When Ted Lewis, an LGBTQ advocate, was hired by Common Ground in 2012, the city of Richmond community gave them an ominous welcome.
"When I started in 2012, U of R had a reputation in the city of being very white, very conservative, very anti-LGBT, very rich," Lewis said. "When I went to meet with community members, they would constantly ask me, 'Oh no, you work at VCU, not at U of R.' No one would believe me and there was a sense of 'You better watch out, that's a scary place to be in.'"
Lewis served as the first associate director for LGBTQ campus life for four years, completing their time at Richmond with last week's Q-Summit, an annual leadership conference for southern LGBTQ youth.
Lewis' legacy weaves confident students and compassionate colleagues, intellectual engagement and community empowerment. The stories that make up the mosaic of their tenure culminate into a portrait of the university no one envisioned before them. It's a portrait of a private university leading the fight for LGBTQ inclusivity in the South, a region widely considered hostile to LGBTQ rights.
In Lewis' first year at Richmond, the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth (ROSMY) "recognized University of Richmond for its annual catalyst award, and then the year after that The Advocate, which is a national LGBT magazine, recognized U of R as one of the seven bravest campuses in the South when it comes to LGBT stuff," Glyn Hughes, the director of Common Ground, said. Richmond was the first school in the area to hire a full-time LGBTQ director.
Before Common Ground hired Lewis, Richmond's LGBTQ support system was composed of staff and faculty volunteers, in addition to Hughes and Lisa Miles, associate director of Common Ground. Volunteers had SafeZone training, but some people on campus felt this was not enough.
Erik Lampmann, who graduated in 2014, staffed the search committee for Lewis' former position and worked closely with them in the office of Common Ground.
"It's important to remember—as Ted does—that creation of a full-time Associate Director of LGBTQ Campus Life came after years of student, faculty and staff agitation," Lampmann wrote in an email. "Queer people at UR had long urged the administration to devote tangible resources to increased LGBTQ visibility and programming on campus."
Through programming like UR Comes Out, a series of events in October celebrating LGBT History Month, and Lavender Graduation, Lewis made LGBTQ visibility a priority on campus.
"Part of what often makes LGBTQ people vulnerable is this visibility and invisibility," Hughes said. "There are safety issues about being out or seen, and so it's really important when an institution or an individual can say, 'No, we are here and visible.'"
Lewis embraced this view in their first year at Richmond when they participated in a drag performance on campus, Jazzmin Reid, a senior LGBT support assistant in Common Ground, said.
Lewis is "not afraid to visibly be queer for the students," Reid said. "Students know that 'this is someone I can go to.'"
Lewis mentored many students while working at Richmond. Reid said her Richmond experience "wouldn't have been the same without Ted." She said she turned to Lewis in some of her most difficult moments.
For Lewis, one of the most fulfilling experiences at Richmond was watching a student grow from a closeted and isolated first-year to an openly gay mentor and advocate as a sophomore.
"Even just having Ted's position available makes a big change in a lot of students' lives," Kylie Britt, a freshman working in Common Ground, said. Both Britt and Reid appreciated Lewis's openness and availability to students.
These positive experiences with Lewis, combined with their visibility and work on campus and in the Richmond community, contributed to the shift in the university's reputation as an LGBTQ-friendly place.
"For the last two years I've had a number of calls from prospective students who are LGBT-identified or their parents calling because they view Richmond as the most progressive option of the schools they're looking at," Lewis said, adding that they knew "at least five transgender high school students who are either applying [to Richmond] or got in early decision, and they're coming because the work that we did."
However, while LGBTQ students can find a lot of support from faculty, staff and administration, Lewis said the student body has not caught up.
"I would argue that the scariest place on campus for LGBTQ students—even scarier than the lodge parties—is Marsh Hall," Lewis said. They said every year they are visited by a different male student who has been verbally or physically assaulted in the freshman male dorm.
Lewis said fraternity parties and Yik Yak were also home to instances of violence and bullying.
"Whoever is in this position can write all the policy they want, but student culture has to shift," Lewis said.
They said it is difficult for the culture to shift, however, when Richmond still fosters a relationship with Paul Queally, a prominent donor to Richmond who has earned criticism for his homophobic and sexist remarks.
"I think for students that remember it and some faculty and staff, the idea that we're going to have a welcome center, which is going to be the first place that a lot of students encounter, with someone who has made both homophobic and sexist remarks...is troubling," Lewis said.
Lewis does not have a solution, as Queally donates a great deal of time and money to Richmond, but noted that there were no consequences for the remarks. Queally apologized, but the wound has not healed.
The wound will have to continue healing under the next associate director of LGBTQ campus life, as Lewis has already taken over as executive director of ROSMY. Common Ground has begun reviewing applications for the position, but many lament Lewis' departure.
Kerstin Soderlund is the associate dean for student and external affairs of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies and worked with Lewis on numerous projects, including the EnVision social justice leadership retreat.
"I think it's a tremendous loss for the university," Soderlund said. "I think the one thing that makes us very, very, very fortunate is that [they are] still going to be in the city of Richmond. I think that makes the blow less hard."
For Lewis, moving on to ROSMY seems like a logical next step.
"There are not many LGBT youth centers in the country," Lewis said. "When ROSMY selected me, I felt like it was a good time to graduate from UR. I've done my four years."
Contact news editor Kayla Solsbak at firstname.lastname@example.org