WHITEWATER, Wis. — Brent Bilodeau recalls a time in the 1980s when he felt isolated, alone and scared as a gay college student.
He never wants any student to experience what he did.
"It takes a horrible, horrible toll," Bilodeau told The Janesville Gazette .
Today, the 56-year-old is a driving force on the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater campus to make all students feel welcome, safe and included.
This month, he received the Dr. P.B. Poorman Award for work to improve the lives of LGBTQ students. LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning.
Bilodeau is interim vice chancellor for student affairs and an enthusiastic member of the Chancellor's Committee for LGBT Issues. His passion lies in being part of a campus rich in diversity.
"It is education's responsibility to unlock unlimited possibilities for students, all students," he said.
Those who know Bilodeau say his infectious energy inspires colleagues.
"Dr. Bilodeau brings such an irrefutable amount of joy to this work of LGBTQ inclusion and access," said Stephanie Selvick, the LGBTQ campus coordinator who nominated Bilodeau for the award.
Bilodeau has advocated for gender-inclusive policies, especially for transgender students.
One of those policies allows the student to be called by his or her preferred name.
"Transgender students may wish to be referred to by names that are different than the names they were given at birth," he explained.
Often, birth names reflect gender. But transgender students might feel an internal sense of gender that is different from names assigned to them.
"A student's birth name may be Margaret," Bilodeau said. "But today the student may prefer to be called John, Mark or Oliver. When in that situation, we have worked to implement a policy that allows students to be referred to on campus by their preferred name."
The change is important because a name is a reflection of identity.
"It is critical for students to feel supported and accepted for who they are," Bilodeau said.
He also has been an advocate for increased access to single-stall bathrooms labeled all-gender.
His effort is in partnership with students, student organizations "and many offices on campus committed to many forms of diversity," Bilodeau said. "So much of my work happens in partnership and in collaboration with others."
Bilodeau's commitment to equality comes at a time when hate crimes against LGBTQ people in the U.S. are rising.
Last year was the deadliest in recent history, according to the "Crisis of Hate" report released by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. The report said at least 52 people were killed because of hate against LGBTQ people.
Of the total, at least 29 were transgender people. The number is the most recorded since the Human Rights Campaign began keeping death totals in 2013.
Bilodeau's commitment to LGBTQ students stretches back almost 25 years.
Before coming to UW-Whitewater, he was the first LGBT coordinator at Michigan State University in 1994.
"I began to encounter transgender students for the first time," he said. "I discovered there was no literature that talked about their development."
He decided to focus his research on transgender development, LGBT student identity and college climate for transgender students.
"Education about transgender youth is new and so crucially important," Bilodeau said.
Tom Rios worked with Bilodeau for 11 years and was his supervisor at UW-Whitewater until September 2017.
LGBTQ students "require us to think more fully about policies and services that are needed to help them have a sense of belonging to the university and to achieve their goals," Rios said.
He added: "No one likes to be invisible. One's identity is core to who they are."
Bilodeau looks to students daily to find hope and what he calls "their purity of motive."
"They are about doing what is right," Bilodeau said. "It's not about doing what is best for their careers. They want to do what is ethically right."
He is impressed by what they say.
"I listen to them talk about their lives, their hopes, their dreams," Bilodeau said. "I believe in them. They can do more than we can imagine possible."
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Janesville Gazette.