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Gay Alliance of Students members, supporters honored at VCU’s 2016 LGBT Burnside Watstein Awards ceremony

Jane Firer of Residential Life and Housing, community activist Attalah Shabazz and student Lucky Turner were also honored

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From left: 2016 LGBT Burnside Watstein Award recipients Lucky Turner, Brenda Kriegel, Walter Foery, Frances Stewart, Attalah Shabazz, Sharon Talarico and Jane Firer.

Four former Virginia Commonwealth University students were honored by VCU on Tuesday for their roles in the two-year legal battle to win recognition for VCU’s first LGBTQIA student organization, the Gay Alliance of Students, in the 1970s.

Walter Foery, Brenda Kriegel, Frances Stewart and Sharon Talarico received the 2016 LGBT Burnside Watstein Award, which recognizes one or more individuals who enrich the sense of community at VCU, and make a significant difference in the lives of LGBTQIA faculty, staff and students.

In 1974, a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning and straight VCU students decided to form the Gay Alliance of Students – or GAS – which was the university’s first LGBTQIA student group. When they applied to be officially recognized by VCU – which would allow it to use campus meeting spaces, apply for funding, advertise on university bulletin boards and in student media, and be included in a student organization directory – the application was rejected by the Board of Visitors.

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To read an oral history of the Gay Alliance of Students’ two-year legal battle to win official recognition by VCU,
click here.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the students filed a federal lawsuit against VCU officials and the Board of Visitors, alleging that the rejection violated their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

In October 1976, the Gay Alliance of Students won the case when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond handed down an opinion that forced VCU to officially recognize the group and treat it just like any other VCU student organization.

The decision set a precedent that paved the way for LGBTQIA student groups to be recognized on college and university campuses across Virginia, as well as every other state in the appellate court’s jurisdiction, including Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia.

Foery, Kriegel, Stewart and Talarico were among the Gay Alliance of Students’ founders and supporters who played key roles in launching the group and the ensuing legal battle.

“Forty years ago, the Board of Visitors declined to meet with me and didn’t want to be in the same room with us to talk about these issues,” Foery said. “And here I am today sitting next to your brilliant president. We’ve come a long way.”

Several of the recipients gave special thanks to Stephen Lenton, a VCU administrator in University Student Life and a gay rights advocate who encouraged the students to be who they are, and who agreed to sponsor the Gay Alliance of Students. He died in 2001.

“He was a molder of lives. He molded people’s lives,” Stewart said. “And as you can tell here, he molded many of our lives.”

We will continue to move forward because you brought a lot of attention to what it means to allow people to be who they are.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., thanked the Burnside Watstein Award recipients for being trailblazers.

“I want to thank you for using your personalities at that time to develop the courage so that you could speak when you know, and I know, how many people around you could not be who they were – particularly because they saw what was happening to you,” Rao said. “So our agenda today is really excellence through genuine inclusion. And I am proud that we are one of the most diverse institutions – certainly one of the most diverse four-year institutions – in the commonwealth.”

 “We will continue to move forward,” he added, “but we will continue to move forward because you brought a lot of attention to what it means to allow people to be who they are.”

The Burnside Watstein Awards were launched in spring 2006 by VCU’s LGBT Subcommittee, now known as Equality VCU, to recognize those who have worked to enrich the lives of LGBTQIA students, staff and faculty.

“As a current out, gay student at VCU, I would like to personally thank all of the [Gay Alliance of Students] for your efforts,” said Jacob Jaminet, a VCU Honors College student and a 2015 Burnside Watstein Award recipient. “On behalf of the Burnside Watstein planning committee, we would like you to accept these awards on your own behalf and on behalf of all those who belonged to and supported GAS in its struggles.”

Jane Firer, associate director of administration in Residential Life and Housing in the Division of Student Affairs, also received a Burnside Watstein Award at Tuesday’s ceremony in recognition of her efforts to make VCU’s residence halls inclusive to the LGBTQIA community.

“In Fall 2015, Residential Life and Housing began offering Open Housing to all upperclassmen and recently, we began assigning students to rooms based on their gender identity, not their biological sex,” said Burnside Watstein Planning Committee Co-Chair Camilla Hill, interim assistant director of VCU’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. “These milestones were able to take places because of Jane's tireless work and core belief that we can do better. With Jane's dedication and persistence, VCU is one of the first institutions in the southeast to make room assignments based on identity.”

Tuesday afternoon, the VCU alumni who took part in the Gay Alliance of Students' founding and legal battle spoke at a panel discussion:
Tuesday afternoon, the VCU alumni who took part in the Gay Alliance of Students' founding and legal battle spoke at a panel discussion: "Trials and Triumphs, 1974-76: The Struggle for Recognition of VCU’s First Gay Student Group," which is part of the Humanities Research Center's fall speaker series.

This year’s community recipient of the Burnside Watstein Award was Attalah Shabazz, an activist who advocates on behalf of the LGBTQIA community, particularly LGBTQIA people of color, and is a co-founder of BlackVCUSpeaks, a collective of students and faculty members who seek to create relationships among various black and allied communities.

Burnside Watstein Planning Committee Co-Chair Kate Schmitz of the VCU Honors College, gave Shabazz the award at the ceremony, and read from one of Shabazz’s nominators.

“‘As an African-American heterosexual male, my views were somewhat skewed before meeting Attalah. Although I had developed youth programs and college development programs for underrepresented students across the country, I hadn’t truly addressed the LGBTQ community to the best of my abilities. Attalah would soon change all of that,’” Schmitz read. “’She would not only challenge me, she would also provide solutions and understanding to my perspective. I watched Attalah lead protests and panels for people of every ethnicity, gender and/or sexual orientation. Her presence on the VCU campus empowers and breathes life into our faculty, staff, students and organizations. I have become a better human being because of Attalah.’”

The student recipient of this year’s Burnside Watstein Award was Lucky Turner, a criminal justice major in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

“As an out black gay man who exists everyday being truly himself, [Turner] continues to give hope and inspiration to those who identify as he does,” Hill said. “Lucky established the House of Opulence, a collective of artists who work in creating safe spaces and where he is a mentor to freshman/sophomore gay-identifying black men at VCU.”

Turner also hosted the inaugural LGBTQIA fundraising ball, which raised more than $500 for homeless LGBTQIA youth and raised awareness about the unique problems they face.

“A passionate advocate for LGBTQIA youth, Lucky has gone out of his way to make sure that the LGBTQIA underclassmen here feel supported and welcomed, cultivating safe spaces both on campus and off campus,” Hill said. “His work focuses primarily on the affirming the identities of Queer and Trans youth of color who often do not garner representation in the mainstream LGBT+ movement.”