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Kent State honors activist legend at center opening
Kent--“LGBT students, you’re brave and you’re powerful and this is your center!” declared professor Molly Merryman during the March 11 dedication of Kent State University’s new Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Student Center.
Merryman, a lesbian who has been pushing Kent State for progress on LGBT issues since the 1990s, anchored the speakers dedicating the office.
The center is the new home of the university’s LGBT Studies minor, a seven-course program taught at the main campus and at the Stark and Trumbull branch campuses.
Kent State was the first in Ohio to offer LGBT studies, beginning in 2001. Two more schools, Ohio State University and Hiram College, have added programs since. There are fewer than 50 such programs in the nation.
According to Merryman, there are currently 18 students who have declared the minor and an additional 30 taking the classes.
The center is an office located in the Center for Student Involvement on the second floor of the student center. Its walls are covered by a mural painted by gay artist Jeff Leadbetter titled Individual Community. The piece purposely uses multiple application techniques and layers of paint to, according to Leadbetter, illustrate the integration of diverse patterns and parts into a cohesive whole.
The mural avoids use of familiar LGBT symbols like rainbows and triangles.
“We wanted something fresh,” said Merryman. “This art represents a new chapter, a new historical point on issues around sexual orientation and gender.”
“I believe we have reached a tipping point globally, not just nationally,” Merryman said in a later interview. “Young people say LGBTQ people are people and a legitimate minority. This is different from the world I came out of.”
“There are more heterosexual allies who just want to live in a complete world and want us to be in that world,” Merryman concluded.
Other speakers at the dedication ceremony echoed Merryman’s sentiments of a changed world and hopes for the role the center and the programs housed there would play in it.
KSU president Lester Lefton said, “This is a milestone event. It marks a change in the way the Kent State community works as a community.”
“This is one of those important wins,” Lefton continued, “and one that was a long time coming.”
College of Arts and Sciences dean Timothy Moerland called the center “a guiding element to our vision for the future.”
Max Blachman, who works as a regional representative for Senator Sherrod Brown and is gay, told the audience of about 200, “There’s nothing more important than an inclusive community.”
“No one wants to be tolerated,” Blachman said. “Everyone wants to be included.”
“The center is also a reminder that we have a lot of work to do,” said Equality Ohio director Sue Doerfer, reminding those assembled that Ohio is still ranked dead last among states in legal protections for LGBT people.
Doerfer also talked about her college experience years earlier.
“I took a psychology of women class, which was like a secret lesbian society and the only time anyone heard anything about us,” Doerfer continued.
Doerfer, the former director of the Cleveland LGBT Center, also made the case for having dedicated space.
“Centers are the entry point,” Doerfer said. “They are the places people go when they aren’t quite sure why they’re walking in them.”
Local lesbian hero recognized
Hanging in the center is a plaque honoring Kent professor emeritus of English Dolores Noll, who received the university’s first Diversity Trailblazers Award at the dedication.
Noll facilitated the founding of the Kent Gay Liberation Front in 1971 and served as its faculty adviser with colleague Art Kaltenborn, who was also at the center’s dedication.
The group was the forerunner of the present Pride! Kent, making it one of the oldest continuously viable gay rights student organizations in the country.
Noll is nationally recognized as a civil rights leader and LGBT pioneer, but according to Merryman, “escaped recognition at home” until now.
The Kent Gay Liberation Front grew out of a period after of the May 4, 1970 slaying of four students protesting the Vietnam War, when the university community was trying to heal and look for a more positive identity.
Student Bill Hoover came out and started giving talks on gayness in 1971.
Noll, who had come out earlier in Washington, D.C., came out in Kent and also began speaking on campus.
Hoover and Noll got acquainted, then got acquainted with another student, Gail Pertz, who had already begun a small “Gay Lib” group.
When the three got together, the prospects for the new organization were set.
Seventy people attended the organizational meeting.
Kent Gay Liberation Front hosted speakers, including national movement leaders Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Rita Mae Brown, and Howard Brown.
KGLF formed speakers bureaus and supplied the mass media with gay and lesbian stories and faces for decades. It also held conferences and trained new leadership and sponsored support groups. It was also known that KGLF threw great parties.
KGLF garnered a wealth of positive press coverage of gays and lesbians throughout northeast Ohio, especially during the early 1970s.
Noll, also known as a great English professor, was called “the first publicly out lesbian in Ohio” by the Cincinnati Enquirer.
She was presented with a clock, representing achievement that stands the test of time, by Alfreda Brown, KSU vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion.
“It’s not just my award,” said Noll, “It belongs to all who were part of the Gay Liberation Front or supported it.”
Noll recognized KGLF personalities who came to celebrate with her, including Kaltenborn, former dean of student affairs John Binder and his assistant Wilma Crawford, a United Church of Christ pastor, the first known openly gay minister Bill Johnson, and supportive ally and fellow English professor Diane Culbertson.
Noll’s sister Leonore Walters was also recognized.
Noll said she was especially fond of the students from the 1980s.
“I think the main thing about those years was all that energy that burst out,” Noll said.
“Our job was easier then,” said Noll. “All we had to do was be open, not be silent any more. With the gay movement, we saw immediate results in people’s lives, including my own.”
“We had all just come out,” Noll said, “and it was the best years of my adult life.”
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