Monday, April 1, 2019

LGBTQ Pioneers on Campus: Dr. Thomas K. Fitzgerald

To kick off PRIDE! month at UNC Greensboro, Spartan Stories is highlighting Dr. Thomas K. Fitzgerald, a prominent gay faculty member in the 1970s through 2004.

Thomas (Tom) K. Fitzgerald was born in Lexington, North Carolina. He attended UNC-Chapel Hill, graduating with an A.B. in Anthropology in 1962. Although he originally intended to study Latin and Greek at UNC-Chapel Hill, he was fascinated by anthropology after taking a class early in his college career.

After his time at UNC-Chapel Hill, Dr. Fitzgerald studied in Paris and Stanford before returning to North Carolina. He received a Fulbright Certificate from the Institute of Ethnology at the University of Paris in 1963, and an M.A. in Anthropology from Stanford University in 1964. 

Dr. Fitzgerald’s time spent in France was particularly formative, as recalled in his oral history interview. Being among other LGBTQ individuals in France and California helped him understand his identity and feel more comfortable coming out. After his studies internationally and nationally, Dr. Fitzgerald received his doctorate from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1969.

Dr. Thomas K. Fitzgerald, ca. 1970s.
Dr. Fitzgerald’s research initially focused on cultural anthropology and shifted to psychological anthropology. He often focused on questions surrounding identity: he introduced many interdisciplinary courses meant to examine identity. 

Chief among those identities, and controversial at the time, was the LGBTQ identity and communities. Early in his career, Dr. Fitzgerald was publishing pieces on homosexuality. As an undergraduate student, Dr. Fitzgerald completed a study of homosexuality as an honors thesis – the most read thesis at the library. The paper posited that anthropology had insight into the human condition and experience of different sexualities. 

Dr. Fitzgerald first came to UNC Greensboro as an assistant professor 1970. In 1974, he transitioned to an associate professor. Upon coming to the university. Dr. Fitzgerald recalls the closeted nature of the campus faculty, despite a fair number of faculty in the anthropology department identifying as such. Although the campus as a whole remained closeted, Dr. Fitzgerald was out upon his arrival at the university.

During his time at UNC Greensboro, Dr. Fitzgerald frequently introduced homosexuality as a topic of study in his courses. Initially, he began by showing films with LGBTQ themes for discussion. The films and topics were well-received by students, but Dr. Fitzgerald was anxious about the overall campus reception to this taboo subject. 

UNC Greensboro promoted Dr. Fitzgerald to full faculty member with tenure in 1980. Although not without contention and some pushback from administrators, Dr. Fitzgerald became the youngest full professor at UNC Greensboro at that time.

In the mid-1970s, Dr. Fitzgerald made history by introducing the first approved college course focused on homosexuality in North Carolina. The course made UNC Greensboro a destination for scholars interested in homosexuality as a topic of study, and individuals traveled from across the state to take the course. The reception was not entirely positive, as Dr. Fitzgerald notes. Any advertisements for the course were ripped down, religious tracts would be left in his mailbox, and he felt pressure from some university administrators.

Dr. Fitzgerald was also crucial in the formation of the Gay Academic Union (GAU) in the 1970s, a community group intended to educated others about homosexuality and provide a safe space for LGBTQ individuals in the Triad community. Initially, the group met in private homes and churches, and later on campus. Dr. Fitzgerald noted that the student population on campus, and in North Carolina, was very receptive to discussing sexuality in an honest and forthright manner, even if administrations were not.

In addition to his work surrounding LGBTQ issues and identities, Dr. Fitzgerald also worked extensively to explore issues of race, both within America and worldwide. He spent two years studying the Maori culture and race relations in New Zealand. Based on his work with the Maori, he proposed that genealogical research and a better understanding of your family and culture’s past were an effective means to overcome racism. 

Dr. Thomas Fitzgerald (left) and Bill Johnston (right).
 Dr. Fitzgerald retired from UNC Greensboro in the 2003-2004 academic year, with 30.5 years of service to the university. He currently lives in Greensboro with his partner, ceramic artist Bill Johnston. If you are interested in learning more, you can view/listen to the oral history with Dr. Fitzgerald and Bill Johnston here.

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