A UI alumnus works to fight bullying and make schools safer for everyone.
In Ryan Roemerman's Ottumwa, Iowa, high school class, one kid was a particular target for taunts, slurs, and worse, all because the boy's classmates thought he was gay. No one intervened, not fellow students, teachers, or school officials.
"I can't forget the day the principal came on the PA system and told us the student had shot himself," Roemerman recalls. "I asked myself, 'If I had said something, what might have changed?' But I was too afraid to speak up."
Other students may have felt the same mix of remorse and fear, but Roemerman's reaction ran especially deep—he'd started to understand that he himself was gay. If his secret got out, or if he took a stand, he could be the next target.
Today Roemerman helps students across Iowa muster the courage to fight bullying and create safe environments for all kids. He's executive director of the Iowa Pride Network (IPN), a Des Moines-based nonprofit organization he co-founded as a student at the University of Northern Iowa and The University of Iowa.
"We're trying to end the isolation that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students face by bringing them together and educating them about their rights," says Roemerman, who graduated from the UI in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in communication studies.
The organization's student members also have helped shape Iowa law. They lobbied the state legislature to include sexual orientation and gender identity alongside race, gender, and religion in a 2007 bill to protect school students from harassment. The same year, they joined other groups in a push to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's civil rights code. Both laws—among the nation's most inclusive—are now on the books.
Roemerman started coming out while in college, and within a few months became an activist, motivated by a meeting with Judy Shepard. Visiting UNI, Shepard talked about the 1998 murder of her son, Matthew, an event that triggered national discussion about hate crimes and transformed Judy Shepard from an ordinary mom into a civil rights advocate.
"Not only do we have to come out as gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender or straight—we also have to come out as allies for each other," Roemerman says, recapping the message of Shepard's speech. When he asked her advice on creating resources for gay youth, Shepard suggested he contact Brad Clark, then a student at Central College in Pella, Iowa. Together they founded IPN.
Roemerman pursued other causes, too, especially after transferring to the UI, where he hoped to find a larger, more established gay community. "Plus, deep down inside, I always knew I was a Hawkeye," he says.
At Iowa, he got involved in student government and joined the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Allied Union (GLBTAU), which in the early 1970s became one of the nation's first official gay student organizations. Roemerman and fellow GLBTAU board members started a membership campaign that reinvigorated the group.
They also asked University administrators to establish a campus center for GLBT students, pointing out that Iowa, once a pioneer, had fallen behind its Big Ten peers. The UI Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Resource Center opened in fall 2006.
Since graduation, Roemerman has focused on building IPN. Much of the organization's work involves supporting students who want to establish gay-straight alliances, or GSAs, at their middle schools, high schools, or colleges, then linking these groups in regional and statewide networks.
IPN has helped create 100 new GSAs; regularly surveyed Iowa students about racial, sexual orientation, and gender bias at their schools; and provided resources and support to thousands of individual students.
"One great thing about Iowa is if you're really serious about creating change and have an effective strategy, you can see things happen pretty quickly," Roemerman says. "If we want to keep our state attractive to young people, we need to be a place that's diverse, welcoming, and willing to engage in dialogue about where we need to change."
Change isn't easy, of course. By law, public schools that allow other non-curricular student organizations cannot bar GSAs, but some schools remain resistant. In response, IPN points to its survey data showing that students report less harassment once GSAs are established. When all else fails, Roemerman says, they point to the law.
But he's quick to add that students are their own best champions.
"More LGBT students are coming out at younger ages and learning about their rights," Roemerman says. "They're no longer sitting in the background taking abuse. They're standing up and saying, 'This is wrong,' and that's the point. They feel empowered to change their schools and their society."
Story by Lin Larson; photo by Tim Schoon.
June 1, 2009