Independent research is a cornerstone of the liberal arts, and inspiration can often come from an unexpected source. For psychology major and Bonner Scholar Vaniel Simmons ’24, it hit when he discovered a cache of old articles from The Sou’wester on the history of the LGBTQ+ community on campus. A sophomore member of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) at the time, Simmons was revamping the Rainbow Room, which is Rhodes’ LGBTQ+ resource center located in Burrow Hall.
“I came into the GSA knowing very little about the organization's history, struggles, and potential,” says Simmons. “Going through some boxes I found the articles with references to various significant points in the organization’s history, and I absolutely loved it. I just wanted to learn more and more.”
Thus was born the idea of a research project on the history of the Rhodes LGBTQ+ community to capture the stories that Simmons felt had been all but forgotten. He first sought the advice and mentorship of Bill Short, Associate Director of library services at Rhodes and an alum of the college, to help in the development of the project. He officially started the project in May 2022, a year after they began discussing the project, by diving into DLynx, the college’s digital archives, for mentions of the GSA, homosexuality, and sexuality. Simmons collected nearly 100 pages of data but says both he and Short wanted to take the project beyond the facts that left a written trail.
“We decided we wanted to take a more hands-on approach and began looking into oral histories. I started to conduct some for this project and have done about 20 interviews so far. I've been able to locate previous alums who are now all over the world, completing their awesome work, and volunteering to contribute their story to our growing collection of history,” says Simmons.
“Every single interview I’ve done, I've ended with the question: ‘What is your queer joy moment?’ I felt like a lot of my community’s history is often remembered through the struggle, but I also wanted to highlight the strength and happiness that we as a community express. I wanted to prove that even in the 1960s, when some of the alumni I spoke to graduated, they still had moments of pure joy related to their identity and their time here at Rhodes. Many have told of the joy they've had here on campus, from finding community within their friends and being able to safely come out to them, to even finding their life-long partners here at Rhodes and living and loving together since.”
He continues to make plans and take steps to move the project forward. “I am working with staff across the campus to promote the project and recruit more volunteers. I am hoping to use homecoming as an opportunity to connect with many more alumni than I have before. Additionally, I am working with the library to set up an official collection within DLynx to house all information related to Rhodes' LGBTQ+ history.”
Adds Simmons, who is now president of the GSA, “I hope that people will be able to come to our Rainbow Room and find a little book of our alum’s stories and be able to find the same comfort and growth in themselves as I was able to. I think the significance of this work is in remembering the people who came before us, their hardships and their successes. Personally, I am a firm believer of knowing where you’ve come from to know where you can go.”
Tram Truong ’24
Editor’s Note: As of October 2022, an official email account has been set up to collect and curate information about LGBTQ+ history at Rhodes. If you are interested in becoming involved or would like to learn more about this project, you can contact Vaniel Simmons and the research team at LGBTHistory@rhodes.edu.