Appalachian State University LGBT Life, 1979-1988


Chancellor John Thomas (Credit: ASU University Archives)

During the last year of Appalachian State University chancellor Herb Wey and the first nine years of Chancellor John Thomas’s administration, the university continued to grow apart from its conservative surroundings socially and academically. Under Thomas’ guidance, Appalachian continued to expand in unprecedented ways, particularly in student development and technology.[1] The Student Union expanded to include a Multicultural Center. Through the expansion of its extracurricular activities such as An Appalachian Summer Festival, the institution strived to compete with other schools and lure tourist dollars to the area.[2]

One development that caused local controversy occurred in 1979 when the Appalachian Gay Awareness Association formally requested recognition. This group met with a lot of difficulty. Although the student body was generally complacent, or perhaps apathetic, to the group, the administration and community resisted its approval. Chancellor Herb Wey repeatedly sought legal advice stating he did not want to approve AGAA; however, with gay student groups at four other UNC System schools, he eventually recognized the group.[3] Due to a lack of direction and discomfort with being attached to a gay organization, AGAA never thrived. Satirical newspaper articles and student editorials indicate a negative campus climate for non-heterosexuals.[4][5][6][7][8][9][10] However, the counseling center’s support group drew double AGAA's numbers. By 1986, AGAA died.[11]

The Women’s Studies program continued to foster the campus women’s community. The Association for Women Students developed out of a Women’s Studies course taught by Maggie McFadden in 1981. With the Equal Rights Amendment ratification deadline approaching, the Boone chapter of the National Organization of Women cooperated with the campus chapter to advocate for ERA’s adoption.

In the mid-1980s, UNC System president Bill Friday became aware of the emerging AIDS crisis and required his university chancellors to respond with concrete plans. Chancellor John Thomas’ AIDS Task Force lacked inclusion of openly gay men; however, they apparently spoke with gay community members. Educational programs, newspaper articles, and medical and disability policies spread knowledge of prevention and the campus' legal obligations to infected campus members. One controversial decision arose. Thomas supported the Student Government Association’s decision to become NC’s first state-supported university with condom dispensers in dorm and student union restrooms, thereby making national news in Playboy and the David Letterman Show. This bold move has been credited with creating a more gay-friendly campus climate.[12]

Although Watauga County's AIDS incidence is insignificant in comparison to North Carolina’s urban centers, ASU’s first student reported an HIV infection in 1987. When a student from Africa was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, ASU physician Pat Geiger joined community members Terry and Dr. Jack Taylor to develop a community-based AIDS support group.[13][14] This support group met in the Taylors' home for six years and consisted of many gay HIV+ students. Alumni report knowing multiple college friends who are infected or have since died, including the founder of AGAA.


  1. “Appalachian State University Historical Timelines: General Events: 1980-1989,” Appalachian State University Historical Photographs Collection, University Archives and Records, Special Collections, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC, accessed at, viewed on 11 December 2008.
  2. Appalachian State University, 2008 Alumni Directory, vii.
  3. Kathy Staley, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Life at Appalachian State University,” master’s thesis, Appalachian State University, 111-121.
  4. Alba Herrera, “Masculine or feminine – what’s the difference?” The Appalachian, 7 November 1985.
  5. Colby D. Caldwell, “A Subject Appropriate for College Students,” The Appalachian, 25 February 1986, 4.
  6. Colby D. Caldwell, “Life as a Flaming Heterosexual,” The Appalachian, 15 April 1986, 7.
  7. Bill Owens, “At Least One of Your Friends May Be,” The Appalachian, 11 February 1986, 10.
  8. David R. Farthing, “Hetero, Homosexual Stereotypes Harmful: Refuting Militant Lesbian Outcries,” The Appalachian, 28 April 1987, 10.
  9. David R. Farthing, “Why do They Walk Funny?: How Stereotypes are Produced,” The Appalachian, 30 April 1987, 12.
  10. David Farthing, “Fall Fashion for the Homophobe,” The Appalachian, 10 September 1987, 14.
  11. Staley, “LGBT at ASU,” 136-137.
  12. Staley, “LGBT at ASU,” 141, 144-145.
  13. Terry Taylor, Appalachian Memory Project, Belk Library and Information Commons, Appalachian State University.
  14. Pat Geiger, Interview with Kathy Staley, 8 September 2006.