GLBTA office reflects on 20 years

The program was one of many founded in the early 1990s.

by Emma Nelson

In November, Minnesota became the only state in the nation to reject a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage; now, after remarks from Gov. Mark Dayton in last week’s State of the State address, the debate is heating up again.

But today’s conversations began decades ago, when lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movements stirred up support across the nation, including the University of Minnesota campus.

The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Ally Programs Office has had a voice in that conversation and will be celebrating its 20th anniversary Monday.

The event will showcase LGBT and gender research, host a panel of experts and feature artists and performers.

The GLBTA Programs Office, which opened in 1993, focuses on educating various on-campus groups about topics including sexuality and LGBT identity.

Jason Jackson, the office’s assistant director, said the anniversary event is meant to connect researchers from across fields and figure out where LGBT research is headed next.

While the event looks to the future of the program, panelist Susan Raffo knows a little something about where it’s been. She was a staff member in the program’s early years and is now returning for the 20th anniversary to reflect on its growth.

“I think the way the broader leadership of the center is asking questions feels very in line with its founding and its early years,” she said.

Like Jackson, Raffo said she’s looking forward to discussing issues that spread across studies.

“I’m looking forward to those intersectional conversations,” she said.

A larger community

In the early 1990s, many universities started programs to support LGBT students, faculty and staff.

Michigan State University founded the Office of LBGT Concerns after a task force completed a report in 1992 on the University’s climate for gender and sexual minorities.

The task force found through focus groups that more than 70 percent of LGBT students felt “somewhat or very unsafe on campus.” Similarly, about 41 percent of faculty members and more than half of staff reported the campus environment made them worry about LGBT individuals’ safety.

In 2009, a follow-up report found the university’s climate has improved and is even slightly better than that of its peer institutions, said Allegra Smith, a program media assistant in what is now called the LBGT Resource Center.

The center is currently working to develop allies and increase its supporter base, Smith said. A recent project of Smith’s involved reaching out to LGBT international students.

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, LGBT student groups have had a presence on campus since the 1970s. In 1991, the Homophobia Awareness Committee, now the Committee for GLBT Concerns, was officially founded after first meeting informally in 1989.

In fall 2007, the University’s LGBTQA Resource Center was founded.

Center Director Pat Tetreault began working at the University in 1992 as a sexual education coordinator for the University Health Center. Part of her job was working with LGBT students because, she said, “it really wasn’t anybody’s responsibility to do that on campus.”

The following year, members of the campus’ LGBT student group distributed stickers with pink triangles — a symbol of LGBT rights protest since the late 1970s — to faculty members. It drew a negative reaction from some students and faculty, Tetreault said.

“I remember thinking, ‘Maybe doing a little bit of education with something like that would be helpful,’” she said.

Today, the resource center works extensively on educational and social programming, awareness events and addressing student issues. Like at many universities, a current project is working with the institution to allow students to use preferred names and pronouns.

“Some of that’s educational,” Tetreault said.

“Some of that’s trying to change the way certain parts of the institution do things.”