by Grace Tatter
Sherry Williamson cranked out much of Lambda, the newsletter for the Carolina Gay Association, from her Carrboro kitchen, brainstorming story ideas with fellow Carolina students and pounding articles out with a typewriter during the few spare hours she had after coursework for the journalism school.
Every month, she and fellow students in the Carolina Gay Association mailed the newsletter off in non-descript envelopes all over the Southeast; to other colleges, to underground gay bars in former milltowns, and, though Williamson would not meet her for years, to Williamson’s future wife, who was then a student at Radford College in Virginia.
Lambda was founded along with the CGA in 1974, and was the first publication geared toward sexual minorities in the state, and the only one for many years. Williamson spearheaded the newsletter from 1979 to 1980.
“It was really cool to know that the work that we were doing was affecting other people,” Williamson said when I sat down with her Nov. 7. “First of all, just to say that we’re here, and you’re not alone; there are other people here […] There was a sense that we were doing something bigger than just being a newsletter or a calendar of events of what was happening on campus.”
A commitment to helping others imbued Williamson’s love of journalism and had informed decision to come to Carolina the semester before taking over Lambda.
As a child, Williamson had looked at airplanes flying over the tobacco fields of her native Columbus County, and promised herself she would go wherever those planes were going — far away. She loved her community and supportive family, but was inspired by the books she devoured, like Johnny Tremaine and Heidi, to travel beyond the rural tidelands. So, upon graduating from high school, Williamson headed across the state to Appalachian State University; the first person in her family to leave the Columbus-Robeson county area for school. One day, two reporters from the Charlotte Observer came to visit her English class in Boone.
“[Journalism] was certainly a way to do what I wanted to do, which was to write, which was to try to make a difference in the world,” she recalled. “And journalism can give you that opportunity, to put information in front of people, and with the hope that if people have information they can make, you know, good decisions.”
Her motivation to transfer to Chapel Hill was journalism, but she realized it was a chance to grow personally, too. She was sitting on her bed at Appalachian, flipping through the bulletin of activities at Chapel Hill, when she saw a listing for the Carolina Gay Association. The CGA was one of the only such organizations in the Southeast at the time, and Appalachian did not have a group for gay students. Besides, Williamson was not even sure if she was gay.
“I made a joke: ‘ I’m going to join the Carolina Gay Association!’ And everyone laughed, because you know, their own homophobia. And it was my own internalized homophobia, and I was just kind of testing the waters, to see a little bit how people would respond. But I knew internally that that was one of the things I was going to do, because I was starting a new life where no one knew me, and I was starting again.”
The Carolina Gay Association gave Williamson a community in which to grow, and an audience to hone her writing. But because she was concerned about the implications Lambda might have for her career outside of Chapel Hill, Williamson always used a pseudonym while on campus. Now she works at the Office of Communications at the Duke Divinity School, and can finally get the long overdue credit for hours spent on Lambda during her undergraduate career.
To hear more of Williamson’s story, and learn more about the early days of the Carolina Gay Association (now SAGA), come see the Southern Oral History Program interns perform at the Love House, Dec. 5, at 3 p.m.