Alyssa Oltmanns is Owning Her Queer Experience - and Helping Others Do the Same
Pride month is a combination of events, celebrations, and symbols of solidarity with the LGBTQIA + community. At the end of the day, it's all about the people in the community and welcoming their stories and experiences. One of these stories belongs to Alyssa Oltmanns (she/they), the theater director at Muscatine Community College.
Oltmanns started attending musicals as a child at the Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse in Rock Island for her grandmother's birthday. Despite growing up in a small town, her family was immersed in the arts. The theater was an outlet for dealing with difficulties in life and a way to channel emotions in characters.
Oltmanns began her educational journey at the University of Illinois as a music education major then went on to graduate school for theater at New York University. They finished their education at Columbia College Chicago to obtain a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing to be involved in a teacher preparation program. In total, they have one Bachelor’s degree, two Master's degrees, and 18 Graduate hours in theater and Broadway teachers’ workshops. Oltmanns would like to get her doctorate in higher education to fuse her experiences. For her, the common thread in her career has been retention.
“The thing that matters most to me is the students' well-being because that was something that wasn't always the greatest in my college experience,” Oltmanns says.
Oltmanns is proud to share that they identify as queer. Oltmanns believes Queer is a word the LGBTQIA+ community claimed back for itself. While it was once used as an insult, the community has been able to reclaim the word as their own, they feel a personal connection to it.
“It feels more representative of me, though I date all genders, I do feel that Queer conveys who I am better,” said Oltmanns.
Oltmanns underwent a metamorphosis of understanding who they were, identifying initially as lesbian, bisexual then to Queer - how they truly feel most comfortable now. Oltmanns felt strongly against a pull toward the binary genders (male and female), and fought to teach that gender is a construct.
Everyone's coming-out story is intense in its own way. Oltmanns’ first tried coming out when they were 14 years old but because they grew up in a religious family, they were told they were wrong. Oltmanns decided to fill their life with school and theater and not think of who they truly were. It wasn't until what was supposed to be her senior year of college that they started experiencing depression and a burning passion to revisit her sexuality.
At this point, Oltmanns remembers the pain of trying to come out previously but was determined to do it right this time. They realized how much they have evolved in their viewpoints and were ok with being gay regardless of if their family was or not. At 22 years old, Oltmanns came out for the second time to her parents and started openly dating.
“Life has been a series of continual coming outs… no matter where I am at in my personal story I am constantly coming out because as I grow and learn more about gender and sexuality I learn more about myself and views about myself evolve as I listen to myself more,” Oltmanns says.
Oltmanns looked at coming out as an opportunity to educate the people in her life and have courageous conversations with those who are not familiar with LGBTQIA+ identities. Her mother had one of the biggest changes of heart and understanding both for her daughter and the community. Oltmanns believes educating those in your life can make a difference for the community as a whole.
“Anyone who doesn't feel accepted, it’s my job to help them get there,” Oltmanns says.
Before getting to know her own identity, Oltmanns acted homophobic at times because of pressure to perform around the people in her family who were not supportive. They internalized these behaviors, but by 22 they began to fully accept who they were and knew they were ready to help others do the same. Oltmanns’ parents are a prime example of the change of heart people can have.
Coming out is an intimidating step, and this intimidation means as a society we still have more work to do.
In Oltmanns’ experience, if you are anything other than straight, you are constantly coming out. Even when it is not relevant in the situation at hand, an individual is either hiding to protect themselves or embracing themselves.
After graduating college, Oltmanns was told by her family not to let people know she was gay at her job. When they started their career, Oltmanns feared her employer could let her go without giving a reason. She was on guard to hide her true identity.
Oltmanns recalls putting up a sticker that read, “This is a safe place,” in her office as a sign of her support to marginalized people they may encounter. She became terrified that this small sign of her support would make people pounder her sexuality, driving her to take it down and rip it up into the trash.
Knowing they couldn't keep living in fear and hiding they started one of the first LGBTQIA+ clubs on the campus they worked at. Oltmanns was determined to set an example that counteracted society’s pressure to hide who you are for her students.
When Oltmanns has advocated for new things in her career and is turned down, there is a nagging thought that people may not support your ideas because of who you are. Something Oltmanns has had to consider when moving to a new city is her safety and happiness. The more they can be known the more judgment can come about and the anonymity from bigger cities can be good. As far as Muscatine goes, their students were the best teachers Oltmanns has had. A colleague of Oltmanns’ said it was seeing her pride flag that let them know it was a safe place to work here.
Before coming to Muscatine Oltmanns worked as the Gender and Sexuality outreach coordinator at the University of Wisconsin. They assessed the lay of the land and listened to people to find out what they needed and what resources and groups to connect them to. On the University of Wisconsin campus, Oltmanns found there was a large transgender community and helped connect others who held this identity. In this work, Oltmanns realized the lack of resources for the transgender community and strived to revise policies to make students feel safe and cultivate a welcoming community for all people.
During this time, the University was not funding her position. The student government association made the salary with student fees to provide the position. The students were the ones committed to creating space for this position, showing the need for these roles in similar institutions. There are instances that in public people can say they support a community or a project but whose actions don’t show that.
Ideology - meanings of things:
Oltmanns shares the idea of two-spirit identities that was derived in Native American culture to help people understand gender. Oltmanns learned that there was a belief known as two spirits. Certain peoples were part of a third gender, which was seen as a high honor. Many tribes recognized this third gender and respected this honor of being, but were suppressed in their belief after European colonizers made them follow their beliefs of only two genders.
Oltmanns believes it is important not to minimize our pronoun terms because it is a way to reclaim who we are as a person for the rest of our lives. They understand how it might seem silly for someone not in the LGBTQIA + to think there is more than what they have thought they knew for most of their lives but they believe it is important for everyone to educate themselves more.
One of Oltmanns favorite quotes is from Anne Frank. “ In the end, I do believe that people are truly good at heart.” Just like gender is a construct, Oltmanns realizes that morality is a construct, and what one person considers good is another person's bad.
“Sexuality is who you’re attracted to and gender is who you feel you are. When I was in high school I dated a person who was assigned as a male at birth but came out as transgender and identified as a woman but just because their gender has changed, their sexuality of being attracted to a female had not changed,” Oltmanns said. “We believe that the way we are at birth is how we are supposed to be but that is wrong. Gender isn't fixed but a construct. It is easier now to investigate things on your own time and speed to be in one's headspace to figure out what we believe and what we want to learn more about.”
Closing thoughts: from here where now do we go
According to Oltmanns, we need to work on intersectionality, while gender and sexuality issues are something to always work on, there still needs to be a conversation about other terms of equality also. Students who are LGBTQIA+ are also part of other activities. People are more than just LGBTQIA+ and we need to start looking to identity and combating special situations for these individuals. Someone who is part of the community can also be part of the black community or Latino community and has their own burdens to carry on top of being in the community. We need to keep educating ourselves to be okay with others and ourselves.
Lately, Oltmanns has taken a step back to build themselves back up to the best Alyssa they can be by focusing on themselves and wanting to remind others to do the same. The resilience of students has helped Oltmanns to keep going and strive to keep mental health at a level of importance that wasn't there for them in the past.
For any person who feels obliged to research the LGBTQIA+ community, it is easier than ever to find so much educational information. Oltmanns encourages everyone to do their self-exploration. Teach yourself first before you have a conversation with someone in your life - you will both feel more comfortable.
Lastly, Oltmanns believes we need to form partnerships that bring programming that lifts up this community as well as celebrate it. So often there are educational moments but people also need space to be who they are and be happy in their community.
“In Muscatine, we need more visible support from business, homes, schools so the people know where they are safe and embraced and see they are safe and embraced literally everywhere,” Oltmanns expressed.
You can begin your learning on the resources page of our website - linked here.
This piece was written by Racial Justice Committee Members Claudia Artola and Daniel Salazar.