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Mary Helene Hall

Mercer history faculty Dr. Abagail Dowling poses for a portrait near Willingham Hall. Photo by Mary Helene Hall

How these queer professors support their LGBTQIA+ students

Being a queer student is certainly not easy for everyone, especially at a university in a state where gay marriage was not recognized until the U.S. Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. A little over 15 years ago, a referendum of 76% of Georgia voters approved keeping gay marriage illegal.

Although the state and Mercer communities have greatly adjusted to be more accepting of the LGBTQIA+ community over the last few decades, the threat of non-acceptance or harassment still looms over queer students.

Being away from family during college can be a period to allow growth and exploration for LGBTQIA+ students, but these students may still be in search of a support system due to the lack of parental figures at school. That’s where university faculty comes in.

English professor Thomas Bullington is gay, and he said when he arrived at Mercer in the spring of 2017, he was not sure how accepting the university’s community was.

“Mercer never really felt as though its doors were closed to people like me,” he said. “But at the same time, it was also difficult to figure out where those doors were open or where I was welcome.”

Even so, he said that he felt that it was important for his students to know his identity, especially because he felt like he did not have the support he wished he had in college.

“When I went to the College of Charleston as an undergrad over in South Carolina, there was practically no queer presence,” he said. “There was no kind of mentorship that I could really gravitate towards.”

In an effort to be the mentor he wished he had when he was in college, he keeps his door open to students, LGBTQIA+ or not, when they are in need of help or a listening ear.

Bullington noted that, although Mercer may be welcoming now, he knows the campus’s history with LGBTQIA+ students and faculty has been contentious at times, and the university and its community still has a long way to go.

“(Some people are) all too happy to wave some rainbow flags and be done with it,” he said. “But when it comes to those actual things that involve actually changing behavior or actually changing what’s going on on campus, there seems to be a lot of inertia.”

Abigail Dowling, a bisexual history professor at Mercer, said she strives be the “cool aunt,” meaning that she tries to be a non-judgmental listening ear and provide resources to her students in need of some guidance.

She has helped students who have little to no familial support, lost their friend group or church community or just want someone to talk to.

“I absolutely view it as my directive to be that mentor or to be that resource,” Dowling said.

In the classroom, Dowling also makes sure to leave literary and historical discussions open to queer themes. Although a common assumption is that queer people have always been rejected by their cultures, Dowling is skeptical of this claim.

“I don’t think people felt uniformly like being gay was bad in the past,” Dowling said. “I would say that’s actually an ahistorical perspective.”

Dowling isn’t alone in bringing LGBTQIA+ matters into the classroom.

Bullington integrates his identity and queer themes in his lessons. He asks students for their pronouns and does his best to respect their identities, makes his identity known to his students and does not shy away from teaching about LGBTQIA+ topics.

“My general rule whenever I come across a queer moment in the texts that I’m teaching is that if it looks gay, that’s probably because it is. And I just try to normalize that and show that queer-identifying people are not anything new. We’ve always been around, even if the language hasn’t been there,” Bullington said.

Unlike in the humanities, it can be more difficult for STEM professors to indicate their queer identities to their students. Margaret Symington is a math professor who is also gay, and she is married to psychology professor Tanya Sharon. Symington said that neither her sexual orientation nor her partner have ever come up in her classes.

“I choose not to say anything, basically, because the class is about (the students), not about me,” she said.

Since she does not have a chance to bring it up in her classroom, her advice to queer students is to reach out if they ever need help.

“I think we stumble onto mentors and support systems, always,” Symington said.

Each of these professors said they have completed Common Ground’s “Rainbow Connection” training. Common Ground is an LGBTQIA+ and ally organization that aims to educate the campus on matters of sexuality, gender, intersectionality and activism. Their program Rainbow Connection is a course that Mercer faculty can enroll in that teaches “issues faced by LGBTQ+ students at Mercer and how to be an ally to Mercer’s LGBTQ+ community,” according to the group’s website.

Bullington uses his experiences and training to make sure students in his classes feel supported, and he makes sure his students who come out to friends and family know that they do not need to appease anyone when it comes to their identities.

“There’s no need to forgive people who aren’t sorry,” he said. “Forgive people when you’re ready, perhaps.”

Dowling said it is her personal goal to make sure students in her classes feel seen and heard.

“I do see that the students are like, ‘queer students on campus are kind of ignored,’” she said. “I just want them to know I see that, and I want to make sure that they don’t feel ignored in my spaces.”

This story was originally published on The Cluster on October 28, 2020.

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