Mother So Queer

A Queer History of Wake Forest University


Perry Patterson

Interview conducted and transcribed by Madeline Coffey (’17) on October 24, 2015 in ZSR Library.

Transcript of Interview:


Q: [0:03] Alright. So let’s go ahead and get started with the intake form. So, if you can just say your name.

A: Perry Patterson

Q: And your birthday?

A: Four, six, fifty-nine.

Q: And your hometown?

A: Where I was born? Angola, Indiana.

Q: How do you spell that?

A: A-N-G-O-L-A.

Q: And your current residence?

A: North Carolina.

Q: Okay. And how many years were you here at Wake Forest?

A: Twenty seven, as a faculty member.

Q: And occupation?

A: I was a professor of economics, lecturer in Russian, and for the last three years I was the Associate Dean for Academic Advising.

Q: Okay. And your self-identified sexual orientation?

A: Gay.

Q: And gender identity/pronoun preference?

A: He/him/his.

Q: Racial identity?

A: White.

Q: Religious identity?

A: None.

End Intake: [01:42]


Q: [01:43] Alright. That is the end of the intake sheet, so we can go ahead and get to the good stuff. So the first thing that we wanted to do, the first question that we have here basically is covered by the intake sheet. So the first thing that we wanted to ask you guys is that when we were crafting these questions we realized that you all would be coming from the LGBTQ history panel. And we wanted to know if there are any specific anecdotes that you remember just from talking in the panel that you’d like to share?

A: I think I remember very happy moments with the fledgling student group meeting in my office in that so called underground railroad that was described. And I began meeting students at Wake Forest before the organization was founded, but that effort on students’ part was a very brave one at the time and I really value what they did and what’s become of it.

Q: [3:06] Great. So how did you identify while you were here at Wake Forest and how did other faculty and students identify you?

A: I can’t say that I was ever loudly overt about my identity. It was obviously clear to other faculty members who came to know that I was living with my husband, Joel, all this time. And we would go to various faculty parties together, and some students came to know that, more over time than others. But it was generally not wise to assume that being too overt would be welcomed in all circles.

Q: [03:54] Sure. And how do you think that it was received that you and your husband would go to the faculty parties together?

A: Generally if we were invited back the second time, I think that meant we were liked [laughs]. So, we did just fine. We did just fine. The faculty at Wake Forest, early on, voted 86 to 14 in favor of the first anti-discrimination statement that Wake Forest had. And that was back in 1993, so there was a very supportive community out there that was ready to help Wake Forest move forward in lots and lots of directions and that included personal relations with lots and lots of wonderful Wake Forest faculty.

Q: [04:48] What was your relationship to the LGBTQ community like when you were here?

A: It was a lot of fun. The undergraduate students were the initial core of what you see now. Joel and I would host occasional gatherings when the group was small. And when it didn’t have other support. I was formerly faculty adviser to the student group; this was a formal title that every group has a faculty advisor. And I was that from its founding until probably approximately 2000, something like that, and continued to be at meetings even when I had moved on to other roles at the university. After that, as Associate Dean for Academic Advising, between 2009 and 2012 one of the great things that had happened by then is that administrators were expected to be reaching out to all segments of the student population for their work. So I had opportunities to happily implement that when I served as an administrator. So I’ve had lots of formal relationships to the community over time, but lots of joys. And it was great to see so many of the faces back today.

Q: [06:34] What was your relationship like, do you think, to a community, if there was one, of LGBTQ faculty?

A: You really can’t say in the early days that there was much. I don’t remember anyone being particularly out for a number of years. There certainly wasn’t anything in an organized form until probably about five years ago, really, among the faculty and staff. Now there is, but as I was sort of on the way into administration and heading toward retirement, ultimately, a number of new faculty members came along who assumed they could be out from the very beginning. And totally so. And so that environment, I think, has changed pretty dramatically in recent years.

Q: [07:45] What do you think that the general attitude was toward the LGBTQ community, whether it be students or faculty, was during your time here?

A: Well I think it’s fair to say that both the students and the Wake Forest faculty were well ahead of other constituencies such as the alumni, such as the trustees and the upper administration certainly in the years up until 2000 let’s say. Since 2000, I think those communities have been brought along as a part of the national as part of the local conversation. And so if things were a little rough with some of those constituencies at some earlier points, I think the general day to day existence on campus with students and faculty was always wonderful and so it was very happy.

Q: [08:52] Now did you notice any changes over time in the ways that attitudes toward LGBTQ communities changed?

A: Well one thing I kept looking at. I had some access to the student surveys that were asked of freshman and of seniors every year. And by 2004, incoming Wake Forest freshman were saying that they were majority in favor of same-sex marriage, and so that’s way ahead of where the national consensus was at the time, and certainly faculty members would have been with that as well. So yeah, there’s just no question that things have changed really dramatically over a quarter century or so.

Q: [09:52] Sure. So what did the campus climate sort of look like when you first got here?

A: Well I think you heard earlier today that there were just tons and tons of fears out there that gay and lesbian folks were afraid to be out of the closet. And their potential allies were afraid to be out of the closet as allies, and that was a terrible dynamic that was ultimately overcome for lots and lots of people. And one hopes that we’ve reached a much better point.

Q: [10:35] So to switch gears just a little bit, one of the questions that we really wanted to know about was what your observations were about the ways in which people on campus either performed or deviated from traditional gender roles.

A: You know, there’s so many structures out there that so tend to enforce traditional gender roles whether that’s some churches, some social fraternities and sororities amongst students. But I think it’s fair to say that in many ways people don’t even realize they’re performing these roles. And it’s a hard thing for people to get intellectually when they’re first confronted with that possibility. And of course, the LGBTQ community, by its existence, causes some rethinking and sometimes that’s very difficult (inaudible) rethinking. So in fact, one of the most important things, I think, for Wake Forest and higher education in general and in the future is that there’s going to be a continuing strong need for programs, and strengthened programs, in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies because there’s a very clear and continued degree to which people are boxed in by their own thoughts and by community members to this day. And the questions associated with Women’s and Gender Studies are questions that I think we’re going to have around for hundreds of years.
Q: [13:07] Were there other aspects of your identity that shaped your experiences here at Wake Forest?

A: You know, I’m sure, in retrospect, that being a white male gave me access to situations and opportunities that likely wouldn’t have occurred if I had been, in addition to gay, also female, also black, etcetera. It’s a matter of who you can socialize with, that kind of thing. And how that subtly impacts what happens in the job, what happens in the community, that sort of thing. So when one swims in a majority position that’s always had lots of power, one doesn’t feel it on a day to day basis. You don’t recognize when that’s happening. But I think, in retrospect, that it probably did.

Q: [14:22] Do you think there was diversity among faculty and staff when you were here in terms of racial and gender identities?

A: There were very few minority faculty members when I arrived, and it was at least ten years in until sustained attention went to doing something about that beyond a few individuals, really. I don’t know if I answered the question.

Q: [15:10] Sure. Now do you think that, being a white gay man, that Wake Forest still would have been more accessible to you say, for example, if you had been straight and cis gendered and maybe a racial minority during that time period?

A: Hard to know. Hard to know. I wouldn’t want to rank experiences because I think that the road for women in higher-ed and elsewhere has been tough. And I the road for ethnic, racial minorities has been tough. Part of it’s a slow process of building community and fighting these fights along the way. And all of us have done so.

Q: [16:11] Certainly. Do you remember what sex-education programs were like on campus?

A: Oh, dear. Oh, there we are [looks at question list]. I don’t. I wasn’t close enough to the student life programming to know. People like Ken Zick and Mary Gerardy would know better how that evolved over time. And even in later years, I didn’t think it was my prerogative to micromanage folks who were doing those jobs. So I really don’t know the answer to that.

Q: [17:07] Do you think that there were programs on campus that gave information about sexual health to LGBTQ identified persons?

A: I can’t tell you about the degree to which and when that would have changed. At one point there certainly was not. No question about it. In 1986 there would have been no attention to sexual health matters for LGBTQ students.

Q: [17:45] What curricular opportunities do you remember Wake Forest offering to learn about LGBTQ topics?

A: Yeah. I (inaudible) that the first course with gay or lesbian in the title was offered in Women’s and Gender studies by Mary DeShazer in teamwork often with Gary Ljungquist from Salem over the years. And I actually sat in on that class one semester with students, and I found it absolutely fascinating. It was new territory for me. It certainly was new territory for the students. And it represented considerable courage on the part of Mary DeShazer to put that into the curriculum, have to have it approved by the broader faculty, and advertised as other courses were and are. But that was really first, and things have widened considerably since then, obviously.

Q: [19:00] You’ve mentioned the Women’s and Gender Studies department a couple of times and especially Mary DeShazer. What ways do you think that having a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality program changed the campus climate toward LGBTQ communities?

A: Well, feminist thought is something that most people are not exposed to in high school, let’s say. And, indeed, most of us except very, very recent folks wouldn’t have had such classes in our college experience, in our graduate school experiences. And frankly if one pays attention to what the folks in Women’s and Gender Studies have to say, it’s often really theoretically interesting and potentially life changing. It offers some very different perspectives on the world and who were are as individuals and how we interact with each other. And I think it opens up a whole host of new ways to think about education in general. And over time I think that those ways of thinking that are clearly part of what Dr. Mazaris does as well and throughout. I think those ways of thinking are slowly seeping into the broader curriculum beyond just the direct offerings of women’s and gender studies. But it takes time to do this. And I think you heard at lunch today some sense that maybe more curricular change could occur. Can one imagine requiring a course in Women’s and Gender Studies of all our students, for example? Yeah. I think we could.

Q: [21:21] Certainly. So we talked about how you largely provided a community of support for students, but I was wondering if you felt that you had a community of support here on campus and what that sort of looked like for you if you did have that.

A: Well fortunately, I had interests from the very get-go in two different departments. And that meant immediately that I had more people that I knew on campus than I would have if I had just been in one department from the beginning. I got involved, early on, with the Association of University Professors, which is an advocacy group (some places it’s actually a union) of faculty members, but its prime purpose is the defense of academic freedom on campus. And that was a wonderful support mechanism as were the folks in Women’s and Gender Studies back to and including Elizabeth Phillips, folks who would gather around Maya Angelou. [They] were all just a wonderful and fun group of people. And so yeah, there were lots of sources of support.

Q: [23:00] Now were there any specific services of support?

A: Zero, zero, zero.

Q: [23:08] Okay. Now looking back, do you think that would have been something that you wanted or was there anyone who was advocating for that to happen?

A: Not early on. It was a slow process beginning with the establishment of an anti-discrimination statement to start with. Five years or so later, we could ask for (and ultimately get) domestic partnership benefits on the campus. But one asked for one kind of thing at a time. And so some of the things you see the center doing today, such as a reach out to faculty members who are potential new job candidates, to let them know that there is support now. That would have been unthinkable to ask for when I was still a faculty member.

Q: [24:24] Can you talk a little bit more about your role in developing policy to help domestic partnerships get benefits here on campus?

A: Sure. Yeah, yeah. It took approximately two years between having the college faculty vote for an anti-discrimination statement and to actually get it through first the university senate and then the board of trustees. What came back was a partial victory, even if that, two years later. So that was a slow and painful process right there. So I personally was not really prepared to lead a charge challenging the University to follow through on a relatively weak statement too quickly. And what happened was a fellow faculty member [and] friend turned out to basically be in need of the insurance for her partner. And so we decided to mount a campaign because there was a real need that had been identified at that point. And we asked for that. We skipped the college because we really saw it as a campus wide issue. And so we knew that the college faculty would have said yes, but we got together people from the law school and the business school. There were both undergraduate and graduate business schools at the time. And [we] went to the faculty senate, the university senate. And that passed the senate in November of ‘98 just before some of the [inaudible] issues that Susan Parker and [inaudible] spoke about. So that was in November of ’98. In October of ’99 (this is after the President had backed away from the request not to have the union ceremony), but all of this had gone down with the university’s treatment of the church, the university’s treatment of WFDD and its employees. And so on October 11 of ’99, the undergraduate faculty voted that there was a crisis of confidence. And that was basically one step short of saying there was a no confidence vote in the administration. And at the time, I went on record in the faculty and in front of administrators saying that, “Okay, if you mean anything about the anti-discrimination statement given what’s just gone down, then you better do something real and that includes implementing the domestic partner benefits policy.” Which it did get adopted for the Reynolda Campus only (so not the med school) in August of 2000, so again that was close to a two year period. And I suspect that it would have been longer if we had not had the crisis that intervened there.

Q: [28:42] Absolutely. You mentioned that one of your motivations for moving forward in this charge was that you had a friend who was in need. Were there any spaces on campus that LGBTQ staff and faculty were able to interact with each other or make connections with each other?

A: Nothing formalized until about 5 years ago.

Q: [29:04] Sure. Was there anything not formalized?

A: Oh sure. People got together in their homes and that kind of thing. There was social interaction, but this was a state with Jesse Helms. And there were strong reasons that out gay and lesbian people would have self-selected to not come here just for that alone for many, many years. So there just weren’t very many people. And Wake Forest came, ultimately, to recruit on a much more on a national and international basis than it was doing up to the time that I arrived on campus, so that’s changed.

Q: [29:58] So whenever you guys got together at each other’s houses, how would you go about finding out who to invite?

A: [laughs] Oh, people talk.

Q: [30:10] People talk? So all word of mouth?

A: Sure, absolutely.

Q: [30:15] Great. And how would you describe that space in having these get-togethers in people’s houses and its role in supporting the LGBTQ faculty and staff community?

A: I guess I would say that back then, at least, there were just so few people on campus that [the] community needed, inherently, to extend to the Winston-Salem community. So it would turn out that doing a little activism, which I did early on, in the community (I served on the board of the Adam foundation for a few years). That was the real way to produce anything of the size that you would call a community around rather than purely at Wake Forest. If this was a larger campus and had been more open all along, as I think now would be the case, then you could successfully do this. And indeed, there is a group that gets together regularly, I believe in the last few years. But going outside the confines of the Reynolda Campus was necessary.

Q: [31:54] Great. So we’re going to shift gears quite a bit again. And you mentioned in our intake sheet that you did not subscribe to any type of religious practice, correct?

A: Mhmm.

Q: [32:07] Was there any affect that the disaffiliation of Wake Forest with the Baptist church… Was there any way that affected your experience here?

A: Definitely. If that had not occurred, I think many of us could not have come here in the first place or remained. That group (the he Southern Baptist Convention) that was picking the board of trustees up until the mid-80s was becoming more and more radically conservative and anti-gay throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s. And have Wake Forest not separated its governance from that we would be a very, very different institution. And you can see that in other institutions that did not make the break when it might have been wise to do so.

Q: [33:35] So, this switches gears once more. They’re a little bit frantic. But what was your stance on Greek Life in relation to LGBTQ identities, and did you take on any of the faculty roles that supported Greek Life?

A: I did. I was approached by some very nice young men, some very smart students for one of the fraternities. And this was quite early on. And it was a fun thing to do for three years, but then those individuals graduated and moved on, and it didn’t feel like the right thing anymore for me to be doing. I have very mixed feelings about the role of Greek Life and especially in relation to LGBTQ communities because it [has] long played a very negative role for students. The very, very few exceptions of individuals who managed to be out and be in the social fraternities and sororities. In fact, I can’t name any [laughs] during my time. I like to think that, as in the rest of the world, that we’ve been seeing evidence of improvement in those groups. But, I think it’s any area where there is plenty of work to be done.

Q: [35:35] When you say that sometimes there was a negative impact on LGBTQ communities in a relationship with Greek Life, can you describe some of the ways that you noticed that Greek Life had a negative impact on students? Or faculty, if that’s relevant, as well.

A: Well, I think [in] ways there are subtle ones. But I am certain I heard more than one story over time of people who wanted to be a part of an organization and ultimately could not be as a result of who they were. And we know on the national scene that this is quite common, in fact. And it doesn’t take too many of those stories to be out there to create a barrier between the entire LGBTQ community and the fraternity system. I will say there was an extraordinary young man around Wake Forest in the last two or three (three to five) years, who I can’t name right now, who did a brilliant job of getting support for gay people from all of the fraternity leadership. And I should be able to remember his name. But it was a brilliant piece of work by a student who became one of the maybe provost’s fellows or something, maybe even presidential fellows. And I cannot come up with his name right now, but it was a demonstration that somebody really, really good could pull off some miracles and make improvements in recent years.

Q: [37:53] Great. Did the boys in the fraternity that you advised know about your sexual orientation?

A: No. They didn’t.

Q: [38:06] And what were your endeavors following your retirement from Wake Forest?

A: [laughs] I’ve been traveling with my husband and taking care of family members and seeing the world.

Q: [38:22] Awesome. And how do you think that your experience working at Wake Forest as an LGBTQ identified person affected your life after you retired?

A: Well I think my time at Wake Forest was spent in really great ways. I was able to do different things for broadening communities over time. My experience in the Dean’s Office in the last three years was very wonderful with a couple of administrators, Jacque Fetrow and Joe (inaudible), who really were on a different plane in recognizing, valuing, and openly talking about gay, lesbian issues regardless of where they were. And that was a wonderful experience, and it gave me some wonderful opportunities to make some differences in how students at Wake Forest and their families are brought into the community, across the board.

Q: [39:48] Great. So why did you choose to come to the LGBTQ+ alumni conference?

A: Oh gosh [laughs]. I was asked, and I was flattered to be asked. And I was hoping that I’d see some of my old favorite students here and get together with them again. And that’s exactly what’s happened. And I think the conference has been beautifully done and has really managed to bring in people that I would have never known were out there. And that’s a wonderful thing. I think it’s a seed that will grow in the future.

Q: [40:40] How do you think that this conference will affect LGBTQ alumni, faculty, and students?

A: I hope, and I believe, that it will make for ongoing conversations [and] ongoing proposals to address continuing needs and simply help to bring back together a bit of a diaspora that otherwise wouldn’t have been in as strong of a position to support Wake Forest as it will be.

Q: [41:17]. Excellent. And that’s the end of my formal questions, but I want to open up this time for you to add anything that you’d like to add or elect to close the interview at this time.

Q: No, I think I’m good. I think I’ve told you everything I remember, so thanks so much.

A: [41:40] Yeah. Thank you, too, Mr. Patterson.

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