Meet 2011′s Out.Spoken. Richmonder Of The Year
An e-mail from Jon Henry appears on the screen with the subject line “Breaking News.” It’s the eve of an important vote in the history of the University of Richmond. The Board of Trustees will be adding gender identity and expression into the school’s non-discrimination policy.
“IT PASSED,” he exclaims in a followup message.
It’s a big step coming from a campus often viewed as conservative. And it’s a big step for Virginia (remember Ken Cuccinelli’s letter to state colleges and universities last year?). The University of Richmond has made great strides to build an inclusive environment in the past three years and Jon’s story is testament to that.
Jon Henry is 2011′s Out.Spoken. Richmonder of the Year.
He was raised an hour and half from D.C. in a town known as Little Washington. Picture large family farms scattering the landscape – this is a place where folks have lived for generations. Right outside Shenandoah National Park, there’s a nice arts community that sees traffic from out-of-towners coming in for a hike.
Growing up, his mother Emily Henry, said she and her husband never looked at Jon with anything but love. He came out two years ago after beginning his studies at UofR.
“As a mother – looking back, I’m really glad that he told me,” she said. ”I’m just amazed and very proud and excited for him.”
Jon is currently exploring Jordan before returning to prepare for his senior year where he wraps up two majors – International Studies: World Politics & Diplomacy and Studio Art.
Fellow student Jessie Kelley nominated Jon for this year’s award. Kelley met Jon the beginning of her freshman year.
“To be completely honest Jon is a huge part of why I did not transfer out of UR following my first year because he encouraged me to give the more inclusive part of campus a chance,” Kelley said.
Through his involvement as president of the Student Alliance for Sexual Diversity (SASD) and as a resident assistant, Jon has made himself available to his peers as Kelley notes.
After petitioning the student body, gathering over 1000 signatures, and giving a presentation to the Board of Trustees, Jon helped move the campus into adopting the non-discrimination policy inclusive of gender identity and gender expression. UR is only the third school in the commonwealth to have such a policy.
He has made SASD a force on campus.
“Jon does an unbelievable amount of work for the organization, on top of managing his two majors and his social life, and this goes without recognition essentially all of the time,” SASD vice president and classmate Johanna Gehlbach said.
When Jon reinvigorated SASD in the spring of 2009, there was little LGBT presence on campus according to Gehlbach. She joined Jon in presenting the petition to the board of trustees.
“Within two short years, our community has gone from invisible to center stage. SASD is one of the most powerful organizations on campus,” she said.
As he moves into his senior year, he will play an integral part in the beginnings of an LGBT Living and Learning community on campus.
Jon also works with Icebreakers, a group mentoring students that are coming out; has helped organize regular HIV testing on campus; was a lead organizer Equality Conference held at UR last spring, organized a series of LGBT events during the month of April; and has generated dialogue about LGBT issues across campus. And he’s an intern at Equality Virginia.
“He is organized and creative, two qualities which help him invent new ways to reach out to the campus community and to bring together people who may not always see eye-to-eye,” Kelley said.
Grooming A Leader
Sitting in a conference room of the Taylor Haynes Commons, four UR faculty that have worked closely with Jon are impressed with his instinctive leadership qualities that have made SASD a powerhouse.
Dr. Glyn Hughes, Director of Common Ground, UofR’s diversity initiative, said faculty noted a decline of LGBT visibility about four years ago on campus. With a new focus led by UR President Ed Ayers, civic engagement became a key emphasis.
“We don’t deserve the credit for what has happened,” Hughes said of recent events. ”But there have been a lot of things leading up to this including recruiting – including Jon and other active and savvy students in Jon’s class.”
So what was to explain for the decline in that LGBT presence on campus?
“Folks who had been carrying a lot of weight for years were getting tired,” Hughes said. “We took about five of those people that had been leading the Safe Zone program on campus to dinner. They said they were tired.”
Tired and rightfully so – a lot of work had been done on the campus previously. Domestic partners benefits had been added to faculty and staff benefits and this core group had been leading education campaigns across campus.
This coincided with a declined membership in New Directions – the campus’s former LGBT student group.
“Queer students were always here, but not as organized,” Andy Gurka, UR’s Director of Living-Learning and Roadmap Programs, said.
The campus needed a recharge.
Jean-Pierre Laurenceau-Medina is UR’s Associate Director of Multicultural Affairs and advisor to SASD. According to Laurenceau-Medina, faculty recognized Jon’s leadership qualities early on during a student diversity retreat called the Allies Institute. The retreat is open to all students and focused on ethnicity, class, gender, and LGBTQ issues. As a result of the program, four action groups were created.
From there, faculty, staff and students, held a full-day Queer Summit. Jon approached faculty about reestablishing the campus group and about the development of an LGBT Living Learning Community.
According to Gurka, SASD starting moving quick and started questioning a lot of things. “I think that’s because of Jon Henry’s leadership. He helped push us forward in a lot of ways,” he said.
With Jon leading, Laurenceau-Medina remembers seeing anywhere from 15 to 30 students in those early meetings of the SASD.
“Jon has raised the bar for other student leaders,” Gurka said. ”He brings a model of activism with a confident sense of urgency. The issues that SASD raise matter. They are going to advance that agenda. That’s Jon’s style, that’s what he’s brought to SASD from the start.”
Dr. Steve Bisese, UR’s Vice President for Student Development, says Jon has empowered other students on campus to be involved.
“He wanted his fellow students that he’s worked with in other organizations leading groups, becoming RAs, and wants them to be satisfied with their campus experience,” Bisese said. ”People close to him see his leadership as a direction. As an RA, I remember him taking a class, speaking up, and raising an issue in class. He’s made others feel more comfortable to speak up.”
In His Own Words
GayRVA: Tell us about the climate on your campus regarding LGBT issues as a freshman?
As a new freshman, there were really no LGBT activities, organizations, discussions or community. The closest sense was a loose collection of people who would head out to the clubs on Wednesday night. I remember in my Freshman Seminar class that we were reading, Giovanni’s Room, and we were asked to think about it as if it was a straight couple. Queers really didn’t have any large campus community. There just were not even a lot of discussions about queer issues on campus.
How have you seen things progress?
Light years ahead. We now have 6 community groups: Student Alliance for Sexual Diversity, Icebreakers, Black Alliance for Sexual-Minority Equality, Safe Zone, Equality Alliance (Law School), LGBT Spider Alumni, and the Community Board for Gender & Sexual Diversity. I like the growth of Safe Zone as we had close to 200 people get training about how to become an ally. Our study abroad, career center, and health service offices now highlight LGBT issues on their website. I think for a school to transform over just 2 years from nothing to this is a pretty amazing feat.
I spend a lot of time meeting with students, faculty and staff about LGBT matters. I also take on special events like HIV Testing or the Equality Conference as personal projects and directly organize these events. I intern at Equality Virginia so I tap into that network for the school. I think it’s really important for everyone to know queers exist and there is a queer community at UR. I think once the queers are established at UR we can really help out others. We just needed a foundation.
What do you note as your biggest accomplishment while at UR?
I think my biggest accomplishment has been to add gender identity & gender expression to the school’s non-discrimination policy. This has and will drastically alter the framework and activities of the university. It now is incorporated into the school structure so even if all the queer activists left, there still is a skeleton of queerness in the school’s body.
What are your hopes for UofR after you leave the campus?
I don’t ever plan to leave now that there is an Alumni Group, haha. But really overall, I more have institutional dreams like a queer student scholarship, queer student activities office, queer research grants, etc. I’ll leave it up to the future generation of UR students to decide what is best for them because the school changes over time.
What are your plans for the future? Professionally?
I still haven’t decided on this yet. I’m spending the summer ruminating on the ideas of grad school, joining the work force, working abroad, becoming an artist, etc.
I surprisingly don’t plan out my own life, even though I plan out everything else. I more just get idea goals and work towards them and hope for the best. I would like to hopefully work in an international company. I think something in either advertising, sales, or human resources? I could also see myself working at a non-profit. I may even become an independent artist.
You’ve accomplished a lot in such a short amount of time. What advice would you give to an incoming freshman or other students?
I usually have three things that I organize my life and activist activities around. I always read up on my history, I always think creatively and fun, and I always map out my intended goals with other maps of possible roadblocks and solutions. I like to be prepared for anything and everything. I think it is really helpful to thoroughly know a subject if you plan to discuss it.
For example, when I was organizing for HIV testing, I read about the history of the AIDS epidemic and all the science facts. I researched what other schools did for the testing events. I found the Product Red group. So SASD bought a RED Ipod and did a raffle for anyone who got tested. I then went to our Greek life leadership board and offered 150$ to the Greek group with the highest percentage of participation. This allowed SASD to indirectly help another non-profit, RED, supply AIDS medication, got a stereotypical homophobic group involved in a queer issue, and got a lot of people tested. I always try to kill more than one bird with a stone because I only have 4 years at UR to make a change.
How has being an advocate on campus affected life for you personally (dating, interactions with friends, parents, family, etc.)?
Being an activist has really helped me better define my place in the world and my values, ideas, morals, etc. I can’t make any decisions now without thinking of the impact. Who grew this tomato, can this be recycled, was this fair labor, does this company give to non-profits annual, etc? Even my shopping habits have changed. I have the HRC Company App to make sure I go to LGBT-friendly companies, I try to only shop in the city to prevent urban sprawl, and I try to only go to local businesses.
A lot of my friend circles have readjusted around fellow activists. I am stilling deciding how much I want my work to define me. I’ve reestablished myself in the studio and that has been nice outlet.
I came out in college to my family. I wont lie and say it was easy… I think in the end it has been for the best. I even take home my “gay” friends and we go skeet shooting with my dad.
Join Jon Henry as he is recognized during GayRVA’s Bollywood Birthday Bash at Gallery5 on Friday, June 17. The party opens to the general public at 8 p.m. with a brief presentation at 8:30 p.m. For more information, visit GayRVA.com/birthday.
With this second annual award, GayRVA proudly recognizes one individual or group that makes a newsworthy impact to move Richmond forward over the past year. Open nominations were received during the month of April and the winner was selected by GayRVA’s Advisory Board. The recipient of the award is in line with GayRVA’s core values of being inclusive and supportive not only to the LGBT community, but Richmond as a whole.
Photo courtesy of Jon Henry.
Kevin Clay is the editor and publisher of GAYRVA.COM. He is a Richmond native, loves the city and knows it's on the edge of greatness. Don't hold back RVA. You can follow Kevin on GAYRVA's Twitter or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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