An interview with Mickey Hart
By Damon Krane & Dana Stewart
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)
A tireless activist for peace and justice since coming to Ohio University in the early 1990s, Mickey Hart now runs Ohio University’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center and sits on the board of statewide LGBT rights organization Equality Ohio. Earlier this month, Hart spoke to The InterActivist’s Dana Stewart and Damon Krane about issues facing LGBT people at OU and across the US and how he got his start as an activist.
What led you to become a social activist?
Mickey Hart: Beyond getting an education, I came to Ohio University to come out of the closet. That was a large reason why I left my hometown of Laurelville, Ohio, a small town in Hocking County about an hour from here. I had opened a restaurant in Laurelville at age 18, and I ran it for its first five years. My mom still owns the restaurant now with my former business partner. But I needed to come out of the closet, and didn’t feel like I could do it there. I knew I could do it in Athens.
So I came to OU in the early 90s, which was a very politically active time here. Before I really focused on coming out, I got my start in social activism protesting the Gulf War. In the process, I got to learn from some of the greats, like Pete Hill and Art Gish. It was a phenomenal experience and one of the only times I’ve seen strong collaboration between student and local activists. We would have meetings with 100 people, and I would co-facilitate some of these consensus-based meetings. I learned lots of activist skills: meeting facilitation, peacekeeping, affinity groups, civil disobedience—just so much, so many great things.
In addition to all of the anti-war activism during this time, there was also a big surge in LGBT activism across the country. It was great to ride that wave. In some ways it’s been kind of a let down since then. Nationally, there’s not quite as much activism now, and some of the groups have become more mainstreamed—still working towards making change and progress, but probably not as bold and in-your-face.
How did you then get involved in LGBT activism at OU?
At the time there was only one student group for LGBT people, Open Doors, which has existed under different names at OU since the 70s. It started out as the Gay Liberation Front, then the Gay People’s Alliance, the Gay and Lesbian Association (GALA), and in 1988 it became Open Doors. But during the early 90s, there was also a takeover of Student Senate by an amazing group of student activists.
As the Minority Affairs Commissioner of this activist Student Senate, one of the first things I did was to push for the creation of an LGBT Commission. At the time, a very wide range of different groups of students affected by very different issues were all lumped together under one Commission of Minority Affairs—including military veterans, LGBT students, and non-traditional students. My proposal to establish a separate LGBT Affairs Commission took some doing to create and get passed, but eventually it was passed with I think only two “no” votes. These came from the more conservative members of Senate, one of whom we all knew at the time was gay. [laughs] He’s since come out… He’s still a Log Cabin Republican, though! And with him, his best girl-friend also voted against the proposal. But they were it, and since then I think the existence of the LGBT Commission has helped open the door to creating additional Commissions to better represent other groups of students.
What are some problems facing the LGBT community at OU?
There have been some reported assaults on LGBT people, but not the kind of violence that’s happened in other communities. Right now most of the negative experiences LGBT students have are things like hateful or threatening messages being written on bulletin boards and on dry erase boards on people’s doors in the Residence Halls. Stuff in the Residence Halls is particularly difficult because it happens in such a personal space. It’s where these students live. Residence Life at OU has been very supportive in dealing with this throughout the years, but because the dorms are such a personal space for students, the students in these situations aren’t always satisfied with the results they get from Residence Life.
Most of the problems we see tend to happen uptown, on Court Street, when people are drunk. It tends to be name-calling and sometimes physical threats and intimidation directed at LGBT students, as opposed to actual physical violence. But to me, the potential for actual physical violence is just below the surface at all times. So I always caution students to always be aware of your surroundings no matter where you are, no matter how safe you feel. I’m not saying walk through your life ready to be victimized or being so on-alert that you’re overwhelmed by it. But don’t get so focused on what you’re doing that you’re not aware of the impact beyond your group or circle of friends.
How have you seen the situation of LGBT students at OU change over time?
Even though Athens is relatively safe for LGBT people, I do think there were times when we were better off here than we are now. OU is a very different place than when I came to school here. Because you need better grades and more money to go here now, we’ve had a class shift here at OU in recent years. I refer to it as the Miami-ization of OU. In an effort to become more recognized, we have become more mainstream, and have declined in some ways by becoming Any Mid-West University. At the same time, the US has become more conservative and probably less open to LGBT issues. Both of these things have happened simultaneously to create a chillier climate than there used to be for LGBT students at OU.
At the same time there is a real base of open-minded people in Athens County. Athens, after all, was the only county in the state to vote against issue #1. So even as there has been this class shift at OU and the country has gotten more conservative, Athens has held its ground. Years ago I wanted to make bumper stickers that said “Athens: We just think we’re liberal,” because even though there is this idea that Athens is some bastion of liberalism, a lot of folks here aren’t really working for social justice. I don’t think I could make those bumper stickers any more, because as the nation has gotten more conservative, I don’t think Athens has. So we probably are liberal now, but not in the way that we would have defined “liberal” ten years ago.
In Ohio and states across the country, gay marriage has been the big LGBT issue on the agenda. What’s your take on this?
It’s not the LGBT community that has pushed to make gay marriage an issue. The Right raised this issue because they knew it would work in their favor as a wedge issue and would turn out more conservatives to vote. It’s no coincidence that marriage amendments were on the ballot in 11 states during the last presidential election. Of all the things that the LGBT political movement could have pushed for, marriage would not have been the first priority. But now that marriage is an issue, it raises some very interesting questions.
A lot of people don’t want LGBT people to be able to marry, but maybe they’ll accept civil unions. Well, we know that separate but equal just doesn’t work. All of the laws recently passed don’t talk about “civil unions,” they talk about “marriage,” So legally, “marriage” really means something. There are over 1000 laws, rights and obligations that come with “marriage”.
Looking even deeper into the issue, we have a separation of church and state in the US, but when clergy pronounce a couple married, they say “by the power vested in me by the State of Ohio…” So we’ve had the church doing the state’s job for years, certifying marriage. Given the idea of separation of church and state, we probably should have always had civil unions for all couples. Beyond that, you want to go to church? Have it witnessed by your family and God? Then you go do that as well. That’s my perspective. But for people who want both legal and religious recognition of their commitment to one another, it’s definitely a troubling issue.
Some more radical folks in the LGBT community really wouldn’t strive for marriage at all, because they think it’s not such a great institution and they’d want something better than marriage. But for other folks, it’s just a real basic idea: I just want to be part of the American dream, with marriage and maybe children and a household and all those kinds of things.
You’re on the board of the statewide LGBT rights group Equality Ohio. What does the group strive for?
Equality Ohio came about after issue #1, the so-called marriage amendment, passed in Ohio. Initially, there was this sort of kicked-in-the-gut reaction that many LGBT people had, that our neighbors had done this to us. Our neighbors made us feel like second class citizens. They made us not feel at home in our own state.
But we knew we couldn’t just have a reactionary kind of effort. We knew we needed a long-term effort over the next few years aimed at changing the hearts and minds of voters. So a pretty representative group of 60 prominent LGBT activists from throughout the state came together for Equality Ohio’s first meeting and began formulating our plan.
Our mission essentially comes down to creating an Ohio where everybody feels at home, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. And one of the things we’re saying is we’re tired of being the Right’s wedge issue. We’re not going to let them use us that way anymore.
How did you come to be Director of LGBT Programs at OU?
Well, I’m actually not a director. People often think, “Oh, of course there’s a director of LGBT Programs at OU,” and this raises a very important issue.
For years I had the title of LGBT Programs Coordinator, which in hindsight, was a way to have someone doing the work of a Director without paying the person at that level. Currently my title is Assistant Director of Campus Life for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Programs. There is some concern in the LGBT community here about being incorporated into Campus Life as part of recent restructuring at OU. Most recently, though, I’ve been raising the overall question about how the university addresses diversity.
There are five operational areas of Ohio University that focus on diversity: International Student and Faculty Services, Multicultural Programs/Lindley Cultural Center, the Women’s Center that’s going to be opened in the new Student Center, Disability Services through the Office of Institutional Equity and, lastly, LGBT Programs. As a result of recent restructuring, the first four divisions now fall in the domain of he President and the Provost and are each headed by people who have the title of Director and/or are paid at that level. These divisions also have budgets reflecting the higher priority attention they’re receiving. In contrast, LGBT Programs is not within the area of the President and Provost, and it’s not funded at the Director level. LGBT programs also received a budget cut this year, which was to be expected given decreased funding for higher education, but the cut was larger than I expected. So there is a huge discrepancy here that raises a big question about equity among the different components of diversity at OU, and for me personally, the issue of equal pay for equal work.
You’ve worked for change at OU from both outside the bureaucracy as a student activist and within as an administrator. What are the pros and cons of each position?
It is really interested that when you become part of a system or structure, it changes the way you approach things. My approach is as a professional. I try to be really thoughtful about it. I understand both sides of these issues. I understand why LGBT Programs hasn’t been able to grow the way we want to grow. I understand budgets and those kinds of things. But at a certain point the understanding needs to stop, because– wait a minute, there are some real inequities here! LGBT Programs hasn’t grown the way other areas have grown, and what’s that really all about? In part, I think our growth has not been a priority; it hasn’t really been on the radar of upper level administrators. How do you bring those issues up? It’s different on the inside than it is on the outside.
When students have concerns I try to point them in the right direction. But I’m also cautious, because I think some people have this notion that I’m planting these ideas in order for students to carry out my agenda. More importantly, it’s my job to make OU feel safe for all LGBT people. I strive to create harmony within the community, among those who are politically active and radical and those who are only beginning to come out. The reality is that doing something pretty radical, that makes a lot of noise and gets a lot of attention, can advance a cause or a group. But it can also create a lot of turmoil within the community. Just being LGBT in this society is hard, and a lot of people aren’t looking for more difficulty.
At the same time, I’ve probably been too cautious. I’ve done things to appease students and told them to take a more cautious route to raising concerns. And in recent years my own cautiousness has probably hampered some efforts for change. On a college campus I think change happens very slowly. But over and over again, at OU and other college campuses, it’s when students organize and speak out and call attention to things that more sudden change and progress is made.