In 2013, two gay UNC Pembroke students came to Robert Canida to complain about harassment the men said they had experienced on campus that day.
Canida, director of the school’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, said the students told him they were leaving a Starbucks when a minister who was visiting the campus spotted the men holding hands.
“He started telling them how wrong they were, how they were going to be condemned to hell,” said Canida, who didn’t witness the incident. The two students, who Canida said have since graduated, could not be reached for comment. Canida said he did not have the minister’s name.
Canida, who said he’s been in his role for about 13 years, said the minister was among religious figures who sometimes visit the campus, usually in the spring, to talk to students about religion. He said this particular minister had been speaking to students outside the Starbucks when the incident occurred. Canida said the two students told him they were angered.
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“They were a couple on campus that did not try to hide their relationship,” he said. “They were caught off guard. They felt like they were on trial for something.”
University spokeswoman Jodi Phelps said that since the event, the school has implemented new policies for visiting speakers. Those changes include a more robust vetting process for people seeking to speak on campus, she said.
“We certainly don’t want a situation like this to happen again,” Phelps said. “We take this seriously.”
Canida said he wasn’t aware of any other students having similar experiences during his time at UNC Pembroke, whose website lists resources available to LGBTQ students. One of those resources is Safe Zone, a program designed to educate faculty, staff and students about issues affecting the LGBTQ population.
Canida, originally from Cincinnati, described Robeson County as being “tolerant” of the LBGTQ community.
“It’s more of a, ‘We’ll tolerate you as long as you stay quiet,’ ” he said. “We’re located in the Bible Belt.”