Feasting On Equality

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The University of Louisville is the first public university in Kentucky to offer their employees domestic partnership benefits and the first university in the state to have an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) center with full-time salaried staff.

On Friday, Nov. 22 at the 2nd annual Feast On Equality, President of UofL James Ramsey will be honored for his instrumental role in these prestigious milestones.

Yet President Ramsey wasn’t looking for recognition when he took a controversial and highly-criticized stance on domestic partnership rights and LGBT issues. President Ramsey, rather, stayed true to his 2004 inaugural proclamations, “We are going to face some issues and some challenges and not everyone is going to like what we do. But, we’ll be successful if we hold true to the values of UofL.” Ramsey spoke of a university community that values honesty, openness, transparency, a passion for excellence and respect for all individuals, not just some. Ramsey explains that in his faith system, “God loves all people, not just some people. I believe in respect for all people.”

In a group effort from staff,  a strategic plan from a human resources perspective was developed. Ramsey said there were more than enough people who didn’t agree with this decision in the community and in Frankfort, “but we thought it was the right thing to do, so we did it.”

In spite of standing up to nay-sayers, receiving hate mail and being the subject of public ridicule, Ramsey is deeply moved by this recognition and honor. Humbly, he claims he hasn’t done anything special. “I am just who I am. I did what I thought was right. This makes me realize that those 16-18 hour-days, seven-days-a- week are worth it.”

Ramsey has empowered members of his staff to continue to do the right thing since the LGBT Center was created in 2007. While the grassroots movement for equal domestic partnership rights was developing and gaining momentum among the employees, there was a parallel movement taking place among the students for an LGBT center.

With the support and leadership of Ramsey behind him, Brian Buford, one of the original members of the HR team who helped spearhead the domestic partnership benefit movement, had a goal to never let another LGBT student have the same campus story he did.

When Buford arrived at UofL in 1988 as a graduate student, he was struggling with his own coming out experience. There was no message and no show of support on campus. Buford speaks of a different world where he didn’t know anyone who was gay. In that day and age, the university was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” campus.

“I was hired to be the part-time director of the LGBT Center before we had space. So, they found a closet for us,” Buford paused to let it set in. “Yes, let the irony wash over you. I decorated it fabulously. It was the most beautiful closet on all of campus. I was in the closet for about 6-months before re-locating to our current space in the Red Barn in the middle of campus. Students finally have a place to hang out, have meetings and eat lunch. Let’s be honest, it’s no fun to hang out in the closest.”

Buford smiled his warm caring smile at the obvious irony, but knows that the need for an LGBT center is no laughing matter. Statistically, LGBT young people are at higher risk for substance abuse, suicide and dropping out of school. Despite all of the progress the country has made with gay marriage and equal rights, Buford says he still meets students every day who come from a small town where they were the only gay kid, they were bullied, harassed or rejected by their families. Students will come to UofL without any family or financial support because they are gay.

Buford and the University know that the LGBT Center is often a student’s only hope for a community, safety, resources and support.

The LBGT Center, however, is more than a crisis center. Buford wants the center at the University of Louisville to be the role model for the rest of the country, and certainly the rest of the state. Buford has taken the Center from a 1-star rating to a 5-star rating for LGBT friendly schools according to the national index. A rating only 50 schools in the country can tout.

The upcoming Feast On Equality,founded by Tommy Arnold, is a chance for the community to say, ‘we want to make sure the kids have what they need.’  Guests will leave with the sense that they have just done something to change someone’s life and to see President Ramsey be honored for creating the environment for this success.

Buford smiles, “I kept telling him, this (the award and his hosting of the kick-off party) is a really big deal. No president, certainly not in Kentucky, has every hosted a party to explicitly say, ‘we are here for you, we care for you.’ He just kept saying, ‘it’s the right thing to do.’”

To purchase your ticket or for more information on the Feast on Equality, visit www.FeastOnEquality.com.