Measuring an institution’s commitment to equality for its LGBTQ students and staff is no easy task. There is no shortage of top-10 rankings or attempts to apply star ratings, reviewing a young person’s quality of life like a summer blockbuster, and those things have their place. But queer students will not be spending four years in a Princeton Review list. They’ll be spending it in a culture. In a community. Here, qnotes takes a closer look at campus initiatives and student-run organizations at three of Charlotte’s most prominent educational institutions, along with some key events and major milestones, to glean a better understanding of what LGBTQ students there might really experience.

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

By far the most widely visible undertaking by UNCC Spectrum, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s (UNCC) LGBTQIA student group, has been the drive to establish a comprehensive resource center for members of the queer and ally communities. The institution it has long envisioned would serve not only those affiliated with the school, but the greater Charlotte area, which notoriously lacks an LGBTQ community center. And the news is more than good: they have won.

As qnotes reported after the petition went live on this spring, Spectrum made a strong case for the urgency of the issue, even as it recalled how long the fight had already dragged on. The suicide of Blake Brockington, a UNCC student and, at 18, already a pioneering transgender activist, became international news in 2015. Many who were shaken by his passing hoped that the tragedy would spur some kind of change. In fact, they demanded it.

Three years later, Spectrum — in particular, the UNCC LGBTQ+ Coalition, a smaller contingent created exclusively to make the resource center dream a reality — are finally finding success in a venture many believed never stood a chance. In this issue of qnotes, Coalition leader Nikolai Mather delivers a powerful firsthand account of the journey that has led them, at last, to this remarkable victory.

While leaving the rest of that story to Mather, who has earned the right to tell it, we will draw attention to another force at work: the Trans Committee of UNC Charlotte. Over the past decade, the joint student-staff-community venture has evolved from studying existing practices and organizing trans-affirming events to taking on what some consider a more active role in improving the institutions that shape transgender students’ experience. It asserts that “the goal of this committee is actually not necessarily to change policy, but to simply be aware of how current policies affect trans students and communicate these policies;” Nevertheless, the group counts among its own accomplishments more than a few significant shifts, including updating non-discrimination statutes to include gender identity, gender expression and transition status, as well as championing new name change guidelines to eliminate deadnaming on campus ID.

Given such institutional entities existing alongside passionate, resourceful activists like the members of the UNC Charlotte LGBTQ+ coalition, there have never been grounds for greater optimism about the future of LGBTQ life at UNCC.

Johnson C. Smith University

While Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) doesn’t explicitly list an LGBTQ student organization among its administration-backed offerings, the school has proven to be a valuable ally in the fight for inclusion.

JCSU achieved an important distinction in the summer of 2015, when it became the first Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) represented at Camp Pride, the annual student leadership conference run by the Charlotte-based Campus Pride. Alongside UNCC, Johnson C. Smith played host to a variety of conference events in addition to sending delegates of its own.

Most recently, the university hosted the Charlotte Black Gay Pride and Charlotte Pride Community Town Hall Meeting at its New Science Center Auditorium on Beatties Ford Rd. The event brought together community leaders and residents of all stripes to address the problems of poverty, housing inequality and homelessness faced daily by LGBTQ people in the Charlotte area. As qnotes shared in its June 15 print issue focusing on this very topic, as part of an article profiling local homeless outreach programs, the nonprofit Hearts Beat as One Foundation identifies financial hardship as a significant obstacle preventing at-risk populations from accessing pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to combat the spread of HIV. Hearts Beat as One singles out transgender women of color as suffering particular harm. It’s easy to argue that Johnson C. Smith, one of the region’s foremost HBCUs and boasting a deeply rooted culture of activism, may be uniquely placed to galvanize opposition to systems that disproportionately injure and disadvantage people of color.

The speed with which organized queer activism has progressed at Johnson C. Smith is stunning. The university’s central role at Camp Pride 2015 came only eight months after its first-ever Pride Day, held the previous November. The energy it took to execute such a maneuver makes JCSU’s LGBTQ activists a force to be reckoned with, whether or not they appear in any administrative directory.

Central Piedmont Community College

A person looking for info on LGBTQ life at Central Piedmont Community College might be forgiven for worrying when they inevitably come across the 2014 story of Andraya Williams. The student, a transgender woman, alleged that on March 18 of that year she was stopped by a security officer as she exited a restroom on campus. The officer, Williams consistently alleged, harassed her, demanded to see identification confirming her academic status — more to the point, her gender — and ultimately had her booted off campus with the help of at least one other officer, despite Williams’ having complied with the instruction to provide ID. Williams’ attorney, Sarah Demarest, was not merely contracted in the aftermath of the incident; rather, Demarest asserted that her client had phoned her while the event was in progress. According to Demarest, she was able to hear Williams’ exchange with campus security almost in its entirety, placing her in the unusual position of bringing a civil rights case stemming from wrongdoing she herself had witnessed.

In the weeks that followed, as qnotes reported at the time, misinformation and outright falsehoods were rife. For nearly a month CPCC stuck to the key contention that Andraya Williams was “escorted” from campus because she refused to show ID. When it finally released its incident report to QNotes, five days after the paper requested that material, the report revealed that Williams had, in fact, complied. CPCC was forced to change its story. Now the school argued that WIlliams displayed her ID too quickly.

Suffice it to say, the situation wasn’t resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.

There’s a certain amount of light at the end of the tunnel, though: CPCC archives show that its official non-discrimination policy, which at the time of the Andraya Williams incident failed to specify any protected category, was amended to include sexual orientation, gender and genetic information (the last being potentially relevant in cases involving so-called biological sex) alongside such factors as race and religion. To cite gender identity and gender expression would, of course, have been ideal, but the change remains a step in the right direction.

Equally important has been the level of engagement demonstrated by Central Piedmont students, both then and now. Back in the spring of 2014 a major student-led protest thrust Charlotte into the national spotlight, spawning a trending hashtag and features in such publications as The Huffington Post. The campus organization formerly known as Spectrum, and since renamed the Pride Alliance, played a critical role, and continues to do so as it gears up for the fall 2018 semester. And that activism on the part of CPCC kids stands out in a way whose significance can’t be overstated: the inaccuracy of the term “CPCC kids.” As a community college, CP is inherently composed of students representing a far greater range of ages, backgrounds, values and aspirations than one would find at a typical residential liberal arts college or undergraduate tech school aimed at teens who have just finished high school and who, in many cases, have been brought up to view a bachelor’s degree as the natural next step. Those who attend community college, meanwhile, are substantially more likely to have made an independent decision to do so, and to accept that sacrifices will be required. Many have children. Many have full-time jobs. Some are there seeking an education they hope will afford them the first taste of financial security they have ever had; some are renewing their pursuit of a career they have always desired, a vocation that bears no resemblance to the job they currently endure; some are trying their hand at acquiring a skill they suspect may one day prove useful; some simply love to learn, or thrive on the feeling of having a goal. Doubtless some qualify as all of the above. In short, the CPCC students who keep the Pride Alliance alive both draw from and carry their experiences back to a truly broad, diverse, vibrant entity — the community.

Support Organization: Campus Pride

Founded in 2001 and based in Charlotte, Campus Pride is among the nation’s largest organizations dedicated specifically to ensuring full equality and acceptance for LGBTQIA students. Initially, current Executive Director Shane Windmeyer and Cofounders Sarah Holmes and Chad Wilson built an online resource database, but the community soon took root in the real world. In 2006 the group officially changed its name from Campus PrideNet to Campus Pride.

Today, it hosts major gatherings including an LGBTQ-focused college fair, which has grown to include more than 140 schools, and the annual summer leadership conference Camp Pride. Campus Pride strongly emphasizes issues of intersectionality, believing that no one form of bigotry can be eliminated without also combating many others.

In keeping with its origins, it maintains the Campus Pride Index, through which it provides students with ratings and analysis on aspects of LGBTQIA life at over 600 colleges and universities around the country.