PRIDE! Kent Celebrates 45 Years on Kent Campus
Photo by Corey Grau
On Dec. 8, 2016, the typical navy and gold of Kent State University’s Governance Chambers was muted by vibrant flags, rainbow streamers and exuberant voices of about 100 people gathered in celebration. On an otherwise dreary day in December, students, staff and faculty came together to celebrate the 45th anniversary of PRIDE! Kent.
“PRIDE! stands for People Respecting Identity, Diversity and Equality,” says Gabrielle Cooper, president of PRIDE! Kent. “We really stand by our name and promote equality and working within yourself to find your identity.”
The organization, which functions as an activist front and safe space for Kent State’s LGBTQ+ and Ally community, is one of the oldest continually operating LGBTQ+ organizations in the nation.
In 1971, Kent State’s LGBTQ+ community primarily existed in the shadows. While no one actively stifled the voices of the community, there was no common space for students, staff or faculty who identified on the LGBTQ+ spectrum to join and have their voices heard. Then came Dolores Noll, a then-assistant professor of English, who was inspired by activism she saw across the country. After becoming acquainted with the nationwide gay rights movement during the summer recess, Noll returned to Kent State in the fall of 1971 and was determined to make a change.
“She did something remarkable. At a time when there were hardly any female professors at all, Dolores came out as a lesbian,” says Molly Merryman, director of Kent State's Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality.
In the academic year that followed, Noll worked with students to create a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community. The Kent Gay Liberation Front, renamed PRIDE! Kent in 1999, was the first LGBTQ+ student organization on campus and is now one of the university’s largest and oldest student groups. Noll retired in the 1980s, but her efforts created a lasting impact on campus. While the group has evolved in more ways than one, it consistently has provided students, staff and faculty who identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum with a safe community space. The organization hosts weekly meetings, both educating students and providing them with social opportunities. With the help of faculty and staff, PRIDE! Kent still works as an advocate on behalf of Kent’s LGBTQ+ community, ensuring that their voices are heard.
“Someone who is coming for the first time can expect a warm welcome,” Cooper says. “They can expect to be welcomed with open arms no matter what they look like, how they identify and regardless of their background. They also can expect to learn something — that’s definitely a focus we have. We are an educational organization as well as a social organization.”
Educating students on issues the community faces is a major component of PRIDE!, but the group also works to educate administration on needs students have on campus.
“PRIDE! provides an amazing voice to the faculty and staff at Kent State,” Merryman says. “They remind us what changes are happening, they bring to us what their current needs and initiatives are.”
Most recently, the group worked with faculty and staff to implement the Preferred Name Policy allowing students to request a preferred name be added to the FlashLine accounts and course registration.
“There has been administrative effort and investment made into our community and our groups,” says Ken Ditlevson, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Student Center at Kent State. “Administrators from the Division of Student Affairs attend PRIDE! Meetings on a regular basis to make sure the students’ voices are being heard.”
The group also has worked with university administration to create more inclusive university events and to update the language in the registrar to be more inclusive to a wide range of gender identities.
“What is really important about Kent State is that, before other universities more recently started publicly articulating that LGBTQ groups were part of their values, Kent State was doing that consistently,” Merryman says.
The organization currently has about 60 active members, but meetings have had as many as 200 attendees.
“By coming to PRIDE!, a lot of people really start to figure out themselves and their true identities," Cooper says. "They start to find out who they really are through this organization, like I did. We provide a family that some members of the LGBTQ+ community don’t have simply because of their identity.”
While it is known that the organization has a rich history, much of it was not archived because of social stigmas and safety concerns for the students involved in the founding of the group.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of documentation,” Merryman says. “We would love to have the names of the students who worked with Dolores Noll, but there weren’t many records kept to make sure students felt comfortable at meetings.”
In hopes of bringing together former members of PRIDE! Kent, Ditlevson is working with an alumnus to create an LGBTQ+ alumni affiliation group.
“We are hoping to engage the past presidents, members and general alumni who attended PRIDE! Kent or Kent Gay Liberation Front meetings,” Ditlevson says. “We want to re-engage our community. We want to find pictures. We want to rebuild our history."
The first meeting for the alumni affiliation group will be hosted at downtown Kent’s Bricco on March 9 from 6-7 p.m.