Richard Elkins Oral History


1




Richard Elkins

Narrator

Zachary Dale

Interviewer

July 15, 2018

Raleigh, North Carolina

ZD: It is Sunday, July 15 at 12:40 pm. Zachary Dale is conducting this interview and we are in Raleigh, North Carolina.

RE: My name is Richard Elkins and I give verbal consent to be interviewed.

ZD: Wonderful. Thank you so much. Why don't you tell me about your life before you came to ECU.

RE: I grew up primarily in Wilson, North Carolina. I graduated from Fike High School in 1989 and initially went to NC State University because I thought I wanted to be a meteorologist. That was one of the two schools in the state which had a meteorology program. After about a year, I determined that was not my calling and wandered between different majors for a while. Primarily did political science, but most of the time didn't have an intention of actually doing that. (1:10)

RE: The reason I chose meteorology was because I always loved science and I loved maps. Got to NC State and found that I really loved maps more than I loved science and wanted to major in geography. I determined that I had been at NC State for three years already and based on what classes I'd already taken there, ECU was the best fit that was going to make me take the fewest extra classes for general education requirements. I decided to transfer to ECU. This was very immediately following the big Peach Bowl win in 1991, where ECU defeated NC State at the Peach Bowl and transfer applications went through the roof at ECU and my transfer got delayed pretty much for a year. Where I'd intended on transferring in 1992, I transferred in 93 to major in geography at NC State, I'm sorry. At ECU and during that last year at ECU, I mean at NC State, I'm getting flipped here. The last year at NC State was when I actually came out of the closet. That's before coming to ECU. (2:47)

ZD: What inspired the creation of BGLAD?

RE: During that last year at NC State, I was very active in the LGSU, the lesbian and gay student union at NC State. I had also been very active in a lot of other groups at NC State including the College Democrats and things like that and Mu Beta Psi music fraternity and when I transferred to ECU, the documentation from Student Life had included that there was a LGBT student group or LGB at the time. Not really a lot of consideration of trans issues as much. There was a group on campus, at least listed in their listing of student organizations, so I came expecting to have an easy in to get to meet people at NC State. Of course, you can go to bars and things like that but it's not always really easy to meet people and develop a new network of friends. I was kind of expecting to have an easy in with that and the fact that the group had just folded before I got there threw a monkey wrench in that. (4:12)

RE: I felt that from my experience at NC State that having that type of group on campus was really important, not only for people who were already out, but for people who were coming through the coming out process. There needed to be something there other than the bar. There was also a confidential support group within the counseling center, but something that was more social and advocacy related making sure that people were aware of issues and that there was a community that when people were coming out that they weren't alone. I spent that whole first year developing friendships with people and keeping in mind, it's like, this person I might be able to get them involved. I was strongly involved with the music department. I was in the marching band the first semester and I was in one of the choruses. That was an outlet, one of the departments where you find the gays. That helped me as far as meeting people.

RE: I was involved with that for a little while with that support group just as a way of meeting more people. Networking more people. I didn't feel I was one of the ones who really needed support. I went there as a supporter. Where people were dealing with issues of coming out and stuff. It's like it's great out of the closet. Come on. I think that would sum up why I thought it was important to start it. It was really important for me in my coming out process and I felt that other people needed that same resource. (6:31)

ZD: How did you find an advisor for your student group?

RE: Our original advisor is Dr. John O'Brien who is a music professor and that was through recommendations of people I knew in the music department. He was the one or one of the very few out faculty members and I got to know him and he agreed to be ... He would give some advice as to maybe this person in the administration might be more friendly than somebody else when we were going through the process of trying to get organized. He was much more of a hands-off. If you need him, come to him, I'll sign off on this form for you, whatever. But he wasn't one that would regularly come to meetings. We had that original organizational meeting in April of 94 and the following fall, that was the very end of the semester so it was to get it kicked off and we can be planning during the summer and getting ready for things. (7:44)

RE: I was elected as one of the co-chairs. At the time I was copying NC State's model that instead of having a president, vice president, we had male and female co-chairs to try and be more egalitarian in leadership and the fact that women might feel more comfortable talking to a woman and vice versa. I was elected the male co-chair and Nicky, can't remember her last name off the top of my head, but we elected a female vice chair who ended up moving to Texas during the summer. Our very first meeting in the fall, we had to elect a new vice chair, not vice chair. Female co-chair and Shanna Jarman who lives here in Raleigh, was the other one. Also, at that first non-organizational meeting, Jeff Gersh came and he was a new residence hall coordinator. They had switched their model and went to live in coordinators who had masters degree type things. I think they probably do the same still, as opposed to having a graduate student living in coordinator and then having professional coordinators who lived off campus.

RE: He was part of that reorganization and he had finished grad school at the University of South Carolina. While he had been at the University of South Carolina, he had been president of their gay group on campus. His experiences with that were instantaneously evident and he was made the second advisor to the group. He was much more hands-on. He was at meetings and things like that. The next year, so 95, was when Aaron Lucier came to campus and . (10:03)

RE: When Aaron Lucier came to campus and similarly had a lot of experience working with and being involved in gay student organizations on campus as he coming through school. So he was the third advisor. Later on we ... Oh gosh, I can't remember her name. We had somebody with the sociology department. Is it Marika? Was that when she ...? I think that might have been Marika that we had asked. We had three male advisors, all gay males, and if I recall Marika identifies as bisexual. So she was our fourth advisor. Then over the years ... It might have been when Jeff left that we brought Marika in as an advisor. Of course, John O'Brien is still at ECU. Aaron Lucier is still at ECU. I don't know if John is still technically affiliated with the group or not, but of course Aaron. Beyond that, I don't know much about the advisors after my time.

ZD: In what ways did BGLAD engage with the campus?

RE: Well, you have some documentation about where we had our Pride Week. That was something that we did at NC State that I brought over and copied. That we had a week of events, speakers, information tables. Oh, we made sure to always try and be at the freshman orientations, the Student Organizations Fair for the freshman orientations. That was always a very interesting and fun thing to do. Sitting there and watching the new freshmen come by, sometimes with their parents, sometimes not. Sometimes they'd pass by several times. We'd notice how they'd pass by, and they were looking but they were afraid to stop or something. It was like, "Hmm. That one will be coming to see us in a little bit." It was a way to entertain ourselves. (12:27)

RE: I think I've got a good number of pictures of us from doing orientation tables. It has been lost, but we had this big, long, purple piece of fabric that was the Purple Shroud of BGLAD. We gave a whole legend to it. It was just a piece of fabric that we used to cover the table. It was like a purple satiny fabric. I wish I knew what became of the Purple Shroud of BGLAD.

RE: But I wandered off. We tried to do a Pride Week every year, and part of that process is that we did have Blue Jeans Day. The whole purpose in Blue Jeans Day was just to try and get dialogue going. This was before Ellen or Will & Grace. I actually would get emails weekly where somebody was compiling any show on television, cable, broadcast, anything, that had anything to do with gay, lesbian, bisexual topics. You could get a weekly listing, and it would only be so long. So it was still a topic that people tended to try and avoid speaking about.

RE: The whole thing of Blue Jeans Day was you declared a particular day, and on that day everyone who supported equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual people should wear blue jeans. So for many of the fraternities, that was Khakis Day. You saw a very distinct shift in the dress. Blue jeans were very commonly worn. The whole thing of it was people had to make a conscious decision that today, on this particular day, I'm not going to wear blue jeans. They had to make a conscious decision to show that they were in favor of discrimination or not in favor of equality. There also was the possibility that somebody wasn't aware of it. There was a lot of chatter about it. (15:00)

RE: I remember even before coming out. The first three years at NC State, before Blue Jeans Day there was all this talk of, "Oh, Blue Jeans Day is coming up. You know, people wear blue jeans because they're gay." Or things like that, and a lot of discussion in the campus paper and things like that. I can remember myself being in the closet and being kind of, it's like, "Well, am I going to wear blue jeans or not?" And finally deciding, you know, "Well, screw you if you don't like it. You know, it doesn't mean I'm gay. I have gay friends, and I can be supportive," and things like that. So just to kind of spark discussion. You can't ignore us, you know. It did spark a lot of controversy and a lot of letters to the editor. You'd see a definite shift, and if you were wearing blue jeans, people might look at you differently. Or it's like, "Did you know today's Blue Jeans Day?" Yeah, I did. What, do you have a problem with it? It gave you an opportunity to speak up when that topic might not ever come up.

RE: Another thing, at the time there wasn't any resource center or anything on campus. I always joked that we would be ... Even though we came out of the closet, we would have loved to have just had a closet somewhere on campus that we could store things. Store materials, store the Purple Shroud of BGLAD where it might not be lost to history. Our banners, flyers, anything like that. We would love to have a closet, but we didn't have anything like that. (17:01)

RE: We started getting some requests from professors whose classes were covering topics involving sexual orientation that they'd like panels, people to come and speak to the classes. That was something we as an organization did. We had a person who was the Speakers Bureau chair and coordinated that and made sure there were people to sign up to go to these classes. If there weren't people that could go, then they were like, "No, I can't, I can get you one speaker," or, "I can get you a panel of four." Or, you know, "Is there something in particular you're looking for?" You know, "Do you want gay men? Do you want lesbians? Do you want bisexuals?" We got a lot of really ... There was a lot of appreciation, not only from the teachers but also from people in those classes, for coming out and doing those panels for classes. For a good number of years, that was one of our really big activities, was doing panels for classes. (18:23)

RE: We're just looking at campus outreach. We participated ... Some years they had like a spirit competition where it was a ... Organizations donate cans of food for the food pantry. Based on whichever organization brings the most cans of food, you get the spirit stick of some sort. I seem to recall that they would kind of give an update as to standings over a period of time. At one point, at least, we were in the lead and that kind of stirred some other groups to up their donations. But, yeah, we went and bought a lot of cheap cans of beans to try and boost our numbers. I'm trying to think of anything else. We did have, kind of at the end of the year for a few years, we did have a banquet kind of thing. Or a reception, awards banquet kind of thing, where we recognized student leaders, and we recognized outstanding allies in the administration, things like that.

RE: One thing that we didn't actually have to do that's kind of interesting ... the nondiscrimination policy of the university ... We organized in October. Not October, April of '94, and that summer the Board of Trustees was making revisions to the campus nondiscrimination policy. Miraculously the next fall it did include sexual orientation. It wasn't something that we advocated for. We kind of like to pride ourselves in thinking that they would rather go ahead and quietly throw it in there so that we wouldn't make a big stink. So that was something we never actually did have to rally for, was inclusion of sexual orientation in our nondiscrimination policy. That's all that's coming to mind right now. (21:14)

ZD: In what ways, if any, did BGLAD engage with the Greenville community?

RE: Greenville community largely ... We were one of the cooperating organizations as far as for starting Down East Pride, which was a gay and lesbian bisexual pride festival held in Greenville from '96 to kind of '99. '99 was a weird year with Hurricane Floyd. It was primarily a community effort, but we cooperated and sometimes helped with providing spaces on campus for events. I had already done the BGLAD website, which I'll mention. BGLAD ... at least if you went onto the ECU website ... We came in right at the very beginning of the World Wide Web. Not long before ... This was right when ECU even had internet access of any sort. And when you went to the ECU website, the first time that they actually had a listing of student organizations, there were two which had websites. The computer club and BGLAD. (22:47)

RE: Web design was something that I had an interest in and self-taught myself. So BGLAD already had a website. A lot of the Down East Pride people being off campus, they weren't as savvy on the internet and the World Wide Web. For them BBS, bulletin board systems which were really primitive, or AOL chat rooms, that was something that people off campus would more likely identify with. But I advocated for the fact that we needed to have a website and volunteered to ... Within the BGLAD website, I actually had a subdirectory and hosted Down East Pride's website. So the first couple years, I think we did ... They gave us kind of the exclusive rights to do food and beverage. There weren't a lot of vendors calling to do a gay pride festival in Greenville. So we were able to make some money by grilling hamburgers and hotdogs and selling drinks at the festival. (24:14)

RE: Then the third and fourth years, after there was kind of a transition that the original people kind of stepped out and some new people moved into place. I ended up being the festival chair in '98 and was to be the festival co-chair in '99. Actually picking the performers and running the stage and things like that. But that was ... During some of that time I was still a student. Some of the time it was after I had left school. But we were one of the cooperating organizations with that. That's really the only thing that I can think of that we really did with off campus. Because with Down East Pride coming into place and the group again that I was mentioning, where they reorganized the Greenville community group. They kind of handled the off campus kind of things, and we just worked with them if needed. So that's that.

ZD: What kind, if any, conflict did BGLAD experience on campus? (25:38)

RE: There wasn't a lot, especially directed directly at the organization. Of course, there was the things with the newspaper articles and letters. Of course, the debates back and forth about blue jeans day and the letters to the editor. But the group itself didn't have a lot of conflict directed at us. I mean, we do put up flyers around campus, and a lot of them would get vandalized or torn down. That's kind of normal. Individual members oftentimes experienced harassment or even violence on campus. But it was rarely something that, where it was actually something that could be directed at the group. There was one instance, which would have been sometime '96, '97 year, because Laura Josie ... I think Laura was president. I think Laura was president when it happened. We were meeting in general classroom building which is ... What's the name of it now? The English ... What building is English in?

ZD: Bate. (27:04)

RE: Bate, yes. Sorry, at the time it didn't have a name yet. The Bate building. We were having our meeting and some guys decided to like ... knowing we were meeting in there ... come by and like bang on the doors and runoff, and stuff like that. I remember Laura going and running after them and catching them in the elevator. Laura also happened to be ... Laura wasn't a traditional-age student. She was in her 30s and had gone back to school. She had been a police officer and was also one of the reserve student police officers. She worked for the ECU Police Department. So having caught them, they encountered some problems because of the harassment.

RE: One interesting part of where she had come back to school. She had had cancer and had lost her leg, and so she had an artificial leg. It was kind of just a general joke, you know, "Don't make me throw my leg at you." So there was just all these stories about, you know, "She threatened them with her leg," and things like that. So it was really funny. That was the only actual harassment that we encountered while I was involved with the group. (28:46)

ZD: So is there anything I haven't asked you that you would like to share?

RE: Nothing that comes to mind immediately. I ramble, so I'm hoping I hit something. I'll probably think of something later on and be like ... send you an email and it's like, "Oh, I forgot to tell you this story." But nothing that comes to mind right now.

ZD: All right. Well, thank you so very much for agreeing to do this interview.

RE: Thank you for doing this research.

ZD: Of course.

RE: I think it's very valuable. (29:20)


Title
Richard Elkins Oral History
Description
In this oral history Richard Elkins discusses his experience as a gay male student at East Carolina University and his role in the creation of and participation in the student organization BGLAD. He also discusses the LGBT community on campus at that time. Interviewed by Zachary Dale on July 5, 2018 in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Date
July 05, 2018
Original Format
oral histories
Extent
Local Identifier
UA95.08
Creator(s)
Contributor(s)
Subject(s)
Spatial
Location of Original
University Archives
Rights
This item has been made available for use in research, teaching, and private study. Researchers are responsible for using these materials in accordance with Title 17 of the United States Code and any other applicable statutes. If you are the creator or copyright holder of this item and would like it removed, please contact us at als_digitalcollections@ecu.edu.
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