Semester break 1999-2000, and Bill Tickner was living the 19-year-old guy’s dream. Fraternity, season pass to Stowe, tons of free time, girlfriend, snowboard—sort of a Mountain Dew commercial come to life.
“I was seemingly having a great time,” he recalls. “But I realized this was as happy as I would ever be living the way I was. The time had come to redirect my life.”
The fact that the trappings of the undergraduate good life didn’t bring a deeper happiness, Tickner says, was because he was harboring an internal conflict, the rift in identity faced by a gay person living a closeted existence.
“Nothing bothers me more than someone putting a limit on me,” Tickner says. In fact, the UVM sophomore was putting serious limits on who he was, a realization that convinced him that it was time to come out.
Evidence of Tickner’s energy and force of will is clear from the flurry of activity that led up to and immediately followed his decision to come out. Within the space of a week, he helped lead the final steps of a UVM Student Government Association drive to deliver a unanimous resolution to Vermont legislators in support of the then-under-consideration civil union laws. He came out to his student government friends and colleagues, his fraternity brothers, and his family in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. Then Tickner withdrew from school, loaded his snow and surf boards into his Honda Accord, and set-off on a cross-country trip to spread the word about gay rights by delivering speeches and talking with student groups at other colleges and universities.
It would be easy to see hitting the road as a quick escape from turmoil brought about by his revelation. Talk to Tickner a while, and it becomes clear that it was more an embrace of a new identity than escape from an old one. Friends and family were accepting and supportive. In particular, Tickner was astounded and touched, by the reaction of his Fiji brothers. “You’re not leaving,” one brother told him. “You’re still a member of this fraternity.”
Tickner would spend the next three months on the road, logging 24,000 miles and visiting some forty colleges and universities with his gay rights message. Determined to be self-sufficient, the trusty Accord was his home on the road. Back seats folded down, he slept with his feet in the trunk. “It was warm. I had a stereo. What more do you need?” he says with a smile.
This year back at UVM, Tickner balances coursework in sociology (business minor), serving on the executive committee of his fraternity, working as a teaching assistant in Sociology I, and leading the Student Government Association as president. Building campus diversity and creating a safe climate for all remains a key concern for Tickner. He notes that it bothers him when friends tell him that with his Joe College pursuits he’s such a “normal” gay person and therefore acceptable.
“Difference makes us stronger as a community,” he says. “This would be a real boring campus if everyone was the same. I think we’re doing well at UVM, but I prefer not to compare us to other places. Zero discrimination should be the standard at the University of Vermont. We’re moving forward on that, but we’re not there and until we are, I’m not going to rest.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2002 edition of Vermont Quarterly. On the occasion of Bill’s visit to UVM’s Career + Experience Hub on February 25, 2014, to talk with current students about his career at Google and the corporation’s commitment to social responsibility, we wanted to share it again.