LGBTQ alumni affinity group creates community

Since 2017, the Carolina Pride Alum Network has been connecting and supporting LGBTQ Tar Heels.

Group of individuals holding sign reading

For most of Carolina’s history, there was no formal alumni affinity group for members of the LGBTQ community. That changed in 2017.

Many of Carolina’s LGBTQ alumni had formed an informal network to stay in touch and involved in University affairs. During the Campaign for Carolina, launched in 2017, a group of volunteer alumni came together to formalize that network within the Office of University Development. Through their efforts, the Carolina Pride Alum Network was established.

“We wanted to create and develop a community,” said Ken Smith ‘84, a founding member and the first volunteer president of CPAN. “We wanted to encourage support for the University in a way that made us visible contributing members of this community. It’s helpful to have something that acknowledges our role, presence and value to the University.”

The new organization held events across the country to publicize its goal of connecting LGBTQ Carolina alumni and quickly became one of the largest alumni affinity groups, with over 1,500 members. The University does not collect demographic data about LGBTQ identities, so CPAN’s growth was fueled by word-of-mouth and social media campaigns. The Office of University Development supports CPAN and many other affinity groups made up of Carolina graduates who share a common background and passion for supporting the University community.

Mackenzie Thomas, another founding member and former president of CPAN, sees the group as an important advocate for LGBTQ Tar Heels.

“We have to play a role in how we show up for our community and acknowledge our connection to this public University,” Thomas said. “This space is important for affirming the identities of our LGBTQ students and youth across the state and reminding them that they do belong.”

The network hosts two annual reunions, during homecoming weekend and Carolina Pride Week. In 2023, the group hosted “The Story of Us,” a live performance of stories of LGBTQ Carolina alumni. The stories were recorded in an oral history project now housed in the Wilson Special Collections Library.

Among the stories told during that event was that of Tony Kearney ‘87, current CPAN president. Kearney attended Carolina when LGBTQ students were not as openly accepted as they are today. He encouraged his fellow LGBTQ Tar Heels to speak out.

“Make sure your voice is heard,” Kearney said. “It’s a big campus, and we’re a small group. Make sure that you’re involved in things and speaking up for LGBTQ folks when you can.”

In addition to hosting their own events, CPAN coordinates with the UNC LGBTQ Center to support the center’s Lavender Graduation ceremony for graduating LGBTQ students and connect them to the alumni network.

“There are so many other affinity groups that create meaningful connections,” said Hogan Medlin, a former CPAN president. “What’s special about CPAN is that it provides the LGBTQ community a new way to connect back to this place that was formative for so many of us.”

This year’s slate of CPAN Pride Week events features “Generations of Pride: Stories of LGBTQ+ Life at Carolina” April 13 at the Curtis Media Center. The event kicks off at 11 a.m. with a panel discussion on current LGBTQ+ campus life, moderated by Raul Reis, dean of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. After the discussion and lunch, LGBTQ alumni across generations will share their experiences in an afternoon storytelling session, followed by a reception.