Advocacy Across the Spectrum

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Advocacy Across the Spectrum

Examining cultural changes among queer and trans student groups on campus

by Sean Augustine-Obi

Last November, a Carman Hall bulletin board celebrating Trans Awareness Month was repeatedly vandalized. After the bulletin board was torn down three times, the floor’s resident advisor posted a statement in support of the transgender community, which was then torn down as well. A note was then taped to the bulletin board, reading, “I RESPECTFULLY QUESTION THE VALIDITY OF TRANSGENDER IDENTITY!”

Once news of the vandalism became public, campus response was swift—messages of support filled the Carman Facebook group, and the executive board of the Columbia Queer Alliance submitted an op-ed to the Spectator denouncing the vandalism as a hate crime while calling for more institutional support.

“Let’s be clear: These repeated offenses are hate crimes. Repeatedly and deliberately vandalizing a community bulletin board expressing support and solidarity for a marginalized group on campus is not ’respectfully questioning,’” read the op-ed. “In light of recent events, it is crucial that the Columbia administration, especially Residential Life, continue taking quick, concrete action against transphobia to fulfill their mission of ’fostering safe and inclusive living and learning environments.’”

Administrators had already pledged some degree of support—two days before the op-ed was published, Residence Hall Director Aaron Hukari informed Carman residents via email that Residential Life and the Office of Multicultural Affairs would be tabling in the lobby alongside student group GendeRevolution. But the op-ed asserted that this response didn’t go far enough; the needs of trans students went beyond a single dorm, and CQA argued that communicating with student groups was the best way to gauge the needs of the trans community on campus.

It wasn’t the first time CQA had issued a public response to an anonymous act of vandalism targeting queer or trans students. Eight years prior, at the same dorm, a pillar was defaced with graffiti reading “QUEERS RAPE.” Aries Dela Cruz, GS ’09, recalls how the initial shock gave way to an opportunity to use the vandalism as a means to call for institutional change.

“I remember how frustrated we were, because we called Facilities—and this was before there was an LGBT director. […] They left it to us, the queer community had to clean up the graffiti being made against them.”

Cruz continued, “But we used that. We sent out a press release that said, ‘The LGBT community is not supported by the administration, we don’t have resources.’ So we used these things to leverage the hiring of an LGBT advisor. These incidents point to a lack of resources or a lack of cultural change, or they point to the fact that for all the good of the admin, they’re not doing enough.”

History appears to have repeated itself, and as LGBTQ-centric demands toward the University have progressed from hiring advisors to recognizing trans students’ preferred names and allowing trans women
to enroll at Barnard, the organizations making them have shifted priorities as well.


Advocacy and Community

Queer organizations at Columbia are multitudinous—in addition to CQA, there are student-led groups such as Q, Proud Colors, GendeRevolution, Q House, and the GS Alliance, as well as administrative outlets meant to serve the community, such as the Gay Health Advocacy Project and LGBTQ@ Columbia. Even among the former group, some organizations prioritize community building while others also engage in radical activism.

Those who choose both walk a fine line between their activist work and their work providing support to members. Former CQA President Caitlin Lowell, CC ’15, described these internal tensions. “One of the ongoing conversations that has been happening within CQA for decades, as far as I can tell, is how much CQA should be a social or cultural group as opposed to a political group.”


Lowell believes that over the past few years, CQA’s priorities have shifted along with its membership. “It can be easy to dismiss different issues as too political when they don’t affect you personally. But when a large portion of our membership didn’t have counselors at Columbia Psychological Services that were ready to meet their needs, because at the time there were no men of color on staff and no [queer/trans people of color] on staff, of course that was an issue that affected our membership and leadership, and of course, it would be something we’d advocate for.”

But while advocacy remains a priority, many of these groups also serve as a social hub through queer-centric programming, with some hoping that enthusiasm towards parties like First Friday would increase awareness towards CQA’s other projects. Cruz, himself a former CQA communications head, described the need to build strength through visibility. “In order to have a community to politicize, you have to have that community in the first place.”

“First Friday had been sort of on the decline when we took over the reins of CQA, but we used that as sort of our vehicle to make LGBT community at Columbia more visible so that admin could see it, and so that student leaders in student councils could see it. And that when we made demands and that we made requests, they could see that we weren’t just these five or six board members in a basement, there’s hundreds of us, and every month we go to this dance and there are so many people here.” Since then, however, Lowell says that CQA’s membership sought “social spaces that didn’t center around dancing or drinking,” and so programming shifted to more “casual social events.”

CQA is hardly alone in counterbalancing more serious discussions with levity. Kay Ferguson and Rowan Hepps Keeney, both BC ’18 and respectively president and treasurer of GendeRevolution, find that both are necessary for the community to thrive.

“We’re a trans advocacy group but also a support group, so some of the things we focus on in meetings are, what are the things we can change, like the CUID name change, having Trans 101 sessions, […] and the other half is a sort of safe space where students can talk about their experiences and only have trans students in the room, so there’s not, like, fetishizing or weird questions,” said Ferguson. “Somewhere where people can just be really private.”

Keeney added that the tone of meetings could vacillate between two extremes. “Sometimes we have deep conversations about trans things, and identity, and stuff like that, and sometimes it’s just like, ‘Let’s all just be in solidarity and spend time together and just enjoy the positive parts of being trans. We’re gonna try to do a pizza party, stuff that can remind us that it’s not all bad and oppression.”


Not One Size Fits All

With its storied history (the organization turns 50 in 2017), CQA has come a long way from its roots as the first campus LGBTQ organization. After facing discrimination from administrators and less tolerant students, founder Stephen Donaldson, CC ’70, created what was then called the Student Homophile League to provide a home for all queer students at Columbia. But with the changing demographics of the queer population on campus, does it still serve that purpose?

In an October interview with the Eye, Amari Tankard, CC ’17, contrasted perceptions of CQA’s makeup with that of Proud Colors, a queer affinity group specifically for students of color. “Because CQA, which is upposed to be Columbia’s big queer group, is mostly white people, and their topics are definitely whitewashed, they can ignore that there’s a whole different side to queerness that you experience as a person of color.”

Lowell acknowledges the need for “supportive spaces that were fundamentally different from CQA” and stressed that many of their initiatives, such as the push for better representation in CPS, improved the lives of queer students of color. She believes that CQA’s prominence doesn’t come at the expense of other groups.


“Even though CQA’s board during my time was majority [queer and trans people of color] folks, it still wasn’t the same as having a closed space for queer and trans people of color. So, we tried to make sure we showed up when asked—either by supporting the work of other organizations by showing up, or by co-sponsoring monetarily.”

Lowell also recognized that participating in CQA events in buildings without elevators or wheelchair ramps can be difficult for queer students with disabilities. “When I was president,” Lowell said, “we had some really wonderful sold-out First Fridays in the [Intercultural Resource Center] and in Q House basement, although those spaces are also not physically accessible.” First Fridays have since moved to the Lerner Party Space.

However, representation and accessibility aren’t the only things that set queer clubs apart from one another. For instance, because Barnard’s administration exists separately from the administration governing the other undergraduate schools, Barnard students often find themselves fighting for changes that have already taken place across Broadway. Krish Bhatt, BC ’18, is part of Q, a group that advocates for queer and trans issues specific to Barnard. “Queer and trans communities at Barnard look different because Barnard was, until recently, a school marketed toward cis women.”

Bhatt expressed frustration with the incongruities between being trans at the two schools. Columbia Health provides a webpage explaining the resources available to trans students, but “there are no urologists, or queer-centric health practitioners currently employed at Barnard Primary Health Care Services.” Additionally, while Columbia has rolled out the Preferred Name Policy, no such policy exists at Barnard. “Rosters, ID cards, gBear accounts, et cetera, are under our birth names,” said Bhatt.


Building a Legacy

With the diversity of LGBTQ-centric organizations available to queer and trans students, it’s clear that no one club holds a monopoly as the standard-bearer. Yet this plethora of options can pose a challenge to groups seeking to retain membership and preserve institutional legacy. In the case of GendeRevolution, the task apparently fell to administrators.

According to Ferguson and Keeney, Assistant Director of Multicultural Affairs and LGBTQ Outreach Chris Woods reached out to them to take charge of the organization as many of its active members were graduating. “Kay had a conversation with Chris Woods at a GendeRev meeting last spring, where he was like, ‘Will you do this? Otherwise it’s going to disappear,’” said Keeney.

But while GendeRev managed to survive, another group, Everyone Allied Against Homophobia, closed its doors. EAAH, which had been active since 1999 and were best known for their annual pink flyer campaign, announced that it was shutting down on its Facebook page last June. “We see this as a victory for queer and trans students on campus,” the message read. “When an organization like us goes out of business, it means that queer and trans students have found a community outside EAAH and the lack of demand for a group like us can only be good news.”

Is this true? Indeed, Columbia’s treatment of gender and sexual minorities has come a long way since the days of Stephen Donaldson, and the culture on campus enables many queer and trans students to find their niche outside the realm of affinity groups. Queer and trans individuals exist within the ranks of student government, athletics, and even the administration itself. But much of that progress was achieved through the past advocacy of these student organizations, who continue to make demands and put pressure on decision-makers. And it appears there’s still plenty to do: campus-wide Quality of Life surveys indicate lower satisfaction among trans students, and incidents such as the Carman vandalism of 2007 and 2015 suggest that getting institutional support isn’t enough to eradicate outright bigotry. Perhaps, then, the challenge of LGBTQ organizations is adapting to the changing needs of students and serving as a platform for their voices.


Elena Burger contributed reporting.