James Elywin Gipson (C ’66) passed away on October 3 of this year as a lifelong member of the Sewanee community. Graduating from The University of the South with a BA in American History, Gipson went on to teach history and Spanish at Franklin County High School, and he continued to support Sewanee’s community, particularly its queer community. As an alumnus, that support is especially evident in The Rainbow Fund, a scholarship benefitting queer students that Gipson spent over twelve years spearheading and collecting, and officially launched in 2019, fifty-three years after graduating from the college.
The article announcing the creation of this fund in 2018, “James Gipson (C ’66) Starts $50,000 Rainbow Fund For LGBTQ+ Students And Projects”, was only Lucy Rudman’s (C ‘22) second assignment for The Sewanee Purple, and she remembers how Gipson, with his bright pink hair and friendly disposition, so naturally put her at ease for an “unconventional” interview.
Rudman, sitting on the Stirling’s porch one misty October morning, reflects on that interview she’d conducted just across the street, with Gipson leading her around the University Cemetery, as he did habitually, ensuring that everything was kept in order and well-maintained. She remembers how he would point out familiar names on gravestones and recall their roles in Sewanee’s history, and nod to the pride flags in the window of the Queer and Ally House within view, ever-eager to preserve Sewanee’s history while pushing for a more inclusive future. “He walked me through the timeline of LGBT presence on campus” Rudman describes the experience. “Not even rights necessarily – just presence” she specifies, emphasizing, coincidentally, Gipson’s words with which she ended her article: Let it be known that there was and is a gay presence here.
Gipson’s reflections on his experience growing up in Sewanee and witnessing the shifting dynamics of the LGBTQ+ experience on campus demonstrate the caring attention which he long devoted to the community, even when it did not return that support. Having developed an ulcer at eighteen from a combination of academic stress and the pressure of leading “a secretive, secretive life”, as he told Rudman, Gipson knew first-hand the damage that could come from existing as a queer student in a hostile environment, and understood that many queer students faced the threat of the withdrawal of financial support from family.
The Rainbow Fund, therefore, offers a “safety net,” as Spectrum Co-President Sarah Signorino (C ‘23) puts it, to Sewanee’s queer students – a demographic that is often at risk of losing financial support from family. “The Rainbow Fund is here so that queer students can have peace of mind knowing that if they have an emergency, they will have financial support to back them up,” Signorino said.
The fund is notably more accessible than students may assume. Chloe Balmer (C ‘23), Co-Director of the Queer and Ally House, encourages students, even outside of Sewanee’s Gender and Sexual Diversity Alliance, to consider applying for aid from the fund when necessary, citing it as an “excellent resource.”
“This really can be for anyone who needs funding and can’t find it elsewhere,” Balmer says.
Associate Professor of English James Ross Macdonald, who has served as advisor to the Queer and Ally House since 2016, echoed a similar sentiment: “It was conceived as a sort of resource in helping people in the process of coming out. Mr. Gipson was very careful in writing the indenture that this is a fund meant to assist not just LGBTQIA students but students who have and are doing the work of advocating for equality on campus.”
In addition to providing aid to individual needs, The Rainbow Fund likewise functions to stimulate engagement with the queer community on-campus, particularly in conjunction with the Q&A House and Spectrum, offering a source of financial assistance to organizations as well as individuals, in an effort to cultivate further awareness and fellowship. Gipson’s dedication to providing support to Sewanee’s LGBTQ+ community has provided an unprecedented supportive infrastructure, and with new contributions being made every year, The Rainbow Fund is sure to continue Gipson’s mission.
Gipson’s continued dedication to Sewanee and its people throughout his lifetime – to remembering those that made it the way it is and to participating in bettering its culture – seemed palpable in each recollection of him, and the generosity with which he engaged with this community should not be forgotten, but appreciated and imitated.
To find out more about The Rainbow Fund, visit: https://new.sewanee.edu/campus-life/including/diversity-in-organizations/gender-sexual-diversity-alliance/the-rainbow-fund/
I met James on my first visit to Sewanee in the summer of 2020 when scheduled tours still weren’t happening. My mom and I happened to be walking by the cemetery, and he could tell we were visitors, so he stopped and chatted with us. What we thought would be a 5 minute interaction ended up being an hour and a half of him telling us all about the cemetery, his family’s history with Sewanee and the region, and the recent death of his partner. It was so nice to talk with him and hear his story. His legacy will always stay with Sewanee as being one of the earliest openly queer voices on campus. His bravery and pride should be an example for us all. <3
James Gipson was never shy in offering his opinions. I have known him for 40 years. I met him at a gay and lesbian conferences in 1980 in Memphis and he told me about a place called Sewanee and a school called the University of the South. Then he mentioned the Summer Music festival. I went to the festival for 39 straight years until covid hit us. I will miss him terribly 😔
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