James Gipson (C’66) and his husband (Bill Strong) at 1996 Sewanee Pride Parade, courtesy of Gipson.
By Lucy Rudman
Mr. James Gipson and I met at the University Cemetery. Everyday, he walks through and ensures that everything is in order, headstones upright and trash picked up. When we reached each other from across the graveyard, he took off his old Sewanee cap, complete with a Rainbow Flag EQB pin, and shook my hand. We talked briefly about his pink hair— “I did tell the stylist ‘auburn’. But no matter!”— and starting walking to his family plot.
Gipson, true to his EQB pin, has been working on fundraising for the Rainbow Fund since 2006.
During the 2006 Homecoming weekend, Gipson attended a meeting for the Rainbow Ribbon Society, a community organization dedicated to the LGBTQ+ agenda, and announced his goal—to raise $50,000 for his Rainbow Fund.
The Rainbow Fund, he told everyone in attendance, would be a scholarship to help “students who believe in liberty, equality and justice for everybody.” In other words, “LGBT+ and allies.”
Through personal networks and phone calls, Gipson, with the help of Lisa Rung, wife of French professor Donald Rung, and Ann Chenoweth-Duestch, asked for money from Sewanee alumni, family friends, and faculty and staff for 12 years.
Finally, in August of 2018, they reached their $50,000 goal. The money is under the jurisdiction of the faculty advisors for the Queer & Ally (Q&A) House and Spectrum, Professors James MacDonald and Arturo Marquez-Gomez, along with Provost Nancy Berner.
“It can be given to students who show a financial need, or for those organizations if they need help bringing in a speaker or something,” Gipson explained.
Its full name is, “officially, ‘The Rainbow Fund in honor of Bishop V. Gene Robinson (C’69).’” Robinson was the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church.
“[The University is] still scared to death. They will not give Bishop Gene Robinson an honorary degree,” Gipson said. “Therefore I want this thing named liked that. At least he’ll have some recognition around here.”
As a member of both the LGBTQ+ community, the group for whom the scholarship is for, and as a lifetime member of the local community, Gipson’s history gives him a special look into the issues surrounding the area.
“My great great grandfather Allen Gipson was a friend of Bishop Quintard,” he said, gesturing to his gravestone, “My family arrived here in 1814. When the Bishops got off the train in 1854, you know what [Sewanee] was named? Gipson Switch, after the Gipson family— my family.”
He worked closely with the University to get a plaque in All Saints’ Chapel dedicated to the local people that gave the school land and never received recognition, his great-great-grandfather included.
From there, he walked me around, pointing out important figures in his life, teachers, doctors, and bishops, that he knew either from childhood, his time at the University of the South as a local boy in the midst of a wealthy culture or from his time teaching just down the mountain. Born in Sewanee, Tennessee on September 30, 1944, Gipson’s roots run deep. However, his long history in Sewanee brought deep trouble as well.
“Growing up here… different and being called names, it was extremely difficult,” he explained, “Hell, I developed a bleeding ulcer when I was 18. I almost died, because I was worried about two things— my grades and about how to exist in a world where you have to keep quiet, and live a secretive, secretive life about everything.”
As a graduate of the class of 1966, there were no outlets for LGBTQ+ members during Gipson’s time on campus. “But,” he explained, “as time went by, there was some activity on the campus here, in the 80s. The gay students would meet secretly, and I got word of it. I started sending them a little bit of money. I’d write on the checks, ‘If this cannot be used for the use of the gay students, return my check.’ Well, honey, I never got a check returned!’”
Recognition is his ultimate goal, for both the local community and the LGBTQ+ community. He believes in “transparency and openness.”
“There’s always gay alumni but never any gay students,” Gipson explained. “Let it be known that there was and is a gay presence here.”