For queer students of color, community on campus is vital — and hard to find
The Justice spoke to Nicholas Ong ’23, Kyla-Yen Giffin ’23, and Julie Le, former department coordinator of the ICC and the GSC, about how difficult it can be for queer students of color to find community at Brandeis.
When Nicholas Ong ’23 started his first year at Brandeis, it didn’t take long for him to find LGBTQIA+ communities on campus and meet other queer students. But something was always missing. “I always found myself in white queer spaces,” he told the Justice in November 2021. Ong is Cambodian and grew up in a culturally diverse area in Providence, Rhode Island. At Brandeis, however, he struggled to find other students who were both queer and people of color. Ong explained that while he always appreciates and feels validated by being around other LGBTQIA+ people, the experience of being the only POC in a room of white people — even when those people are queer — is something that Ong says is profoundly alienating: “Even though we [can] relate to the queerness aspect of it, it just isn’t the same.”
Kyla-Yen Giffin ’23 is half-Vietnamese and is bisexual and non-binary. They came out as queer not long before starting college. When Giffin arrived at Brandeis, they were excited to be around other queer people and be a part of LGBTQIA+ spaces. They joined Triskelion, the LGBTQIA+ club on campus, and quickly became friends with other queer students. However, Giffin soon came to the same realization as Ong that, in their experience, all of the LGBTQIA+ student groups and spaces they encountered at Brandeis were predominantly white. Like Ong, they found it difficult to find other queer students of color and experienced a similar sense of isolation in the white-dominated LGBTQIA+ spaces they were a part of at the University. “Something that I know me and my other friends who are people of color talk about a lot is that we feel a lot more safe going into spaces that are all people of color — even if they're not all queer, or none of them are queer — than we do going into a space that's all queer but also all white,” Giffin told the Justice in November, “There’s just a bit of an innate feeling of safety when you're around other people of color versus other white people.”
Ong explained that being a queer person of color — QPOC — is not simply the sum of its parts. It is a unique and complex identity in itself that manifests in joys and struggles which can only be truly understood by those who experience life within these intersections. Because of this, queer students of color say that the sense of safety, belonging, and understanding that they feel among other QPOC is lacking in white-dominated queer spaces as well as in non-queer, POC spaces.
Giffin stressed the value of “intentional spaces” whose main purpose is to provide safety and community for those in specific minority groups. “When there aren’t intentional spaces for queer people of color, then that also means that there really aren’t safe spaces for us,” they said. Giffin spoke about the lack of these spaces on campus and how this affected their first few semesters at Brandeis. “I think it would have definitely been a lot easier to learn and realize things and build community if we had a space like this earlier on,” they said. “A lot of us look back on our underclassmen years, and we think about how we didn't have that and how it took a very long and often difficult time to come to those understandings and find people and spaces we felt safe in.”
Having experienced firsthand the struggle of finding community as a QPOC at Brandeis and the isolation that this results in, as well as the eventual joy and important benefits of finally finding QPOC friends later on in their college experience, Ong, Giffin, and a handful of other students decided to take on the responsibility of creating the intentional space for QPOC that they felt was lacking on campus. In late September of 2021, the Queer and Trans People of Color Coalition had its first event, which was attended by over a dozen enthusiastic queer students of color. “People were really happy to see it happen,” Ong said of the event, adding, “It was just so necessary and it finally happened.”
Having a safe community for QPOC students to support each other and talk about shared experiences is particularly important in the face of the unique struggles and forms of discrimination that these students face as a result of being a part of multiple marginalized communities. Ong said that being POC can make it more difficult or dangerous to be “physically out” as LGBTQIA+, which he describes as presenting oneself in ways that are considered visibly queer. This is something that he feels his white queer peers don’t entirely understand or relate to in the same way.
Giffin said that people of color, especially those who are queer, are often not taken seriously in academic and social settings on campus. “There’s definitely a lot of instances of microaggressions and racial gaslighting stuff that pretty much all of us have experienced,” they said, adding that some QPOC students have experienced increased policing and surveillance on campus. Giffin said that in their experience, the University generally ignores or fails to adequately address these problems.
Julie Le is the former department coordinator for both the Gender and Sexuality Center and the Intercultural Center, positions she held simultaneously before resigning from Brandeis at the end of the fall 2021 semester. In December, she spoke to the Justice by email about the difficulties that QPOC students experience when searching for community spaces on campus. “For students who have more than one identity that is considered a minority, I think it can be difficult to find spaces for activism that naturally allow them to feel supported,” Le said. Discussing the difficulty that students have with finding other QPOC on campus when they first arrive and how this issue should be addressed, she said “I think it is kind of a circular conversation — whether it be resources or a need of student clubs/leadership or etc. I do see it as [if] QPOC students make a club, it’s undeniable that we will see more positive changes and accessible social opportunities, too.”
The Queer and Trans People of Color Coalition has not been active since fall and hasn’t had any club meetings since its first event in September. Ong said that although he was thrilled by that event’s success, he found it challenging to balance running the club and being a full-time student and quickly got burnt out.
“We’re all students trying to balance the general academic labor along with the labor of creating this safe space for QTPOC on campus,” Giffin said. Still, both Ong and Giffin remain optimistic about the Coalition’s future and are currently working with the other executive board members to find ways to make the club more active and sustainable in the new semester.
Although Giffin feels strongly that these types of spaces should be student-led, they wish that the University did more to facilitate and support student groups and other forms of community-building for QPOC students so that the responsibility to create and maintain these spaces wouldn’t fall entirely on students. “I think it would definitely be nice if there was more intentionality and support on behalf of the administration,” Giffin said. “And it would have been nice if there was even just kind of an introduction into spaces like this.”
Le described building intentional spaces for QPOC on campus as primarily the responsibility of students — reflecting what seems to be the administration’s general approach — but acknowledged the challenges that queer students of color face when attempting to create these spaces. “The advocacy of QPOC students can be a huge responsibility and it can be scary to think about how important it is to establish a community, to make sure a club flourishes, and to leave a successful legacy,” she said, adding, “With QPOC having a smaller population of students to take on the responsibility of managing a club, there is a point where even with having a lot of administrative support — things can plateau.”
She did suggest that if students want to see more intentionality from the school when it comes to community-building for QPOC at Brandeis, they may have more power to influence change at the institutional level than they realize. “The power of students should never be underestimated,” she said. “QPOC students have a huge say in the future and acknowledging student needs is a priority.”
Although Le’s view of the relationship between queer students of color and the University is somewhat at odds with what the students themselves described, there’s no question that throughout Brandeis’ history, students in marginalized communities have made their voices heard by coming together to protest issues involving a lack of institutional support or resources and have made real change happen at the institutional level. However, this may be easier said than done for Brandeis’ queer students of color, when the lack of community is the issue.