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Sarah Barbara Watstein and Chris Burnside, former co-chairs of what is now Equality VCU, spoke with VCU News about their personal experiences and their efforts to make VCU a better place for LGBTQIA+ students, faculty and staff.

LGBTQIA+ award namesakes Chris Burnside and Sarah Barbara Watstein reflect on their journeys before, during and after VCU

Burnside and Watstein, former co-chairs of what is now Equality VCU, spoke with VCU News about their personal experiences and their efforts to make VCU a better place for LGBTQIA+ students, faculty and staff.

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Since 2006, the Burnside Watstein Awards have served as an annual recognition of individuals who enrich the sense of community at Virginia Commonwealth University and make a significant difference in the lives of LGBTQIA+ faculty, staff and students.

Chris Burnside and Sarah Barbara Watstein, the award namesakes, are former co-chairs of what is now Equality VCU and outspoken voices for diversity and inclusion. Working within the VCU system to address issues while striving to create visibility and a voice for the LGBTQIA+ community, Burnside and Watstein helped create support and solidarity for its members.

Burnside attended Richmond Professional Institute as an undergraduate, later returning to the university to teach in the Department of Dance and Choreography in the VCU School of the Arts from 1985 to 2005. Watstein served as associate university librarian for public services and interim director of University Computing Services, Academic Campus, during her time at VCU from 1992 to 2005. She is currently dean, Lemieux Library and McGoldrick Learning Commons at Seattle University. Watstein earned her MLS from UCLA in 1977 and her MPA from NYU in 1985.

As part of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, VCU News sat down together with Burnside and Watstein for a conversation about their lives and what drove them to advocate for the community at VCU and beyond.

When did you begin to explore and enter the LGBTQIA+ community, and what did you gain from being part of it?

Watstein: My parents sent me to boarding school because the public schools nearby weren’t very good. I'm very grateful that my parents did that because it opened up a whole other world for me. The school that I went to was a girls-only school. I truly think it was there. I was involved in a number of writing groups, consciousness-raising women's rights, human rights [groups]. Some were formal clubs or groups, and some were not. They were just clusters of people talking.

And that really changed my life, being out of a dysfunctional family and being with peers – that was huge. And I never went back. My sisters’ stories are very different, but I really left [my home in Connecticut] at that point and maybe went back for vacations, but mentally I had turned many corners, which is thanks to therapy and a lot of recovery.

So, it was truly when I was 13, 14, having awareness of leanings. But in terms of the emotional, psychological, just intellectual part – when I left home.

Burnside: I would say I had a different path. I was self-aware really early. I wasn't the most macho kid. Those labels were tossed at me – homosexual and queer. And I was trying to be the best little boy in the world. My father was a war hero, decorated. I went into the Army. But I didn't feel good about being gay. I tried to stamp being gay out, and I was definitely suicidal in the Army and I did hurt myself.

From those early experiences, I felt too bad about being gay to develop a healthy relationship. When I came out of the Army, it was a slow-go.

Two men standing next to each other in a garden with one of their arms around each other.
Chris Burnside and his husband Karl. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Why did you come out, and did you face any backlash?

Burnside: I would say most everybody knew about me. It was just so hard for me to feel good about myself. When I started coming out, people were wonderful to me. My father, though, didn't quite know what to do with it.

Years later, after Karl [Burnside’s husband] met Dad, I said, “So, what do you think of Dad?” And Karl went, “He's good. He just hugs me too much.” And I said, “Oh God, that's so great. He's just trying to show you that he's welcoming you – but I'll tell him to back off a little bit.”

Harvey Milk said [at a pride parade that Burnside attended] that what you should be doing – and this was a new message to LGBT – was to come out to your friends, come out to your family, come out at work. Let people know who you are so that they won't discriminate without knowing who they're discriminating against – the person right next to them.

I got into opposing the Briggs Initiative [a 1978 California ballot proposition that would have banned LGBTQ individuals and supporters from teaching in public schools]. I taught in the arts magnet schools for K through 6, and I just thought, I could get fired for this. But I wore my button that said “No on Briggs,” and I remember the principal of one school came up and said, “You can't wear that.” I went back home. I got really nervous about it all, and I called the ACLU and they said, "You can wear it, but he can also fire you if he wants to.” So the next day I wore it and he looked at the button, and that was the end of it. He didn't pursue anything more than that. I definitely thought it was important.

Watstein: For me, coming out was the act of telling my parents, and it reflects dysfunction in my family. I'm an introvert, [and I] worked up a lot of courage. [My mother’s] response was, “You know, I think you'd be happier if you weren't.” And with my mother to this day, there's levels of topics and information [that we don’t discuss], just a general connection that we don't have.

And it's not just about LGBTQ – it's almost everything. I finally understand now from therapy, it's her fear and control. Like, she doesn't want to be vulnerable, and if you let in details about someone or get close, then you're vulnerable.

And both of my parents [were] classic narcissists. But my dad was always highly distracted, so if he heard anything, it was in one ear and out the other. I don't think it mattered to him, honestly. And parents' reactions in my own life, it was kind of a nonevent.

I love, Chris, that your father was hugging Karl.

Burnside: That was his way of saying something.

Watstein: It was. For sure, it was.

How has being queer shaped your identity?

Burnside: I would say, in my evolution about being out, I was sort of the last person to get the message. I had to really work at being OK with being gay. I felt like things started to really turn around in New York. I was dancing with lots of people, so I had a huge network of gay friends, and I started having relationships.

The first piece I made in New York City, mixed stories about being gay with a dance, was with three other guys. It was really successful. I was a guest artist for one semester here at VCU, and then I was offered this position the next year. When I came down, I was just like, I'm going to be who I am. I have fought so many years to feel good about this and be OK with this.

After about six months, maybe nine months, a chair in the School of the Arts, not in my department, called me into his office. I thought, “What is this?” And then he said, “What are you doing? This is the career suicide, what you're doing.” I said, “I know exactly what I'm doing. I'm not waiting six years to be fired for being gay, and I just need to be me.”

Everyone in the department knew I was gay … but mostly I was tangentially political. I don't feel like I'm a political beast, but I feel like my activism was – I was just who I was. And I had faculty members of VCU who would come up and just go, “You don't know how much this means that you are just who you are.” And it’s just part of the mix.

Watstein: Love that, Chris. Because I have been politically active – for me at this point in my life, it's just a part of the mix. And I've heard that back, which really, I always am so moved when someone will say, “Oh, that was so inspiring.”

Burnside: And also at some point I remember I went, “I'm a son, I'm an artist, I’m a choreographer, I'm a dancer.” But for decades, the top element for me was when I would wake up in the morning was “Oh God. I'm gay.”

I could tell – I just went, this is healthy. That this is not the defining characteristic of me every day.

Watstein: And that is true for me. And it wouldn't come out first, second, third, fourth, fifth –  probably wouldn't come out at all. It's just who I am.

Burnside: Before we even had that committee, I remember when human resources had this big meeting to discuss partner benefits. At one point I raised my hand and I said, “So you mean partner benefits of course include gay and lesbian partners?” The woman [leading the meeting] almost had apoplexy, because it didn't. And then every row in front of me turned around and looked at me like I was some sort of troll that had just invaded it.

About six months later, I called up payroll and I said, “I don't understand what this new deduction is in my pay.” And they said, “Oh, you're having a deduction for partner benefits.” And so then I called this woman and I said, “Oh my God, this is so exciting. So you did go ahead and give me partner benefits for Karl.” Within two hours I had a refund check put in my hand because it was a mistake.

It was really funny because it just showed how the system was not aware or sensitive to anything and that whole thing had just blown her brain.

What made you want to get involved in the LGBTQIA+ rights movement?

Watstein: My dad was a lawyer. He was very active with civil liberties. I remember at one point, one of his clients was a Black man, which where I lived at the time was highly unusual. And I remember going with my dad because he met that man at their house. And it was not long after that someone threatened to kill my dad. So that sensitivity around social justice issues goes back for me.

It was not one incident at all. It wasn't like I had an abortion and then I was involved with reproductive rights. I did lose over 50 friends to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, but that wasn't the thing that moved me into getting involved with Act Up and Gay Men's Health Crisis. So, it wasn't an event – it's kind of in my DNA.

A black and white photo of a man dancing in a studio with a piano and three people behind him.
Chris Burnside in his 20's dancing in Los Angeles. (Contributed photo)

Burnside:  When the AIDS crisis hit and I was new to Richmond, the choreographer Twyla Tharp organized this huge event in New York called “Dancing for Our Lives.” And a lot of the big-name choreographers came on board, and it was a big fundraiser. I thought, “I think we could do something here in Richmond.” And so I got four other people, and we had a steering committee. We had two nights of concerts down at Theater IV. It seemed huge at the time – we ended up raising $30,000 from ticket sales and the art auction afterward.

That was a very exciting event that we put on, and there was a feeling of camaraderie.

I was motivated by what was happening around me, and I learned that if I can find a way of interpreting what is happening and respond as an artist, then I feel like I am contributing my best.

What was the environment like for the LGBTQIA+ community at VCU when you arrived, and how did it evolve while you were here?

Watstein: I've worked in academic libraries my whole career. Academic librarians and librarianship tend to be very left – liberal, inclusive, agnostic. It was a very open, inclusive, amazing time when I was at VCU [for] 12 years. The community of really strong individuals – both LGBTQ-identified but also in leadership positions who were willing to listen and have some empathy. So, the university was really on an up trajectory in terms of its own identity. Just having this conversation makes me realize, "Wow, what a powerful group of people were working and contributing there."

VCU in 2023 is different from what it was when I started there in 1992.

What does it mean to you to be associated with the annual Burnside Watstein Awards, especially as they have become an established part of VCU and have honored so many recipients since 2006?

Watstein: It's a high honor. It really is a wonderful honor. And every year when this season rolls around, my regret is that I haven't gone back for it. So, Chris, if we make that commitment, I'll do it. But that's a regret.

Burnside: I think it happened after I was gone.

Watstein: Because we’re too introverted and humble.

Burnside: But my whole memory of the committee and the work we did was, “Oh God, Sarah. I could meet at 7 a.m. When did you need this back by? OK. I have an hour window.” It always felt like [our work] was in the cracks, you know, that we were at our jobs – you had your big job, I had my big job – and we were just doing this on the fly.

Watstein: Yes. You're absolutely right. 

Burnside: I felt unworthy that this was going to be named [after us]. And then I was glad, and I'm honored.

What is your greatest accomplishment professionally, personally or through activism?

Watstein: Chris, you'd know one of them certainly for me is working. Steve Stratton was a librarian at VCU, and he and I have done a couple of books – a dictionary and an encyclopedia on HIV/AIDS. I edit a journal in my field, and we have done a special issue on anti-racism activities in libraries and now are looking at another special issue on inclusive pedagogy. So, those two things are big.

And living my values to the best of my ability – that's a daily thing. It's not like, “Oh, here's a book I wrote,” but that's on a daily organic level and I definitely mess up. Chris, what about you?

Burnside: For me, it's the students. I feel like I was a really good teacher, I was a really good chair of the dance department, and I always fought to offer them the largest banquet possible of experiences and information. It was sort of in the bones of the department – we just were about helping young people find their voices creatively but also as humans. Because the most exciting thing was to find out what strong voices they had by the time they were seniors and doing their senior project.

Watstein: It's so beautiful to hear that, Chris. Because those of us who work in libraries, we don't have that classroom, we don't have that legacy. We provide something very different, which is [just] as important.

Burnside: And I had a family member at one point who said, "I'm so sorry that you didn't have children and have that experience." And I went, "Oh my God, are you wrong." [I’ve had] generations and thousands of children, spiritual education children, and I walked them from 18 years of age to 22 years of age.

A woman walking down a path with her right arm raised.
Sarah Barbara Watstein served as the associate university librarian for public services at VCU and as the interim director of University Computing Services, Academic Campus during her time at VCU. (Contributed photo)

Recently, there has been an influx of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation, especially targeting the trans community. What do you think is next for activists?

Burnside: I don't think anything has ever changed, it's always the right targeting something. “If we integrate the military, it's going to be a disaster for the camaraderie.” It's always the same thing.

Watstein: I agree. It’s a different guise.

Burnside: And the trans thing is just the latest group that they've picked because the rest of LGB has been sort of integrated into life, and a lot of people know us. I would say the healthy thing for trans people is I see them everywhere now. I feel like everybody needs to stay visible, and I think everybody needs to speak up.

Watstein: I would say two things – staying informed and staying visible. You can come up with a list of areas to focus on, initiatives or specific actions. It could be writing, it could be speaking, it could be leadership. I think that there's always targets and there's always issues. And certainly, for me, working in academic libraries, there's always issues of challenges to intellectual freedom, access to information and so on.

So it's a question of being informed, being visible and being vocal. And that can be very different for very different people and at different stages in our own lives, actually. 

Is there anything you want to add?

Burnside: I would say that things have changed for the better historically when people are diligent, when they're aware of things. It's amazing, you know, Roe vs Wade – there are all these young women and young men who just took it for granted or didn't even understand why it was important or the fight that it took to get there. And now I feel like young people are getting reactivated around the issue.

I think history disappears really fast. I think people, they don't remember. Harvey Milk has been enshrined in a way, but there are plenty of other people who aren't remembered because their big relevance is over. They end up on the back burner, and then the history is not passed forward.

I would say as a young gay person, I wasn't really comfortable with my elders in the gay community. When I became more comfortable, I learned so much from them. And I guess that's self-promotion, as an elder.

Watstein: I think of the question, “Do we have any regrets about what we've done or accomplished or contributed?” And it was interesting to hear Chris say how much he remembered the hurry-up-and-wait, the scrambling to meet deadlines to get a document finished, to move the needle. And I always think we could have done more, but those were the times, and the times were very much about establishing baselines. Now looking back, it's a different story. And establishing baselines, opening doors – that was more what things were about. Moving the needle instead of being the needle.

For more about Equality VCU, please visit inclusive.vcu.edu/institutes-and-centers/q-collective/equality-vcu/.