Every week, the Daily Nebraskan interviews a notable figure on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus in an effort to allow campus leaders to deliver the news in their own words. This week, in light of actress Ellen Page publicly coming out and news of several pieces of legislation related to gay marriage, we chose to interview Pat Tetreault, director of the LGBTQA Resource Center and assistant director for LGBTQA programs & services.
DN: How has the public opinion of the LGBT community changed?
Tetreault: I started in 1992, although I did my post doc in ‘87 to ‘89, and I remember writing a letter to the editor back then because somebody was upset that the student group (LGBT group) had asked for money to do something, and they thought that was horrible. Or that there would even be separate programming and I remember writing a letter saying, ‘Well, if there were resources and programming available, this wouldn’t be necessary. Since that time you could see the shift … When I first started working here, you couldn’t put a poster up without it being taken down. I remember putting up a particular poster like three times and every time it came down, so finally it was put in a locked display cabinet. So I’m able, given the time frame, to see a lot of the changes. One of the reasons that the chalking policy exists, where you can only chalk in certain spaces with permission on campus, is because back in ‘95 or ’96 there was a group that chalked for National Coming Out Day and some one or some persons chalked in response and some of what they said were threats. That’s when they decided that maybe people should only be allowed to chalk in certain places with permission. And I don’t remember the time frame for this but there was one student who was physically attacked in the residence hall. I rarely hear of people getting physically attacked, but over the years there has really been a shift in attitudes, and now we put stuff up and every once in a while they’ll get taken down, but in general nobody messes with them and it hardly ever happens. And then the resource center opened in 2007, and I think having the center makes a big difference. And having like a person who is in the position, because it shows an institutional commitment and it also shows your part of the institution. Students have a lot of power if they organize. There is still stigma and bias marginalization, but it’s not near the degree that it was.
DN: Have you seen a change in the LGBT community involved in athletics?
PT: Every once in a while, we get an athlete who will come in. It’s kind of a challenging environment to get much traction in, but we made a little bit of head way last year when we brought Hudson Taylor in. Life Skills co-sponsored, and we actually had the presentation in the athletic department. There has been a shift, a good shift in my opinion. But we still have a long ways to go. A couple other things we’ve done is, we’ve twice brought in Jeff Chang’s exhibit. Last year it was a combination of his photos of soldiers under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and Fearless – which are out LGBT athletes – and a couple years prior to that we had brought in just Fearless and back then, it was probably 2011, we couldn’t ever really get the athletic department to tell the athletes the exhibit was here. I kinda got a circular thing, ‘You need to talk to this person then this person,’ and eventually I got back to the first person and I got frustrated and basically said, ‘OK, I get it, the answer is no and no one wants to tell me no.’ But they kept saying, ‘Well we don’t have any money,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m not asking for money.’ But we do usually have a table at new student athlete orientation and we’ve been invited to that so we always have representation once a year at that.
DN: What’s the biggest issue facing the LGBT community right now?
PT: I think it’s the belief by some people that it is perfectly fine and acceptable to deny basic civil and human rights based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And sometimes that is based on their personal religious beliefs but not all religions support that, even the same faith communities don’t agree, but I think that when you have that political ideology that’s really challenging and I think the desire for politicians to be able to demonize some group of people in order to motivate their base so they can have more power. I don’t think it’s just detrimental to the LGBT community I think it’s detrimental to the whole country. Because they are not dealing with real issues or the problems of the country they’re basically just creating a lot of dysfunction.
DN: What is the next step in the LGBT community’s fight for equality?
PT: I think that all groups who are marginalized and disenfranchised should be working together to help with these issues. But it’s not just one thing. Whenever there is any problem, it’s not just one thing causing it. I think that there are many solutions to many problems in whatever is going on, and so I use a social justice model in the work that we do here. So I try to look at intersecting identities, and I think that whatever you’re asking for, you also have to be willing to give. And that’s not always easy for people when they’ve been wounded. So when you say, ‘We want safe, welcoming places, you need the viability around LGBT stuff because we are the one group that usually doesn’t get included when people are talking about diversity or multiculturalism. So even though things have gotten better, if I’m not at the table, we don’t count. Sometimes it’s peoples personal belief systems that inhibit them from wanting to work on LGBT stuff, and people want to move really slowly and not everybody likes change. So I think we have to be both patient and persistent, and I think we have to show up for other groups but I also think we have to speak up for ourselves.
DN: What can the average UNL student do to help?
PT: I think stretch their comfort zone a little bit. I think one of the biggest issues on this campus is the marginalization of LGBT people, and it’s not just by non-LGBT people. I think that we are not yet to acceptance and so it is important to have that separate space, but it is also important to have a welcoming space for other people to come in. And other people need to learn how to be more comfortable around LGBT stuff. A lot of people won’t ever go to anything LGBT, even at our booths you see a lot of people and it’s like a cootie zone. They just kinda walk by and pretend they don’t see you. A few years ago the Women’s Center and our center, we thought, ‘Well maybe we can consolidate and have one table,’ but what we found was people would avoid the Women’s Center part because we were there, or they would go to the Women’s Center part and stand with their backs to us. So that’s not a very effective marketing thing. So we decided we would go back. When we have booths there are a lot of people who want to (approach us) but won’t come up because they don’t want to get pigeon-holed based on their identity or perceived identity. I think it would be helpful if the average student would become a little knowledgeable about sexual identity and gender expression and also be willing to learn how to talk about it in appropriate and comfortable ways.
By Tyler Williams on February 21st, 2014
for the Daily Nebraskan