Special Edition: Pride

UF graduate discusses the intersection between being Black and gay

Errol Nelson is a 2020 UF graduate and a member of both the Black and LGBTQ+ communities.
Courtesy to The Alligator

Past: Realizations

Errol Nelson lined up bags of his clothes and belongings by the front door of his Sarasota home. He was 16 at the time and preparing an escape to his best friend’s house.

“Mom, I need to talk to you,” he said, sitting down on the living room couch. The lump that formed in his throat, he said, was a feeling he’d never forget.

As the words left his lips, his emotions flooded out through tears. He was gay.

Errol’s mother reacted with love and acceptance—he wouldn’t need to escape after all. But she also showed concern. Being openly gay in America is not easy, she told him, but being a gay Black man adds another layer of discrimination.

“She wasn’t hurt by the sense that I was gay. She was hurt by the way the world would perceive me—a young Black man who now also had this added human difference,” he said.

His mother, Kimberly, said she remembers the moment, too. She started to cry.

“I wasn’t crying because I was angry,” she said. “I was crying because I didn’t want his life to be any harder than it needed to be.”

His father wasn’t as quick to accept his sexual orientation as his mother, he said. In his father’s eyes, being a Black man meant being masculine and tough. Errol said these beliefs aren’t uncommon in the Black community.

“A lot of the African American male dichotomy has to do with masculinity and toughness, and that's part of the reason why my father is so shy about the fact that I'm queer,” he said.

Kimberly said she yelled, screamed and prayed for her son’s father to accept him.

“As a parent, you must love your child unconditionally,” she said. “I told him it doesn’t matter who he loves. You must love him.”

While his father was negative about his identity, his mother, stepfather, grandmother and aunt have filled the void he left with love and acceptance. This support group calls itself the “superfriends,” Kimberly said.

Present: Reality

Errol is now 27 and a history and art history Spring 2020 UF graduate. He said he’s fully embraced his identity.

Despite his “Gator get-up-and-go” drive to be the best version of himself he can be, his journey hasn’t always been easy. Errol has wondered at times if his gay identity has made it easier for white society to accept him as a Black man.

“Oftentimes, I feel that people accept me because it's quite easy to be friends with a gay Black guy, but would you be as welcoming or as willing to approach if I presented more straight?” he said.

Errol has witnessed this reaction from his peers in his social life.

“People react to me when I walk in, and they get scared because I’m a bigger African American male,” he said. “They tense up and wonder what I’m doing there. And then, the ‘Hey girl’ rolls out of mouth, and you see that queerness makes the girls’ shoulders relax.”

However, he said when he’s around members of the Black community, his mannerisms and sexual orientation are met with puzzled faces and disappointed looks.

Sometimes his Black identity and his gay identity have a strange position in their respective communities, he said. Members of the LGBTQ+ community, at times, see him only as a Black man. He said he feels the Black community has labeled him as weak because of his sexual orientation.

“In the Black community, your queerness means that you're not tough enough,” Errol said. “You’re not man enough, you’re a little bit less than.”

Fortunately, he said he feels that the lines between the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight for LGBTQ+ rights have been blurred for the better.

“The fight for Black trans lives is the same fight as Black Lives Matter,” Errol said. “It's all about intersectionality and realizing where we as a society have oppressed, suppressed and shoved aside certain sections of our population, and I absolutely want to remind people that we have the current liberation movement because of Black trans women and Black queer women.”

Despite his confidence in his identity, he said he’s felt like an outsider in his classes. In his graduating history class, he said he noticed no more than five peers were Black.

His interest in art history led him to an internship at the Harn Museum during the Spring. There, he dedicated his time to the Day Without Art Campaign, a movement to raise awareness for the AIDS crisis.

Day Without Art features pieces that highlight the effects that HIV/AIDS have had on the LGBTQ+ community, especially LGBTQ+ communities of color, Errol said. He did extensive research on these effects from the 1980s to now and believes HIV/AIDS is an issue that society should continue to discuss.

His love for museums stems from his passion for education. To Errol, no one should stop learning once they leave the classroom.

Kimberly said she wasn’t surprised by her son’s affinity for the museum industry because of his love for learning. She joked that when Errol was grounded as a child, she would take away his books instead of toys.

“I can't say that I'm surprised that he's been in a different mainstream or had a different level of success than most academic, young Black men would have,” she said. “It doesn't surprise me because he's always been so different and so unique.”

To her, his positive outlook in the face of adversity has allowed him to succeed.

“It always surprises me that Errol can pull himself up by the bootstraps at the last minute and say, ‘Woohoo! Look at where I am,’” she said.

Future: Truth and Reconciliation

Despite his adoration for museums, Errol feels the industry must diversify and address its own controversial roots.

“They are actually born off of a white supremacy paradigm,” he said. “The first museum collections were from wealthy white looters and colonists who would take artifacts without really understanding the cultural relevance to them.”

Errol believes that the industry must welcome and amplify diverse voices to encourage conversations about race and sexual orientation. He said he takes great pride in his ability to be one of these voices—one that may have been silenced in the past.

Next year, he will attend Virginia Commonwealth University to pursue a master’s degree in art history and museum studies. There, he hopes to continue to educate his peers and encourage important conversations about diversity and inclusion.

While there have been obstacles in his path to success, Errol said he believes that he’s not a victim to be pitied. However, he said members of the Black community have to put in more work than their counterparts to reach their goals.

“I feel like I’m being propped up as an example of what a Black academic is like supposed to be, and I think that culture is really crippling in academia,” he said. “Systemic racism has creeped in in all sorts of ways, especially in hiring practices or people having lowered expectations of you because you're Black.”

Lonnie G. Bunch III is the current Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution as well as the first African American to serve in this position. Errol hopes to one day follow in his footsteps.

“History has the great power not to erase the past but look to truth and reconciliation,” Errol said. “I think that's the move that most historians are looking for. And I think that art history also has a role to play in this: If we include voices that have been traditionally excluded from the museum field, we can start to interpret these statues and these legacies in different ways.”

While Errol has become a decorated scholar, becoming a Ronald E. McNair Scholar and receiving a full ride to VCU, perhaps his greatest achievement is educating others. His mother believes he has continuously expanded her worldview and has encouraged her to view others without judgement.

“In my business, I see people every day,” Kimberly said. “I'm not so quick to judge what's going on with them and try to look at all angles. I could see this person, and I'm not sure which pronoun I should use for them, so I ask. And I learned this from my very own son.”

Contact Avery at alotz@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @ajlotz8.

What it’s like for a same-sex couple to have a baby through assisted reproductive technology

Adrianna and Ashley Tousignant celebrate their pregnancy in a field of sunflowers. Their baby boy was born on June 19.
Courtesy to The Alligator

After an exhausting four hours of pushing, Adrianna Tousignant looked down. In her arms was a 9-pound, 1-ounce baby boy—it was one of the greatest moments of her entire life, she said.

Even better, she said, was watching her wife, Ashley Tousignant, hold their son, Henry.

Adrianna, 31, and Ashley, 32, fell in love while bartending at Gator’s Dockside in Gainesville six years ago. Nearly two years later, they were married and immediately began working on having a child. It took them three years to get pregnant.

Same-sex couples have two options for having children: adoption or assisted reproductive technology, which includes methods of conception, like in vitro fertilization, traditionally used to treat infertility. This technology allows for same-sex couples to obtain either a sperm or egg donation and have a child that shares genetics with one parent. Two men would also need a surrogate, a woman who carries and births the child for the couple.

According to Marla Neufeld, a Florida surrogacy attorney, there are no laws in the state preventing same-sex couples from using assisted reproductive techonology to have a child. However, same-sex couples worry about potential future legal issues and social stereotypes when going through the process.

The non-biological parent had to “second parent adopt” to officially have parental rights prior to 2015, when the supreme court declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 U.S. states, Neufeld said. Second-parent adoption is a two-month process that involves a petition, finger-printing, a background check and a home-study under Florida’s adoption laws.

Now, parents can avoid this process, if married, because a married couple has presumed parentage under Florida law.

However, like many other LGBTQ+ couples, Adrianna and Ashley said they fear the same-sex marriage law will one day be reversed. On June 12, the Trump administration reversed Obama-era health care protections for transgender people and redefined “sex discrimination” as applying to females and males. The protections do not include discrimination based on sexual identity or sexual orientation.

For extra security, Ashley, who did not carry the baby, is considering adopting their child.

Neufeld said she recommends that the parents do a stepparent adoption after the baby is born in case laws change, even though they're both on the birth certificate. Over the course of a month, the couple would file an adoption petition, attend an adoption hearing and attain a stepparent judgment. A court order is a stronger protection than a birth certificate, which is only a presumption of parentage, Neufeld added.

Ashley and Adrianna said they first began their journey of having a child with intrauterine insemination, a treatment where a sperm is placed inside a woman's uterus to initiate fertilization. To fertilize, the sperm needs to reach the actual egg on it’s own.

This didn’t work.

Adrianna, who volunteered to carry the baby, then tried to medically increase her chances of getting pregnant by having endometriosis surgery. Endometriosis is a complication with the tissue that normally grows on the inside lining of the uterus. In surgery, the doctor removes the tissue, which then increases a woman’s chance of getting pregnant.

The surgery also didn’t lead to a pregnancy, so they decided to switch to IVF, a process where the egg is fertilized with sperm outside of the body and transferred to the uterus.

Finally, three years later, they were pregnant.

“Without knowing if you have fertility issues, it's kind of a crapshoot,” Adrianna said.

She said they carefully decided who would be the sperm donor because they wanted to make sure the baby also had Ashley’s characteristics—her dark brown straight hair and average height.

Ashley said it's a different experience for the partner who is not the one giving birth. When going to doctor’s appointments, she said, staff would assume she was a family member and not the other parent. She even said a doctor completely ignored her once.

“You still feel like you have to kind of fight for your rights,” Ashley said. “Especially from a female standpoint. Even though you're not the one that's actually doing the pushing and going through everything, you're still an important factor, and should be treated just the same as a dad.”

Ashley said they had a great delivery experience together. However, dealing with paperwork after birth was tricky. When applying for their son for a social security number, the representative initially only took down Adrianna’s number and had to return to the hospital room for Ashley’s after the representative realized their mistake.

“Being the partner, it was a different experience,” Ashley said. “Probably not as pleasant I think as others might experience or a heterosexual couple.”

Both Ashley and Adrianna said they worry about the current political climate and feel they have to continue fighting for their rights. In January, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill which allows adoption agencies to deny a couple the opportunity to adopt based on religious or moral objections. The couple said they worry something similar will happen in Florida in the future.

“It’s just like a tornado, that you don't know where it's going to hit, or how destructive it could potentially be,” Adrianna said.

However, there are positives too, the couple said. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace on June 15.

Adrianna said she believes times are changing. Hopefully for the better, she added. The couple plans to have more children and just bought a house in Fort White together. She said Henry was definitely worth the wait.

The couple wants Henry to grow up knowing it's OK to be whoever he wants to be. Adrianna said the most important thing a child needs is support and love.

“Love makes a family,” Adrianna said.

Contact Emma at ebautista@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @emma_V_bautista.

“That didn’t happen 20 years ago”

Shannon Ahern / Alligator Staff

A few months ago, Bill Gallagher was grabbing pizza at Leonardo’s Pizza by the Slice and saw two young men sitting together, hand-in-hand. They looked young enough to be freshmen.

“It just warms my heart,” he said. “I just thought, ‘That didn’t happen 20 years ago.’”

Gallagher, 54, was a student at UF in 1987, when there were no rainbow crosswalks downtown, no public displays of affection between boyfriends and no on-campus organizations for LGBTQ+ students.

Before he came to UF, there was an organization called the University of Florida Lesbian and Gay Society, or UFLAGS. Founded in the early 1980’s, the group faced a near-constant struggle getting funds from Student Government, obtaining and keeping office space in the Reitz Union and dealing with homophobia from other students, according to Alligator archives. A few years after its founding, the group disbanded. So, Gallagher started a new one.

The Gay and Lesbian Student Union, or GLSU, started off-campus in 1987. The group began meeting in the churches and synagogues around campus, including the St. Augustine Catholic Student Center and the United Church of Gainesville, which Gallagher said were very supportive of the movement for LGBTQ+ rights. Sometimes they would have more than 100 people at their meetings, he added.

“We had a lot of progressive clergy and ministers that supported us, but there was a lot of just hatred and animus from people in the community,” he said.

The group became an official student group in 1991, and would eventually go on to become the Pride Student Union. It was around this time that Gallagher and others were lobbying the Alachua County Commission to include sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination ordinance.

“It was controversial, and things were heated,” he said. “We got a lot of pushback. I actually got a death threat.”

This inspired a “Walk For Freedom” on June 17, 1992, with Gallagher as one of the leaders.

More than 600 people held hands, chanted and sang as they walked down University Avenue for more than a mile to the Alachua County Administration building. The protest was met with a mixture of support and animosity. According to Alligator archives, some people driving by yelled slurs, and Gainesville resident Vincent Mallet, who openly opposed rights for members of the LGBTQ+ community, got into a debate with one of the rabbis in attendance. The rabbi explained that the protestors were fighting for their civil rights, but Mallet said they didn’t deserve them. He tried to address the crowd, but they sang to silence him.

Gallagher recently moved to New Orleans with his spouse, who he married in Washington D.C. in 2012. He said it’s gratifying to see so much more support for LGBTQ+ rights now and appreciates the rainbow crosswalks downtown as a symbol of that.

“Right now, at least in Alachua County, it’s political suicide to oppose gay rights, LGBT rights,” he said. “We’ve come a long way.”

Kenneth Key, 57, who was a director of UFLAGS before the group disbanded, agrees. He said a lot of strides have been made with LGBTQ+ rights, like the recent Supreme Court decision to end workplace discrimination, but he said having antagonistic administrations in Washington and Tallahassee could lead to having those rights taken away.

“That’s why it’s so important to have proactive legislation passed,” Key said.

Before coming to UF, Key went to the Air Force Academy but had to resign after he came out. At the time, he could have been dishonorably discharged for this, but was instead able to resign, retain the credits he had earned and transfer to UF.

What he remembers most about being director of UFLAGS is the struggle for funding with Student Government. The organization wanted to host pride events and have speakers and panels to raise awareness but didn’t have a large budget. In 1984, after the group was given zero funding to host events for Gay Awareness Week, a sit-in was organized during a student Senate meeting.

The budget for the Activity and Service Fee Advisory committee, which was about $3 million, was supposed to be discussed that night. About 30 students, primarily from UFLAGS, who called themselves “Students for Fair Funding” sat in to “make their presence known,” according to Alligator archives. UFLAGS wanted $1,886 to fund events that week, including hosting actress Pat Bond, one of the first openly lesbian actresses, for a speaking event. It is unclear from Alligator archives if the group was able to secure funding, but Bond spoke in the Reitz Union Ballroom on April 6, 1984, about Eleanor Roosevelt’s alleged affair with journalist Lorena Hickok.

“It was a constant fight between UFLAGS and the Student Senate as far as getting our funding, getting our office space,” he said. “Everything we did was met with a major fight.”

Key said that people today have grown up in an entirely different era than he did. People are coming out at younger ages and are dealing with a much larger spectrum of sexualities than gay or straight, some of which he said he’s still learning the definitions of, he said.

“It’s kind of come down to the fact that it’s however you identify, it really is nobody else’s business. It’s what you feel that best signifies who you are,” he said. “And I’m okay with that. And the rest of society should be okay with that too.”

Contact Kaelyn at kcassidy@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @kaelyn_cassidy.

Savannah Schoenherr: “You’re made the way you are for a reason”

Confidence is critical for a gymnast’s success: every misstep during a routine is costly. Most meets are decided by less than half of a point.

Savannah Schoenherr, a gymnast for Florida, said she struggled with confidence and accepting who she is as a person for most of her life.

On Thursday, Schoenherr told the world she’s gay. In a video posted to the Gators gymnastics Twitter account, she said she has struggled in the past to accept herself and has even tried to deny her sexuality. In Columbus, Georgia, where she was raised, there was a negative stigma attached to people in the LGBTQ+ community.

“I kind of told myself, I was like, I can't be this way,” she told The Alligator. “The biggest thing for me was just accepting it myself and coming to the realization of who I was and who I was meant to love.”

During her freshman year of high school, Schoenherr said she started to question her sexuality.

“I just felt like I was attracted to girls, and that I wanted to be more than friends with them,” she said.

She tried to push those thoughts away, she said. She didn’t want to be gay.

Shortly after arriving in Gainesville for her freshman year, Schoenherr reached out to a friend who came out publicly during Schoenherr’s sophomore year of high school. She was the first person Schoenherr came out too.

Schoenherr asked her friend about the feelings she experienced—the desire to be more than friends with girls. Most of all, Schoenherr wanted to know how someone knows if they’re gay.

“She was like, ‘Well, if you're questioning this much, then there's probably a chance that you do have those types of feelings,” Schoenherr said. “And it's okay to have this type of feelings. There's nothing wrong with you. Because of that, you're born the way you are for a reason.’”

After their conversation, Schoenherr started to embrace her identity. Those feelings had been there for years, she said. There was no pushing them away anymore.

Learning to love and accept herself was the hardest part of her journey, she said.

The next people she told were her best friends on the gymnastics team: Halley Taylor and Trinity Thomas. They were supportive, she said, and told her that nothing would change their friendship.

Taylor is a rising junior, like Schoenherr, and said they have practically become sisters since arriving on campus. She remembers the day Schoenherr came out to her during their freshman year.

“I was proud of her that she came out and was totally comfortable,” Taylor said. “First of all, I was really honored that she said that one of the first people she told was me, because we were really close.”

However, Schoenherr still hadn’t revealed who she was to her family. Too many things stood in her way: fear of making things awkward, of having her family look at her differently.

“When you're just sitting, and there's an elephant in the room,” she said. “I didn't want that to be me.”

Still, she said the truth would come out at some point. She had to tell them.

Eventually, she did. After telling each of her family members individually, she said she felt like a huge weight was lifted off her shoulders. The feeling she got after telling them was greater than the fear of not saying anything at all.

“They just want what's best for me in my life,” she said in the video. “As long as I'm happy, they're happy.

Since then, Schoenherr has continued to grow, Taylor said.

“She is just so much more self-confident,” she said. “She's a lot more outspoken, she's ready to take on challenges head-on. And I think that is also a maturity thing, but also just her being more confident in herself.”

Schoenherr’s newfound confidence has made a difference in the gym, too, she added.

“Freshman year she might have been a little more timid than she is now,” Taylor said. “And, now she’s confident. She’s like, ‘Yeah, I got this,’ and I think she's ready to take on any challenge that anyone throws at her.”

Coach Jenny Rowland said she has noticed a more confident Schoenherr as well.

“Seeing Sav so confident and happy makes my heart happy,” Rowland wrote in an email to The Alligator. “Above all else, we strive to build in our Gators the importance of being yourself and not letting anyone change that or take away from who you are. I am thankful she felt comfortable in sharing her journey to all-knowing her Gator family will be in full support beside her.”

Schoenherr also encourages others who are questioning their sexuality or afraid to come out to listen to their heart.

“You're made the way that you are for a reason, and society shouldn't have a control over who you are meant to be,” she said. “When you can truly be happy with who you are, and not trying to please everybody else and try to make everyone else happy, that's when you can be your true self and express yourself to the fullest.”

Contact Zachary at zhuber@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @zacharyahuber.

Thomas Knight reflects on his experiences as a gay man in academia

Dr. Thomas Knight has used his platform as a professor in the UF School of Economics to normalize the LGBTQ+ experience.
Courtesy to the Alligator

Thomas Knight’s hands rested on the steering wheel of his Saab Convertible, but his mind was elsewhere.

As he drove away from Tampa’s International Plaza shopping center in 2003, a fleeting thought developed into a revelation. His reality was suddenly clear. Knight called a good friend and spoke his truth for the first time.

The now 36-year-old UF economics department chair was then a 19-year-old freshman at New College of Florida. From that moment on, his sexual orientation became part of his being.

“It just, at some point, became second nature,” he said. “I have dark curly hair. I'm gay.”

Over the next two years, he shared the news with his friends and three sisters. It wasn’t until three years after the first phone call that he told his parents.

It happened during a trip home to celebrate his older sister’s graduation from UF Law School. While out for sushi and cocktails, he came out to the two people who had known him the longest.

Silence washed over the table. While his father expected the news, his mother felt shocked and betrayed that he had not told her sooner.

Initially, Knight’s mother had reservations: her fears were that her son would never get married or have children. She also expressed her worries about the HIV/AIDS crisis.

However, like her husband, she quickly accepted Knight. She prioritized her love for her son over the worries she might have.

After graduating in 2007, Knight spent three years at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Both New College and the Netherlands were diverse and accepting places, he said. Typically those abroad had a wider worldview, and most students, even before same-sex marriage was made legal, were supportive of Knight’s openness about his sexual orientation. Exploring in the world of academia and socializing abroad helped him find security and confidence in his identity.

“I think my life has oftentimes put me in bubbles within society that are not hard places to be gay,” he said.

From the Netherlands, he said he moved to Gainesville to pursue his PhD. He never left.

One member on his dissertation committee at UF, former economics department chair Roger Blair, stood out as a friend, mentor and ally.

“I think of him as like a third parent,” Knight said. “You hear that your boss is in his mid-70s and a Vietnam veteran, and you might make certain assumptions––but he is the most open-minded, supporting guy in the world.”

To Blair, Knight’s sexual orientation wasn’t an issue. Blair told Knight that he never understood the judgment directed at the LGBTQ+ community.

During this time, he also met his husband, Gerardo Nunez, a professor in the UF College of Agriculture. They’ve been together for 10 years.

When Knight became a lecturer in 2012, he said he was initially nervous to talk about his husband in front of students––nervous they’d view him differently or be made uncomfortable. He did it anyway.

“My husband,” he said one day while lecturing. In the instant after, he wondered if he should have bit his tongue. That nervousness, however, was quickly replaced by another realization.

If a student in class was uncomfortable with their own sexual orientation, Knight discovered he could use his platform as a professor to normalize their identity and experience, he said.

Knight said some students in the LGBTQ+ community have come to him for advice or conversation. These students are typically freshmen who come from less accepting families, he added, and many even told him they never expected to have an openly gay professor.

Jacob Gray, a 21-year-old UF economics senior, took Knight’s class, Principles of Economics, his freshman year in the Spring of 2018.

As an openly gay student, Gray said there have been moments where he felt alienated or belittled by his peers. However, meeting Professor Knight allowed him to discover his passion for economics and find acceptance within the field.

“Seeing a gay professor teach a class in my department, especially my freshman year, made all the nerves of being gay in a brand new town go away,” Gray said. “Knowing that Professor Knight was being his true self for all of his students helped me feel true to myself at UF.”

Gray came out as gay his senior year of high school, so he was still unsure of his place in the LGBTQ+ community, he said. However, Professor Knight’s pride in his own identity has left a lasting impression on Gray.

“As I finished his class my freshman year, his pride throughout the semester allowed me to express myself even more freely than I was before,” Gray said. “His pride gave me the courage to show my own pride.”

Knight’s openness allowed him to find confidence in his identity, which shows the importance of representation in the classroom and the workplace, Gray said.

Knight, too, believes in the power of diversity and representation.

When students can see themselves in the people who are teaching them, it creates a more welcoming academic environment, Knight said.

While Knight said he hasn’t felt discriminated against because of his orientation, he believes that economics needs to become more diverse. The field struggles with racial disparities, gender gaps and infrequent representation of the LGBTQ+ community.

Despite his own positive experiences, Knight said he doesn’t minimize the negative experiences of others. He encourages students to be allies and point out injustices when they see them.

“To me, the most impactful thing is when you hear something that sounds like it diminishes another person's worth, or blindly applies some judgment to another person's experience,” he said. “Call it out. I think most people in this world want to see themselves as respectful, loving people, so kindly let them know that what they're saying is not respectful and loving."

To Knight, finding happiness and acceptance takes a conscious effort: one with the right path and right people.

“The world is full of people who will love, support and respect you,” he said. “So find those people. Seek them out. There are spaces where you can thrive, so find those spaces. Live in them.”

Contact Avery at alotz@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @ajlotz8.

An LGBTQ+ Safe Haven on University Avenue

Shannon Ahern / Alligator Staff

On any given night, you can expect to see an assortment of characters, from drag queens to sorority girls, on the dance floor illuminated by flashing lights as the smell of sweat mixes with the trails of perfume left behind by the performers at University Club.

The local nightclub recently turned 30 years old in April, and it is a place where anyone, regardless of their sexuality or gender, is accepted and welcomed by its owner, Mark Spangler.

Spangler, the owner of University Club, opened the doors to the first gay club in Gainesville in April 1990. With time, he created what he calls a safe haven for the local LGBTQ+ community.

As far as performers go, University Club has helped many start their careers as drag queens–one, in particular, Jade Jolie, made it onto “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a reality-competition show, and was also featured in Taylor Swift’s music video for “You Need To Calm Down.”

What makes this nightclub unique from other local clubs is the sense of family and community it forms within the drag and LGBTQ+ community, Spangler said. Four performers, with different backgrounds and experiences, talk about their lives as drag queens.

More than just performance: Aurora Whorealis

Christian Acevedo, a 20-year-old Santa Fe entomology sophomore, uses his platform to raise awareness for topics like rising sea levels and the decline in bee pollination during his performances as Aurora Whorealis.

Growing up in Miami, he was involved in theatre and cheerleading because, as a Leo, he said he thrives in the spotlight. So on the night of May 3, 2018, Acevedo transformed into Aurora for her first drag competition, and to her surprise, she ended up winning.

For Acevedo, the concepts of sexuality and gender belong on a spectrum where people are allowed to fluctuate freely. Transforming into Aurora has allowed Acevedo to realize that the drag community includes anyone from a transgender man to a biological cis-gender woman.

After the three-hour transformation into Aurora, he instantly notices the shift in his confidence: he feels like the “creme de la creme” after finishing the final touches on his brightly colored makeup and lacing up his five-inch stilettos.

Despite not receiving support from his father, who accidentally found out Acevedo dressed in drag when he opened his suitcase full of heels and wigs, Acevedo is grateful that he can freely express himself with other family members and friends.

A piece of advice that has stayed with him throughout his time as a performer is, “At the end of the day, you’re not doing drag for anyone, you’re doing drag for yourself.”

Never too late - Sarah Nevada

Had her family not accepted that she was a transgender woman, Sarah Cole, 56, said she is unsure she would have gotten this far in her life.

Cole grew up in St. Petersburg and when she was 11, she said she would often sneak into her sister’s room to try on her ballet costumes. During those secret moments, Cole said she felt a certain freedom that comes with departing from gender norms.

But it would be another 10 years before she came out to her parents, unsure of how they would react because of their Catholic upbringing, yet relieved by the idea of not having to entertain the notion that she was a male to her parents anymore. Her coming out experience wasn’t always as well-received, however, as she was fired by Home Depot in the late ’90s for being a transgender woman, Cole said.

She attended her first drag show in the late ’80s – a time when being in the LGBTQ+ community was not widely accepted. Now 40 years later, Cole tried on drag for the first time in September and now regularly performs as Sarah Nevada, who she describes as a rebel, at University Club. Her opening line is: “The oasis in the rainbow desert, and I am here to quench your thirst.”

Double life - Anna Phylaxxis

Unlike Cole, Anna Phylaxxis (who asked The Alligator not to disclose their personal name) keeps their drag performances a secret from their family and colleagues. They said they live a double life as they pursue a PhD degree in biology at UF while simultaneously performing in drag at University Club.

Phylaxxis finds solace in balancing their scientific background with drag because it creatively enriches their life, they said.

“I always kind of wanted to find a way to combine the two,” they said. “I’ve just never been happy being purely scientific or purely creative.”

At University Club, Phylaxxis has managed to intertwine their science background into their performances by creating special effects like putting baking soda and vinegar inside a beaker to make foam when they’re doing a “mad scientist” act and aiming for accuracy while creating their makeup looks, they said.

Although their biological family does not know about this part of their life, Phylaxxis has created what they call a family of their own within the drag community at University Club.

When Phylaxxis dresses up in drag, they said they embody confidence. But they describe their other persona as a people pleaser who lets people walk over them. In a way, they said Anna Phylaxxis has allowed them to unconditionally embrace who they are as they’ve never done before.

Small town boy moves onto bigger things - Alexia Fantasia

As a small-town boy who grew up in Statesville, North Carolina, Paeton Nutting, a 20-year-old UF business administration junior, said he had limited exposure to the LGBTQ+ community until he attended his first Pride in 2016 in Charlotte.

It was a pivotal moment for him, he said, because it was when his curiosity about drag began.

“It gave me the opportunity to kind of blossom and really explore who I am as a person and who Alexia is,” Nutting said.

Coming from a close-minded southern town, Nutting said he was opposed to wearing makeup due to fear of the backlash he could have received. He explained that it was rare for the LGBTQ+ community in his town to explore and challenge their gender and sexuality, and he often felt he was combining two personalities into one.

It took time for Nutting to deconstruct the gender norms he had created for himself in order to fit a certain mold, and that’s when he created Alexia Fantasia, an energetic and confident persona who dances to “It’s Raining Men” by the Weather Girls.

University Club needs your help

Locals and visitors alike have gravitated to University Club, but as COVID-19 cases in Florida continue to break daily records, Gov. Ron Desantis ordered all bars, including UC, to stop selling alcohol on their premises on Tuesday.

Unsure of what the future holds for University Club, Kelly Kelly, a 25-year-old drag performer for the club, created a GoFundMe with the goal of reaching $10,000. Once the fundraiser reaches its goal, it will be used to pay UC’s $4,000 rent for July, help cover any expenses or utilities bills from this month and pay the furloughed employees and entertainers.

“I hate that this pandemic is affecting it in such a negative way. I don’t want the owners to feel bad about not being able to help out their employees or entertainers more,” Kelly said.

Contact Valentina at vbotero@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @lvbotero_.

“LGBTQ+ Experience Survey” seeks to engage with UF LGBTQ+ communities

While tabling at his first Pride event as a UF LGBTQ+ Affairs ambassador, an elderly woman approached Georges Obayi with tears in her eyes.

She wrapped her arms around him tightly. She was sorry for not fighting enough to help his generation, she said. She told him she tried to establish a rainbow reading group, an LGBTQ+ book club, when she was younger, but she ultimately had to cancel the club after receiving backlash and hate, he said.

“She’s coming to me to apologize for not doing enough to fight for the future that I’m now living,” said Obayi, a 22-year-old UF industrial and systems engineering senior. “That’s the pain that I really want us to rectify.”

To begin healing, UF’s PSU, LGBTQ+ Affairs and an LGBTQ+ faculty and staff group called Queer Nation published the “LGBTQ+ Experience Survey” on June 17. By gathering quantitative data about the community through the questionnaire, the groups hope to begin addressing problems faced by LGBTQ+ people on campus.

The groups came together because they were looking to engage within their own respective communities while learning about the UF LGBTQ+ community’s current state, said Cecilia Luna, UF’s Queer Nation co-preisdent and communications specialist at the UF Student Health Care Center.

The survey allows participants to share their experiences anonymously, she added.

It asks for demographic information such as age, sexual orientation and whether the participant is a student, faculty member or alumnus.

All LGBTQ+ UF students, faculty and alumni are encouraged to take the survey, Luna said. The organizations haven’t decided when they will close the survey or start to analyze the results, she said.

Data about the UF LGBTQ+ community hasn’t been collected in a long time, Luna said. Faculty were last surveyed in a comprehensive climate survey in 2015, but it did not contain questions specific to the LGBTQ+ experience. The most recent survey that did was conducted in the early 2000s, she said.

The new survey will help its creators plan events in the future and assess what issues are important to the UF LGBTQ+ community. It was published using Qualtrics, a free survey software, and has been marketed through email, Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms.

Queer Nation created the survey's questions geared toward faculty and staff, and PSU and LGBTQ+ Affairs focused on students and alumni, Luna said. After a participant checks “student,” “faculty” or “alumni” on the demographic page of the survey, they will only see questions geared towards that group.

Obayi said he’s excited for the potential of the survey results to foster a more inclusive university experience, but he acknowledged that it has its limits. It will not be able to reach the entirety of the UF LGBTQ+ community, for instance.

“We’re a small group of people putting together this survey, and we don’t claim that this survey will be able to look into every aspect of the experience,” he said.

Some LGBTQ+ faculty emailed Queer Nation leaders and criticized the organizations’ decision to survey the community. They deemed it “aggressive,” he said, and said it was inappropriate to question the university. They did it anyway

“We’re not going to wait any longer,” Obayi said.

Too many times, Obayi said he’s seen university administration shrug at the hardship faced by LGBTQ+ faculty and students.

“We need the system to change,” he said.

Obayi denied disclosing who criticized the survey because he did not have permission from Queer Nation leaders. Luna confirmed that the organization has received complaints, but declined to comment further.

Julianne Atchinson, a 20-year-old UF applied physiology and kinesiology junior, said she filled out the survey because she wants to see more LGBTQ+ representation at UF.

Atchinson said she hasn’t met many other members of the LGBTQ+ community. Marginalized groups and LGBTQ+ people can benefit from having a community because it gives them people to relate to, she said.

UF should focus on bringing awareness to LGBTQ+ history and increasing diversity on campus, she said. Although she has not felt discriminated against at UF, Atchinson said, she still feels like people aren’t actively advocating for the university’s LGBTQ+ population.

“I think there is a middle ground where no one is extremely hateful or discriminatory,” Atchinson said. “But, there also is not that much of a voice and awareness.”

Contact Valentina at vbotero@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @lvbotero_.

Timeline of significant LGBTQ+ related policy in Florida

Joe Antonelli knew there was something missing.

It was 1990, and he’d just moved to Gainesville from Massachusetts. There, he noticed a divide between the LGBTQ+ community: women and men congregated at different bars, socialized at different clubs and generally didn’t intermingle.

To bring the community together, Antonelli founded the Gainesville Community Alliance in 1991. It was an all-inclusive organization that hosted events for LGBTQ+ members and their allies, and it still exists today.

Antonelli said Alachua County has passed laws that protect the LGBTQ+ community, including sexual orientation, gender identity and diversity training. Here is a look at significant LGBTQ+-related policy in Alachua County and Florida starting in the 1800s.

Shannon Ahern / Alligator Staff

According to Equality Florida, Florida has passed more local nondiscrimination laws than any other state, including gender identity and sexual orientation protections. Those protections now cover 60 percent of people in Florida, the third-largest state in the country, Jon Harris Maurer, Equality Florida’s Public Policy Director, said.

“We are fortunate that Florida has been a breakthrough state in the South for advancing LGBTQ+ equality,” Maurer said. “Similarly, Alachua County has really shown tremendous leadership within the region in advancing LGBTQ+ policy.”

However, Antonelli said that the community continues to face challenges.

A Florida State Senate resolution was introduced to the 2020 legislative session that acknowledged injustices perpetrated by the Johns Committee in the 1950s and 1960s and offered an apology to those whose lives, well-being and livelihoods were damaged or destroyed by the committee.

But in March, the resolution was indefinitely postponed, withdrawn from consideration and died in the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee, a standing committee of the Florida Senate.

According to the resolution, those affected by homophobia in Gainesville have not received reparations for the discrimination they faced while attending UF.

“There are so many laws on the books that are still against us, in so many ways and in so many places,” said Antonelli.

Contact Micayla at mrichardson@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @micaylaafaith.

Orange & Boo: Pride has always been a protest

Carl Noll / Alligator Staff

I celebrated my first ever Pride in Gainesville.

Moving here three years ago was the first time I ever felt comfortable being out, and the annual celebration which sprawled colorfully across Bo Diddley Community Plaza welcomed me with open arms.

But as protests have erupted across the country in the past few weeks, and the COVID-19 pandemic has canceled all mainstream Pride parades, we are taken back to the origins of the Pride movement, a time long before queer people were free to gather and be ourselves with rainbow apparel in public spaces.

Many people are familiar with the impetus of the modern gay rights movement, the Stonewall riots in 1969. These uprisings, which were a response to state violence, parallel the Black Lives Matter movement of today and show how the systems that queer activists, particularly Black transgender women, fought against all those years ago still hold power today.

Robert Baez is a UF Department of Sociology and Criminology & Law Ph.D. candidate whose research is centered on the politics of pride and queer liberation.

“The Stonewall riots [51] years ago did involve the most marginal people within our society,” he said. “It was Black people, Brown people, sex workers, trans people. It’s so important to, again, recognize that this [police brutality against marginalized groups] has always been a problem within our society.”

Baez said while LGBTQ+ liberation and Black liberation don’t look the same, they are interwoven because of the societal power structures that work together and marginalize different groups of people.

“It’s so important to also recognize that there have always been riots and communities fighting back against state violence,” he said.

Moreover, the added dimension of the COVID-19 pandemic offers something else to think about this Pride month. Especially for a community which has already endured a public health crisis by way of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, COVID-19 reveals how minority groups are still those most vulnerable to disease outbreak.

“As a gay man, I’ve had to confront minimizing risk and internalized homophobia in regards to HIV,” UF adjunct lecturer Bienvenido Torres wrote in an email. “Fear of HIV was socialized into me, into all of us as a kid. And I think what we’re dealing with right now is a wide swatch of Americans being unable to cope with disease that kill invisible, in ways we don’t understand, and that is transferred through close proximity. COVID and HIV are both viruses, but the queer community is a lot more familiar with the social and scientific issues surrounding a ‘novel virus’ than the world at large.”

Torres, 35, taught Drag Race & LGBT Communications in Spring 2020. His class developed the Instagram account @purplepamflet to educate UF and Gainesville about the area’s homophobic history, including the presence of the Johns Committee in the 1950s, which attempted to out and expel queer students and faculty.

“As a faculty member, I’ve dealt with overt homophobic behavior on and off campus in Gainesville,” Torres wrote. “I’ve had other faculty members tell me to ‘put my head down’ and ‘feel lucky’ that I wasn’t more expressly rejected by the institution. Queer people, young and old, deserve better at UF and in the state of Florida.”

Ingrid Wu is a 22-year-old alumna who took Torres’ class and helps run the Instagram account.

“The past most definitely affects the present and future,” she wrote in an email. “It’s important that UF owns up to their past.”

Torres recognizes how the circumstances surrounding this Pride month make it different than in the past.

“It’s more introspective and personal, I think. Also way blacker and browner,” he wrote. “I think young people are self-actualizing and realizing their power. We are not the first to fight these battles – we are the most vibrant, connected, and sensitive, though.”

On that first day I celebrated Pride, as glitter-covered people sang and danced and laughed and celebrated around me, it felt like the whole world loved us. And perhaps a lot of them do. But it’s not enough, and this year is loudly reminding us why.

Companies may love us enough to sell us rainbow shirts and socks and keychains, but they don’t love us enough to stop donating to anti-LGBTQ+ organizations.

Our straight neighbors may love us, but not enough to call out homophobic behavior they see in their friends.

Our families may love us, but not enough to vote for legislators who protect our rights unequivocally.

Our city may love us, but not enough to take accountability for the wrongdoings of the past and how those legacies affect us today.

Our society may love us on the surface, but it’s refusing to do the work to recognize how the liberation of queer people is deeply wrapped up in the liberation of all minority groups.

Though the circumstances are disheartening and exhausting, this month has allowed us to reconnect with our roots and shift the mainstream conversation to regain sight of the movement and just how much there is left until liberation is truly and fully possible.

Contact Morgan at morgangoldwich@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @morgangoldwich.

Kate McNamara / Alligator Staff

Resources In Gainesville For The LGBTQ+ Community

  • Pride Community Center of North Florida

    3131 NW 13th St., Suite 62, in the Liberty Center in Gainesville, FL.

    Pride Community Center of North Florida provides services to the LGBTQ+ community in Alachua, Bradford, Clay, Columbia, Dixie, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Lafayette, Levy, Marion, Putnam, Suwannee and Union counties.

  • Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of Gainesville (PFLAG Gainesville)

    PO Box 358472, Gainesville, FL 32635-8472

    Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of Gainesville (PFLAG Gainesville) is a newly formed chapter of PFLAG, the nation's foremost family-based organization committed to the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

  • Planned Parenthood - Gainesville Health Center

    914 NW 13th Street Gainesville, FL 32601

    Gainesville Health Center offers Hormone Therapy and service referrals to the Gainesville LGBTQ+ community. These services are during business hours on a walk-in basis.

  • Gainesville Community Alliance (GCA)

    P.O. Box 357301, Gainesville, Florida 32635-7301

    GCA is a social membership organization for the LGBTQ+ community to meet through educational and social activities.