Story by Abby Siegel, Contributing writer
Murray State alumna Kristie Helms and her wife donated $25,000 to the University’s Office of LGBT Programming to begin an endowment that will “help students be exactly who they want to be.”
With roots in small town Possum Trot, Ky., Helms has seen a change in scenery since her childhood. She now works as the Global Head of Social Business and Promotional Strategy for State Street – a global Fortune 500 company with headquarters in Boston.
Helms said her desire to give back to the University stems from the support she has received in her company while being openly gay.
She and her wife of 14 years, Kathryn Carter Nettles, want to create an atmosphere of acceptance and provide awareness opportunities for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in western Kentucky, similar to what they receive in Boston, she said.
“No one in Boston bats an eye when I mention that I’m married to a woman,” Helms said.
She said having the same rights as her “straight neighbors” is something she is proud of. In Kentucky this is not the case, she said.
According to the Kentucky Revised Statutes, “marriage refers only to the civil status, condition, or relation of one (1) man and one (1) woman united in law for life, for the discharge to each other and the community of the duties legally incumbent upon those whose association is founded on the distinction of sex.”
Alongside Kentucky, 13 other states do not allow gay marriage, including Ohio and Tennessee.
“It’s a very different landscape in western Kentucky,” Helms said in regards to the rights given to the LGBT community. “I’ve been away from Kentucky nearly 20 years because I was fearful of judgment in the region – that’s 20 years too long to stay away from the region you love.”
Her activism for increasing LGBT awareness in Kentucky began in 2004 through her volunteer efforts during the Democratic National Convention, helping the Kentucky delegation navigate Boston. Through this she met a young Kentucky man who was not out to other delegates and was shocked to see the rainbow flags and pamphlets at the Human Rights Campaign Table. She recalls this man saying with wide eyes, “are they allowed to do that? To just be…gay? In the open?”
Helms said she wants to ensure that Murray State and the surrounding western Kentucky community knows that alumni not only support the work of the Murray State Office of LGBT Programming and the student organization Alliance, but also will do whatever they can to help the momentum build and spread to the surrounding areas.
When Helms attended the first Murray State LGBT alumni gathering she was shocked to find out that all the alumni at the event had come out later in life. She said she believes this to be due to the lack of support and understanding by the community.
“I’ve been amazed since that event to learn just how committed Murray State is to diversity,” Helms said. “The work the University has done and the amazing energy displayed by Jody Cofer Randall and MSU Alliance is just amazing – far beyond what was in place when I was in school.”
Although the funds were donated to the Office of LGBT Programming, students within the Alliance organization are excited about the donation.
“I never thought I would still be a student and see something like this happen for my community at Murray State and I’m beyond glad for this gift,” said Morgan Randall, senior from Louisville, Ky., and president of Alliance. “My mind ran with all the possibilities that this will give the Office of LGBT Programming in the fight for equality at Murray State.”
Randall said she believes the funds will allow for more freedom to support the programming that Alliance does as well as create stronger programs through their partnership.
The Office of LGBT Programming provides support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community at the University, through services such as the Safe Zone and educational programming in effort to create an inclusive environment.
The MSU Foundation will receive the Kristie Helms and Kathryn Carter Nettles Fund for Excellence and Acceptance and Awareness donation over the course of five years.
“I made the promise that I would do everything I could to spread acceptance in the Commonwealth of Kentucky that I love so much,” Helms said.