Alumna encourages others to re-experience Virginia Tech during Denim Day Do Over
Nancy Kelly was a bit shocked when she returned to Blacksburg last summer after almost four decades.
“I started looking around and seeing all these little rainbow things,” Kelly said. “I was blown away there was an LGBTQ+ Center.”
Such efforts were unfamiliar on the campus Kelly remembered, the one where she helped lead its first gay rights event during its first Gay Awareness Week in 1979. “Denim Day,” as the event was called, resulted in a level of ridicule and harassment, both public and private, that left her rarely speaking of her alma-mater, much less engaging with it, since her 1981 graduation.
“I just never looked. I just never cared,” Kelly said. “I never thought about it. I never talked about it. No one knew I went to Tech. It was just not on my radar.”
Last spring, during a conversation with students she works with at Duke University, Kelly shared her experience and her mind was changed.
“They just really inspired me to go, let’s explore this and let’s heal and let’s think about Denim Day and what that was, which at that time was revolutionary,” she said.
With the 40th anniversary of Denim Day on the horizon, Kelly returned to Virginia Tech, began making contacts, and had soon spearheaded a commemoration of the university’s first public display in support of gay rights.
The anniversary celebration will be held in conjunction with Pride Week, April 1-8, and with the support of several university groups, including Alumni Relations, Ex Lapide Alumni Society, the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, and University Libraries. It will include a variety of activities, highlighted by a “Denim Day Do Over” on Friday from 12:05 to 12:45 p.m. on the Drillfield. During that time, everyone is invited to wear Hokie colors and denim in support of the LGBTQ+ community and be a part of a group photo.
Latanya Walker, Virginia Tech’s director of alumni relations for diversity and inclusion, was one of Kelly’s first contacts when she returned to campus. Walker said this is the type of event that provides critical opportunities to acknowledge the university’s past and validate the experiences of the alumni from diverse backgrounds.
“It’s not only an opportunity to show how much we’ve changed, but it’s also an opportunity to connect with these alums and let them know that we do care about their experiences and their stories and we do want them to know what is going on now,” Walker said. “It is through these efforts that we show alumni that we mean what we say about diversity, and we are committed to building a community of inclusion and belonging.”
Kelly said the event will mark the first time many participants of the original Denim Day have been back to Virginia Tech and Blacksburg. Many will travel a great distance, including at least two who will cross oceans to visit campus.
“I think it’s important that we understand that our social world is changing, and I’m appreciative that we have not just been welcomed back, but celebrated,” Kelly said. “And we have come a long way, but there is still much to do.”
A sea of corduroy
Denying the existence of the LGBTQ+ community at Virginia Tech became nearly impossible after that Wednesday in 1979.
“You cannot say that people in 1979 did not know that there were gay students there,” Kelly said.
The Gay Student Alliance (GSA), which would eventually evolve into Hokie Pride, used newspapers and fliers to advertise that the university’s first “Denim Day” would be held on Jan. 17.
“The message was very simple: support gay rights, wear denim,” said Kelly, who became GSA’s first lesbian co-president in 1978.
As a result of Kelly’s return to campus last summer, Anthony Wright de Hernandez, University Libraries’ community collections archivist; inclusion and diversity coordinator, has been collecting materials about Denim Day and past Gay Awareness Weeks, including newspaper articles and oral histories.
“I don’t know if we would have gotten around to really making an effort to document this event if it wasn’t for Nancy,” Wright de Hernandez said.
Among the materials gathered, which are housed in Special Collections, is the oral history of Sherry Wood ’80, who was the editor-in-chief of The Collegiate Times at the time of Denim Day.
“We put the thing [ad for Denim Day] in the paper; I forgot about it. Then, as soon as it appeared, we literally started getting — I would say we got at least 150 letters,” said Wood during her interview.
Wood said about half the letters were in support of Denim Day, but the “animosity” of those opposed was what really stood out.
“Some of them were really hysterical or really just over the top, against gay rights,” she said.
Among other things, student-penned letters called the event a “stunt” and an “outrage to any thinking student.” Many of the letters expressed anger the group had chosen such a popular clothing choice in making a statement.
“Personally, I’ve worn blue jeans every day that I’ve been at Tech, and now I have to wear corduroy pants (preferably not blue, just in case.),” wrote one student.
One letter expressed fear of students being falsely labeled as a supporter of gay rights by wearing jeans and closed with, “the majority of Virginia Tech students, we hope, are not homosexuals.”
Denim Day came and, according to Kelly, it was a quiet day that was noticeably lacking jeans, which then often referred to as the unofficial uniform of Virginia Tech students.
“It was a sea of corduroys,” Kelly said. “Every class I went into, I was the only one wearing jeans.”
What the campus didn’t lack that day, or in the days that followed, was students speaking out against the GSA and Denim Day.
“We were taunted, ridiculed; we were verbally and physically assaulted,” Kelly said. “We knew that we were not embraced. We knew that people did not accept us, but the level of the reaction was so immediate and fierce … It was a pretty decisive blow.”
Photos in the Jan. 19, 1979, edition of The Collegiate Times showed at least two people wearing shirts protesting the event and a handful of male students wearing denim skirts in a mocking fashion. Wood estimated about 20 to 30 percent of the campus wore denim that day, down from about 90 percent on any other day.
Kelly said the hardship continued during the weeks and months that followed and was especially intense for those living in residence halls on campus.
“It was very hard to be an openly gay person in the dorms because you couldn’t get away from it. It wasn’t safe,” Kelly said.
As a result of Denim Day, the university received an estimated 25,000 letters throughout the next year, according to a 1980 report in The Collegiate Times.
When the group announced its plan to hold another Denim Day the following year, Kelly said GSA leaders were promptly called to Burruss Hall to meet with a senior university official.
“He just said, ‘You’re never going to do that again. You not only have embarrassed your organization within the university, but you have embarrassed the university throughout the state,’” Kelly said. “So, [instead] we had a Gay Pray Day where we were just going to pray for all those people who were mean to us.”
As a result of the fallout, the GSA stopped meeting on campus, and Kelly and many others moved off campus for the remainder of their time at Tech.
That distance grew once Kelly completed her degree.
“I did not walk at graduation. I did not step foot back on campus. I think the development people called me once, and I told them I was dead,” Kelly said.
Currently, Kelly is director of engagement and events at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, where in 2017, she was awarded the Star Advisor Award for her dedication to students.
It was there she had a conversation about Virginia Tech with Duke students in the LGBTQ+ community, which caused Kelly to rethink the distance between herself and the university.
“They said, ‘You really did pave the way for us. It’s still hard, but it’s not as hard,’” she said. “I just thought about the current students at Tech and how they might not have any older gay people as alums.”
Realizing the 40th anniversary of Denim Day was approaching, Kelly decided to attempt to change that by revisiting campus and beginning to make inroads toward what became this year’s celebration.
“I’ve really been welcomed with open arms,” Kelly said.
Along with Walker and Wright de Hernandez, Kelly was also soon in touch with Luis H. Garay, director of the LGBTQ+ Resource Center and began merging the Denim Day commemoration with Pride Week.
Garay said prior to Kelly’s return to Tech, little was known about Denim Day beyond the University Libraries’ archives, so the addition of her voice added a new dimension and illuminated the “watershed moment.”
“It really showed the grand impact this moment had in 1979 with the student organization and just how much of a tizzy that sent folks into,” Garay said. “The real piece for me in hearing Nancy’s story was the impact it had on the students … so much that she hadn’t engaged with Virginia Tech until last summer.”
Wright de Hernandez said Kelly’s account brought into the present a story that was previously mostly known through a series newspaper articles.
“Those were really interesting to me as far as the history aspect of it, but what you don’t get from the articles are the personal stories of what happened to the individuals who were involved,” Wright de Hernandez said. “She went through all that and still graduated, and it’s not surprising she then chose to cut off ties.”
He said he believes the work Kelly helped spur, especially the oral histories collected, would bring the historical text to life for future generations as well.
“It takes that history and just elevates it and takes it into a space where people really can understand and empathize with what it is because you’re really getting the emotion,” Wright de Hernandez said.
Honoring the history of LGBTQ+ Hokies is an important part of Pride Week, which also includes, but is not limited to, the 14th annual Queer in Appalachia event, the second-annual LGBTQHokie Visibility Day, and a film on the history of Roanoke LGBTQ+ community, “The Unlikely Story of the Lesbians of First Friday.”
Garay said historical aspect of Pride Week was very important because it helps today’s students to realize the legacy they are continuing.
“A lot of the work student leaders are doing today, they’re standing on the shoulders of those alumni, and so I want them to contextualize their work in a historical sense,” Garay said.
And the 40th anniversary of Denim Day provides a perfect opportunity for both acknowledgment of that legacy, as well as some intergenerational healing and restoration.
“We can say, we see you now. We can honor you in the present,” Garay said. “We may not have been able to be there in 1979 to honor you and celebrate you, but let us do that now in 2019, 40 years later, because it’s important to us and our history.”
Since that summer, Kelly said she has been contacting fellow participants of the 1979 Denim Day, sharing her new experience with Virginia Tech, and encouraging to do the same by attending the Denim Day Do Over.
“The things that I had thought about Tech are no longer true. I just needed to let go of it and re-experience it,” Kelly said.
She said she’s excited for them to reunite and together grasp and reflect on Denim Day’s long-term impact.
“We were just kids, we didn’t want to be hated. We were just trying to figure out who we were,” Kelly said. “What we really did was create awareness, and in order for you to have rights and presence, you have to first have awareness.”