LGBTQ+ Voices: Interview with Barbara DiBernard
Dr. Barbara DiBernard, retired UNL English and Women's and Gender Studies Professor and LGBTQ+ activist, was interviewed by Luke Wegener on December 1, 2017 in Lincoln, Nebraska. DiBernard shared information about growing up in New Jersey, her education and feminist awakening, coming to terms with her lesbian identity, her decades-long career teaching in the English department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and her marriage to her wife, Judy.
Dr. Barbara DiBernard, born in Dover, New Jersey, is a Professor Emerita of English and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and LGBTQ+ activist, whose fight for liberation as a white lesbian woman spans nearly four decades. DiBernard earned a BA in English from Wilson College (Chambersburg, Pennsylvania) in 1970, and a PhD in Modern British Literature in 1976 from The State University of New York at Binghamton. After teaching for two years at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities, DiBernard moved to Lincoln, Nebraska where she taught English and Women's and Gender Studies from 1978-2011 and was Director of the Women's and Gender Studies program from 1992-1997. DiBernard has won numerous awards for her teaching and LGBT advocacy work, including the UNL Chancellor's Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community (2002) and UNL's OTICA (Outstanding Teaching and Instructional Award) (2000). Passionate about environmental issues and protecting the planet, DiBernard has been involved with numerous conservation organizations such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Bold Alliance, Citizens Climate Lobby, and Spring Creek Prairie. She is also involved with other groups like the Lincoln Literacy Council, Human Rights Campaign, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Audobon Society, Lambda Legal, and the ACLU of Nebraska.
After the Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage in June 2015, DiBernard and her partner of nearly 30 years, Judith Gibson, were the first same-sex couple in Lancaster County to receive a marriage license in Nebraska. Since retiring in 2011, DiBernard resides in Lincoln with Judith and enjoys vegetable gardening, cooking, bird watching and staying involved in local politics.
Dr. Barbara DiBernard, retired UNL English and Women's and Gender Studies Professor and LGBTQ+ activist, was interviewed by Luke Wegener on December 1, 2017 in Lincoln, Nebraska. DiBernard was born in Dover, New Jersey to Josephine and Vincent DiBernard and grew up in a Catholic, Italian-American family with one younger sister, Joan. Quiet and well-behaved as a young girl, DiBernard experienced an ideal childhood and enjoyed summers away at camp with her best friend. In high school, DiBernard was unaware of her attraction to women, as it was never presented as an option or openly talked about.
In 1966, DiBernard began studying English at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, expanding her awareness of societal injustice during the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War. After earning her PhD from SUNY Binghamton in Modern British Literature in 1976, she eventually moved to teach at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1978, where she began to discover women's literature and experienced a life-changing feminist awakening. Through writers like Tillie Olsen, Audre Lorde, and Minnie Bruce Pratt, DiBernard also began to understand and acknowledge her lesbian identity and how it intersected with her passion for social justice and feminism. Attending events like the Michigan Womyn's Festival for several years, DiBernard saw the power and beauty women hold when they work together, away from the constraints of patriarchal society.
As she became more grounded and confident in her identities, DiBernard started coming out to her students and received mostly positive responses, despite struggling to find support with UNL's administration. DiBernard was involved with several causes during her career at UNL, most notably the fight spanning two decades to extend benefits to domestic partners of faculty and staff, which was finally granted in 2012 after her retirement. Over the years, DiBernard invited many feminist and LGBTQ+ icons to UNL for speaking engagements, including writers Minnie Bruce Pratt, Leslie Feinberg, Dorothy Allison, Lillian Faderman, Lev Raphael, and Kenny Fries.
In 1988, DiBernard and Judith Gibson, Lincoln therapist, became life partners. In 2000, they joined a lawsuit with the ACLU and Lambda Legal against Nebraska 416, which amended the Nebraska constitution to make same-sex marriage unconstitutional. After the Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage in June 2015, DiBernard and Gibson were the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in Lancaster County, Nebraska, which was covered in local newspapers the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal Star.
In this interview, DiBernard also discusses Judy's disability and her passion for disability activism, the impact of the Trump administration on the LGBT community, and reflects on her life of activism and dedication to social justice.
Moving in the background can be heard very briefly during the first half of the interview. Midway through the interview, Barbara and Luke moved to a different table. The recorder began picking up any movements they made, making rustling sounds.