Jesse Peel oral history


Dr. Jesse R. Peel


Zachary P. Dale

East Carolina University


July 17, 2018

LGBT Resource Office

East Carolina University

ZD: It is Tuesday, July 17th at 2:11 PM. Zachary Dale is conducting this interview. We are at East Carolina University's LGBT Resource Office. I'll turn it over to my interviewee.

JP: Dr. Jesse Peel from Atlanta, born and raised here in North Carolina over in Martin County.

ZD: Great. Do I have consent to conduct this interview?

JP: Yes indeed.

ZD: Thank you so very much for agreeing. Why don't we begin by telling me about growing up in rural North Carolina?

JP: Well, I grew up in the little town of Everetts, about 240 souls, farming community. My dad was a farmer. My mom was a housekeeper. Only child, kind of a spoiled kid, mama's boy, and a real nerd. (1:01)

ZD: Tell me about your work in Atlanta, Georgia.

JP: Well I went to UNC, undergrad and medical school, did my psychiatric training in Philadelphia, and after a couple of years in the Navy was on the faculty at Vanderbilt. I was very much a late bloomer. I had been married briefly right after medical school, but she ran off with a social worker and I ended up going with the Marines to Vietnam and then finally back to Nashville where I had my first job. While I was there, I came out. When you start running into your clients coming out of a gay bar as you're going in, perhaps it's time to change venues. I also wasn't an academician. I hadn't written any papers and had no intention of doing so.

JP: After five years it was time to move to Atlanta. I told folks a few years ago, I came to Atlanta to learn how to be queer. I joined a large psychiatric group there in Atlanta. I was the token gay guy. I really wanted to develop a gay clientele so I advertised in the gay newspaper and bar rags. By the early 1980's about a third of my outpatient practice was gay men. Be careful what you ask for because that was when the epidemic began to roll in and clients were coming in with fears about their own health. One young man came in and had lost three of his best friends in the previous month. I found myself at ground zero as the epidemic swept into Atlanta. Got involved with AID Atlanta in 1984 and I've been involved in the gay community and the HIV AIDS community ever since. (3:38)

ZD: Tell me about the Chancellor's Diversity and the Diversity Center.

JP: Well I had been back and forth as an only child, as mom's health began to fail. I was back and forth a good bit. When she passed in aught five [2005], I put on a blowout funeral. She was a church pianist and I rented a black Yamaha grand and had a musician from over here at the music department come play. One of the speakers at the service was Scott Wells who had been my contact at the university in the development office. She brought with her Dr. Marilyn Sheerer, who at that time was head of the dean of the College of Education.

JP: At reception after the internment, I thought, "Well I'm going to put Dr. Sheerer on the spot. What are you doing to sensitize young teachers to issues of LGBT youth? I was going to watch her squirm." Well she lit up like a Christmas tree and we had a very animated discussion. Little did I know she had a gay son living in New York. She said, "We need to continue this discussion in the fall." The Chancellor, Chancellor Ballard, had just hired a new associate for diversity. That fall Dr. Sheerer convened a Diversity Council, which involved some people from sociology, this new person in diversity, Aaron Lucier and some of the other people here on campus. I was invited to join that group. We continued to meet, exchanged ideas. Over the next four or five years I was very actively involved in the Diversity Council and what they were doing. (6:28)

ZD: Tell me about the creation of the LGBT Resource Office.

JP: I don't recall being aware of Summer Wisdom's project. I'd had contact with Dr. Linda Mooney. Of course there's a story about Summer doing her research on LGBT resources on various UNC campuses, but she had invited the Provost, Dr. Sheerer had moved over to the Provost office at that point, invited her to her defense. Dr. Sheerer went down the hall and got Dr. Ballard to come with her. This graduate student was doing her presentation to the Chancellor and the Provost. ECU came out having essentially no resources for LGBT students. Dr. Ballard, as I was told later, said, "This just is unacceptable." Within six weeks they had found some offices and opened the LGBT Resource Office, hired Summer as a part-time director, and also appointed an advisory board, which they asked me to be a part of.

JP: I came into it after it was created, but was really full of enthusiasm about getting something started. It was a real exercise in frustration dealing with that board. I had all sorts of ... I'd been working in nonprofits in Atlanta for 30 years so I had a lot of experience in fundraising in non-profit organizations. I didn't have any experience though in how glacial movement can be within a university system. I would talk about ideas about fundraising. People's eyes would glaze over like a deer in the headlights. We had very little funding. We weren't a part of student affairs. We're stuck over here in Brewster, but there was a lot of enthusiasm. (9:28)

JP: Then Dr. Hardy, Virginia Hardy's the head of student affairs, appointed a task force to look at how the LGBT office ought to be situated. She asked me to serve on that task force as well. What came out of that was the resource office being moved into student affairs, which made it eligible for student fees. Now we had a budget. We now had a full-time employee so that we could begin some growth.

ZD: Why do you think campuses need these kinds of spaces? What makes them important?

JP: One of the things I noticed whenever I came ... I was up here, flew up to Atlanta, to Greenville from Atlanta, several times a year. I was always over here visiting the office. I was impressed that this was always a beehive of activity. Sometimes you couldn't even find a place to sit because there was so many kids here. Obviously this office was filling a need for a lot of students. I think it's even more important in a place like ECU as opposed to NC State or Chapel Hill, where being gay is not such as much of an issue as it is in a very rural, very conservative, very Southern Baptist community. (11:36)

JP: This is where I grew up and this is where my roots were. I wanted to be supportive. I had stumbled into a group of people that were just as passionate about human rights as I was. I never expected to find it here. I couldn't get out of North Carolina quick enough after I had finished medical school, and never expected to be involved back here, but suddenly I had found something that was totally unexpected.

ZD: Was there any push back regarding the creation of the LGBT Resource Office?

JP: There may have been, but I was never aware of any and nobody ever told me about any. At the time we had a Chancellor who was very supportive. We had a Provost, Dr. Sheerer, she had a gay son in New York. Dr. Ballard had a gay daughter in San Francisco. We had a lot of support, administrative support, at the highest level. There may very well have been some blow back but I was never aware of it. Then some blow back, but I was never aware of it.

ZD: Tell us about the creation of the LGBT Advisory Board. (13:09)

JP: Well, after the office moved into Student Affairs, the advisory board that we'd had was ... It consisted mostly of the university employees, we had two or three community people, but I didn't know a lot of people here in Greenville community, and we never were able to identify a lot of supporters within the community. I don't think folks, gay folks, in Greenville were really all that much out. And the folks in the university system itself just didn't think much out of the box. They didn't think much beyond this street. I kept coming up and being involved, but it was ... We weren't going anywhere really very fast.

JP: We tried to be supportive. Brad Collier started Love Wins as a fundraiser about four or five years ago. This was several years after the resource office had been established. I was wanting to help develop some fundraising mechanisms because there was obviously things that we were going to want to do, that we weren't going to be able to use state money for. And you needed unrestricted funding if you will go into ... Be able to do anything creative. (15:07)

JP: I went back to strategies we had used in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. We called it Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Would have a dozen people in the community have dinner parties at their house, invite their friends, and charge whatever they chose to charge for dinner, and then you would meet for coffee and dessert at someplace downtown. It was something that AID Survival Project developed down in Atlanta, and it seemed like it would, would work here, so we started. Brad started this, I can say four or five years ago, and it's been very successful raising a $8, $10, $12,000 in the last couple of years and unrestricted funding.

ZD: What was the process of establishing the new Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Resource Center? Why establish it?

JP: Well, the university was getting ready to build a new student center. Mendenhall was built back in the early 70s, when there are about 10-12,000 students here. Now, the population is up 30,000 and it's totally inadequate. They had plans to build a new student center, and it seemed to me that if we're going to have a new facility, that the LGBT Center needed to be in that facility. I started negotiating with Dr. Hardy and as I wanted to be sure that we had adequate space in that new facility. (17:05)

JP: The offices over in Brewster are a little over 500 square feet, a little rabbit warren of spaces, but we needed, obviously, a larger space because it was totally inadequate. We had tried to get them to let us incorporate the conference room next door, but that never went anywhere. As they were beginning to develop plans for the new center, they had just hired Mark Rasdorf as the new director for the LGBT Office.

JP: I was coming up for a visit in the spring. I called Mark and said, "Let's take a road trip." He had never met me, didn't know who I was, but I said, "Let's go up to the triangle and visit Chapel Hill, NC State, and Duke, and let's see how the big boys are doing it. What kind of programs they have, and get some ideas that we can use as we're making our wishlist for this new facility." So Mark contacted the directors at all three schools, and I flew in and we took a road trip. (18:54)

JP: Our first stop was at Chapel Hill. Now, remember. Whenever I'd been here at the resource office, it was people crawling over each other, that it was so crowded. It was a real beehive of activity. We got to Chapel Hill mid-morning, it was the middle of the week. Their center had been right in the middle of campus, originally, but they had moved ...The building they were in had been renovated, and they would move to a classroom building out by the stadium up on the fourth and fifth floor. And have really nice facility, there a couple of staff people there. It was around 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning, and not a single student in the place.

JP: We've met with the director. We had lunch. We went over to State. Their center was then in the third floor of the student bookstore. Right adjacent to the Commons, which was just teeming with students. We went up, just dark offices. There was a graduate assistant there and no students. Went over to Duke, it was a quite a different situation there. They had a brand new center as a part of the brand new student center and the LGBT offices. The first thing you see when you walk in, windows overlooking the Duke Chapel. That they have a million dollar endowment. They have a fantastic facility. (20:59)

JP: But they told me it was the story that they had been in the basement of an adjacent building for many years and when they moved to this space, a lot of the students that had been coming to the center didn't come anymore because there was no back door. "A lot of our students are from abroad, and they couldn't be identified." It was really eye-opening. We went up there to get ideas about how successful centers would be in run, but there were no kids there. Obviously, we were already doing something that was working. It was certainly attracting students.

JP: I also realized that probably the students that will come over to Brewster, probably have a greater need than the students at Chapel Hill or State. Simply because of where they came from. This is the background for going into our meeting with Bobby Woodard, who was the project manager. He was Erik Kneubuehl's predecessor. My concern was that we had a very favorable administration. We talked about it with Dr. Cheryl, but we were also in a very conservative state, with a very conservative legislature, and what the administration giveth the administration can take it away. (22:53)

JP: I I had an inheritance from my folks, a farm land that we had already gifted to the university's setup professorships, an investment account, but I'd decided years ago that the funds that came out of North Carolina, were gonna stay here in North Carolina. What I had made in Atlanta was mine to do with what I wanted to. I threw out the idea of a possible endowment, and got to Woodard, said, "Doc, there's not a chancellor around that has the cojones to dismantle a named center."

JP: I didn't want my name on anything, but I didn't know what we had achieved to be taken away by a change of administration. The idea was to make it very difficult for them to undo what we had gone. Once we got through the negotiations about the endowment, then we got the good news about the square footage in the location that we got, and I liked ... I'm fond of calling it Ocean Front Property. It's front and center, and again, I think it's needed here in Greenville a hell of a lot more than it is in Raleigh or Chapel Hill.

ZD: Why ECU? Why come here and do all this for us? (24:59)

JP: Well, that's an interesting story. I grew up 25 miles from here over in Martin County. I went to Chapel Hill. My dad was a graduate of NC State, mother had gone to Lewisburg. After dad died in '86, I suggested to mother that we do a scholarship in dad's memory. Well, I knew anything that we would be able to contribute, would not even make a ripple in the pond up at Chapel Hill or State. I don't remember what thing, what the contact was, but I found out that ECU was in the process of establishing a merit scholarship program. It was the university scholars program that now has become so successful, but they were just in the process of .

JP: But they were just in the process of establishing this, came over and met with some folks here, and they said they were hoping that they could have their scholars have some contact with their donors. And that really appealed to me. We established a scholarship and the first scholar we had was sort of a dud. We didn't have much contact with him. But then our next scholar was a superstar. She was from Williamson, which is just down the road from where I grew up. Mother presented her the scholarship at her high school graduation. Her name was Scarlet Garner. She came over and finished her undergrad in three years, got a master's the fourth year, and then went on to Raleigh, went on to Chapel Hill to law school, and last I heard was working in the governor's office. (27:27)

JP: Scarlet sent mother a birthday card, Christmas card, she was in contact, we were in contact with her, it was just a great kind of interaction. I was getting more and more involved back and forth up here. Having something to do with the university was a great way to make my trips to North Carolina not quite so boring. Ain't nothing to do over in Everetts. But if I could come over and meet with some folks here, they invited me to be on the selection committee for Scholar's Weekend, and that was one of the most fun things I did during, well, I guess this was during the 90s.

JP: Meeting these really bright students and having contact with ... Each time we would roll around to a new scholar, they would put you in contact with your scholar. Whenever I was in town I'd try to have lunch or dinner with them. I just got more and more involved here and East Carolina was in my backyard. I was a lot closer to Greenville than I was to Chapel Hill or Raleigh. Back in '09 they made me an honorary Pirate. Mother established in her estate a professorship in religious studies, and after she passed in '05, we set up two more professorships in LGBT studies and gender studies. I don't know how mom would feel about having a gay scholar, but I felt that was a way of making an impact. (29:53)

JP: You say why ECU? I got the impression it was like the old advertisements from Avis. We try harder, and ECU was playing catch up. I had met a group of people I really related to, and I was excited to be a part of that growing process. My commitment to the gay community, getting involved in this LGBT resource office was just a great opportunity to sort of give the finger to a big red state.

ZD: If you could leave a message to future students and future Pirates about this community, about this university, what would it be?

JP: Gee. I have seen just incredible courage in coming out and being yourself. When I was at Chapel Hill, I was so sexually repressed. I knew there were things going on in the bathroom and the library, but I was too scared to go there and participate. I had no sense of what even being gay was. I knew I was different, but like I say, I was so repressed. I had a lot of learning, remedial work to do. (32:14)

JP: I guess I would want them to encourage them to not be afraid to be who they are. These kids are so far ahead of where I was when I was in school. I think that's one reason I'm so supportive of this place. It's something I never had, and I don't know if it had been available at Chapel Hill even that I would have availed ... I might have been too afraid to even avail myself of it, because I wasn't aware of ... I didn't know about gay. It took me a long time to get there. I haven't really answered your question, but these kids have shown incredible courage, and I would just encourage them to take that leap, that step. That it can be rewarding, you can be successful, you can be who you really are.

ZD: That's a wonderful answer. Is there anything I haven't asked that you'd like to share?

JP: I think this office and what we're going to be moving into in six months from now, is a very well kept secret. I don't think folks have a clue about what's been going on down here in Greenville. We're going to have the largest LGBT center in the whole UNC system. It's the only one that's going to have an endowment. We are doing programs and we are doing more programs than they're doing up at state in Carolina. I think when the word gets out, people are just going to be blown away at what's been created here. The amazing thing is it's all happened within eight years. But it has come at the right time, and at a time when I think the community is ready for it. (35:30)

JP: There's another thing that has struck me. Last year when they had the Meet and Greet at fall, they had it in Dominion Hall ballrooms. The place was standing room only. One of the things that was so striking was the demographic. Half of our kids here are people of color, and I think probably the general student population is probably 15%, 20%, something like that. I found this really pretty amazing because dealing with the gay issue, in the African American community in particular, this is a real struggle and yet these kids are coming out, and are coming to these offices. They're obviously very thirsty and we're obviously offering something that they feel they need. This I found very, very surprising and so exciting because it's just totally unexpected. So I'm excited that we're doing some groundbreaking stuff.

ZD: Me too. Well, with that I'd like to thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, Jesse. You are a wonderful person, and wonderful advocate for this community. All righty. (37:34)

Jesse Peel oral history
In this oral history Dr. Jesse Peel discusses the creation of the Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Resource Center and LGBT Advisory Board at East Carolina University. Interviewer: Zachary Dale.
July 17, 2018
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