Despite its reputation as a traditionalist military college, The Citadel has taken steps over the past several years to foster an inclusive environment for LGBTQ cadets, faculty and staff — steps some graduates say wouldn’t have been possible at the school just 10 years ago.
This includes the establishment of LGBTQ resource groups for students and faculty, a campus Safe Zone campaign, a charitable fund for LGBTQ programming and various inclusivity and diversity trainings.
Through these continued efforts, the college will host its inaugural LGBTQ History Month keynote address on Wednesday.
The speaker, Josh Seefried, is an LGBTQ rights activist, a former captain in the U.S. Air Force and a former co-chair of the board for OutServe-SLDN, a networking and legal services group for LGBTQ military members. In 2011, he authored the book “Our Time: Breaking the Silence of 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.' ”
The address is hosted by The Citadel PRIDE Alliance with support from the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council and the college’s psychology department.
It isn’t the first time The Citadel has hosted an LGBTQ-focused event, said Kim Keelor, the school’s senior director of communications, but organizers say the establishment of an annual keynote speaker series each October is one way for the college's LGBTQ support groups to further establish their presence on campus.
“One of the things we really wanted to focus on this year was making ourselves known to the campus community,” said Carl Hill, chair of The Citadel PRIDE Alliance. “It’s kind of, you know, pun intended, but a coming out, if you will — letting the campus community know who we are, that we're here and what our mission is.”
The alliance was established last year as a faculty resource group designed to help foster an inclusive workplace, build connections on campus and support the student-run LGBTQ organization, The Citadel Pride Society.
Mike Aker, a recent Citadel graduate and co-advisor for the society, joined the group his freshman year. He said he's seen it grow from around six participants in 2015 to a group of about 15 to 25 regular members last year.
The organization meets bi-weekly, and meetings often focus on a topic for a specific conversation, such as the history of LGBTQ individuals in the military or LGBTQ identity and religion, said John Ray Roberts, a co-adviser for The Citadel Pride Society.
“When I was a student, I matriculated in 2009 and graduated in 2013, this club was nonexistent,” Roberts said. “Not to say that we didn't have cadets that were a part of the LGBTQ+ community, but there was just not a space for them to embrace that identity, and to have a support structure that was established and there for them as they needed.”
The pride alliance and the pride society are not just for students who identify as LGBTQ, Roberts said. They’re also for allies, or individuals that identify as straight but want to support their LGBTQ peers.
“Before, you know, just 10 years ago, when I started here, we just didn’t talk about any of this,” Roberts said, adding that he is pleased “to see where we're moving with our ideas of diversity, equity, inclusion and how we practice the pedagogy of inclusivity on campus."
Aker said when he came to The Citadel in 2015, it felt like a different place than what it is today. The students today are more accepting of different identities.
“I could say X, Y and Z horror story of things that have happened to LGBTQ cadets in the past, but I believe those occurrences are happening less and less,” Aker said. “The more education, the more cadets we have in leadership roles or who are taking command and taking charge, I feel like we're paving the way and not letting it be a crutch or an identity that holds us back. It's just another part of who we are.”
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Much like the military, The Citadel is an institution long-rooted in tradition. After 154 years of admitting only men to the college, women were allowed to join in 1996. While some still oppose female cadets and gay cadets, the college has made significant strides to provide resources for marginalized students, Hill said.
“You know, just like any institution, we have our hardships at times. But I think it's pretty easy to kind of lump The Citadel into this conservative category, where many think that we don't have any support, and that hasn't been my experience,” Hill said. “The fact that we're here and able to have this organization, I think shows just how far the institution has come.”
The keynote address is free and open to the public. It starts at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in Bond Hall, Room 165.
The Citadel PRIDE Alliance will also host an LGBT roundtable panel discussion at 6 p.m. Oct. 16 that's free and open to the public. The topic of the discussion is “Fit to Serve: LGBTQ Members of the U.S. Military.” Panelists will discuss their military experiences before and after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
LGBT History Month is observed every October.