It is a Wednesday night, and 40 or so people have packed themselves into a tiny room on the side of Weingart for one purpose—well, sort of. It is the first meeting of Occidental’s recently restarted Queer-Student Alliance, the name of which was consciously changed from the former “Queer-Straight Alliance” to indicate a focus on solidarity within the community. Students are in attendance for a variety of reasons: some want policy changes, like a more transgender-friendly, gender-neutral bathroom policy, some want to share their experiences and a few students want to find other queer students to date or befriend on campus. Others just want a safe space to belong. But all of the students here share the hope of forming a community.
Though not everyone in the community identifies with the term, “queer” is widely used as an umbrella for those who identify beyond the gender binary and/or outside heterosexuality. It can also be used in place of the longer LGBTQ+ or LGBTQIAP, which formally encompasses intersex, asexual and pansexual students. For members of this community, the voices of only a handful of whom are represented here, it can be a challenge to find other students on campus who understand certain mutual struggles.
“I think Oxy’s a pretty tolerant place … but I think in terms of accepting necessarily I wouldn’t say Oxy’s the best,” Myell Mergaert (senior) said. Along with Critical Theory and Social Justice Professor Heather Lukes, Mergaert is helping to spearhead the QSA’s revival.
Back in Weingart, one student jokes that this meeting is the most queer students they have ever seen in one place at Occidental. A few older participants chuckle in agreement.
Now taking the stage is Career Counselor at the Career Development Center, Dominic Alletto. Alletto is also the former Assistant Director of Intercultural Affairs, and Lukes and a few others refer to him affectionately as “Dom.” Standing in front of the group, hands folded, he details the result of his intensive Campus Climate survey—an attempt to describe the state of queer life on campus more scientifically.
The survey looked into factors like policy inclusion, academic life (such as classes that deal with queer issues), queer recruitment and retention, as well as campus safety. Similar models have been used elsewhere, from Brown to the entire University of California system. Overall, the results looked dim—on a five-star scale, most categories were rated about a three.
“There are a lot of microaggressions [at Occidental],” Nina Monet Reynoso (junior) said. “Like walking down the Quad while I’m with my partner and getting looks, or at social events, getting leered at, people saying things, stuff like that.”
While Mergaert said his peers were generally accepting of his queer identity, some people are still uncomfortable with him discussing his relationship.
“It’s like an unspoken taboo sort of thing that I can’t talk about,” he said. “So over my last four, three years, I’ve learned who I know I can talk to about those things.”
“I think that Oxy is definitely a very welcoming place to be—theoretically at least, because it’s very liberal—but it seems there is definitely a pretty overwhelming straight influence,” Kenyon Meleney (senior) said. “It’d just be good to know that there are other people that have similar experiences and to share stories and, you know, create a community.”
In years past, Vote for Equality, a club focused on securing gay marriage rights, and smaller iterations of the QSA provided spaces for queer students. Both, however, began to fade out last year when students attended the clubs less frequently.
“Being president, I felt like we weren’t getting a lot of turnout to meetings, and there wasn’t a huge demand to have this structured club on campus for queer students,” QSA president Jovita Bahamundi (junior) said.
Apparently, though, the demand was still there, as LGBTQ+ students began calling again for a queer space. At the end of last year, Adrian Adams (sophomore) founded a peer mentoring group called Lead with Pride. He developed the program through discussions with Alletto, his personal investment in queer issues and involvement his with the Emerging Leaders program, which aims to help first-year students become active community leaders. Adams was able to begin with the first group of mentees this semester.
“I was never thinking, ‘Oh I need to fix the queer scene at Oxy,’” Adams said. “It was more, ‘How can I provide more resources and more materials for myself and for others.’”
Lead with Pride matches incoming first-years or transfer students with older, queer-identifying students to help create more formal social spaces for these younger students. Each pairing has also been meeting at least once a week, in addition to larger club events.
“It’s really whatever the participants want out of it,” Adams said. “It’s been very political and identity-focused, in terms of intersectionality.”
Intersectionality refers to the convergence of oppressed identities, such as being queer, a person of color, or female, among others. Given Occidental’s relatively diverse campus, navigating those different identities is both tricky and imperative. The very students leading queer clubs, including Mergaert, Adams and Bahamundi, are all people of color. And that can be an even bigger drain than being queer.
“I think being a woman of color shapes my experience at Oxy more than my queer identity does,” Bahamundi said.
Olivia Davis (sophomore) agreed that experiencing multiple marginalized identities makes fitting in even more challenging.
“It’s hard with microagressions because it’s like, did you say that because I’m black, because I’m queer, or because I’m a woman?” Davis said. “I don’t know if there’s ever a space that I feel completely okay in.”
Both Davis and Adams found the formal queer spaces on campus, such as previous years’ QSAs, to be limiting or unintentionally oppressive.
“I saw QSA as a particularly white space, and it was a space where I had to forgo certain parts of my identity,” Adams said.
As a result, the majority of safe queer spaces they found on campus were non-traditional ones.
“The queerest space I have on campus is with the rugby team,” Davis said. “It’s not like we’re a very gay space, but we’re a very inclusive space. It’s the one team I’ve been on where we all come from very diverse racial backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds and sexual orientations.”
Many of the women on the team do identify as straight, but members believe the diverse group of participants and supportive environment make it a safe space for women of all identities, sexual or otherwise.
“I’m glad that people see it as an inclusive space, whether that be queer-friendly, body-friendly or women-friendly, because I think it is all of those things … that’s the community, it’s a welcoming thing,” Women’s Rugby President Bryanna Buchanan (senior) said.
While Davis found an inclusive space in rugby, others were lucky enough to find an accepting social group during their first days on campus.
“I was lucky because I did the Multicultural Summer Institute (MSI) and I met Olivia (Davis) and Nina (Reynoso) and they sort of had other queer folks that they knew,” Adams said. “Some people won’t find that.”
While finding a supportive friend group can prove difficult, finding a romantic partner can be harder still. Occidental is a small school and the queer community is even smaller, so consequently, so is the dating pool.
“I don’t care what my partner’s gender is, really, but if I wanted to date a girl, it would be a lot harder to find a partner.” Sarah* (first-year) said. Sarah identifies as pansexual, as opposed to bisexual, meaning she is attracted to people who identify anywhere on the gender spectrum. “I know that my friends who are lesbians who are looking for girlfriends, they’re worried that they’re not going to find anybody.”
Adding to this stress is the fact that parties and hookup culture can feel alienating.
“What do I feel when I go to an ATO party? I feel disgusting,” Adams said. “And for many reasons, but one of them being how heteronormative things like that are, or that I could get denied entrance to things like that because of my intersection of identities.”
Sometimes a specified queer-only party can solve these problems, Mergaert said, but it can still feel like a consolation prize.
“That also doesn’t make me feel good to know that I have to go to like the northeast corner on Friday nights to go make sure I can find someone I can make out with, as opposed to everyone else who’s at ATO or some other party,” he said.
Some of this desire for an inclusive, formalized queer space led Reynoso and Mergaert to reach out to the community in mid-October. As part of their work as Programming Assistants (PAs) for the Center for Gender Equity (CGE), they helped organize a “community conversation,” inviting anyone from Occidental to discuss what ought to be done about gender equality issues on campus. Shortly after, Mergaert and Lukes announced the first QSA meeting of the year—this time with the name change.
The decision was not without controversy.
Community relations with cisgender (people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth) and heterosexual “allies” can be shaky. Unlike in the earlier days of the gay liberation movement, when supporting the queer community could be just as dangerous as being a part of it, today’s reality is largely different. Thus, at times, it can feel archaic to include “ally” as an “A” in the LGBTQ+ acronym. On the other hand, ally elimination can alienate those questioning their identity, who may feel more comfortable identifying as straight for the time being. Within the community, it’s still a heated debate, and things remain uneasy.
“I think the whole point of having a club is so people don’t feel excluded,” Bahamundi said. “Culture [clubs are] made up of that culture because they can understand each other better. It may just be a good point to start off with just the queer community and see what they really want.”
Sally Palmer (senior) was also torn. “Allies are really important,” she said. “Now, though, wanting these [queer] rights are like brownie points for some people.”
Palmer, who prefers xie/hyr pronouns but has permitted the use of she/her in this article, identifies as asexual. Asexual is a term for those who experience little to no sexual attraction, which may or may not have any effect on whether they partake in romantic partnerships. Palmer was less concerned with the incorporation of allies and more concerned with the sidelining of some smaller minorities within the queer community. Those who identify under labels such as asexual, pansexual, transexual or genderqueer are often less understood, even by other queer students. Palmer would like to see some of that change.
“I think visibility is nice, personally,” she said. “I thought I was broken for so long.”
Though Palmer discovered her identity largely while attending Occidental, it was not the college itself that provided her support or resources. Rather, she turned to online communities like Tumblr, as well as forums on sexual attraction and asexuality.
“I don’t think I would’ve figured it out if it was only the campus environment,” she said. “It’s college; college is really sexually charged—I get it. But at the same time, you get that pressure like, you need to be having sex.”
Students identifying as transgender, a person whose sense of their own gender, or gender identity, does not match the sex they were assigned at birth, have also expressed concern. Griffin Wynne (sophomore) did find resources on campus, but even then, it was partly by chance. Upon befriending a resident advisor who was was active in the queer community last year, Wynne began to explore gender identifications beyond a rigid male or female binary.
Unfortunately, the college was not always prepared to accommodate the needs of Wynne or other transgender students. Only one professor ever asked for a preferred gender pronoun—Wynne has chosen “they/their/them”—without Wynne having to specify first. Official college forms were not inclusive of gender, and even the gender-neutral housing form asked for applicants’ gender.
Transgender students also struggle with more day-to-day issues on campus, such as finding gender-neutral bathrooms. Lukes has been advocating for a college policy in line with recent California law, which mandates that students be allowed to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. Instead of transgender students carrying the burden, Lukes says it should be the responsibility of cisgender students, many of whom are not well-versed in transgender issues or identities, to adjust. Wynne said she thought the college’s understanding of transgender issues was “really low.”
“I think it’s laughable,” Wynne said.
Much of the work being done on these issues is by students already involved in social justice. The work is taxing, on top of the everyday stresses of being an Occidental student, and activism does not always fit into student’s schedules.
“Right now I feel there is a tremendous burden on individual students,” Lukes said. “This should be something you step into rather than something you have to prop up.”
Those students who are committed to making changes are often over-committed as well, involving themselves in many clubs that represent their overlapping interests. An alternative solution to placing the burden on students could be a staff member who, unlike Lukes, is hired to address queer issues full-time. Reynoso suggested the possibility of realizing this in Occidental’s newly created position of Chief Diversity Officer, but it may require even more staffing. Working with faculty already in place may also help. Mandatory training on queer issues, for example, could discuss preferred gender pronouns and ensure students feel respected in a classroom setting, Lukes said.
For now, Reynoso told those at the QSA that it is the little things that make a difference in bringing the community together. She advised them to be open, to get comfortable with each other, to merely greet each other in the Quad. The progress may be gradual, but Reynoso and the others are eager to see the results.
“I wouldn’t be doing this work if I didn’t have hope,” Reynoso said.