Michael Tuso does not describe himself as an activist, but lives his life to help others.
GREENSBORO — An openly gay freshman at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro (UNCG) won the student government spring election for student body president by an overwhelming majority in mid-April.
Michael Tuso, 19, a native of Raleigh, officially took office Apr. 29. His duties as student government president include overseeing funding for hundreds of student organizations, serving on the university’s board of trustees and acting as a liaison between students and university administration.
Tuso might be the first-ever openly gay student body president at any school in the UNC system. Past members of UNCG’s student government couldn’t recall ever hearing about an openly gay president and members of the system-wide Association of Student Governments couldn’t either. Web searches also returned nothing.
Tuso had to overcome obstacles of age, academic class and sexual orientation to win the right to lead UNCG’s more than 16,000 students for the next year. His prior involvement with the student government was primarily focused in the Student Senate Finance Committee.
Tuso told Q-Notes that he wants to find ways for student government to work more closely with student organizations. “An issue I’ve been pushing a lot is collaboration. There is a lot of disconnect between the Student Government Association and student organizations.”
UNCG has a reputation for the outlandish antics of past student governments. Collaboration and dialogue have been in short supply in recent years as the bitter in-fighting between differing special interests have taken center stage. In fact, the lack of planning almost led to the student government’s shut-down by university officials less than a year ago.
“I want to get everyone talking,” said Tuso. “I think if everyone is working together then we’ll be able to accomplish a lot more.”
Tuso said his sexual orientation didn’t get much play in his campaign for the presidency. In fact, he could only recall one instance of anti-gay harassment, and that occurred early in the year.
He also doesn’t see himself as the “activist type” in relation to his sexual orientation. “My way of being an activist is living my life day-to-day in such a way that I can help other people.”
He said his main concerns are focused on issues like student organization funding, the quality of campus life and tuition rates. Either way, he’s ready to deal with any controversy that might arise over his sexual identity.
The traditionally liberal UNCG campus is also home to a rabidly conservative student movement. Members of these right-wing organizations have gone on to work for Republican thinktanks and politicians. If the fundies come knocking, Tuso said, he’ll be ready to work with them for the betterment of the campus.
“I’ve always been good at compromise. Politics is typically a game of give-and-take anyway. When people realize that both sides can benefit, that typically gets folks more interested in working together.”
He added, “I don’t consider myself a liberal or conservative. I’m kind of in that moderate range, in the middle. I’ve always been able to relate to both sides. I think that’ll be important in my work on campus.”
In addition, Tuso said he won’t let harassment disguised as political maneuvering undo his vision for best serving the student body.”
“It doesn’t effect me or who I am or what I’m doing,” he commented. “I don’t let my sexuality become an issue. By ignoring comments or people that might not be receptive to me I’ve been able to stay focused on what I need to get done and help others around me. When people do name-calling it is out of their own insecurity.”
Despite his low-key approach, Tuso added that he’s happy he gets to send a message to LGBT students that success is possible, despite what others might think.
“I know that the environment here is very accepting and I thoroughly enjoy working in this environment. I try not to consider this as ‘I’m gay’ and playing that into the equation. However, I do think that it is an accomplishment and that I could be setting an example for other gay students.”
As for the current race for the U.S. presidency, Tuso said he has “not officially endorsed anyone” but that he was leaning toward Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY).
Micah Brooks Beasley, an openly gay member of UNCG’s Student Senate, told Q-Notes he’s proud of the university’s open and accepting environment.
“The difference between UNCG and the rest of the populus is that had Michael Tuso’s sexuality been brought up in a negative light, the backlash from the student body would have been profound. UNCG students have sent a clear message to campuses in this state that they elect their representatives on the basis of merit and not discrimination. I think that voters across America should follow the example set by our students.”
Ed. Note: Late Sat. May 3, Q-Notes was contacted by reader Porscha Yount, who is currently the Associate Publisher of Out in Asheville, another Carolinas LGBT publication. She informed us that from 2004-2005, she was the student body president at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and that she served as an openly gay student.