Pioneering change at Iowa State
People’s stories of coming out to their family about their sexual orientation are often filled with tears, shock and sometimes abandonment.
Nicci Port has been a pioneer for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and All community at Iowa State since 2004. Her story of coming out is far from the dramatic stereotype.
Nicci wasn’t always sure about her own sexual orientation, but when she was, her strategy for telling her parents didn’t go exactly as planned.
“My parents were not the first I came out to,” Port said. “It was my sister because I was pissed.”
Nicci was in her second year at graduate school in Mankato, Minn. Her parents came up to visit her along with two of her sisters, and they were all staying at a hotel in the Twin Cities together.
“We had just gotten done eating, and I said, ‘Oh, Mom and Dad, do you have a minute cause I want to come talk to you?’ And they said, ‘Sure we’ll be in our room; we’re just going to go settle down and watch some TV,’” Port said.
Port went back to her room with her sisters when her sister Roxi, who loved to ruffle Nicci’s feathers, was about to ruin Nicci’s plan.
“Hey, Nicci, I got a question for ya,” Roxi said. “Exactly how good of friends are you and Ana?”
Ana was Nicci’s girlfriend at the time, and a nervous Nicci was in no mood to deal with her investigating sister.
“Don’t do this, Roxi,” Nicci said. “I’m about to go tell Mom and Dad I’m gay.”
“I knew it,” Roxi said.
Nicci then went over to her parents’ room and sat on the couch with her mother by her side and her father sitting on the bed. Nicci told her parents the secret she had been keeping.
“Ok. Well I just want you to be happy,” Nicci’s mother, Ardyce, said.
“I am happy,” Nicci said.
Nicci’s father, Paul, had been quietly sitting on the bed throughout the conversation, making Ardyce nervous.
“Paul Rolland, aren’t you going to say anything to your daughter?” Ardyce asked.
“Um, I don’t really have any questions, but I might. Do you know if there’s like any groups or anything maybe I can be a part of?” Paul asked.
Paul was referring to organizations such as the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gay (PFLAG) organization that supports families and provides pamphlets for people to give to their parents when they decide to come out.
“Well, Dad, I just really didn’t think about bringing the PFLAG brochure,” Nicci said.
Paul didn’t get the joke, but Nicci did.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh. My dad wants to know if there’s an organization he can join,’” Nicci said.
Nicci grew up in Marion, Iowa, and was the youngest of five children until she was in the eighth grade, when her family adopted two of her younger cousins.
Nicci said her parents, Ardyce and Paul, did a good job of never pressuring their children to believe what they believed.
“That’s another great gift that they’ve given me is I never really felt that they told me how I had to live,” Nicci said.
She studied elementary and early childhood education at the University of Northern Iowa, becoming close with the peers in her residence hall and soon becoming a residence assistant. Because she enjoyed being on a college campus so much, it didn’t take long for Nicci to realize she wanted to work on a college campus for her career.
After graduating with honors, Nicci took an administrative internship at Oklahoma State University, where she got a crash course on what it was like to work in higher education.
But living in Stillwater, Okla., was Nicci’s first experience in the Bible Belt.
“That was interesting because I’ve always lived in Iowa,” Nicci said. “You wouldn’t think it, but Iowa really is progressive compared to other states.”
Nicci wasn’t living out at the time and wasn’t entirely sure if she was gay or not.
“I was being confronted with different ways people talked about people with different skin colors and sexual orientation,” Nicci said. “That summer internship taught me more than I wanted to be in higher education. It taught me that, ‘Ok, so I think I got words for who I am.’”
After her internship, Nicci went to graduate school for two years at Minnesota State University in Mankato, where she studied for a master’s degree in college counseling.
While in Minnesota, Nicci met other gay people who had partners, including one woman who was a professional staff member.
“Once I saw people that were living their lives out, I was really like, ‘Oh, OK this is not odd. It’s a lot more common,’” Nicci said.
Nicci gave herself permission to stop holding back and suppressing her sexuality. While at graduate school, Nicci met the first woman she fell in love with. It was the first time she experienced deep feelings for a woman versus having a crush.
After graduate school, Nicci got her first job at Iowa State University as a hall director at Helser Hall in 1999. While being a hall director, Nicci met the woman she would later marry, Ginger, a hall director in Storm Hall.
Ginger and Nicci developed a friendship when they were spending time with other hall directors who also didn’t identify as straight.
“She was the first person I ever met that labeled themselves bisexual,” Nicci said. “She and I had a friendship based on that commonality of not being straight. We just fell in love.”
Ginger was married when the two first met and she had a child, Connor, but soon after meeting Nicci, she got divorced. In 2002, Nicci and Ginger moved away from Ames and from Connor because they both got jobs at Winona State in Minnesota.
In 2003, Nicci and Ginger had a civil union ceremony in Vermont, but something was still missing from their lives: Connor. In the summer of 2004, Ginger got a job at Iowa State in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
That fall Nicci followed, securing a job at the Dean of Students office as the coordinator of outreach services. Nicci was in charge of helping students navigate the university and to figure out if they wanted to stay at Iowa State.
“I wasn’t exactly a counselor to them, but many times I had students come in distress who might’ve experienced trauma,” Nicci said.
Nicci loved helping students build a foundation so they could get back to being a successful student.
“A lot of my helping philosophy is how do you get people so that they can be successful, and not in a way that is ‘Oh here, let me take care of you,’” Nicci said.
Alex Young, a senior in event management, was the president of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Ally focused fraternity Delta Lambda Phi when he first met Nicci at Pride Summit.
“When I think of Nicci I think of the word ‘welcoming,’” Alex said. “She definitely understands the value of diversity.”
During their first years at Iowa State, Ginger and Nicci discussed doing something for LGBTQ+ staff. With the help of an email list and a couple of socials hosted at their house, the LGBT Faculty Staff Association was created in 2004.
“That was my first taste in creating something that other people could then take part in,” Nicci said.
After Nicci and Ginger got settled back in Ames, Ginger went to a chiropractor because she was experiencing tingling in her fingers. After she was tested, doctors brought up the possibility of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Even though Nicci and Ginger couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of a woman in her 30s suffering from ALS, Ginger was diagnosed with ALS in February 2005 when the tingling had progressed to her wrist and arm.
ALS is a progressive neurological disease which causes neurons that control voluntary muscles to degenerate.
Ginger worked for as long as she could, but eventually her muscles degenerated too much and she retired from Iowa State University, went on disability and was home full time.
Although Nicci had a love for helping students, her love for Ginger was greater. Nicci switched jobs to an administrative specialist in the College of Human Sciences, where she works today with associate deans for research and graduate education programs.
“I was balancing 40-plus hours in the Dean of Students Office and then going home and being her primary caregiver,” Nicci said.
Nicci recalls that time as being the hardest in her life. She struggled with figuring out how to take care of herself in the midst of everything else happening.
Pete Englin, now director of residence at Iowa State, worked with Nicci when she was at Helser Hall and at the Dean of Students office.
“I just marveled at her strength and positivity through all of that,” Englin said. “She did it so graciously. It just told me the depth of her character.”
Nicci said the happiest time in her life was any time she was with Connor and Ginger.
She remembers when Ginger bought Connor and Nicci the Rock Band game for Playstation. When Connor came over, Nicci and he would play video games in the living room where Ginger could watch.
“That was ... the best time ever,” Nicci said. “We could find a way to have family time even though she couldn’t speak.”
Though Ginger was bed-bound, she was still in charge of their relationship.
“She was the doer. She was an organization queen,” Nicci said.
Ginger had once overheard Nicci saying she needed new khaki pants because the ones she had were too big and summer orientation was coming up.
A few days later Nicci came home to a package on the steps and inside were a couple of pairs of khaki pants in different sizes.
“She had taken care of it. She did that kind of stuff all the time,” Nicci said. “That’s very much the kind of person Ginger was: See a need, fill a need.”
When the state of Iowa made gay marriage legal, Ginger and Nicci were married at a ceremony in their home on November 13, 2009.
In 2010 Ginger lost her battle with ALS. Nicci found she had a lot of time and energy to devote that no longer had an outlet.
“In her memory, I decided that I was going to be a little more active,” Nicci said. “I was going to start to try and make a difference in the LGBTQ community beyond what she and I had already done.”
Nicci decided she needed more help with the Faculty Staff Association, so she developed a leadership team.
“From there things just kind of blew up,” Nicci said.
But Nicci was far from done helping to create and enhance resources for the LGBTQ+ community at Iowa State.
“That’s what I appreciate about her. She doesn’t give up on her goals,” Englin said.
Many student services were one-person offices at the time the university started to look into adding new positions on campus. A grad student was doing the LGBT services for the Dean of Students office at the time.
“She really saw this as an opportunity that if we’re going to be adding staff we really need to consider providing full-time support so we get continuity and high skill set and not a revolving door,” Englin said.
Other faculty and staff across campus also were discussing similar things, so Nicci and others asked Englin how to get their goals accomplished.
Englin was able to tell the ISU’s vice president of Student Affairs, provost and president that Nicci had a core group and momentum on their side, and that it would be good to get ahead of that momentum.
That full-time position became a reality, and the university hired Brad Freihoefer as director of LGBTQ+ Student Services.
“It happened in a way that allowed it to be a win and a place of healing versus it coming from a place of we’re frustrated,” Englin said. “That’s a beautiful way to accomplish these positions.”
Nicci credits Freihoefer for helping connect the association with things going on around campus.
Nicci had experienced being disconnected from the LGBTQ+ student community in the past, so she found a solution to make the community more connected.
That solution was Pride Summit, a monthly meeting with leaders from student organizations, faculty, staff and administration, that was created in January 2014.
“Now I know student leaders. Now student leaders know faculty and staff,” Nicci said. “I’m just getting people around a table.”
Freihoefer is one who has a seat at that table and has seen Nicci’s activism up close.
“I don’t think the conversations happening on campus would be happening if it weren’t without Nicci’s passion and leadership,” Freihoefer said.
The LGBTQA+ Faculty and Staff Association is part of the grassroots movement as well as Pride Summit and other groups such as Students Against Bigotry.
“I’m not going to say Iowa State is a great place from the top down,” Nicci said. “All these things I’m talking about are things that people developed, not the administration. This was all started by people who said, ‘Let’s do something.’”
For those students who feel alone and are not able to make that step toward help, Iowa State may not be the best environment, Nicci said.
“For those students who step forward, there’s plenty of support for them, plenty of faculty and staff who are committed to making this environment better,” Nicci said.
“This (diversity) is not just a race thing,” Nicci said. “This is an equality, inclusion, safety issue. It is everything.”
Nicci was appointed Project Director for Diversity and Inclusion in spring 2016. She said the work is exactly what she wanted to be doing.
“I was very excited to continue on with inclusive initiatives on campus,” Port said. “I get to devote all of my time to inclusive initiatives, which is very exciting and very enjoyable.”
Students Against Bigotry, a student organization Port helped create, has since morphed into LUCHA, a coalition of leaders fighting for equal opportunity and inclusion of othered students across Iowa State University. Port has also collaborated with ISU’s provost's office to create an Inclusive Excellence Award, an award that will recognize ISU faculty and staff who work to build a more inclusive environment outside of their official duties.
Port said that Iowa State has become a much more supportive environment for students looking to explore their sexual or gender specific identities. She will be looking to create a committee that will focus on LGBTQA+ matters.
“It won’t be like any of the university’s other committees,” Port said. “This group will be a small group of individuals who have the time and the energy to put towards ISU’s LGBT+ community.”
When she’s not working, Port enjoys going to Cyclone basketball games and spending time with her stepson Connor.
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