More than one community: LGBTQIA* students find space(s) on campus
Editor’s note: The word “queer” in this article is used exclusively in quotations to reflect how individuals self-identify, and was done so in consultation with several LGBTQIA* affinity groups.
Charlie Bosco knew he wanted to be involved in LGBTQIA* activism at Washington University even before he moved to campus. Bosco, a trans-masculine student who grew up in Kentucky, was president of his high school’s Gay Straight Trans Alliance, but at Wash. U., he was hoping to become part of a group with the capacity to do more programming and make a larger impact.
“Being a queer person in high school is very different from college, because you’re limited in what programming you can do in high schools and what issues you really can address,” he said. “So, I was more interested in being involved in LGBT activism and social events once I got to college, because I didn’t get to do that as a high schooler.”
Bosco immediately dove into Wash. U.’s largest LGBTQIA* student group, Pride Alliance, joining the executive board as fundraising chair last spring, and becoming co-president this semester.
But that level of involvement in an affinity group is far from the norm for LGBTQIA* students on campus, according to Bosco. Based on any number of other intersecting factors, identities and preexisting support networks, many students interact with these groups less frequently, if at all.
“If you come from a very accepting community…and you already have a strong accepting support network, I’ve tended to notice that people are less actively involved,” he said. “Part of Pride Alliance is building a community that people don’t feel they have. So, people who are most drawn to queer groups tend to be looking for that community…But I don’t think that it’s bad to either choose not to be part of a queer community or be very involved. It’s based off of what you need from those groups.”
The fact that there is such variety in the LGBTQIA* experience on campus, and in the ways that students explore these identities, has led to the growth of a number of student groups, ranging from umbrella groups for all students across the LGBTQIA* spectrum to groups that provide space for specific identities within the community.
At a glance, there are ten undergraduate student groups aside from Pride Alliance that provide space for those within the LGBTQIA* community: Transcending Gender, an open group for students to discuss and find support for their gender identity; People Like Us (+PLUS), which is geared toward students of color; Ace & Aro, for asexual and aromantic students; Connections*, which matches students with a mentor for one-on-one meetings; the recently-revived Athlete Allies, for raising awareness and support for LGBTQIA* athletes; Lambda Q, for students in Greek Life; Proud Connections, a career advising group; Alternative Lifestyles Association, which aims to encourage positive attitudes to sex and sexuality; and Open, a confidential discussion space for students in the process of exploring their gender or sexual identities. Add into that group Safe Zones, an undergraduate peer education group for LGBTQIA* inclusion, and there are a variety of ways students engage in various LGBTQIA* communities.
Because of the number and variety of these groups, there is no way to create a concise snapshot of the diversity of LGBTQIA* life on campus.
The person with the best bird’s eye view of the LGBTQIA* communities on campus is probably Travis Tucker. As Assistant Director for Leadership and LGBTQIA Involvement in the Office of Campus Life, Tucker supervises and advises all of the student groups and programming as well as acting as an advisor to individual students. Just like the communities he helps to oversee, Tucker’s job is not exactly one thing, but the amalgamation of a number of different parts.
“I am the only person that has ‘LGBTQ’ in my title on campus; so, when that’s it, your position encapsulates a lot of different stuff,” he said.
A large part of Tucker’s job is directing students to the groups and resources he feels would be best for them. Most of the time, Tucker said, this is a highly individualized experience and often the best advice he can give students is simply to do whatever is most comfortable for them.
“I always try to explain to them, ‘It’s up to you,’” he said. “And I think for LGBTQ people, that’s so important, because in our lived experience, we have people forcing us to do stuff. So, I try not to be a part of that. My thing is just trying to make sure people know about that resources, then I step out of the way.”
Like Bosco, Tucker has also found that a significant number of LGBTQIA* students find support networks and communities outside of the explicitly LGBTQIA* spaces and groups on campus. He said that he thinks LGBTQIA* students are often stereotyped into being part of those groups.
“There’s this misperception out there that all queer folks have to be a part of all queer groups, which is ridiculous. I think that queerness is a spectrum. I think for some people, they’re going to want to have that organizational piece and that’s going to mean so much for them—and that’s fabulous,” he said. “But also what’s fabulous is someone that is an athlete and is a leader of their team and is also a queer, someone doing it over in one of the business fraternities, someone that’s doing it in over in Sam Fox or in Brown School.”
While some simply find their spaces elsewhere, some LGBTQIA* students make an active decision not to participate in these groups. One student, a senior who requested not to be named in this story because he is not out in all aspects of his life, said that he prefers not to interact with these LGBTQIA* affinity groups. Though he has slowly become more comfortable with his sexuality over the course of his college career, he said thinks of it as just one facet of his identity, and stills feels uncomfortable in spaces that focus on celebrating sexuality.
“It took me a long time—all of high school and middle school—to figure out who I was and figure out where I stood and what I wanted,” he said. “What enables me to…be happy with who I am and to go about my life…is that I have made my sexuality just part of who I am. It’s not exceptional. I don’t exceptionalize myself for it. If I do, if it’s weird, if it’s odd, if I focus on it and drive on it, then it’s not normal for me. Then I can’t go about my life.”
The student added that he feels some LGBTQIA* communities and groups put forward an ideal of activism and involvement that he feels uncomfortable with.
“There’s a stereotype that acceptance groups and advocacy groups in the LGBT community push that I don’t like,” he said. “You can be a person who doesn’t want to be super active in politics and be gay. That’s okay. And people seem to think it’s not.”
He feels that these groups put themselves in a box, and that box excludes some people who hold LGBTQIA* identities. He said he personally has felt alienated in some LGBTQIA* spaces because of this.
“Stop sketching a line out in the sand and saying ‘We stand behind this. We are the queer community,’” he said. “I don’t want to be in the queer community, I just want to be in the community, I just want to be in the world.”
While Bosco said the more interrelated aspects of LGBTQIA* groups might not be for everyone, he emphasized that there is no one queer community, but rather a series of interrelated groups. These groups can be vitally important for some people, especially when they might in other settings be thrust into the uncomfortable position of speaking for others.
“A lot of times gender [and] sexual orientation are not as visible. I think one barrier that people face is not that they’re not open about their sexuality, it’s just that people assume they’re straight,” he said. “And also because there isn’t one queer community—there’s lots of different ones and different people who are involved in separate things—people sometimes don’t know how to take space without making it seem like they’re speaking for other queer people.”
In Bosco’s personal experience, though he has friends from both in and outside of LGBTQIA* groups, he has found some of his interactions within those communities particularly rewarding. Specifically, he said that engaging with LGBTQIA* groups on campus has also allowed him to find spaces where he can find people who can relate to him past his gender identity.
“I come from a low-income family from Kentucky, and that I think affects my experience more on this campus than being queer does,” he said. “I was part of [LGBTQIA* retreat, Destination Q]…There was a specific discussion about class and being queer and that, for me, was extremely affirming. That was one of the things that stuck out to me—just talking to other people and being like this is what we experience and we can’t relate to these people for this reason and that’s not necessarily bad, but it feels nice to tell someone else that.”
Overall though, Bosco said, there is always room for improvement. He believes it is important for his group and others to underline the message that there is no singular LGBTQIA* experience, and to make sure they are accepting of the variety of experiences within LGBTQIA* communities.
“While I fully support people making their own communities, I think that the general Pride … queer community could be doing a better job at being intersectional so that people don’t feel alienated,” he said. “That’s the job of everyone: To combat assumptions about what being queer means.”