Having grown up in Hopkinsville, Ky., a rural town in the state’s coal mining belt, Tommy Arnold can tell you that the evolution of LGBT inclusiveness in America is taking longer in some parts of the country than in others. While gay and lesbian Americans have found mainstream acceptance in many areas, it’s a different story in this conservative region, where coming out is still a painful experience for many queer youth who are turned away by their families.
“Life hasn’t changed much [for gay people] in small-town America where I’m from,” Arnold says. “There’s a lack of exposure to LGBT issues, and when people don’t know or understand something, that creates fear.” It took Arnold’s own family 10 years to accept him after he nervously came out in 1998 at the age of 18. He couldn’t bring a partner around or talk about his experiences as a gay man. And during his college years at the University of Kentucky in Lexington—where he hoped campus life would open up opportunities for personal growth—he found no resources for students struggling with their sexuality. At a time when he needed someone the most, he was alone. “I didn’t have anyone I could talk to, and I had to wage my own internal battle with coming to terms with being gay and what that meant.”
Now living in more liberal Louisville, Ky., Arnold, a sales associate with Keller Williams Realty-Aspire Real Estate Group, is determined to offer a smoother path for today’s gay youth. Not only does he host an annual Thanksgiving dinner for nearly 200 LGBT students at the University of Louisville—some of whom have attempted suicide, faced homelessness, or nearly dropped out of college because their families withdrew financial support—but Arnold also has become a powerful fundraiser on their behalf, creating opportunities for an extended family and hope for a better future that they thought they’d never get.
A Place to Feel Welcome
The “alternative Thanksgiving,” which Arnold started in 2008, gives people like Jacob Jones, 22, who graduated from U of L in 2015, a place to feel welcome without having to go back into the closet. “I’ve never been a particularly confident person as a result of all the years of people silencing me,” says Jones. “But I immediately recognized Tommy as a caring and compassionate person. He developed a genuine interest in me and my story. He’s just one of those individuals you feel immediately connected to, and he will fight to the death for the student voice.”
But recognizing the deep need for long-lasting support for the students he met, Arnold wasn’t satisfied that his annual dinner was enough. “I would find myself at the back of the room, feeling the energy that surrounds these students, and I wanted to harness that energy,” he says.
So in 2012, Arnold partnered with U of L’s LGBT Center to spearhead the Feast On Equality fundraiser to support new programs at the university for LGBT students. That first year, the Feast brought in $86,000, a feat that surprised Arnold, who was unsure how the event would be received by the larger community. But relying on connections he has formed in his real estate business—which include Mayor Greg Fischer—the event has soared in popularity since then. Last year, the event, held in a downtown Louisville hotel ballroom, sold out at 500 tickets and brought in more than $200,000. To date, the Feast has raised more than $500,000 and has more than quadrupled the LGBT Center’s budget.
More Than Just Fundraising
The impact of the money Arnold has raised cannot be overstated, says Brian Buford, director of the LGBT Center and assistant provost for diversity at U of L. The center, which opened in 2007, initially had a budget that covered only basic counseling services for students and office expenses, Buford says. But funds from the Feast have allowed the center to expand its offerings, which now support LGBT-themed student housing and study abroad programs, leadership development courses, and emergency funds for LGBT students in crisis. Thanks to these programs, Campus Pride Index, a national listing of LGBT-friendly universities, has named U of L as one of the top 25 schools in the nation for the past three years.
“It was our vision to be one of the most welcoming campuses in the country, and we are where we are because of Tommy and the Feast. Without those resources, we couldn’t be innovative,” Buford says. “I think Tommy has saved people’s lives. There are students who wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for having someone care about them the way he does.”
That’s more than a symbolic statement to Stacie Steinbock, director of the LGBT Center’s satellite office at U of L’s Health Sciences Center. One of the most impressive results of Arnold’s fundraising is that it has enabled the LGBT Center and the School of Medicine to launch a first-in-the-nation pilot program last year to teach medical students about the specific needs of LGBT patients—particularly those who are transgender. When LGBT people face bias at a doctor’s office, it makes them unlikely to seek future care until it reaches an emergency situation, Steinbock says.
So Arnold’s efforts could well be helping future medical professionals to save lives. “LGBT people often are put in the position of having to train medical professionals on what their needs are,” Steinbock says. “We’re helping [medical] students look at their own value systems [around LGBT issues] and how it relates to the people who need their care.”
Arnold is launching a new Feast at his alma mater, the University of Kentucky, this Thanksgiving and hopes to build chapters nationally. The events are a powerful way to showcase students’ stories of triumph and pain, he says, and tap into attendees’ commitment to fairness and justice. One year, Jones, who had been shunned by his family in Owensboro, Ky., talked about becoming one of the first students to go to Greece on an LGBT-themed study abroad program, a semester that broadened his world view.
The students’ stories highlight the human need for love and acceptance, regardless of one’s sexual orientation. “Everybody has been discriminated against—everyone knows what that feels like,” Arnold says. The satisfaction he gets from empowering youth keeps him focused on his movement. “I have a ton of people in my life who are searching for whatever it is that gives them meaning, and [the Feast] is most definitely that for me. If you can wake up in the morning and know you have an impact on thousands of students’ lives, then you’re living your life right.”