During a talk about increasing inclusion for all kinds of people in the Knoxville and University of Tennessee communities, LGBT advocate Shannon Herron expressed concerns about UT’s current climate.
A row of rainbow flags is flying outside of University of Tennessee’s College of Communication and Information in celebration of its annual Diversity & Inclusion week. Meanwhile, across campus, the UT Pride Center is fighting to keep their flags flying and their visibility on campus intact.
This Tuesday was “The Big Orange Sphere,” dedicated to inclusion within the UT community. The morning session panel was “Profiles in Courage,” showcasing community members who have forged paths in Knoxville for marginalized groups.
One of the panelists was Shannon Herron, CEO of All Out Knoxville.
Herron is an advocate for LGBT inclusion and visibility in Knoxville and an employee of the campus Center for Student Engagement. While a graduate student at UT, he started All Out Knoxville, an organization dedicated to connecting LGBT people in the area.
“My mission was to show people that you can be LGBT, and you can live in Knoxville, and that you can be happy here.”.
That organization is Knoxville wide, but recent events have called into question if the LGBT community on UT’s campus feels happy here. The Pride Center lost all funding over the summer after the Office of Diversity was defunded by the state. Vandalisms and an assault have occurred in the months since.
The latest hurdle for LGBT inclusion is a request by the administration to take down the flags flying out of the Pride Center windows. The administration cites a flag policy, but it’s been perceived as an attack on visibility.
Herron stressed the importance of visibility during the panel, echoing the sentiments of LGBT people who are still UT students. He agreed that recent events have hurt progress on campus.
“When I was in school, I did feel comfortable and safe here, and I do think that has stepped back.”
Herron’s original idea when founding All Out Knox was to provide a space for people who had left UT, since he felt UT provided them support while at school. Now that campus climate has changed, the organization might be changing as well.
“Going forward, I think a lot of our mission and focus will be on the students and how can we support them while they’re in school,” he says. “That community and their students are hurting right now, and I think we need to do everything that we can to support them.”
But a sense of belonging in the “Big Orange Sphere” for all LGBT Knoxville residents remains one of Herron’s top priorities.
“If everyone here at UT who’s LGBT graduates and moves away, who’s going to be here for the next generation of LGBT students?”