A look into the challenges facing queer and transgender people of color on college campuses
The irregular rhythm of my heartbeat was deafening. The unshakable discomfort throughout my body was paralyzing. The butterflies previously inhabiting my stomach metamorphosed into parasites of anxiety. This is what it felt like to log in to a college admissions portal to find the fate of my application, in the hopes that the top of the screen would read: “It is with our great pleasure to offer you admission for the upcoming academic year. Congratulations and welcome to our institution!” Little did I know that getting accepted to Princeton University was just the first of many challenges as a gay, person of color that I would face in working to obtain a higher education.
Although recent data shows a positive increase in college enrollment for underrepresented minorities, there are still clear and widening achievement gaps in degree attainment for these students of color. Experts at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions (MSI’s) argue that “our nation’s colleges and universities find themselves facing a formidable challenge: ensuring that the diverse Americans who are now coming to college have equal access to educational opportunities that will lead not only to degrees but also to developing the capacities they need to thrive in their lives.” For people of color (POC), a college education has become a necessity upon entering the workforce. Without a degree, POC face alarming rates of unemployment at every aggregate of education attainment.
The challenges facing QTPOC (queer/trans people of color) are even greater. Not only do QTPOC face racial oppression, but they also have the added pressures of being on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, which presents its own hurdles to degree attainment. It is extremely difficult to simultaneously find a place within the borders of both the queer community and categorized racial groups. Difficulties in finding a strong and reliable support network create additional mental health challenges – anxiety, depression, eating disorders – for QTPOC which make it difficult to concentrate on just their education.
QTPOC are at an intersection of oppression that makes the college experience at primarily white institutions (PWI’s) particularly difficult. PWI’s are colleges or universities that have a student body that consists of a simple majority of white students. Since space on these campuses are taken up predominantly by these white, straight students, QTPOC feel the need to work smarter, work better, and work harder than their peers just to level the playing field, find support networks, and have their voices heard and identities recognized.
When asked about his experience at Northwestern University, Edson Montenegro, a self-identified Gay, Latinx, third-year undergraduate, said “I often find myself needing to work harder to be as good, if not better than the typical white, [Generation X] student.” He continued, “As a first-generation student of Central American descent, I feel like I have more to prove.” In a similar vein, Daniel, a self-identified Gay/Queer, multiracial Asian and white, second year student at Georgetown University said that “higher education is a great avenue for social capital and freedom of expression, but unfortunately society expects us to police our actions as to not be so proud of our being QTPOC.” Both young men highlight how their identities as QTPOC influence their view of the world and their view of themselves.
Because of their identity, QTPOC have an added burden of cognitive dissonance – having disjoint or inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes about one’s sense of self. One of my favorite scholars, W.E.B. Du Bois, calls this phenomena double-consciousness. In his enlightening text The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois discusses how the position of an oppressed class, specifically discussing African Americans in the book, dictates not only how others perceive them, but also how they perceive themselves amongst others.
This double-consciousness arises from the desire of Black folks to fight against racist norms ascribed to them by the white-majority class, but simultaneously understanding that they are still a part of the larger society that is fraught with white supremacy. Thus they must be wary of how to balance their own humanity within themselves, but also adapt and survive to the external pressures of institutionalized racism.
I extend Du Bois’s terminology of double-consciousness and take it a step further for the experience of QTPOC to a triple-consciousness. In my view, the added layer of being queer to being a person of color takes it from double-consciousness to a triple-consciousness. As Edson and Daniel underscore, QTPOC students often feel like they are caught in a place where they have to “police” their own actions, as they recognize how their identity as a queer person of color can affect how other people understand them and how, through their own eyes, they understand themselves.
University administrators must address this problem to foster more inclusive campuses by implementing policies and programs that address issue areas that fall within the intersections of oppressed groups. For example, if a university wants to address the rise of the presence of sexual assault on their campus for both students of color and LGBTQ+ students, then the administration should consider implementing something like the University of Texas at Austin’s Blueprint for Campus Police: Responding to Sexual Assault, proposed by the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in the School of Social Work, which explicitly teaches campus police on recognizing the signs of sexual assault victims and how to handle these horrific instances and guidance about the special needs and circumstances of LGBTQ+ students.
Even more detrimental than inaction is blatant administrative discrimination against QTPOC. For example, the President of University of North Carolina (a PWI), Margaret Spellings chose to mandate and implement discrimination on campus after the passing of vicious House Bill 2 in North Carolina, which revoked nondiscrimination ordinances throughout the state. HB 2 effectively legalizes anti-LGBTQ discrimination and forbids trans people from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. Not only do trans-students at public education institutions have to worry about their academic workload, but they also have to worry about being reprimanded for doing something as simple as going to the bathroom. This statewide discriminatory practice is creeping into other states across the country including Texas, which has a disastrous “bathroom bill” being discussed during an upcoming special legislative session.
Other PWIs, however, have seen progress. At Princeton, for example, LaTanya Buck was named Dean For Diversity and Inclusion in April 2016. As a member of her student task force, I was able to advise and help strategize ways to improve the QTPOC experience on campus. One initiative aimed to normalize talking about and treating mental health, which is often stigmatized in both the LGBTQ+ and racial minority communities. With Dean Buck’s assistance, a focus group of students were able to share their experiences with the University’s Director of the Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) in order to give specific feedback about the positives and weak points of the current system. One huge improvement the health system implemented was allowing students to make an initial appointment with a mental health specialist online. Before a student would need to call or go to the clinic in person to book the first appointment. However, as of September 2016, students can now make an appointment online, which removes the vulnerability of having to verbally communicate such a sensitive issue.
On a smaller scale, Salvadoran student, Paulo Hernandez-Farella, a member of the inaugural class at the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California, shared that something as simple as “always ask[ing] [for] preferred gender pronouns” is something that students and student organizations at his university are constantly doing to ensure an inclusive environment for students of every gender identity.
Walking past the statues of white, straight men; reading epic novels written by white, straight men; listening to lectures taught by white, straight men, QTPOC are faced with daily reminders that their higher education institutions were not intended for them, were not designed for them, were not made for them. It is critical that colleges and universities, especially PWI’s, are aware of how their institutions’ missions, values, faculty, and student body are working to amplify and positively enhance the experiences of their QTPOC students. Without the help of administrators, QTPOC are left to navigate these environments for themselves, unlike the majority-white, majority-straight – especially male students – student body which sees their own identities reflected back to them on a daily basis.
Getting an acceptance letter is not enough. Representation in the student body is not enough. Active inclusion must be the standard.
GJ Sevillano is a YI Summer Policy Research Fellow located in Austin, Texas. Originally from Los Angeles, California, GJ currently lives in New Jersey where he is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in American Politics and a certificate from the Program in American Studies at Princeton University. His advocacy is rooted in improving political literacy and social equity. He hopes to attend graduate school and get a Ph.D. in American Studies, where his research will focus on the formation, or lack thereof, a Filipinx-American racial identity through different aspects of Filipino history, such as both Spanish and American Colonization, the Filipino Diaspora, and Asian-American Queer Movements.