Does anyone care about the rainbow anymore?

Adam Griffiths

Low enrollment, interest in Kent State’s LGBT Studies minor raises questions about the importance of culture, history

Associate professor Dan Nadon addresses his Intro to LGBT Studies course Tuesday. The College of Arts and Sciences’ class is open to all majors and is the first course students take for the LGBT Studies minor program. Abigail S. Fisher | Daily Kent State

Credit: Ron Soltys

As of last semester, just six Kent State students were enrolled in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies minor program. (Since the university’s transition to Banner, sources say there is no way to quantify the number of students registered in a certain minor program.)

Enrollment in the program has never broke into double digits in the program’s six-year history, and while low numbers are typical of interdisciplinary minor programs such as LGBT and Women’s Studies, the question remains:


No one really knows or knows enough to say for sure. The program’s advisers and students in the minor give an array of answers to the question plaguing Kent State’s LGBT Studies program.

“I believe my peers are uninterested in history because most Americans are uninterested in history. As far as culture goes, people just want to be people and not be forced to be part of something that might not necessarily reflect their personality.” — Peter Post, junior English major

Acting out

Robert Johnson, chairman and professor of sociology at the University of Miami, proposed the LGBT Studies minor when former College of Arts and Sciences Dean Joe Danks pushed for the creation of more interdisciplinary minors in the early 1990s. Danks was particularly interested in interdisciplinary minors that dealt with some aspect of diversity. It was a priority for the university as it headed into the next century.

Johnson had taught Sociology of Gays and Lesbians at Kent State since 1993, and being the chairperson of the department of sociology, he said it was an appropriate fit for the minor to be housed there. Johnson worked with Molly Merryman, currently an associate professor in justice studies at the Trumbull campus and then director of Women’s Studies, to lead the program. Johnson said the team approached PRIDE!Kent at the time to ask students what they would want in an LGBT Studies minor program.

“They were certainly interested in a broader range of courses, wanted to see more departments involved,” he said. “They wanted to know who the professors were and what they would be doing.”

Johnson wanted a course that would be available at the freshman level so students would have access to the program as soon as they started at Kent State. From experience with Acting Out, an LGBT-themed course Merryman created, there was emphasis on providing a broad introduction for students from a diversity of backgrounds and disciplines.

“We wanted them to be able to advance through their degree program in their majors,” Johnson said. “We didn’t want the minor to be academically watered down.”

When Johnson left Kent State in 2004, Richard Berrong and Dan Nadon took over as chairs of the program.

At the time, six students were enrolled in the LGBT Studies minor program.

“I think now, more than ever, in our more open generation, the LGBT history and culture has a chance to thrive, and we should help it along so that one day it has the chance to be ‘normal and everyday.'” — Ginger Agby, freshman pre-journalism major

Redefining the mission

The program hasn’t changed since the birth of Kent State’s LGBT Studies minor. When Berrong and Nadon took over in 2004, they walked into a program with low student enrollment and a decreasing number of available faculty. Many had left for the same reason as Johnson — the lack of domestic partner benefits at Kent State.

By 1998, Berrong and Nadon were the only faculty willing and available to take on chairing the minor, Nadon said.

Since he took over Intro to LGBT Studies, enrollment has fluctuated from 12 students the first semester, to almost 30 the second offering, 18 last spring and 21 this semester. This fall, Nadon and Merryman will also offer the course together at the Trumbull campus as a chance for the program to grow, but Nadon was able to explain how he interprets the discrepancy between the number of students who take the class and the number of students registered as a minor.

“The victim thing isn’t working anymore,” he said. “The isolationism, the whole putting us in a separate box separate from everyone else, is not ringing true to a lot of the younger students.”

Junior English major Nicholas DiSabatino said he’s enrolled in the minor because it interests him — “You should know the history of your people,” he said — but that a majority of his peers don’t see how the major is beneficial.

He said today’s LGBT youth may simply be a victim of their place in history.

“Unfortunately, our generation is post-AIDS scare, and I think we’re becoming a little too relaxed,” he said. “I don’t even like the gay culture myself at times, but I have hope that it’s going to change.”

“I’m interested because this is where I came from, it’s part of me. We need to hold onto our past and remember our struggles and continue to strive and look on to a better future. I also feel most of the community isn’t willing it put in the time to learn and preserve the history and culture.” — Paul Brayer, sophomore business management major at the University of Akron

‘Living as a gay person in the present’

“I have no idea how many LGBT students there are here, but the odds are there are more than six,” Berrong said.

Of the 39 members in attendance at the PRIDE!Kent meeting the Stater surveyed, 21 completed questionnaires, and more than half of those identified as openly LGBT.

When asked if anyone present was enrolled in the minor, only one person raised his hand: freshman micro-sociology major Justin Troyer.

“Anyone that identifies with our cause is, in a way, taking the torch from the generation before us,” Troyer said. “We all have our troubles either because we’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, even if you’re an ally — allies get (harassment) for being allies, too. Everyone has struggles.”

So how does it reflect on Kent State’s LGBT community that these struggles don’t translate into higher numbers in the minor program?

“It says that people don’t really care about LGBT issues as much as people think because we do have a large LGBT presence on campus, but a lot of people aren’t putting the work into doing the minor,” said junior conservation major Ally Oulton.

And apathy toward LGBT issues isn’t necessarily limited to the minor program.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t go to PRIDE(!Kent),” DiSabatino said. “They don’t feel like they fit in that group. I think having the minor, it doesn’t specifically say this is who I am and only who I am. It says this is an important aspect of who I am.”

But to PRIDE!Kent president Leora Rzepka, junior school health education major, the problem with motivating this generation goes beyond the LGBT community.

“Pretty much anyone who’s ever had a movement, our generation decided that they did enough work,” Rzepka said. “We think that someone else is doing the work for us, because we’re always hearing about how active the youth are when we’re not really.”

Many LGBT students, as sophomore sociology major Kat Rybski wrote, “are just clubbing and living as a gay person in the present.”

But maybe the stereotypes are fading, and the neglect of this history is a sign it’s time for a change in approach.

“Don’t sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ when you don’t want to go over the rainbow anymore,” DiSabatino said. “I mean, who gives a f— about the rainbow anymore?”

Junior English major Peter Post put it simply: Gay people today simply don’t fit into the concept of gay culture. Both Berrong and Nadon understand this and offered it as a valid explanation for the historic lack in concrete interest in the LGBT Studies minor program. Nadon said he’s excited about the recent $2 million endowment Kent State received from Akron entrepreneur Harry Jackson, but he doesn’t know how or if some of the money will be directed to help the minor program. Funds alone, though, aren’t enough.

“Some LGBT people of this generation are not particularly interested in the past,” Berrong said. “It’s the downside of the fact that as life gets easier for them, people don’t hark on the past constantly.”

Getting rid of gay culture would “allow people to just be people, and not have an unwanted identity forced upon them,” Post wrote.

“History, however, is paramount to our understanding of everything,” he added. “It’s necessary to understand the history of homosexuality to see where we are and what needs to be done.”

Contact features correspondent Adam Griffiths at [email protected].