A slow but steady history: Gay rights at UND arcs toward justice

Jeff Maliskey’s dissertation will explore that history, from Thom Higgins in the 1960s to the 10 Percent Society in the 1980s and beyond

 

Founded in 1982, the UND Ten Percent Society was the first gay rights organization in North Dakota. The group’s origins will be described in Jeff Maliskey’s dissertation, which will examine the history of the LGBTQ rights movement at UND. Image courtesy of Ten Percent Society.

UND Today: Tell us about yourself, including how you came to UND and started pursuing an Education, Health and Behavior Studies Ph.D.

Jeff Maliskey: I came to UND in 2015 to take a job as a Residence Life Coordinator. I did that for about 2½ years or so.

Then I was asked if I could serve as the Interim Director for the Pride Center. I took that role, and it evolved to become the Senior Program Coordinator. Then my position changed again, and I’m now UND’s Assistant Director for Student Diversity & Inclusion/LGBTQ Initiatives.

UND Today: So you came first as an employee, versus starting here as an undergraduate?

Jeff Maliskey: Yes. I grew up in rural Michigan, and before coming to Grand Forks, I was living in Grand Rapids, Mich., where I went to Grand Valley State University for my Master’s degree.

So when I came to UND to work full-time, I was right out of grad school with my Master’s in College Student Affairs Leadership.

LGBTQ History

UND Today: And now you’re working on your doctorate. How did you choose the topic for your dissertation, which will explore the history of the gay rights movement at UND?

Jeff Maliskey: I knew that I wanted my work to be focused on LGBTQ Student Services, but wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go with it. I thought I was going to do qualitative studies, collecting data on student experiences and the like.

Jeff Maliskey

But I ended up taking my scholarly writing class with Diana D’Amico Pawlewicz, a historian of education, and she really showed me the power of historical perspectives in writing. That caught my interest.

With her help, I started thinking about what a dissertation could look like, and specifically how it could look at the LGBTQ population’s history at UND, just because there wasn’t a lot of historical data. We have newspaper clippings and some Dakota Student articles, but we really don’t have a clear understanding of that history.

So, I thought, that could be my dissertation. Let’s put it together, let’s talk about that history, and let’s also narrow it down a bit more.

Right now, I’m looking at that history as it centers around the 10 Percent Society, which was formed at UND in 1982. It was the first gay rights organization in North Dakota.

Nationwide, there was a lot going on in the 1970s and early 1980s regarding the gay rights movement, including significant backlash. So it’s fascinating that a group of students were able to get together here and be recognized as a student organization, amidst all that was going on and the social and political opposition.

That’s what my dissertation will be focusing on: how did the group get formed? Why did it endure?

And how did we get to the point where the advocacy succeeded? Because in 2017, after having been lobbied by the 10 Percent Society and others for years, UND created the Pride Center and created a full-time position to staff it.

My dissertation will tell how student activism brought UND to that new place, and also how these days, universities so often are that cultural battleground for social change.

The Thom Higgins story

UND Today: Was the creation of the 10 percent Society in 1982 the first expression of gay rights activism at UND?

Jeff Maliskey: No. There also was activism in the 1970s.

And one of the most fascinating episodes took place even earlier: in the 1960s. It involved Thom Higgins, a person who would later become a nationally prominent gay-rights activist, as I’ll explain in a minute.

Thom Higgins

In 1967, Thom Higgins enrolled at UND. He became the Arts and Entertainment editor of the Dakota Student, as well as a writer for In Which, a publication of the Honors Program.

And he was also involved in the production of an underground newspaper called the Snow Job. This resulted in his suspension from UND in March 1968; and following his suspension, Higgins did not return to UND.

I believe Higgins’ work – and possibly, a reason for his suspension – at UND involved gay-rights advocacy, although that wasn’t even a term back then. After all, the first gay student organization in the country had been founded only a few years earlier. It was called the Student Homophile League, and it was founded at Columbia University in 1966.

Remember, too, that all of this took place before the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the event that many say marks the beginning of the modern gay-rights movement.

In any event, the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections at the Chester Fritz Library has a collection of Thom Higgins Papers, dating back to his time at UND. It includes a copy of the Snow Job, as well as the minutes of Student Senate committee meetings and a Legal Aid Society lawyer’s statement in Higgins’ defense, in connection with Higgins’ suspension.

I’m looking forward to reading those materials and learning more about Higgins at UND.

UND Today: How did Higgins later gain attention as a gay-rights activist?

Jeff Maliskey: That happened in 1977, nine years after he had left UND. At a press conference in Des Moines, Iowa, where reporters were asking Anita Bryant about her crusade against homosexual rights, Higgins threw a pie in Bryant’s face. The episode wound up on national TV, even making “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live.

Thom Higgins died young, in 1994. He was a gay activist for much of his life, and he’s still remembered, especially for the pie-throwing incident. Actors have played him in a number of productions about gay-rights history, including very recently on FX.

So I’m fascinated by the fact that Higgins originally attended UND.

The Ten Percent Society

UND Today: What was the situation like at UND in 1982, when the 10 Percent Society was founded?

Jeff Maliskey: One of the big challenges during that time was the fact that you still couldn’t outwardly say you were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Everything was secret. So it all had to happen by word of mouth, as the activists found each other and began to meet, sometimes in the basements of bars or in people’s homes.

So you can understand why people were just looking for a space. Especially here in North Dakota, they didn’t have those spaces; there weren’t any places on campus or practically in the whole state where you could legally and without fear of being ostracized, find other queer- and trans-identifying people.

For the 10 Percent Society, for example, we know that they met at the UND Women’s Center off of University Avenue for a time. But even then, some people who were members have told us, they’d park in the back lot and use a side door to enter, in order to protect their identities.

And of course, another big issue was AIDS. The disease was first recognized by the Centers for Disease Control in 1981, and by 1995, maybe 10 percent of American men aged 25-44 who identified as gay had died.

So we don’t have all of the stories from the 80s or early 90s, because in a way, we lost a generation during that time.

There’s a famous picture that was taken in 1993 of the Original San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir. In the photo, most of the men are dressed in in black, while only a few are in white. But the singers in white represent the living members of the original choir, while the singers in black represent the members lost to AIDS.

In other words, the 1980s represent something of a missing piece in our narrative, at this point. We have a better understanding of the 90s and early 2000s.

UND Today: What happened to the 10 Percent Society?

Jeff Maliskey: It’s still around today! It has changed its name; it’s now the Queer & Trans Alliance. But it’s coming up on its 40th anniversary next year.

Over the years, the group has helped pave the way for other LGBTQ organizations on campus, such as the UND National Gay Pilots Association and Allies in Medicine.

And the 10 Percent Society also was the group whose activism helped bring about the creation of the UND Pride Center and the hiring of a full-time staff person on campus. Those things happened as recently as 2016-17, so you can see that while it took a long time, the activism by that group and others really did generate results.

In 2019, Pride flags flew outside a UND building for the first time, in this case the American Indian Center. UND archive photo.

LGBTQ Pride

UND Today: Have attitudes as well as policies on campus changed as well?

Jeff Maliskey: Yes, absolutely. When I look back at columns and letters in the Dakota Student in the 80s and 90s, for example, there was a lot of anger against LGBTQ people. You’d find negative messages being written on the sidewalks, and anti-gay elements really trying to push gay people out. But the 10 Percent Society was resilient.

UND Today: Why was the Pride Center’s creation such a landmark? Why is the center so important, in other words?

Jeff Maliskey: In my view, it’s important because the students get to be students now. They don’t have to be the ones who are constantly advocating for their rights; There are now staff at the University with positions designed to advocate for the students.

The students don’t have to keep lobbying for inclusive policies on campus, or educating their faculty on how to use correct pronouns in the classroom.

They get to be students, and they get to live and succeed in that aspect. Because now that we have the staff in our center and other spaces, we can do much of that work and not have to put it on the students.

UND Today: Has your work given you a new appreciation for activists and their roles?

Jeff Maliskey: One hundred percent. I’m gay, and I’m from rural Michigan, as I mentioned. But Michigan has 11 million people, so even rural areas are pretty well connected.

For me, that meant while I heard about gay rights and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and so on growing up, to some extent I could take society’s changes for granted.

Now, I’m learning a lot more about the sacrifices that were involved, and how the hard work of the activists at UND and elsewhere really paved the way for us all.

So, the things that I used to take for granted, I don’t take for granted any more. I’m grateful to the people I’ve learned about through studying the history of the movement, because they’re the ones who really put their lives on the line so that people like me can have a better future.