Recruited to play field hockey at the University of Mary Washington, Chrissy Bowdren ’11, then a freshman, left practice to get her picture taken for her EagleOne card. Sweating in her uniform, she saw a familiar face in line. She teased her new teammate, Nicole, for being freshly showered and made up, but it was the start of their friendship. And something more.
“We were just kind of inseparable ever since,” she told Shawnya Peterson ’19. “We just got married two years ago.” Peterson, a UMW senior at the time of the conversation, was interviewing Bowdren for her history class.
Today, for the first time, Bowdren’s story and others told by Mary Washington’s LGBTQ alumni, will be available for anyone to hear, as part of UMW Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives. Released during Pride Month, these interviews were conducted in 2019 by students in Associate Professor Erin Devlin’s Oral History seminar, with help from the Office of Alumni Relations. The recordings, transcribed by the students, show how these alums discovered themselves and learned to feel pride at Mary Washington, while shaping queer culture on campus for generations to come.
“Oral history is a powerful tool for amplifying the voices of individuals, especially those who have been marginalized,” Devlin said. “This collection will benefit all of us as we work to more fully capture the diversity of experiences at UMW.”
Devlin teamed up with Alumni Relations Executive Director Mark Thaden ’02, finding participants through Mary Washington’s then-newly formed LGBTQ Alumni Affinity Group. Two dozen alumni – spanning the late 1960s to the 2010s – volunteered to become “narrators,” sharing their stories with students, and now, the wider UMW community.
“There’s a real multi-generational dialogue that takes place,” Devlin said. “Narrators have the opportunity to ask questions about what life at Mary Washington is like today.” Conversations covered campus changes, Fredericksburg hangouts and UMW traditions like Devil-Goat Day and the Multicultural Fair. They discussed events that occurred during their college years, such as 9/11, Barack Obama’s historic election and support of marriage equality, and UMW’s celebration of the Freedom Rides’ 50th anniversary.
Speaking to Bowdren was incredibly impactful, said Peterson, who came back to campus this spring to provide insight to Devlin’s students who were preparing to do their own interviews. Currently applying to graduate programs focusing on oral histories, Peterson will present at the Oral History Association’s annual meeting in October. “Now that the project is part of UMW Libraries’ alumni collections, I hope it will serve as a reminder of all the beautiful stories that make up Mary Washington.”
With the alums’ permission, recordings and written transcripts were submitted to the library’s archiving team of Carolyn Parsons, Sarah Appleby and Angie Kemp, all alumnae themselves. They edited the transcripts for accuracy and style, and uploaded everything to Preservica, a digital preservation program.
“This is a visible representation to current students identifying as LGBTQ that their history is important and being preserved as part of UMW’s rich heritage,” said Parsons, who hopes the oral histories collection will be useful to future researchers. Stories from Black alumni, documented by Devlin’s students this spring, and interviews with World War II veterans who attended Mary Washington will also soon be added.
Raised as a Southern Baptist, Nate Wade ’91 said he struggled with his sexuality but eventually found his voice. “I really grew into myself and realized that I didn’t have to be who anybody else expected me to be,” he said, calling Mary Washington professors “wonderfully supportive.”
Jennifer “Jiff” Fortner ’02 helped plan the University’s first-ever drag show and was active in PRISM, or People for the Rights of Individuals of Sexual Minorities. “At that time, the gay community was evolving, so it was educational for me to just hear how things were being experienced by other people.”
Too nervous to approach the PRISM table at Club Carnival as a freshman, Thaden overcame his fears, working as a student to make the organization more visible. Hired in 2011, he discovered the progress his alma mater had made, introducing the Safe Zone program and gender-neutral housing, and observing Coming Out Day and Day of Silence. “It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come as an institution.”
As a student, Bowdren had not yet come out to friends and family. After college, working with Thaden in the Alumni Relations office, she said, seeing his pride in who he was, and the support she received from him and his staff, gave her the courage to finally speak her own truth.
“I found myself at Mary Washington. I found my wife there. And being a UMW alumna is a huge part of my identity,” Bowdren said. “I don’t think I’d be the person I am today if it weren’t for the experiences I had there.”