September 15, 2003

Battlefield Commission

Eric Rangus

In 1989, Jeff Martin came out while an undergraduate at Florida State University. Tallahassee, while home to two major universities and capital of one of the largest states of the union, still has a certain small, Southern-town feel to it. The joke on campus is that the Florida panhandle city is really the capital of South Georgia.

The atmosphere at FSU wasn’t necessarily hostile to homosexuals, but it wasn’t inviting either. The attitude could be placed somewhere between indifference and ignorance—at least back in the day.

“I remember one year a lesbian friend and I decided we were going to show our pride,” said Martin, manager of meeting services and chair of the President’s Commission on LGBT Concerns. “We went to the union with our rainbow flags, and we were the only two people there. People didn’t even know what rainbow flags were. Things really have come forward leaps and bounds since I was in college.”

When Martin was in school, a quick kiss on the sitcom “Roseanne” had people up in arms all across the county. Now “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” is a staple of water-cooler conversation. Still, homosexuality is far from universally accepted.

Even on the Emory campus, which historically has been somewhat forward-thinking regarding gay issues, things are not perfect. Several acts of intolerance last year, according to the Office of Multicultural Services and Programs, were perpetrated on the University’s LGBT population.

While the LGBT community is not dissatisfied with the campus climate, Martin said, there always is work to do. Martin’s avenue for his efforts is through the commission. He joined as a staff member two years ago, was chosen as chair-elect last year, and ascends to the chairship for 2003–04. He will lead his first meeting on Tuesday.

“I’ve always wanted to be an advocate, but I’d never had the opportunity to do so,” Martin said. “I thought it would be a great experience, and I felt it was time to step up.”

The commission has an ambitious agenda to start the academic year. Some of the efforts are new, such as sponsoring an information session on domestic partner benefits (LGBT employees may not be comfortable simply cold-calling Human Resources) or getting together a group for the annual AIDS walk (the Emory LGBT community always has had a strong presence at the event, but the commission has never gathered a formal group to walk).

Others are longer-term projects. Increasing visibility is a constant challenge. “We want people to see that we are around and we’re not just a group that meets once a month on the fourth floor of the Admin building and makes decisions or acts as a watchdog,” Martin said. “That’s a role, but it’s not our only role.”

For instance, the commission co-sponsored more events last year and will continue to do the same in this one. Some of them were in conjunction with like organizations (Office of LGBT Life, Emory PRIDE), and some were on its own.

Perhaps the commission’s highest priority for the year is to continue the discussion on adding queer studies classes to the Emory college curriculum. The Institute for Women’s Studies offers a class on lesbian/gay/queer studies, and the subject is touched on in other courses such as English and American studies, but there is no formal program. The commission would like to change that, but Martin acknowledged that it can’t do it alone.

“I can go to President [Jim] Wagner all I want and say, ‘We need to have a queer studies program,’ but that isn’t going to make it happen,” Martin said. “It’s going to have to come through faculty and student support, but I think it’s important that an organization like the commission expresses that it is a goal and we do think it’s important.

“Emory has always been at the forefront of establishing domestic partnership benefits and being very vocal on lesbian and gay issues and its support for them,” Martin continued, noting that other top universities have established queer studies programs. (Students at Cal-Berkeley can minor in the subject; a certificate in queer studies is available from Duke; and queer studies has a significant curriculum presence at schools ranging from Johns Hopkins to the University of Iowa.)

“Emory needs to seriously look at this,” Martin said. “If Emory wants to attract students who are intelligent and interested in the subject—and, for that matter, faculty who are interested in researching and teaching in the area—I think establishing a program would not only help the climate here, but you’d get more people out and visible and doing that kind of work, which would trickle down.”

As Martin’s interest in LGBT advocacy has grown, it has had an effect on another important part of his life—his graduate study. This fall he starts his last year of work toward a master’s in higher education at Georgia State.

When Martin entered graduate school he began researching race relations. Gradually—and in tandem with his work with the LGBT commission—Martin began studying other forms of oppression, like discrimination against homosexuals, specifically men and women who are HIV-positive.

“You can hear people talking in the hallways. That topic might come up and they would start talking about things that are not necessarily true, like, ‘Oh, I can catch AIDS from a toilet seat,’” Martin said. “Those things exist, and if you take it one step farther and somebody who is HIV-positive hears that, you have to understand how it affects that person. It’s very subtle. It’s a little different than writing ‘fag’ on the wall, but it has the same type of effects. It’s an unseen thing, and I’m really interested in that dynamic.”

Martin knows several people who are HIV-positive, and this has lent a personal and pertinent angle to his work. He said it’s possible to eliminate a lot of the discrimination though education. That is why he is concentrating his graduate research on HIV/AIDS and higher education.

That angle took on a whole new meaning over the summer when Martin spent nearly two weeks in South Africa on a study abroad trip to conduct some comparative educational research on how the disease is devastating that country’s higher education system.

“There are faculty and staff people dying, and as these people pass, they have to be replaced by someone who is trained,” said Martin, who was the lone master’s student on the trip. His 14 traveling companions were Ph.D. students. “There is a statistic that three of five 15-year-olds in South Africa will lose one or both caregivers by 2005. That’s a student who in three years will be of college age. These children may not be able to afford it or may be caregivers themselves.

I know the South Africans realize how great the problem is, but I’m not sure they are prepared for it.”

Martin, along with the rest of the students on the trip, was encouraged to approach his research in unconventional ways. All of them kept daily journals. Some incorporated artwork into their final papers. Martin concluded his with a poem. His bachelor’s degree is in humanities, so poetry wasn’t too much of a stretch.

Not that stretching has ever been a problem for him. Martin, whose fifth anniversary at Emory is coming up next month, began as a temp in Facilities Management. He worked closely with Ed Stansell, director of the Dobbs Center, who encouraged Martin to apply for the Meeting Services directorship when it came open.

After less than a semester on the job, Stansell suggested that Martin look into doing master’s work in student affairs, which he dove into at GSU two years ago.

Meeting Services encompasses Martin, two professional employees and two student employees, and the office is responsible for reserving and managing space for student groups all across campus. Working with the students, Martin said, is the best part of the job.

“Last year I watched the crop of freshmen who came in with me graduate,” Martin said. “To say you had a hand in that and might have actually affected
that person for the rest of their life is really exciting. That’s what student affairs is all about.”