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National award honoree reflects on advocacy for the LGBTQIA community and change at VCU

June 20, 2019
Jay Paul photo

At its annual convention this week in Washington D.C., the American Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table will award Donna E. Coghill, the community engagement librarian and coordinator of campus partnerships at VCU Libraries, the Newlen-Symons Award for Excellence in Serving the GLBT Community. The award recognizes a library, librarian, library staff member, library board and/or library friends group serving the GLBT community. Nominees are judged based on innovation, impact, sustainability and advocacy.

Coghill has long been an active voice for equality, diversity and change. She participated in the development of VCU's diversity plan, is a facilitator for the VCU Safe Zone program, a long-time member and former co-chair of Equality VCU and serves on the VCU Police Department's LGBTQ+ Safety Advisory Group, where she co-authored and co-facilitates the Trans Sensitivity in a Policing Context workshops.

In light of this recent honor, we asked Donna Coghill to reflect on her journey in advocacy and to offer advice and insights to others.


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What are some of the moments or people in your life or career that shaped your point of view and thinking about LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans/transgender, queer, questioning, Intersex, asexual) advocacy?

From my earliest memories, my parents taught me inclusivity - probably without even knowing they were doing it. We owned a small, country motel and our guests were a broad mixing bowl of people from all backgrounds and I distinctly remember guests from various races, religions, cultures, and countries. I remember a handful of gay couples that passed through a few times; as a child I probably didn’t know they were gay but they were regulars for several summers. 

Every single person who stayed with us was important. They were welcomed. They were treated equally, and very much like family. That may sound like a line, but it is truly how our parents guided our interactions. I’ll never forget those very early lessons of equality, and that is what set me on the path toward advocating for LGBGQIA communities.

How did you first get involved with GLBT advocacy at VCU?

I’ve always been supportive, I majored in theatre and many of my classmates identified as LGBTQIA. I began in a more official capacity in 2004 when I started to work full-time for VCU Libraries. The Associate University Librarian for Public Services, Sarah Watstein, was co-chair of what is now known as Equality VCU. I asked her if I could attend a meeting, and I was immediately drawn in. There was a lot of important work happening, and the committee was small but eager to move forward. One of my first big projects was an EEO Training for VCU’s Human Resources, where I assisted Sarah and Chris Burnside, former chair of the VCU Dance Department. VCU had never had this sort of training, and it was inspiring to work alongside Chris and Sarah.

Several years later after Chris retired and Sarah moved on to another institution, Equality VCU founded the Burnside Watstein LGBTQ Awards in their honor. They made a huge impact on staff, faculty, students and the university and I cannot think of two more deserving people to name the award after. In 2012 I was one of the recipients of the award, it has a lot of personal meaning to me.

How have campus attitudes, messaging or policies related to inclusivity changed since you first got involved?

In 2004, Equality VCU wrote a proposal to the university administration regarding Domestic Partner Benefits. That proposal was revised and submitted several times over the years. Though we never were able to have DPB’s as part of our benefits package, we did see movement in other ways. The library added borrowing privileges for partners, and the gym added partner memberships, which evolved to a “Plus One” membership.

Things that may seem small to some, have had a large impact to the LGBTQIA community. For example, adding gender inclusive restrooms to various buildings on campus. This is something most of us might take for granted, but is very important to many of the VCU community who do not identify on a gender binary. In fact, a proposal I wrote to VCU Libraries was implemented in 2010 to transform two restrooms on the lower level of Cabell Library from gendered to inclusive. We’ve since added a third gender inclusive restroom in Cabell.

I’ve worked with Equality VCU on changes to VCU’s non-discrimination statement. VCU added “sexual orientation” many years ago, and in 2010 we advocated for adding “gender identity, gender expression, and genetic information.” It took several years of advocacy, the non-discrimination statement is much more comprehensive now. The outcome has been positive as it gives us a concrete example of how VCU welcomes all. This was an emotional journey, and the end result was worth the efforts.

What do you see, looking back, as the three or five most laudable changes at VCU?

As I mentioned earlier, the expansion of VCU's non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and genetic information was integral to making this campus more welcoming. Since 2005, LGBTQIA students, faculty and staff have been advocating for a stand-alone resource center. That became a partial reality in 2006, when OMSA was given a graduate student assistant to develop LGBTQIA programming for students.

As of this summer, a stand-alone center will be a reality (thankfully!), and this center will coodinate LGBTQ scholarship, advocacy and community engagement. Another laudable change is the hiring of additional faculty in various units across campus with expertise in LGBTQIA Studies. Their scholarship, energy and enthusiasm are game-changers for VCU. And our newest change, VCU is launching a new minor in LGBTQ Studies this fall. 

If you could snap your fingers and do ONE thing right now to make VCU a better place for GLBT people, what would that it be?

Safe Zone trainings are currently optional for all VCU staff and faculty. These trainings help raise awareness of and reduce homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and heterosexism, as well as offering the opportunity for participants to ask questions in an open open and accepting environment. I’ve been facilitating Safe Zone since 2010, and I believe that requiring Safe Zone training for all students, staff, and faculty would offer a better understanding of the complexities and even intersectionalities of the LGBTQIA population. At the very least, it might normalize the language and raise awareness.

Does working in a library give you a special vantage point or advantage in tackling GLBT issues on campus?

VCU Libraries is connected to every school, department, and unit on campus - we are a very visible profession. At some point, every student, staff or faculty either comes to the library, or works with a librarian in their home department. It doesn’t matter where these people are from, what language they speak, their income level, they all end up connecting to the library. It’s a great opportunity to see the VCU community, and a chance to find out what’s really going on with our students, staff and faculty. VCU Libraries is seen as a positive and engaging partner, and that has been very beneficial in my working with the VCU community as an advocate and ally. I have a better understanding of our students, staff and faculty questions and needs beyond from the perspective of campus researchers, and this connects me on a more personal level. I’ve relied heavily on my library connections in my advocacy, and I also think my advocacy has assisted my efforts as a librarian. My advocacy efforts as a librarian ultimately stem from my childhood - seeing my parents treat diverse groups of people equally and kindly set the example for me in work and life.

What work is yet to be done at VCU? What priorities do you see ahead? What are the next steps?

The new Queer Research and Advocacy Center, referred to as the Q Collective, will be launched this summer. The Q Collective is a program operated by VCU’s Division for Inclusive Excellence, and will help offer support to LGBTQIA research, scholarship and, most important, advocacy. They’ll be focusing on trans inclusivity, working toward equal protections under the law, and issues related to intersectionality. I think the future possibilities on-and-off campus with the Q Collective are exciting. I cannot wait to see this unfold.

What do you think straight people really need to know that they do not know?

The world is incredibly heteronormative, so much so that most heterosexual people wouldn’t recognize it. Our language is heteronormative - mailman, fireman, policeman. Our restrooms are gendered. Our social assumptions on what constitutes a family are usually heteronormative - father, mother, and children.

We should seek to widen our worldview to be as inclusive as possible. It’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to make a mistake as long as you apologize. It’s about the effort, it’s about trying your hardest to be welcoming and inclusive, addressing someone with their name of use and pronouns. These things make a difference.

What advice would you give to allies and advocates about helping and making an impact?

When people ask me where to start with being an ally, I always tell them the first step is speaking out. It’s not always easy to be a vocal ally for any diverse group, but I learned long ago that silence is complicity. If I can open the mind of one person, then I consider that day a success.



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