More than 30 years ago, Donald Gabard MS ’78, MPA ’88, PhD ’90, was busy working on his third degree from USC when he approached university administrators about establishing an LGBT alumni group. He was met with resistance — but not because anybody thought it was a bad idea.
“They told me, ‘You need to graduate first,’” Gabard remembers, laughing.
They told me, ‘You need to graduate first.’Donald Gabard
So, Gabard finished his dissertation, graduated and went on to formally start the USC Lambda LGBTQ+ Alumni Association on Nov. 12, 1992 — two decades before gays and lesbians could serve openly in the U.S. military, and 23 years before same-sex marriage was declared legal in all 50 U.S. states.
“While the atmosphere in the 1990s was one of tolerance, it wasn’t one of acceptance,” Gabard says. “USC is known for its ability to connect alumni with students, for networking and mentoring opportunities. But in our LGBTQ+ community, inclusion was not a foregone conclusion in that mentoring network.”
During the past three decades, Lambda has worked to change that. The organization has awarded more than $500,000 in scholarships to more than 150 students who, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, demonstrated academic achievement and a strong commitment to the LGBTQ+ community. The recipients have gone on to be executives, doctors, educators, artists and activists.
Gabard and some of the original board members expect to be present on April 15, when USC Lambda formally celebrates its 30th anniversary with a gala event.
Continued commitment to the LGBTQ+ community
“We are going to be celebrating our past and looking toward the future,” says USC Lambda Executive Director Brandon Kyle EdD ’19, who started in that position in the summer of 2022. “It will be fantastic, especially because we’ve never really had a gala of this magnitude.
“Lambda has had a few ups and downs over the years,” Kyle notes. “There’s been a lot of transition.” As part of Lambda’s efforts to rebuild community, the group has turned the scholarship benefit event — formerly held only during milestone anniversaries — into an annual event.
Members want to capitalize on its 30th anniversary to raise both awareness and funds. Lambda currently gives out 11 scholarships annually. “We would love to be able to give out more,” Kyle says. “There’s so much good work that can come out of [this event].”
The group also wants to increase its membership among LGBTQ+ people and the community’s allies. “Networking and mentorship need to begin before students graduate and go out into the world to try and create change,” Kyle says.
Lambda’s early days
Even with the university’s blessing, it wasn’t easy to establish a grassroots organization in those early days.
“While we were determined, we were also extremely poor,” Gabard says. “Our first attempt to get people to join this group was to have dinner parties in our homes. We hosted events and people would bring in trays of homemade food because we couldn’t afford catering. We had tailgates out of the trunks of our cars. But we had such a great time.”
Our first attempt to get people to join this group was to have dinner parties in our homes. We hosted events and people would bring in trays of homemade food because we couldn’t afford catering.Donald Gabard
Gabard worked tirelessly with founding board members Richard Eckardt JD ’66; Marney Hull ’78, MPA ’81; Amy Ross PhD ’86; and Lawrence Starr MBA ’61, each of whom had various areas of expertise.
“The friendships forged in that original board have endured because we were focused, worked so closely together and supported each other,” he says.
The fledgling group received careful guidance from three student affairs administrators at that time: James Dennis MS ’77, Cynthia Cherrey and Kristine Dillon. “Young idealists tend to shoot for the sky, sometimes fall short and feel crushed by that,” Gabard says. “They helped us temper that. They were articulate and cheerful, and we worked together hand-in-glove.”
Lambda scholarship recipient Urban Seiberg ’23, who uses the pronoun they, has been heavily involved in USC Queer and Ally Student Assembly (QuASA). They say Lambda works to support queer students in student government: “It felt amazing to have the queer Trojan family show their support for me and the work I’ve done on campus.”
The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences student especially appreciates the LGBTQ+ alums who remain involved.
“Queer students on campus — like myself — don’t have a lot of queer role models that we know personally,” Seiberg says. “When alums are involved, they serve in that role. “
They add, “One day, I hope to give back to whoever the future LGBTQ+ advocates of our campus are.”