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Interview with Pat Tetreault, Ph.D., Founding Director of the LGBTQA+ Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on Equity for LGBTQ+ Students, Sexual Education as an Equity Issue, and More

About Pat Tetreault, Ph.D. : Pat Tetreault is Founding Director of the Gender and Sexuality Center (formerly the LGBTQA+ Center) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). Dr. Tetreault was also Director of the Women’s Center at UNL prior to its merger with the LGBTQA+ Center to become the Gender and Sexuality Center. An acclaimed practitioner, advocate, and scholar, Dr. Tetreault draws from her background in social and experimental psychology to advance educational equity for LGBTQ+ students, women, and students with intersectional identities through her work at the Centers and her applied research.

Dr. Tetreault’s equity work has been recognized with a number of accolades, including the Voice of Inclusion Award from College Student Educators International (ACPA). At UNL, she has been honored with the James V. Griesen Exemplary Service to Students Award, the Chancellor’s Award for Fulfilling the Dream, the LGBT Public Service Award, and more. Under her leadership, the LGBTQA+ Center at UNL received the ACPA Commitment to Social Justice Education Award in 2017.

Dr. Tetreault’s research was recognized with the ACPA Coalition for Sexuality and Gender Identities Research Award in 2018. Her publications have appeared in periodicals like Journal of Homosexuality, The Journal of Social Psychology, and Behavioral Sciences and the Law, and as chapters in several edited volumes. Prior to her time at UNL, Dr. Tetreault worked with the organization Voices of Hope. Before founding the LGBTQA+ Center, she was Sexuality Education Coordinator at UNL.

Dr. Tetreault earned her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Kansas State University and her Master’s of Legal Studies (M.L.S) in Law-Psychology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She received both her M.A. in Experimental Psychology and her B.A. in Psychology from The University of Texas at El Paso.

Editorial Note: The views expressed in this interview belong to Dr. Tetreault as an individual, and should not be taken as representative of the Gender and Sexuality Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, or the University of Nebraska-Lincoln more broadly.

Interview Questions

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you come to apply your scholarly expertise in psychology to working to advance educational equity for women and LGBTQ+ college students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln?

[Dr. Pat Tetreault] I came to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to do a post-doc in the law psychology program in the late 1980s. When I was done, it was a tight job market. My research was on the victimization of women, and I was having trouble getting a job. I started working at Voices of Hope, which was called the Rape/Spouse Abuse Crisis Center at the time, as their education coordinator. I also did client advocacy and support. I did that for not quite three years and knew I had to do something different. I was getting very sensitized from the experience. If you are working in the field of violence, your whole life becomes about violence.

A position opened at UNL to do comprehensive and inclusive sexual education on campus. There was also a small portion of the position that involved working with LGBTQ+ students, though the language at the time was limited to “gay and lesbian.” When I got the job, I developed a program that was inclusive of all orientations and gender identities. I brought Safe Space and Ally cards to the campus. We started doing more than basic education. I developed a workshop on how to be an ally with a colleague, Gina Matkin, and over the years worked to develop diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and ally education at UNL. Eventually, we were also able to start an HIV testing site on campus.

I joined the Consortium for Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals and became part of the Committee on GLBT Concerns at UNL [now the Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of Gender and Sexualities]. Through these initiatives, as well as through the sexual education program, I began engaging in information sharing, spreading awareness, and creating a more welcoming climate for LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff. I worked in that position for about 16 years. During that time, I served for a number of years as the chair or co-chair of the Committee on GLBT Concerns at UNL. We worked towards things like domestic partner benefits and raising awareness on the repercussions of being outed for queer students — for example, ROTC students, who in many cases could be expelled and asked to repay their scholarships. We eventually succeeded in having gender identity added to the University’s nondiscrimination policy.

One of our efforts was to create a staff position that supported LGBTQ+ students on campus. We eventually succeeded in creating this position with the help of the student group that had been on campus since the 1970s. The position was first created as a graduate assistantship in the mid-to-late 90’s. Eventually we were able to get it shifted to a part-time staff position, with D [Doreen] Moritz serving in that role from January 2003-May 2006. When D stepped down, I then took on a split position serving as the sex-ed coordinator and the GLBT Programs & Services assistant director in Student Involvement. During that time, with the support of the LGBTQA+ student group now known as Spectrum, I obtained permission to open a Center, which I opened in the fall of 2007. I let the person I reported to know that I would not continue to serve in a split position and they found a way to make the GLBT position full time. I applied for it, was hired and given a space to open the Center.

Over the years, the Center has grown substantially and with our work has developed to meet the needs of our students. In 2019, the Director of the Women’s Center retired, and I became Director of both Centers. When I stepped into this more recent role, one of my tasks was to reshape the Women’s Center. We were no longer doing education and advocacy around sexual assault and interpersonal violence, which was now being handled by a separate unit. We began distributing safer sex kits and promoting sexual health, providing free resources and menstrual products and pregnancy tests. These two Centers have now merged to become the Gender and Sexuality Center.

That is my career trajectory. My whole life — my identities and experiences — led me to this, although I did not expect to end up in student affairs. My first experience with prejudice and discrimination was in the first grade. I’m half Lebanese American. My dad is of French Canadian descent. Both my parents were proud of their heritage, but I was also raised Catholic. I remember being asked by my troop leader and her daughter whether I was Jewish. As a kid, you do not understand moments like that, although I know it still made me uncomfortable. I told them I was Catholic, and they said to me, “You could be hiding.”

When I was in third grade, I went to a birthday party for one of my classmates who had parents of different races, and I was one of the only ones there because the parents of the other children did not believe in interracial marriage. I became aware of cultural differences and other types of difference as I was growing up. I learned from my parents and our travels that differences were to be valued. I also realized when I was older that my mom had experienced discrimination because of her skin tone. Lebanese people have skin that ranges from being very light to very dark. She did not want us out in the sun as kids, because she knew people with darker skin were treated poorly, though, on some level, this might have also had to do with the valuation of lighter skin connected to prejudice and discrimination known as “colorism.”

These were some of my formative experiences with discrimination. Over time, I began to understand more clearly the injustice of these moments and came to dedicate myself to working against them. I felt we should try to make the world the way we would like it to be, so I pursued my education and began to learn more about attitudes towards women. By the time I went to graduate school in psychology, I became more of an activist. I had friends who had experienced sexual assault, so I joined a group called Women Against Rape. I was one of two co-presidents who started the first LGBTQ+ student organization at Kansas State, which we called the Gay and Lesbian Resource Center. I remember us protesting when Reagan came to campus. I also co-coordinated the first Take Back the Night march in Manhattan, KS.

Whenever I have seen a need or someone has come to me with a need, I have done what I can to help address it. I am grateful to have people who support what I am doing. Strangely, when I started, I felt like I had more autonomy in my work because I was one of the few people doing it. In our current climate, I feel like there are more restrictions on what we can say and whom we can say it to. When speaking publicly, the political climate is much more divisive at this time, which makes it more challenging for many people doing work in diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice education. However, there is also more visibility. There are more people doing the work, and more people who want to be supportive. I am fortunate to be able to look back and see the positive changes that have occurred over time.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Would you introduce us to how you conceptualize equity in your own research and practice? How do you see LGBTQ+ students as represented, or underrepresented, in current discussions and initiatives surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion?

[Dr. Pat Tetreault] To me, equity is about being fair. That means having equal access to resources, information, and opportunities. When I am doing my own research, I try to focus on areas where we may see inequities and approach them with an intersectional perspective. Understanding inequities requires going beyond sexuality or gender orientation and expression, because we are not just one or two identities. To promote equity, you cannot treat everyone the same because everyone is not in the same context. You have to meet people where they are and recognize the identities and experiences they bring with them. Otherwise, you are not really seeing them.

Over the last thirty years that I have been working on campus, I have seen things get a lot better, but we are not there yet. The majority of diversity initiatives have been about racial justice, and LGBTQ+ folks have been included into that discourse through its focus on intersectionality. LGBTQ+ identities, in themselves, have been a less central focal point of these efforts. Racial justice is, of course, crucial, and I am glad intersectionality is an important concern in this movement, but I am afraid without these efforts, alongside the efforts of people advocating for LGBTQ+ inclusion, LGBTQ+ people would not be in the educational equity discussion at all.

Still, I also believe and see that more people are recognizing the importance of addressing bias and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. I do not want to minimize how important this shift is. There are also more people working together to address all aspects of inequity to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment for people of all identities. We still have a long way to go to increase our capacity to reach this goal. Everyone deserves equitable access, to be included, and belong.

In many ways we are still pretty invisible, although we also have more people who are more open about how they identify. That visibility also makes a difference. Tracking gender and sexuality is a problematic practice, but because we do not do that, we have very little idea what recruitment or retention rates are, for example. We have seen more acceptance and inclusion but we are also in a politically conservative state that is becoming increasingly divisive. There is real concern about backlash, too. Lincoln and Omaha are blue bubbles in a red sea, and we have seen a lot of people become angry at our universities because of their opposition to difference and change. I understand that some of these people feel as if their worlds are under attack when they see these broader social changes. Where there seems to be a lack of recognition is that, in trying to defend their worlds, they are attacking the worlds that belong to other people, which is inherently discriminatory and contradictory to what we think of as democratic discourse.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] As we have discussed, you are Founding Director of the LGBTQA+ Center and Director of the Women’s Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which just merged to become the Center for Gender and Sexuality. Are there certain initiatives from your work with these centers that you would highlight as particularly impactful?

[Dr. Pat Tetreault] I think the Center’s most significant impact has been promoting visibility. Just having a resource center makes a huge difference. It is a statement on the part of the institution that they recognize the identities and recognize that there is a need. It makes a real impact. We have also worked to spread visual symbols of this inclusivity. We adopted Safe Space and Ally cards, and eventually expanded and developed scaffolded education that included Brave Space and social justice support. We have now shifted to an LGBTQIA+ Inclusive card, in keeping with our focus on gender and sexuality inclusion.

I also started a history timeline, because I think that understanding our history is very important. The programming we have done is oriented towards community building but it is also educational. We have opened a resource library that aims to educate the broader campus community and create a more accepting environment. We engaged in advocacy on issues like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, for example. We have been propelled by students who are engaged, interested, and want to make a difference. Education is essential. That is what helps people know the terminology and gain a better understanding of what it means to be LGBTQ+ and what it means to work with LGBTQ+ people. We hope these initiatives stretch people’s comfort zones so they are able to be more inclusive and work more effectively with LGBTQ+ people.

Some of our efforts are more social. We have done a number of things to try to create a more welcoming climate on campus, big and small. Our students suggested we paint the walls of the center lavender. Beginning in 2003, we started hosting LGBTQA+ History Month dinners, which have become extremely popular and continue today. We host Lavender Graduation. All of this has been integral to promoting visibility and inclusion.

We provide resources as well. We have a Lavender Closet where people can come in and get gender affirming clothing. We have a learning community called Prism: LGBTQA+ and Allied Students. We do intersectional programming. We are a small staff and there are still gaps in what we are able to provide. It is difficult to do everything for everyone we want to help given the breadth of identities under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. We do not have the capacity to lend needed support to students coming out, international students who are managing being LGBTQ+, or for supporting graduate and nontraditional students. We do our best work at the undergraduate level but try to connect with as much of the university as we can.

In the end, I think it is all important, and there are still things I have left out.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Your research, for example, “Perceptions of Campus Climate by Sexual Minorities,” has pointed to anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, professor treatment, familial support, and a number of factors as impacting the experiences, development, and retention of LGBTQ+ students. What interventions have you explored for fostering more inclusive climates? Have you seen meaningful changes in the inclusivity of campus climates over the course of your career?

[Dr. Pat Tetreault] This study helped inform our work at the LGBTQA+ Center and advocate for change and additional resources at the University. Bob Brown led the first study in 2002, and we followed up with an assessment in 2009, which was published in 2013. We did another follow-up in 2017, and our next assessment is planned for 2024. We used the first set of data as a baseline and also as a way to advocate. At a higher education institution, you can present your problems and stories, but if you have data to back up your appeals it helps a lot. We have been working together with the university to address the issues presented in our research, but it is a slow process.

In the 2017 study, we saw that perceptions of campus climate had improved. This iteration of the survey also included straight students as respondents, and we were able to see where things were similar and different. One of the areas where we saw things were different was in issues related to unemployment and employment insecurity. There was more of that in the LGBTQ+ population than in the cisgender and straight population. We learned this was a unique need to address for students to feel engaged with campus climate because most people needed to work in order to pay for their expenses and stay in college.

Further, students who concealed their identities reported the greatest amounts of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. This communicated to us the importance of suicide prevention programs as a resource, which we were already doing some of through a grant-funded initiative I ran with the former director of the Women’s Center, Jan Deeds.

We also learned through our study the important role the Center was playing in cultivating campus climate and how people were using the Center. We learned, for example, that ten percent of students who identify as straight and cisgender have been to the Center, which shows that it is providing a resource for making campus more inclusive by educating the larger student population, not just LGBTQ+ students. It also showed us areas where we can continue to improve the reach of our resources and initiatives that are designed to foster a more inclusive campus climate.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Before founding the LGBTQA+ Center, you worked as Sexuality Education Coordinator at UNL. Would you discuss your experience in this position? Do you see sexuality education programs as an important place where universities can strive for educational equity, especially as related to gender and sexuality?

[Dr. Pat Tetreault] As a country, we do not have comprehensive and inclusive sexual education programs for our youth. In European countries with comprehensive and inclusive sex ed, they have lower rates of STIs, lower unintended pregnancy rates, lower abortion rates, and higher ages of initiation of sexual intercourse. When we educate our youth and give them better access to resources, they have better health outcomes.

Part of my work as a Sexual Education Coordinator was about providing this education. But I also saw this as an important space to work against heterosexism and encourage the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people. Sexuality is part of everyone. Even if someone identifies as asexual, that is still their orientation. In our work, for instance, we redefined abstinence away from its heterosexist and religious definitions, as postponing sex until you and your partner are prepared.

This is where a lot of my advocacy started. This is when we began the Safe Space and Ally card initiative, for example. The fight for more inclusive sexual education is not only important for promoting the health of LGBTQ+ people, but also for working towards more equitable and inclusive understandings of sexuality.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] One of your recent publications is the book chapter, “LGBTQ Students, Sexual Assault and Interpersonal Violence,” which appears in the collected volume Advising Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer College Students and brings together your background researching sexual violence with your commitments to LGBTQ+ students. In what ways are the problems of sexual assault and interpersonal violence unique for queer students, and how do you see these as crucial equity issues for universities to grapple with?

[Dr. Pat Tetreault] Anyone who is working with survivors needs to understand the disproportionate impact of sexual and interpersonal violence on the LGBTQ+ community. Many victims and survivors do not think they can access support and know that the people providing them with services will accept their identities. One important thing about Voices of Hope [the sexual violence and domestic abuse organization I worked at prior to coming to UNL] is that they were always and continue to be inclusive. Our current CARE (Center for Advocacy Response and Education) office at UNL is welcoming of people of all identities as well.

Something that is important about the publication you mention is that, even when existing studies collected data on sexual identities, how they classify students is not always consistent. Participants are often excluded from the categories provided by researchers or collapsed into other categories. Even when we ask participants to choose from a variety of identities, we do not always know the identities of our participants.

That data does show, however, that there is a disproportionate impact for some populations under the LGBTQ+ umbrella and that there are certain unique issues they face. One of the biggest issues for LGBTQ+ people more generally is how to connect. How do you meet people, find other members of your community, and interact with them? Especially for LGBTQ+ people from conservative backgrounds who did not grow up knowing anyone who was out, they often do not know how to meet and date members of their communities. This can make them vulnerable in a number of ways.

In our culture, so many youth of all identities coming to campus have experienced victimization. When they come here, the first semester is considered to be a high-risk time. When they do come out, it is to/within a small community. They can be taken advantage of because they want to connect but do not have experience navigating sexual relationships. Often, people in a new environment with little experience navigating relationships are not in a psychological space where they value themselves as much as they should because they have been experiencing identity-based discrimination much of their lives. That lack of knowledge and community connection is an issue. This context makes a huge difference for people as they are learning about consent and healthy sexual relationships.

There are also consequences that come from how small LGBTQ+ communities are on certain campuses. If you are in a social group and something happens to you, if you say anything you risk losing your social support system. People also may not want their perpetrator to suffer those consequences, and struggle to take care of themselves in these situations. If people do not feel like it is safe to come out, or are not truly out to themselves, this also creates situations where you might be unlikely to report these types of experiences. These issues with identities and small communities are layered, and they all exist within the context of a huge societal problem.

This work is an equity issue because people need to feel like they are respected and seen as who they are. When they are connecting with an advisor or anyone they potentially feel is a safe person to talk to, that person needs to have an understanding and awareness of how to express that acceptance and explain how their identities are not why this happened to them. People may be targeted by someone within or outside of the LGBTQA+ community. Regardless, identity-based violence is not the victim’s fault. It is the fault of the perpetrator, their biases, and the choices they made to abuse the survivor.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Based on your research and experience, do you have any advice you would like to give to scholars, practitioners, or administrators seeking to advance educational equity in their own institutions?

[Dr. Pat Tetreault] Know who you are, be aware of your values, and try to act in accordance with those things. I think the people doing this work are doing it because they care about people. I think self-healing and self-worth are essential. Knowing ourselves is a learning process, and it also involves learning to value who we are.

Using a cultural humility approach and recognizing intersectional and interdisciplinary approaches is helpful. I think that sometimes people try to understand things when, rather than trying to understand that thing, they should accept it. Acceptance is more crucial than understanding. Trying to understand something may challenge our ability to accept something or someone, while acceptance can facilitate working with someone and may lead to understanding. That includes people’s identities and experiences. Cultural humility is, in my opinion, more important than cultural competence.

It is important to remember you are not responsible for saving people. You are responsible for meeting a person where they are coming from and trying to get that person the resources and support that they need. Supporting people is also hard work, so be sure to seek out the help that you need as well.

Thank you, Dr. Pat Tetreault, for your impactful scholarship and advocacy work for LGBTQ+ communities, both at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and nationwide!