‘More similar than different:’ LGBTQ+ experts say discrimination from past mirrors present

by Emily Hamer

It’s June 1989.

University of Wisconsin-Madison junior “Jack” and his friend are walking through James Madison Park when two men come up from behind them and start beating them. Jack suffers a skull fracture and almost gets a broken nose.

Jack’s only crime? Being gay.

According to a July 8, 1989, report by The Capital Times, in six weeks at least six members of the LGBTQ+ community, including Jack, had been attacked or harassed in Madison because of their sexual orientation. None of them immediately reported the incidents to the police.

All were afraid of having their sexual orientations exposed or receiving negative treatment if they asked for help.

It’s October 1989.

At a panel, UW-Madison sophomore David Wilcox recalls how his floor mates treated him when he told them his freshman year that he was gay, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Wilcox’s fellow students yelled “faggot” and “queer” outside of his room and slid AIDS pamphlets underneath his door. In his fall 1989 semester, Wilcox’s roommate dropped out of school just to avoid having to share a room with him.

Another student thought that if he bumped into Wilcox in the shower he could get AIDS.

It’s October 1995.

Three drunken students chase Ben Roussel down a UW-Madison dormitory hallway yelling, “Where is that faggot?” according to a 1998 report by the Wisconsin State Journal.

When Roussel makes it to a friend’s room and locks himself in, the men bang on the door, chanting again and again, “Bring out the faggot!”

Roussel doesn’t report the incident because he’s wary of trusting the police and is afraid of his parents finding out that he is gay.

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While this may seem like a dark stain in Madison’s LGBTQ+ history, experts say the underlying attitudes in these cases persist today.

The language and mood of the news reports from the ‘80s and ‘90s may be different, but some of the patterns are the same, Associate Director of the UW LGBT Campus Center Katherine Charek Briggs said. It’s still true that students are struck with fear when considering whether or not to speak up about harassment, Briggs added.

“These sound familiar,” Briggs said. “I’m glad these exact things aren’t happening right now, but it’s more similar than different.”

Many of the same homophobic attitudes are still here, but they’re just hidden under the surface, Alnisa Allgood, who started the LGBT Campus Center in 1992, said.

Zaakir Abdul-Wahid, a UW sophomore majoring in finance and psychology, said he has had to develop a “tough skin” because people often use derogatory terms against him since he is gay. Abdul-Wahid said harassment is something he has learned to see as a normal part of his life.

“If we’re talking about name calling and harassment, I feel like that’s something that all gay people deal with at some point in their lives,” Abdul-wahid said. “I’ve been called ‘faggot’ many times on this campus.”

While attacks and hate crimes against gay people still occur, today there is a much greater acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community among the student body and the general population, especially in Madison, Steve Starkey, executive director of OutReach, South Central Wisconsin’s LGBT Community Center, said.

In 2016, the Human Rights Campaign gave Madison a perfect score for the fourth year in a row on the annual Municipal Equality Index, which measures the level of equality and inclusivity in city policies for the LGBTQ+ community.

Starkey said Madison has a variety of services tailored specifically to the LGBTQ+ community including sports organizations, theater and arts programs, bars and even churches.

“Madison is a very LGBT friendly city,” Starkey said. “The fabric of society has changed … to be more supportive and LGBT friendly.”

In terms of campus, Allgood said one of the big advantages UW has now is that the LGBT Campus Center is located right on campus in the Red Gym. When she first started the center it was located off campus and was not readily accessible to students.

Now, the campus center provides students with a variety of useful services, Briggs said. Students often work and hang out in the campus center, using it as a safe space on campus. Students can also check out books and DVDs from the center’s library, play board games, get updates on upcoming events and access products for healthy sex. Briggs said the center also organizes events and speakers to push for further education.

The LGBT Campus Center provides services for all students from the LGBTQ+ community at UW-Madison.

In addition to the campus center there are also a number of other services on campus for LGBTQ+ students, Briggs said.

The Our Wisconsin cultural competency training program, which piloted this year provides first year students with a broader education of the importance of diversity, Briggs said.

UHS now has a specific person to serve the transgender student population, Briggs said. There is also an LGBT support and empowerment group at UHS.

One of the most influential policy decisions the LGBT Campus Center pushed for, Briggs said, is the preferred name policy, which was adopted in September 2013. Students can now use their preferred name on campus wherever legal names are not absolutely necessary. Legal names still have to be used on financial aid documents, payroll, official transcripts, federal immigration documents and diplomas.

“It makes a huge difference to be able to have your right name show up on a roster or on your ID so you don’t have to constantly out yourself,” Briggs said.

But it was a tough road getting UW-Madison’s campus to where it is today.

Allgood said before she started the campus center in 1992, the Ten Percent Society, another LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, received a lot of pushback from the Board of Regents. The Ten Percent Society tried for at least five years, maybe longer, to get the Board of Regents to approve the funding needed for a center, Allgood said.

When Allgood got to UW, instead of going through the Board of Regents she pushed to get the center started with segregated fees. With this new strategy, the center was up the following spring.

The LGBT Campus Center was able to provide a number of services at this time, but most students were still in the closet. This meant it was harder for society to accept them, Allgood said.

“Thousands of people were just sort of hidden,” Allgood said.

When Starkey got to Madison in 1981 it was a similar picture. Though Madison was more accepting than other places in Wisconsin, there was a lot of stigma, very few gay bars, a limited number of support organizations and most LGBTQ+ people were still in the closet.

Over the last 35 years, however, Starkey said he has seen a lot of people in Madison come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Starkey said this has changed society for the better.

“When you actually know a human being who is LGBT it’s not so easy to stereotype them,” Starkey said.

But there is more work to be done.

Briggs said UW currently does not have enough gender neutral bathrooms, let alone ones that are also wheelchair accessible. She said this lack of available bathrooms makes it hard for transgender people to live and function on campus.

The university also currently does not have an official restroom use policy. Briggs said she hopes UW adopts a strong policy, that pushes for gender neutral bathrooms to be created in all buildings and allows students to use whatever bathroom aligns with their gender identity. Discussions of what UW’s policy will look like are still in the works.

Another problem is today people still hold “harmful misinformation” about the LGBTQ+ community. The misconceptions aren’t as extreme as when Wilcox’s floor mates thought they could get AIDS by bumping into him in the shower, but they still impact how the LGBTQ+ community is perceived by society.

Starkey said common stereotypes of the LGBTQ+ community can be damaging. Some people think gay men are sexually promiscuous, heavy drinkers or drug users. Others assume lesbians all wear work boots and flannel shirts. Starkey said some people may also see footage from a pride parade in San Francisco and think all gay people are proponents of nudity and wearing leather.

Some religious organizations, like the Westboro Baptist Church, will also cast off members of the LGBTQ+ community as evil sinners who are damned to hell, Starkey said.

Starkey said he thinks education is key to combating stereotypes and making society more inclusive. During UW’s spring human sexuality classes, OutReach holds panel discussions for two days, talking to around 400 students. One part of the discussion is a question and answer session with someone from the LGBTQ+ community. Starkey said hearing about a gay person’s life and experiences makes it less likely for people to stereotype and stigmatize.

While there are some programs like this in place, Starkey said more education will lead to greater acceptance.

“There’s probably a lot more of that type of thing needed on campus and in society in general,” Starkey said.