Three honored for their contributions to the LGBTQIA+ community

A person speaking in front of an audience.
Chris Burnside, former co-chair of Equality VCU, told attendees, "We can't lose sight of who preceded us." (Photo by Jordan Sabillo, University Student Commons and Activities)

Ying-Chao Kao, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Sociology in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, said a lot has changed since he started doing scholarship in LGBTQIA+ issues.

Kao, one of three people recognized at Virginia Commonwealth University’s 14th annual Burnside Watstein Award ceremony Tuesday in the James Branch Cabell Library Lecture Hall, said he was amazed that he was standing before the group accepting the award. 

The Burnside Watstein Award was created by Equality VCU at a time when the contributions of the LGBTQIA+ community and its allies often went unrecognized.

The award was named for Chris Burnside and Sarah Watstein, former co-chairs of Equality VCU and outspoken voices for diversity and inclusivity. 

While a lot of progress has been made for the community, Kao said, the rise of conservative politics around the world is a growing threat. Multiple countries have tried to adopt legislation that rolls back the rights of LGBTQIA+ people. 

He urged people to think about the real impact of their work within the LGBTQIA+ community. Not only does the work help people locally, but it also connects them with a global community of activists.

“We want VCU to be the powerhouse to transform the sexual inequalities and bring the ultimate in social justice to the global world,” Kao said.

Three people holding awards.
At the Burnside Watstein Award ceremony, Ayn Welleford, Ph.D., assistant professor of gerontology who accepted the alumni award on behalf of Jay White, Ed.D; Caroline Richards, who received the student award; and Ying-Chao Kao, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology, who received the faculty award. (Photo by Jordan Sabillo, University Student Commons and Activities)

Caroline Richards, president of Gamma Rho Lambda, VCU’s first LGBTQIA+ Greek organization, said she was “extremely honored to be up here among some incredible members of our community.” She thanked all of the previous winners for the “impactful” work they had done. 

The third award recipient, Jay White, Ed.D., a VCU alumnus of the Department of Gerontology in the College of Health Professions, was not able to attend the event. Ayn Welleford, Ph.D., associate professor of gerontology, accepted the award on his behalf.

White created a guide at VCU for inclusivity on aging and has played a major role in educating students about the need for inclusivity in gerontology, Welleford said.

Welleford said she was “completely honored to get to represent” White. “If he was here he would not be able to take any credit,” she said, because he “would say this is all because of his community.”

Marsha D. Rappley, Ph.D., VCU Health System chief executive officer and VCU senior vice president for health sciences, gave the keynote address. She said inclusivity has become a core part of the curriculum in health care. The industry, she said, must treat everyone with respect and dignity.

“We have the right to seek health care without fear of retaliation or rejection or bias,” Rappley said. “But we have to work at that. It’s not something human organizations gravitate towards. Without attention, we will devolve into emphasizing our differences and exerting our rights to define what we will do and won’t do.”

Some in health care want to push the idea that they can refuse to provide care to people if they disagree with their lifestyles, Rappley said. There is real tension about the issue, but she said the health care community must provide care to everyone.

Burnside, a former VCU faculty member, implored members of the LGBTQIA+ community to remember those who paved the way for greater rights.

Burnside listed the gay men he knew who had died from the AIDS virus, including Stephen Lenton, assistant dean of Student Life at VCU. Burnside said Lenton “revolutionized what was going on here at VCU.” Burnside wanted people to remember the sacrifices those in the past had made for the LGBTQIA+ community. 

“We can’t lose sight of why we are here,” Burnside said. “We can’t lose sight of who preceded us.”

The awards ceremony was co-sponsored by Equality VCU, VCU Student Commons and Activities, the VCU Division of Inclusive Excellence and VCU Libraries. 

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