Struggles early shaped Brad Balof ’00 into activist, advocate

“I came to Ripon knowing that I’m gay,” says Brad Balof ’00. “While many would think moving to a small town would be a step backwards, I really found a group of friends and allies that supported me and, in some ways, protected me.”

“I come from a generation where larger high schools usually had one or two people who were known to be gay. I was that person in my high school in Colorado Springs,” Brad says. When he arrived at Ripon, he says students were just starting to be “out” on campus. “It (coming out) often came with negative consequences from both students and faculty who took issue with who we were as people,” he says.

The Network, the LGTBQ+ student organization at the time, was “the base of my support network when it came to being gay at Ripon,” says Brad. “With the help of Ripon staff, we were able to organize outings to the AIDS Run/Walk in Milwaukee and other events that helped me start to feel a connection to a larger LGBTQ+ community.”

“The group of LGBTQ+ folks at the time were small but bonded and generally resolved to not being pushed around,” he says. “Again, this was 1998. So while this was going on in a small town in Wisconsin, Matthew Shepard was beaten and bound to a fence and left to die in a small town in Wyoming.” Shepard was a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming, Oct. 6, 1998. He died six days later from the severe head injuries he received during the attack.

While the treatment Brad received at Ripon was nowhere near that extreme, he says there were still incidents of prejudice and discrimination. He recounts an on-going incident in which a group of students “took a liking to calling me a faggot out of their window.” That, he says, ended with an “intervention/remediation hearing” with Ripon staff and a mailed letter of apology.

“The tribulations and resistance I faced at times at Ripon really taught me that I would have to always be advocating for my place in society. Something that I have never let up on,” says Brad. 

There were highlights, as well, which helped to positively shape his character, he says.

Kevin Jennings, now the CEO of Lambda Legal, a civil rights organization that focuses on the LGTBQ+ community, spoke on campus. “I remember sitting riveted as he recounted the time he almost took his life, but instead chose to live and be an activist,” says Brad. “It was one of the few times I most fully saw myself reflected by someone brought to address the student body. I am very thankful Ripon brought him as a speaker that year.”

Today, Brad is general manager of Sidetrack, one of Chicago’s premiere entertainment and hospitality venues dedicated to serving the LGBTQ+ community. “Sidetrack is as much a community center as it is a bar and nightclub,” says Brad. Originally opened in 1982, he says the club’s owners “have always been activists and social advocates.”

“In 2014, I was invited to apply for the position of general manager at Sidetrack, which is what I have been doing for the last decade,” says Brad. “I love it. It is fulfilling to be connected to the community here and to help raise money and awareness for so many LGBTQ+ organizations, non-profits, choirs, sports teams and other various groups that continue to advocate for our community.”

In 2015, Brad married Jason and the two remain committed to each other and the cause. “I am so thankful to have him as a constant source of support and love in my life,” says Brad.

“My time at Ripon was transformative to me, and I think it was a transformative time for Ripon at large,” says Brad. “The campus was just starting to see collections of ‘out’ students and society was shifting.

“Of course there were people that kept me lifted through my time at Ripon. Mostly, it was my friends — who accepted and celebrated me as I am. I also found allies in the theatre and philosophy departments. Director of Student Activities Eric Tammes and Visiting Professor of Philosophy Patrick Hopkins were bright points that helped in ways for which I cannot thank them enough. I managed to finish my degree (double major in theatre and philosophy) in three years and graduate Magna Cum Laude.”

“I hope that the LGBTQ+ students and faculty at Ripon now are having a better time of it all than when I attended. I am forever grateful for my time at Ripon, but — looking back now — I see that it had a long way to come, and that the struggles I endured helped shape me into the activist I am today.”

Pictured: Brad, at right, with his husband, Jason.

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