Our History

A History of Sexuality Studies at Carolina

by Katelyn Campbell, Sexuality Studies Research Assistant

The Program in Sexuality Studies at UNC formally began in 2004 as a result of years of activism by students, faculty, and staff at the University.[1] Since its founding, the Program has provided a home for the study of LGBTQ lives on campus, offering a Sexuality Studies minor as well as courses addressing sexuality across multiple departments.

The mission of the Sexuality Studies Program is to coordinate scholars and students from a wide range of disciplines to study, teach, and create knowledge about human sexuality in its myriad functions and forms. As part of our work, we create opportunities for students, faculty, staff, alumni, and members of the broader UNC community to come together to learn about and address topics of concern for LGBTQ people.

Prior to the formal organization of the Program, faculty in several departments taught courses addressing sexuality. Cecil Wooten, now Professor Emeritus of Classics, was an early vocal supporter of Sexuality Studies and LGBTQ students on campus, teaching courses on sex and gender in antiquity and serving as an early advisor to the Carolina Gay Association — Carolina’s first LGBTQ student organization.

Wooten and other students and faculty played a critical role in building the foundation for Sexuality Studies at UNC. In 1992, their coalition successfully secured a $200,000 bequest from Carolina alumnus Charles Williamson specifically devoted to funding the development of courses focused on sexuality. Williamson — a 1968 graduate of UNC Medical School — died in 1992 as a result of complications from AIDS.[2] Wooten and members of the Carolina Lesbian and Gay Association worked to develop a committee that awarded annual course development grants to support work in Sexuality Studies, facilitating the introduction of courses on sexuality in politics, literature, and other genres into the curriculum. In a 2001 oral history, Wooten described this small but significant bequest as being a critical way for the university to demonstrate its acceptance of gay students, faculty, and staff.

The Sexuality Studies Program has been directed by Dr. Sharon P. Holland since 2019.

A Brief History of LGBTQ Life at Carolina

There have always been LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff at Carolina learning and building knowledge at the University. Over the past fifty years, the LGBTQ community at UNC has become increasingly vocal and visible, building community and taking action against injustice both on campus and in the world.

In 1974, a group of UNC students saw a need to create spaces for gay students to learn more about sexuality and build community. They organized the Carolina Gay Rap group, which was later renamed the Carolina Gay Association (CGA). Later that year, the organization was formally recognized by the University, making it the first student organization for gay students in the Southeast.

Over the course of its first few years, the CGA quickly became a hub for gay life on campus. The group organized monthly coffee houses and more regular weekly social events, as well as serving as a resource to students on campus who had questions about sexuality.

[Members of the Carolina Gay Association received this letter requesting information on how to meet potential male partners from an anonymous member of the Carolina Community in 1975. Members of the organization regularly fielded requests for more information about gay issues, giving presentations to different classes at Carolina on request. Photo from Wilson Library Special Collections, Carolina Gay Association Papers, Box 1 Folder 3]


As the CGA grew, it began to take on larger roles in regional LGBTQ organizing. In 1976, the CGA hosted the inaugural Southeastern Gay Conference, drawing several hundred participants from across the region to UNC for three days of panels addressing topics ranging from lesbian separatism to gay parenting.[3] It also operated the first LGBTQ student publication in the United States, Lambda, which served as an important avenue for communication across the broader LGBTQ community in North Carolina.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the newly-renamed CGLA (Carolina Gay and Lesbian Association) played an active role in AIDS education on campus, organizing AIDS prevention trainings and speakers long before the crisis was officially recognized by the University.

In the ensuing decades, the CGLA changed names several times in an effort to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community at Carolina — it still exists today as the Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA). Over the course of its 40+ year history, the organization has continued to provide a critical social and activist space for queer students, faculty, staff, and allies on campus.

Activism and Backlash

Since its founding, the various iterations of the Carolina Gay Association (including the CGA, Carolina Lesbian and Gay Association, B-GLAD, Queer Network for Change, and SAGA) have engaged in significant activism on campus and across North Carolina to improve the lives and conditions of LGBTQ people. Soon after its founding, the CGA began hosting an annual Gay Awareness Week at Carolina, drawing hundreds of members of the community to educational and social events.

[The tenth annual Lesbian and Gay Awareness Week featured a number of intersectional workshops, talks, and panels addressing different issues faced by the LGBTQ community at Carolina]

In the 1980s, members of the renamed Carolina Gay and Lesbian Association (CGLA) were involved in an active campaign to pressure the University into providing AIDS prevention programming. Members of the CGLA were particularly critical of the University’s lack of resources related to sex education, particularly for gay students. In response to this pressure, the University established an AIDS Advisory Committee to address the crisis on campus in 1986.[4]

In the midst of the Helms era, other students organized a kiss-in in 1988 to protest riders Senator Helms placed on a bill funding AIDS education in North Carolina.

[UNC student Steve Sullivan marches at the Kiss-In outside of Jesse Helms’s office on Valentine’s Day 1988].

Protests against Helms continued into the early 90s, with nearly 2000 people joining Chapel Hill’s first Pride parade in 1990, organized in part to gather support for defeating Helms in an upcoming election.

[2000 march on Chapel Hill and Carrboro for 1990 pride parade – the first in Chapel Hill, LGBTQ Center records box 2 folder 34]

Members of the CGLA and its later iterations were also heavily involved in the successful 1992 effort to convince then-Chancellor Paul Hardin to sign off on a resolution demanding that President Bill Clinton lift the ban on lesbian and gay service in the military. Later campaigns focused on the creation of the Sexuality Studies program and LGBTQ Center, a sexuality-inclusive University nondiscrimination policy, and gender neutral housing options for undergraduates.

[UNC announces sexuality-inclusive non-discrimination policy, LGBTQ Center Records Box 2 Folder 34]

Over the course of its more than 40 year history, the Carolina Gay Association (now SAGA) has weathered significant backlash from both the UNC community and other entities within North Carolina. From nearly the moment of its inception, the CGA was threatened with annual funding cuts by student government, resulting in battles that often played out both in the newspapers and in student government chambers. In 1988, funding for the Carolina Gay and Lesbian Association was put up for a campus-wide referendum, with the organization losing 52-48.

[Around 200 members and supporters of the CGLA marched down Franklin Street on January 31, 1988 to protest threats to the organization’s funding]

[CGLA Funding a Matter of Life and Death, LGBTQ Center Records Box 2 Folder 34]

 By 1992, tensions between the CGLA and student government had severely escalated. Earlier that year, the Student Congress passed a budget that would require a special committee to review each edition of the organization’s publication, Lambda, before it could be published, citing that the paper had become inappropriately political.

[CGLA Chairwoman Svati Shah speaks out against restrictions placed on her organization’s funding by student congress. LGBTQ Center Records, Box 2, Folder 34].

[Cover of Lambda responding to threats of defunding by Student Congress, LGBTQ Center Records, Box 2, Folder 34]

Further attempts to defund CGLA (newly renamed B-GLAD) continued into 1993, with members of student government becoming increasingly hostile toward members of the organization. In the midst of a major funding battle (in which B-GLAD stood to lose all of its financial support from Student Congress), a member of student government released a confidential list of members of B-GLAD, placing more than sixty students at risk for harassment and violence.

[B-GLAD threatened with defunding, LGBTQ Center Papers Box 2 Folder 34]

[Student defends release of list. LGBTQ Center Papers Box 2 Folder 34]

[B-GLAD receives anonymous threatening letter, LGBTQ Center Papers Box 2 Folder 36]

Despite the threats of violence and defunding waged against them, members of the LGBTQ community at Carolina continued to organize for their rights and welfare. Not long after receiving a threatening anonymous letter in 1994, the group announced plans to create a statewide organization to support other LGBTQ campus groups around North Carolina.

[B-GLAD to Start Statewide Group, LGBTQ Center Papers Box 2 Folder 36]

Students in B-GLAD further played a critical role in advocating for the creation of Sexuality Studies at UNC, serving on the committee to allocate resources from the Williamson Fund for course development alongside faculty ally Cecil Wooten throughout the early nineties.

…Stay tuned for more of this history, which will be updated at the end of the Fall 2019 semester. Have a story you’d like to add? Send an email to Sexuality Studies Research Assistant Katelyn Campbell at kcampbe2 [at] live.unc.edu

Research for this project was completed by using the Special Collections at Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

[1] https://www.carolinajournal.com/news-article/sex-studies-a-new-minor-at-unc-ch/

[2]  Development office notes on sexuality studies program. Provost Office Records Box 196 Folder 5516.

[3] Southeastern Gay Conference program, Wilson Library Special Collections, Carolina Gay Association Papers, Box 1, Folder 9.

[4] See Carolina Student Government Records Box 10 Folder 392.