supervisor saying.

North Carolina is an at-will employment state. Therefore, Appalachian State University is not required by law to provide Lastinger or any employee with a reason for termination.

Lastinger and Sarah Hoffert, who was fired by the university last October, were founding members of the Queer and Trans Staff and Faculty (QTSAF). Like Lastinger, Hoffert said her termination came abruptly and without a reason provided. The two other LGBTQ staff let go by the university, MB Bowen and Kora Smith, were also members of QTSAF. Smith, who worked as a housekeeper at the university, and is transgender, says she was consistently misgendered at work.

“Literally every single person that I worked with, with the exception of about three people, misgendered me. I brought it up to my managers and they said they would do something about it, but they didn’t do anything because nothing changed,” Smith told Cardinal & Pine.

Smith said that when a meeting was held to discuss their misgendering, she was asked not to attend.

“They had a little team meeting without me in the room to represent myself,” she said.

Smith believes better training is needed at the university for situations like the one she dealt with.

“We’ve got an LGBTQ Center there. Have a professional come in and talk about why it’s important,” she told Cardinal & Pine.

Smith said she was fired last September and was told it was for “performance-based” reasons.

Bowen told Inside Higher Ed that she would not comment on her situation, as she has filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the university.

On April 12, then-University Provost Heather Norris addressed concerns that LGBTQ staff were being targeted: “I want to be very clear about one concern that has been raised: There is absolutely no concerted effort at App State to terminate LGBTQ+ employees. Per North Carolina law, the university does not collect or maintain LGBTQ+ status in employment records. App State also has a clear nondiscrimination policy,” her statement said in part.

Nationwide attacks on DEI programs

The firing of Lastinger comes at a time where DEI programs across the US are under intense scrutiny, particularly from right-wing lawmakers.

In April, a UNC Board of Governors committee voted to approve a policy that could eliminate some DEI jobs in the UNC system. The full Board of Governors will vote whether or not to approve the policy this month.

Critics have attacked DEI as both discriminatory and a policy that doesn’t see a return on investment. A member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and Republican candidate for NC Auditor criticized the practice last month. “I think this entire DEI effort has been one of, if not the most divisive things in higher education in modern history,” Dave Boliek said. “It cuts against non-discrimination and I don’t see a return on the money being spent, in my experience.”

Lastinger says that DEI programs have a positive impact on college campuses like Appalachian State, and believes universities should not give in to those seeking to dismantle them.

“We’re bending to the will of people who don’t want these programs to exist, and we’re completely ignoring the fact that the vast majority of the people on our campus do want these programs to exist. They need these programs to exist. They help these underrepresented groups, and other people who are not from underrepresented groups as well be successful, be effective in their work, be engaged in their community,” they told Cardinal & Pine.

Foster says that DEI is not excluding anyone, but is giving a voice to groups who may not have had the same opportunities.

“It’s not reductive in any way. It’s just empowering more people to feel comfortable speaking, which is just going to enrich your campus,” he said.

Criticism of former Chancellor Cheri Everts

Much of the students’ criticism was directed at Chancellor Sheri Everts with some calling for her to step down. “I think that she should resign, I think she is an ineffective leader,” Eden Vigus, a junior Sustainable Development and Geography major, said on April 9.

On April 10, the faculty senate passed a resolution calling in part for university leadership to “…make unequivocal and clear their support of LGBTQ+ populations on campus beyond referencing the strategic plan or the mission statement.

On April 14, Everts, citing health concerns, announced her resignation, which took effect on April 19. Norris has since taken over as interim Chancellor.

After Everts’ announcement, Cardinal & Pine reached back out to Vigus and asked if they and the other students still planned to continue holding protests.

“For sure, this just changes the goal posts a little bit,” Vigus said. “It doesn’t start or end with Sheri [Everts]. The Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors are also complicit in this.”

What students want to see next

Yordy says the school administration and new chancellor need to make a sincere effort to hear the needs of students.

“It doesn’t seem that they really are concerned about the issues that we’re concerned about, and so what we want is we want acknowledgement of those issues. We want the university to take accountability for causing some of these issues, and causing harm to its students, and we want action in the form of commitment to the LGBT community, to the art students, and the other humanities departments, and to all students in general to the freedom of expression of students,” he explained.

When asked about the potential of holding a town hall or forum that could give students the ability to address school leadership directly, the university did not commit to the idea. But Anna Oakes, the Director of News and Media Relations at the university, said that members of the school leadership had met with student groups during the weeks following student protests.

“Campus leaders, including the chief diversity officer, vice chancellor of student affairs, dean of students, and the dean of the College of Fine & Applied Arts have been engaged in multiple direct meetings and conversations with representatives from multiple student groups on campus, and this dialogue will continue,” Oakes said.

University leadership is currently in the process of finding a new location designated for freedom of expression, and a Free Expression Space Working Group was announced by the Vice Chancellor for student affairs after students expressed the need for one.. The group has met multiple times, and the school says they expect recommendations on how to proceed with a future location dedicated to freedom of expression before the semester ends.

Still, Scanlon believes the university needs “a larger, cultural change” in light of the student protests and the concerns that have been raised.

“It’s frustrating because even the best of professors will forget my gender. Even the most inclusive of people won’t remember that I’m in the room and exist differently,” they said.

An email from the university to Cardinal & Pine provided several avenues students have for reporting cases. In cases of discrimination or harassment, students can file a report at titleix.appstate.edu/reporting-options. Criminal matters can be referred to the schools campus police who can be reached at 828-262-2150, and in emergency situations, dial 911.

Author

  • Dylan Rhoney

    Dylan Rhoney is an App State grad from Morganton who is passionate about travel, politics, history, and all things North Carolina. He lives in Raleigh.

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