Editor’s note: In honor of the University’s 225th anniversary, we will be sharing profiles throughout the academic year of some of the many Tar Heels who have left their heelprint on the campus, their communities, the state, the nation and the world.
When Dan Leonard came to Carolina for graduate school in the late 1960s, he noticed that there wasn’t an organized student group for gay men. He wanted to change that and create a community so he started the Carolina Gay Association.
A lifelong North Carolinian, Leonard grew up in rural Davidson County and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Catawba College in 1965. After graduating, Leonard moved to Chapel Hill, where he worked as a pathology research technician at the UNC School of Medicine.
In 1969, he began to pursue a master’s degree in pathology at Carolina. Leonard also worked as a counselor in the Human Sexuality Information and Counseling Services.
Throughout his early years at Carolina, Leonard felt that campus was missing an organized community for LGBT students, especially gay men. He wanted to create a group that could facilitate political activism and host consciousness-raising groups for the gay community.
Leonard began the process of establishing the Carolina Gay Association in the spring of 1974. Meetings were held once a week to brainstorm how the club would operate. In the fall of that year, the University recognized the association as an official student organization.
Leonard graduated from his master’s program just one year after the organization was established, but the Carolina Gay Association continued to thrive. In 1976, the association published “Lambda,” the first LGBTQ student publication in the nation.
Known today as the Sexuality and Gender Alliance, the organization has been an official student group for more than 40 years. In 2003, the organization hosted the first North Carolina Unity Conference, now known as the Southeast Regional Unity Conference. Hosted at Carolina each spring, it is the largest LGBT conference in the Southeast.
Leonard remained in Chapel Hill and worked at Carolina for 29 years before retiring from the University in 1997. Since then, he has worked as a nurse for various hospitals and clinics, including the Orange County Department of Aging.
Today, Leonard continues to be an advocate for LGBT rights and is a member of a group for LGBT community members at the Seymour Center in Chapel Hill.
In 2018, Leonard was recognized by the University as a “Bridge Builder” and a scholarship was established in his name. The recognition honors individuals whose work, advocacy and personal example helped forge a more inclusive, unified and aspirational Carolina community.