Emory Maker of History Saralyn Chesnut 94 PhD
A groundbreaker can be defined as someone who has forged ahead into new territory, crushing barriers and paving the way for future generations. Saralyn Chesnut 94PhD is one such groundbreaker. Chesnut is recognized by Emory University as one of 175 Emory Makers of History who demonstrated ethical engagement, courageous leadership, a legacy of imparting knowledge to others, and significant contribution to the life of Emory and the world beyond.
As Emory nears the 20th anniversary of the 1992 student-led demonstration on campus following an incident of anti-gay harassment, the university honors Chesnut as a role model for personal expression and fearless leadership. “Emory’s campus has been completely transformed, and the culture has changed,” Chesnut reflects. “It’s very rewarding to see how differently people think now about their sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Appointed as Emory University’s first full-time director of the Office of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (LGB) Life, Chesnut is credited with helping to redefine Emory’s Equal Opportunity Policy to include “sexual orientation.” In addition, in 1995 she was instrumental in ensuring that Emory was one of the first employers in Georgia to offer benefits to same sex partners of employees. Since that time, she has helped establish Emory’s annual Pride Banquet, the Safe Space program, an LGBT Speaker’s Bureau, and National Coming Out Day on campus.
“I’m really happy to have had this experience,” Chesnut says. “Emory University’s campus was ripe for change.”
A Personal Choice and Public Statement
Chesnut understands what it takes to be brave, forthright and principled. Raised as a Southern Baptist in rural Georgia, Chesnut grew up in a traditional home, but her mother was a liberal Democrat who “taught us to see things differently.” She says that her mother’s influence and the many social change movements going on during her youth made it easier for her to acknowledge she was a lesbian and later to become active in lesbian and gay politics. “I came of age in the 1960s, the era of social movements. Coming out was a kind of natural evolution for me.”
Historical images capture changes within Emory's LGBT community.
“In my generation, we thought of ourselves as being personally able to make a difference,” Chesnut says.” But “when I came out in 1970, I was very isolated.” Involvement in the women’s liberation movement helped ease the isolation, and in 1973, Chesnut moved to Atlanta and soon became part of a lesbian-feminist community, part of the national lesbian-feminist movement. This experience helped her form a positive identity as a lesbian. Now, 40 years later, she looks back on the progression to general public acceptance with amazement. “It’s hard to believe how different things were at the time.”
With both an undergraduate and master’s degree in English, Chesnut enrolled in a PhD program at Emory’s Institute of Liberal Arts in 1983 and set herself up for an academic career. Still a grad student but teaching at Georgia Institute of Technology in March 1992, she participated in that first landmark 150-student demonstration on Emory’s campus. Shortly afterward an advertisement in the local gay newspaper changed her professional life, and ultimately, the face of Emory University. The ad was for a full-time, professional director of Emory’s Office of LGB Life.
In the fall of 1992, amid great social and political controversy, Chesnut was appointed to this new position as director of the Office of LGB Life to “support and educate” the Emory community. She began the job in January 1993. (A few years later, the term transgender was adopted and added to the office’s title to create what now is known as the Office of LGBT Life.) “We needed all LGBT students and employees to feel protected, welcomed, and safe at Emory.” She also received an appointment as adjunct faculty in American Studies and Women’s Studies, and says that being able to combine academics and activism “made this the ideal job for me.”
Professionally, times have certainly changed. In the early 90s, “fewer than 10 of us in the country held similar positions in higher education,” she explains. Banding together to share resources and social support, the directors met nationally in what today has evolved into an organization of hundreds of leaders. Now, diversity is more than tolerated on college campuses nationwide. With self-proclaimed gender identity monikers at Emory such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender, cisgender, bisexual genderqueer, flaming queermosexual, bisexicle, and same gender loving, diversity is openly embraced as a lifestyle choice. For that, Chesnut feels a tremendous sense of pride at having been part of this groundswell of acceptance.
Students, she says, can be the catalyst for continued social change. “Look at how all the changes started at Emory with students coming together and getting things going. They started a movement,” she says. “For me the message is that students can bring about a lot of change on a campus. I never want them to underestimate their own power to make a difference.”