OUTstanding Virginians 2012

Jean Elliott

Communicating and Connecting

In 1999, when Jean Elliott first considered accepting the position of Communications Manager at Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, she decided to look into the culture on campus. She wanted a workplace where she could truly be herself. Not that she was in the closet before. At William and Mary and before that at Brown University, she had brought her partners to basketball games and social events, but there were sometimes awkward moments. This time, she was going to do it differently. If Tech was the right place, she was going to be totally open about her sexuality and her beliefs.

Tech was the right place, and, as she reports, “I was able to be creative like never before.” Immediately upon arriving, she threw herself into women’s and LGBT activities on campus, with leadership roles in the College Diversity Committee, LGBT Faculty/Staff Caucus, Women’s Leadership Initiative, and The Conductor (diversity newsletter), among others. She organized conferences, raised money for LGBT undergraduate scholarships, ran an “It Gets Better Rally” and founded a Lavender Commencement Ceremony and an Ally of the Year Award—all with the full-throated approval of the university’s top officials.

A natural connector of people, she brought the university president together with the LGBT caucus for the first time. And in 2010, when Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli attempted to curtail anti-discrimination protections in the state universities, she mobilized community and university organizations to mount a forum that included Senator John Edwards and former state Assistant Attorney General and former EV lobbyist Claire Gastanaga,

All the while, she continued to work in her favorite field, sports journalism. A sports reporter “since the days women had to go into men’s locker rooms to interview the players,” she often watches Tech games from the journalists’ box on Press Row feeding stats and player biographies to the sportscasters.

Of all her many activities, perhaps the most creative and satisfying is producing the Gay in Appalachia arts residency and lecture series, which she founded. Noted film directors and poets have taken part, giving performances and working with students. One of the most successful was a sold-out dramatic reading by historians Carrie and Michael Kline on the topic of the resiliency of LGBT people in rural West Virginia.

Spirituality in its broadest sense is something Jean ponders and celebrates. She describes how as an undergraduate struggling to reconcile her sexuality and her faith, she received life-changing counsel from a favorite professor, Ira Zepp. “God is Love,” he said, and that formula has been an inspiration to her ever since. Today, Jean and her partner of 11 years, Sharon Crane, share similar beliefs and enjoy Sufi dancing together and hosting various groups at their river place for bonfires and potlucks.

For the past two years, Jean has been visiting several Sub-Saharan African nations with a Virginia Tech team, teaching children, providing scholarships, and assisting with public health projects.  She describes teaching third graders to dance the hokey pokey and learning their dances in exchange. A long-time choir director, she was thrilled to be greeted by singing women when she entered a Malawian village last year. “These people had the secret of happiness,” Jean said; “they had such joy in their hearts.” Thinking of their example, she added, “If we would just trust one another and treat each other with kindness, what a wonderful world this would be.”